A Drop of Water

A Drop of Water

Easter 5


As I began to write this, nine million people in the United States were under a severe weather warning.  Life interrupted and while I was called away, several tornadoes did indeed touch down in northeastern Oklahoma resulting in property damage and human injury.  Two nights earlier a similar scene played out on a television program but with less damage due to one of the lead characters creating dry ice which was sucked into the tornado resulting in a drastic drop in temperature and tornadic power.


“I’m not really a freak; I am a member of the community.”  This quote was said by the first women ever to receive a PhD. in meteorology, Dr. Joanne Simpson.   A graduate of the University of Chicago, Dr. Simpson would go on to lead the Experimental Meteorology Branch of the Environment Satellite Services Administration’s Institute for Atmospheric Sciences and eventually the lead weather forecaster at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).


While at the Experimental Satellite Services Administration, Dr. Simpson, in 1966, became the director of Project Stormfury.  For over twenty years, the United States government initiated this program to seed rain clouds within a cyclone or tropical tornado with silver iodide, much like the character did on the television program with dry ice.  Since tropical tornadoes or cyclones become hurricanes, this effort was considered ground-breaking and life-saving.


The premise behind the television program’s plot I mentioned earlier is not new.  The use of dry ice to effect a change in such a weather system was first posited by Vincent Schaefer and Irving Langmuir.  A researcher at the General Electric Corporation, Charles Schaefer had in 1946 caused a small snowstorm by cloud seeding.  Langmuir was a fan of weather modification and its possible life-saving results and both men would later be advisors for the U.S. military’s Project Cirrus.   Project Cirrus had as its primary goal the weakening of hurricane storm systems.  It was believed that by seeding the area around the eyewall of the hurricane, latent heat would be released and a new eyewall would be created.  The winds of the hurricane would then weaken due to air pressure changes within the system.


The hypothesis that one can seed clouds and cause rain within a tropical cyclone which would lower the temperature and disrupt the tornadic activity was unsuccessful.  It was found that such weather systems did not contain enough super-cooled water within themselves to effect the desired changes.   These systems also undergo such changes on their own given time.  The observational data and storm lifecycle research generated by Dr. Simpson’s Project Stormfury was not a complete failure, however.  The resulting research helped improve meteorologists’ ability to forecast the movement and intensity of future hurricanes.


One of Dr. Simpson’s ventures was the Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission (TRMM).  In conjunction with the Japanese government’s Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency or JAXA, TRMM was part of NASA’s Mission to Planet Earth, a long-term coordinated research program involving a satellite designed to study the earth as a global system.


Prior to TRMM, rainfall predictions worldwide had a fifty percent success rate.  This is an important statistic since tropical rainfall contains over three-fourths of the earth’s atmospheric wind circulation.  Dr. Joanne Simpson was living her quote about being a member of the community with this project.  TRMM’s program goals included improved understanding of the global energy and water cycles by providing distributions of rainfall and latent heating over the global tropical areas; the understanding of the mechanisms through which changes in tropical rainfall influence global circulation and to improve ability to model these processes in order to predict global circulations and rainfall variability at monthly and longer timescales.  It also provided rain and latent heating distributions to improve the initialization of models ranging from 24 hour forecasts to short-range climate variations.  This helps to improve hurricane forecasting and save lives.  Additionally, TRMM helped evaluate the diurnal variability of tropical rainfall globally and develop a space-based system for rainfall measurements.


Roger Miller once wrote that “Some people walk in the rain while others just get wet.”  Joanne Simpson not only walked in the rain, she blossomed in its nourishment and defeated the prejudice of women getting higher education.  She herself recognized the sacrifices she made in her personal life to do so but the millions who reap the harvest of her studies are forever thankful.  While nine million plus will feel the harsh effects of weather over the next twenty-four hours, fewer will perish, thanks to Simpson’s Project Stormfury and TRMM.


Chaos or Contemplation?

Chaos and Contemplation

Easter 44

If philosophy is the science of thinking, then chaos is the science of surprise. Most of us have heard chaos theory explained in the following example: If a butterfly flaps its wings halfway across the world, then a storm will occur a few weeks later. Putting it in perspective, butterflies in Chile were busy around the time of Easter which accounts for the recent storms in the Midwest portion of the United States of America. Six months ago all the butterflies in the Butterfly House in a botanical garden in the USA were disturbed by a tree falling outside and so we had powerful storms in the South Pacific Ocean two months ago. Such a theory has a backside, though. If there had not been a butterfly house housing hundreds of butterflies to be disturbed, there would not have been the monsoons, If Easter tourists in Chile had not disturbed the butterflies, twenty million people in the USA would not have spent this past weekend under tornado and severe storm watches. Is it really all the poor butterfly’s fault? Can something that small have such a large effect?

For most of his life, Karl Marx was not gainfully employed. The man who penned “Das Kapital”, a scathing condemnation of prevailing capitalist ideas and functions, living mostly on the goodwill of his friends, preferring to spend his time thinking and reading at the British Museum instead of earning his own way and living on his own. He was not well-known and yet within seventy years of his death, one third of mankind was under the hand of governments that considered themselves “Marxist”.

