Proof that weather is chaotic wins a top award

Sat, Jan 11, 1997, 00:00

A COMPLEX study of chaotic behaviour in Irish weather won the top individual award in this year's Aer Lingus Young Scientist Exhibition for Michael Flynn (17), a student at the Christian Brothers College, Cork.

Chaos, in this sense, is to do not with random behaviour but with the irregularities in ordered systems.

Meteorologists take pressure and temperature readings to predict the weather, but problems arise because there is a margin of error of plus or minus 0.0025 degrees Celsius.

"The two systems will be very close to each other to start but then they will start to diverge. Over time, the readings become less and less accurate," explained Michael.

His project, which took a year to complete, set out to prove that weather exhibits chaotic behaviour.

As well as mastering chaos mathematics - which led the judges to comment that he "now corresponds with international experts in the field" - Michael also did experimental work.

He constructed an analog computer which simulates a theoretical or simplified weather system.

"I noticed that, quite often, for very small changes of parameters in such systems there will often be very significant and dramatic changes," he said.

"By showing these characteristics are in a simple system, we can start to understand a complex system."

The judges noted the commercial applications of many of the projects at this year's exhibition. But Lisa Sharkey (16) of the Dominican College, Fortwilliam Park, Belfast, may well be the only entrant who has already taken out a patent on her project and is seeking a buyer.

"Basically, it's a device for testing any kind of plant seed to ascertain what variety of seed it is," she said.

The device, which is based on the same principle as a pregnancy test kit, can determine seed type in five to 10 minutes. The current method of laboratory testing takes five days.

"If you introduce a foreign plant protein into any laboratory animal, their immune system will make antibodies to combat it," explained Lisa.

The antibodies will be different for each seed and the extracted antibodies provide the basis for the test.

The runners-up in the group category also believe they have come up with a viable commercial proposition.

Keith Martin, Robert McGlynn and Cathal Stockdale, three 17-year-olds from St David's Secondary School, Greystones, Co Wicklow, have developed a means of transmitting data from remote locations without resorting to an expensive satellite.

Their idea is to use the ionised trails left by meteors - which enter the atmosphere once or twice an hour and leave a trail for an average of four or five seconds - to bounce data transmissions from one location to another using frequencies usually associated with amateur radio. At the receiving end, a computer decodes the data using special software.

The total cost of such a system, they say, is about £5,000 and a worldwide network would cost about £1 million.