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Robert May, grandfather of chaos, dies at 84

Scientist Robert May on Sept. 18, 2001.
Scientist Robert May on Sept. 18, 2001.
(Image: © Sergei Savostyanov\TASS via Getty Images)

Robert May, an Australian physicist, mathematician and ecologist died on April 28 at the age of 84, according to a report in The Guardian.

May influenced fields across science through his deep understanding of complexity. As systems become more complex, he showed, they tend to become more unstable and chaotic. Tweak a stable, complex system even slightly, he showed, and it's liable to collapse into turbulence or chaos. The principle applies just as well to the physics of fluids as it does to populations of living things or even financial systems, he showed.

"He was driven by the view that there were similarities among systems, and that those similarities can help us develop unifying theories," the Princeton University ecologist Simon Levin said in a statement from the Santa Fe Institute.

In an undated interview with the Australian Academy of Science, May described himself as a "scientist with a short attention span." 

Related: History's most overlooked scientists

"I think there are different kinds of people in science, not just theoreticians and experimentalists but people who like to pick on one problem and devote their life to it, and people who accidentally stumble across various things," he said, putting himself in the latter category.

May first wrote compellingly about complexity in terms of the interactions between species. An earlier physicist, Eugene Wigner had shown that special kinds of "symmetric matrices" — an array in which the rows and columns can be transposed and remain the same — become unstable in certain kinds of complex situations.

Related: Remembering Freeman Dyson, dead at 96

May built on the idea, connecting it to the relationships between different species of predator and prey. A big, complex network of predators and prey can suddenly collapse if even a couple of species are removed, he showed. It was an abstract mathematical idea — one that became known as the Wigner-May theorem after he published it in the journal Nature in 1972 — but it had major real-world implications, some of which scientists are still exploring.

May was one of the early progenitors of Chaos theory, attending the first 1977 symposium on the subject organized by the New York Academy of Sciences, according to Frankie Murray and Bennie Marsh's book "Non-Linear Differential Equations" (Edtech Press, 2018)

In 1996, May, then an Oxford University professor, was knighted for his services to science, according to his biography from The Royal Society. In 2001, he became a peer in the House of Lords, taking the title Lord May of Oxford. He also served as president of the Royal Society and Chief Scientific Advisor to the government of the United Kingdom.

Tributes to May poured out across Twitter: 

"May is survived by his wife, Judith, and his daughter, Naomi. He leaves behind an adoring community of family, friends, and colleagues, as well as an outsized influence on science," the Santa Fe Institute said in its memoriam.

Originally published on Live Science.

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  • floatingeagle
    If the reporter at the NY Times that I contacted would have done the story I asked to do then all of America would have know that when I flew home from another state after Christmas there were a Chinese couple on my plane that were sick and the female grab me as she was getting off the plane and I got sick right after New Year's here in my city and when I went to the hospital I was told I had the flu and after i recovered and went to my PCP in mid February I tested positive for the coronavirus. I explained when I was sick with it to my PCP yet it has never been reported as the very first case in my state or city ever and as for that couple I saw them in the airport and they transferred planes and they were at that the gate to go to Seattle and they came from NYC. I do not know for sure where they came from but I do know that their carry on bags had an internal flight for AIR CHINA Airlines via JFK airport on it because I was right behind them get off the plane!!
    Reply
  • VISWANATHA SARMA DONEPUDI
    admin said:
    Robert May, an Australian physicist, mathematician and ecologist at 84. His foundational work showed why complex systems fall apart.

    Robert May, grandfather of chaos, dies at 84 : Read more
    PROF. ROBERT MAY'S DEMISE LEFT THE SCIENTIFIC WORLD IN CHIOS. HIS THEORY OF CHIOS IS AKEEN TO AND UNIVERSAL AS MUCH AS EINSTEIN'S RELATIVITY IN APPLICATION. CHAOTIC NATURES FURIES LIKE SUNAMI, EARTHQUAKE, AVELANCH, LANDSLIDES ALL KINDS OF DISTURBANCES IN THE GENOME FOOD AND ENERGY PYRAMIDS ALSO ARE, ANY DISTURBANCE IN THE GALAXY, THE SOLAR SYSTEM, LEADS TO CHAOS...MAY HIS SOUL REST IN PEACE.
    Reply
  • TimLong
    Non-Linear "Chaos" Theory shows that deterministic processes appear as random after many iterations.
    Reply