In Search of Chaos at Los Alamos
by Galen Rowell
Outdoor Photographer, October 2000

My two favorite photos from an extensive flight tour of the Southwest last spring were not from the air, nor from the Grand Circle of national parks ringed by signs in German, French, and Spanish. Photos of the classic sandstone formations of these parks have become kitsch in which an imposing sense of place overwhelms personal vision in the viewer’s eye. A few extraordinary new images of these parks do include unrepeatable patterns in light or cloud, but those of lesser known places more often focus directly upon such fleeting phenomena with more artistic results.

My two selects depict wild patterns in sandstone in southern Utah and the smoke plume of the infamous Los Alamos fire. They have more in common than meets the eye. Both show seemingly unpredictable phenomena in vastly different time scales. No geologist can look at this photograph of banding and crossbedding laid down in dunes nearly 200 million years ago and predict the patterns set in stone over the next rise. Nor could I have predicted that Los Alamos would burn within hours after I photographed this smoke plume bent to the ground by winds with the sun smoked crimson hours before the fire reached the town.

Could park rangers have predicted a wildfire before they lit their controlled burn within Bandelier National Monument (where my wife Barbara and I had just been hiking)? Initial conditions revealed by an internal investigation indicate yes. Just after I made this photograph, local radio interviewed a park spokesman saying that the fire was no threat to the town or the nuclear lab. Minutes later, we found all restaurants in town closed, major intersections monitored by police, and the radio switched to emergency broadcasting for evacuation.

Was it coincidence that we were in Los Alamos as the fire hit? No. The initial conditions for my photograph had begun to unfold half a century earlier. Together with recent events, they led me there as surely as I’ve ever chased a sunset or a rainbow.

Days before, when Barbara was about to fly her Cessna from Colorado to Sante Fe, she got a forecast for high winds that could exceed the control parameters for landing her aircraft by afternoon. Nearing Santa Fe before noon, she saw blowing smoke to the west and asked me if it was a wildfire. I guessed right that it was a controlled burn—at that moment. That evening it became a wildfire, lit after the park received a weather fax about adverse wind conditions; lit without park manpower to control a wildfire; lit knowing that interagency fire crews were fighting other blazes; lit on a second prescribed front even after the first fire jumped the line.

Thus the fire was not wholly unpredictable chaos. In fact, Los Alamos Laboratory has been deeply involved since the 1970s in the theoretical science of redefining chaos as predictable in terms of its non-linear patterns and much more. A description of Los Alamos physicist Mitchell Feigenbaum walking alone through the same forest that just burned opens the 1987 bestseller, Chaos, by James Gleick. There in the wilderness he contemplated the surging patterns of flowing water, the period-doubling pulsations of dripping water, and the way that seemingly random clouds would “spill across the sky… in regularly furrowed patterns like brain matter.” Los Alamos now has a Center for Nonlinear Studies with research funded by the Army, the C.I.A. and the D.O.E.

The idea of chaos evolving from sensitive dependence on initial conditions came to a meteorologist named Edward Lorenz in 1961 after he couldn’t get his primitive computer to deliver a similar weather prediction a second time. The culprit was a tiny difference in the way he had rounded off the decimals of his input data. He called it “The Butterfly Effect,” the notion that a butterfly’s wings stirring the air in Beijing could affect a storm system over New York next month. It’s why all today’s weather data crunched by supercomputers still can’t tell us with certitude if it’s going to rain tomorrow.

The word chaos only meant complete confusion when I was growing up. It’s what my mother would say about my room the day before houseguests arrived. She saw no rhyme or reason to my stuff spread around, where I saw a sense of order. Of course I’d left all those books open on the table. They were about the same subject and I wasn’t done with them. Same for my dirty clothes piled in one corner and my sports equipment in another.

My earliest photography also fit that classic definition of chaos. The pictures I made with a Brownie when I was twelve looked confusing to others, but not to me. Why couldn’t grown-ups see past my messy room to that neat expression on my dog’s face standing by the door?

After dropping photography for more than a decade, natural landscapes gave me similar problems. The diversity that I responded to in person rarely resulted in photographs that others liked. Simple scenes that I thought looked banal (I could shoot so much better) were the first selected for publication. I began to wonder if conveying the complexity of nature through a complex photograph wasn’t as futile as conveying the absence of wildlife through a photograph without wildlife.

Ever so slowly, it dawned on me that true simplicity wasn’t so simple after all. When I majored in physics for awhile, I hoped to make sense of complex everyday situations, but nothing I learned helped me predict the shape of a moving cloud five minutes from now or the grain pattern of a distant timberline snag. Only through photography and chaos theory did I learn why these types of complex subjects make for the most compelling nature images. Unique because of their dependence upon initial conditions, these chaotic forms (unlike my childhood room) are visually familiar to all because of structural limitations on their patterns. They lend themselves to compelling, seemingly random compositions that defy classic rules of art.

A deeper “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” that affected no other photographer helps explain how I ended up all alone on a unique hilltop viewpoint for the fire. Beyond pursuing chaotic light and form for a photo, I was heading for Los Alamos after a hike with Barbara to show her the town and lab started by my mother’s old friend, Robert Oppenheimer. The great nuclear physicist had invited her to his Berkeley housewarming in the late forties after his Los Alamos security clearance had been revoked. I vividly recall the FBI showing up at our doorstep soon after to ask questions about communist sympathizers.

Oppenheimer and my mother shared passions for wilderness, music, and world peace. When he had previously lived in Berkeley, he had told her about his hikes in the New Mexico wilderness, but not about his decision to locate a top-secret lab there. As he realized the chaotic potentials of releasing atomic energy, he publicly voiced his fears and joined leftist world peace organizations in Berkeley, to which my mother belonged.

That a forest fire set by park rangers would destroy the cluster of historic buildings where the atomic bomb became reality along with a billion dollars of other properties and annihilate careers by unveiling multiple security breaches makes perfect sense to me, in a chaotic sort of way. My photo says it to me more than any firefighter-against-the-flames close-up run in the media.

Galen’s columns are reproduced on our web site courtesy Outdoor Photographer.
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