So, one particular family member of mine, who will remain unnamed, always complains "Weather forecasters are the only people to be wrong half the time and still get paid!" Well, little does he know that weather prediction is an incredibly challenging field, and the fact that weather predictions are sometimes way off has nothing to do with the forecaster being wrong, but rather with the so-called butterfly effect.
The basic idea behind the butterfly effect is that if you have an incredibly complex system (like... well, the Earth) and you add a small perturbation (like the flap of a butterfly's wings), eventually this perturbation will drastically affect the system, causing it to be very different than what it would have been without the flap of the butterfly's wings. Put more simply, the atmosphere on the Earth is so complex with all of its motions and solar heating that a little poof of air can evolve into something much bigger! If you really want to know more about this, look up chaos theory. I won't get into the math here...
So, what does this have to do with weather prediction? Well, atmospheric scientists run large scale simulations (actually quite similar to what I do) using huge computers to solve a set of equations that describe the weather. They then get a prediction for how a particular storm will develop, as an example. Except the problem is that even with the most advanced simulations out there, no one can account for every single variable. The Earth is just too darn complicated! We don't account for all the butterflies!
So, sometimes these models predict something different than what actually happens. BUT, what is amazing to me is that weather predictions are more often right than they are wrong. Given the power of the butterfly effect, I think the above statement made by my scientifically-inept family member should be revised to say "Weather forecasters should be paid more because they have to deal with an incredibly complicated system, and most of the time they actually get it right".
Now with that, I want to gloat a little bit about the power of computers. In his last post, Background Dominated made fun of these precious "adding machines" Well, these adding machines do a great job at making predictions, even in the most complicated systems. With the proper software (which scientists develop), these machines are more often correct than incorrect.
Background Dominated will now say that his X-ray telescopes are never incorrect because the collected data comes from real systems, and not simulated systems. But as he himself points out in his blog, he has to deal with all that noise in the background, which means he has to process his data to get anything meaningful out of it. Have you seen his annoying spotty background on his own blog page??!
Anyway, I leave you with this because THIS is my tool for research. This "adding machine" is a 100,000 CPU supercomputer (imagine 100,000 normal computers linked up to act as one!):
Courtesy: XSEDE, NICS