Chaos theory is built upon the belief that the smallest of changes in a system can result in very large differences in that system’s behavior. Marx saw many benefits in the capitalism of his time but chiefly he saw it as a stepping stone, a period of history that would bring about greater change. Marx applied science, or so he thought, to his predictions about society and the dependence the owner had on his workers would, Marx believed, ultimately bring them closer together into one society.

Isaac Newton developed thoughts about physics. With his work, one can take information about the present state of an object in motion and, using Newton’s laws of motion, predict where and what that object will be in the future. Marx sought to do this with developing societies. Many of his followers believed they were being optimistic about the future. After all, the philosophies of Locke were given as causes for the American and French revolutions. Perhaps Marxism would be the “planned solution” the world needed to prevent further chaos.

Philosophy cannot be relegated to the walls of academia. It began with man and it follows him today in every aspect of his/her living. The ideas of one impoverished thinker spread like wildfire across the globe from Eastern Europe to Russia and China. Buddhism, Islam, or Christianity has ever had such a swift, effective, and devoted following. The Russian leaders Stalin, Trotsky, and Lenin, the Yugoslavian Tito, Chinese Mao Zedong, Vietnamese Ho Chi-minh, and the Cuban Fidel Castro not only read and believed Karl Marx, they changed the world because of their following his ideas.

The sensitive dependence that Chaos Theory is built upon is not really news. Aristotle mentioned it in his writings: “the least initial deviation from the truth is multiplied later a thousand fold”. Scientifically, chaos theory is the study of nonlinear dynamics, making predictions on random events based upon deterministic equations. I would be remiss if I failed to note that even defining the term chaos is up for discussion so defining a theory based upon something that is still being determined or defined is … well, not an exact science. It is generally agreed upon that chaos is the science world does not refer to a state of confusion but rather a state of apparent lack of order, something very much like dynamical instability, a state of being discovered by French physicist Henri Poincare.

In using chaos theory, two general conditions have been established. The first is that systems, all systems, rely upon an underlying order of sorts and that even the smallest of systems can create large, complex behaviors or effects. The second condition or assumption is something known as “sensitive dependence on initial conditions, coined by Edward Lorenz in the mid twentieth century. A meteorologist, Lorenz was using a computer to predict upcoming weather conditions. Having completed one particular sequence, he reentered the numerical data and then left the computer to its own equating. He later returned expecting to see a duplication of the first transcribing and equations but instead discovered results that were very different. Instead of entering the data exactly, he had left off three digits in one number, entering “.506” instead of “.506127”. Such an error was not expected to have made much difference in the results since the primary three digits were what were needed.

Lorenz repeated his efforts, each time only slightly varying the data in ways that were thought to be miniscule and therefore having little or no effect. What he discovered was that the slightest differences, even those beyond our ability to measure, could have significant effect on the outcomes. This meant that predictions of past or future events or outcomes was impossible, a concept that violated the very foundations of physics. Physicist Richard Feynman explained: “Physicists like to think that all you have to do is say, these are the conditions, now what happens next?”

In order to use Newton’s Laws of Motion, one has to be able to assume that precise measurements are possible. Newton held that nearly perfect measurements were possible and would suffice. Poincare discovered that the slightest variation made huge difference in astronomical computations. Since absolutely precise measurements of objects in space is impossible or chaotic, then all predictions based upon assumed orderly measurements were nothing better than random thoughts on the subject. In presenting his theory of the Butterfly Effect at a meeting in Washington, D.C. in 1972, Lorenz illustrated an anonymous meteorologist’s assertion that, based upon chaos theory, a single flap of a seagull’s wings would be enough to change the course of all future weather systems on earth.

The so-called “Butterfly Effect”, first described by Lorenz at the December 1972 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C., vividly illustrates the essential idea of chaos theory. In a 1963 paper for the New York Academy of Sciences, Lorenz had quoted an unnamed meteorologist’s assertion that, if chaos theory were true, a single flap of a single seagull’s wings would be enough to change the course of all future weather systems on the earth.  He would later repeat his thoughts in a paper entitled “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?”

Today some of those countries who completely revamped their government in favor of Marxism have loosened the reins. They have discovered that the behavior of mankind is more akin to the apparent randomness of chaos theory than an exact science. Free will may be a tenet of Christianity but people of all belief systems, cultures, and socioeconomic levels are living proof of it every day. We often define chaos as randomness or a lack of order. James Gleick, author of “Chaos : Making a New Science” defines chaos theory as “a revolution not of technology, like the laser revolution or the computer revolution, but a revolution of ideas. This revolution began with a set of ideas having to do with disorder in nature: from turbulence in fluids, to the erratic flows of epidemics, to the arrhythmic writhing of a human heart in the moments before death. It has continued with an even broader set of ideas that might be better classified under the rubric of complexity.”

Whether constrained by government or the idle pondering done on a solitary walk, the power of thought cannot be underestimated. Some thoughts are logical conclusions based upon known data while others are the unexpected surprise of simply living. We can all make order from the chaos of our lives. It doesn’t take being a government leader or someone famous. Maya Angelou once stated: “I’m convinced of this: Good done anywhere is good done everywhere. For a change, start by speaking to people rather than walking by them like they’re stones that don’t matter. As long as you’re breathing, it’s never too late to do some good.”