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Awake to sound of December rain

Dec 9, 2012 - By Randy Tucker

Could it have had anything to do with George Bailey?

I caught the last few minutes of the classic Christmas film "It's a Wonderful Life" late last week. While the connection between James Stewart's portrayal of George Bailey in the film and our subsequent surprise rainfall late last Sunday night and early Monday morning may not seem to have a connection, I think they might.

On the surface, if you see the Christmas classics start lining up in prime-time hours, you expect the weather to do likewise. The idea of a white Christmas a la a 19th-century Currier and Ives print, often is presented as the ideal setting for the winter holiday. Songs, stories and legends abound involving Christmas and snow.

So why did I wake up at 3 a.m. Monday to the sound of rain hitting the glass on our bedroom window?

And how can a rare meteorological event like December rain have any connection to George Bailey traveling through time to end his own existence?

The answer is chaotic. That is, it is an example of chaos theory. Chaos theory often is touted among theoretical physicists, but it has applications far removed from the realm of quasars and quantum mechanics.

Chaos theory is a discipline within advanced, theoretical mathematics, but corporations, government agencies and researchers commonly use its precepts in areas ranging from biology, physics and engineering to economics and even to the world of philosophy. In its purest form, the theory studies the behavior of dynamic, interactive systems that are extremely sensitive to unstable initial situations.

Science fiction writers often are given credit for the theory's popular name, "The Butterfly Effect," but that honor goes to meteorologist Edward Lorenz, who proposed in the 1960s that the beat of a butterfly's wings on one side of the world eventually would cause a storm on the other. If you consider all the variables in something as complex as weather generation, you see the challenges that forecasters face and the virtual impossibility of accurately predicting weather patterns more than a few days in advance.

The butterfly effect was an extremely popular theme in science fiction during the genre-s golden period in the post-World War II world.

As ripples roll across a still pond in concentric circles after someone tosses a rock into the water, so is the effect of something as inconsequential as a butterfly flapping its wings on catastrophic weather. You could say that hurricane Sandy began with the breeze created by a monarch butterfly as it settled into its winter quarters in Mexico after migrating from British Columbia.

The idea is that even the smallest change in something as dynamic and complex as global weather patterns can create vastly different outcomes.

In junior high school I read Ray Bradbury's "The Sound of Thunder." Written in 1952, it is generally considered the masterpiece of the chaos theory in action in science fiction.

In a futuristic setting man has conquered time travel. Big game hunters now are able to travel back in time to hunt dinosaurs. The catch is that they can only hunt animals that were about to die from accidents, seconds before the accident occurred. In that manner, a hunter's bullet would not change anything. Complex, "time surveys" locate these animals, and hunters are carefully trained to take the animal at the precise time it would have died from some other cause.

The hunter in the story travels back 65 million years and shoots a tyrannosaurus rex just seconds before a tree was to fall on it. But in the hunter's excitement, he steps off the carefully planned path and crushes on a butterfly. When the hunt is over, he returns to his own time, but upon arrival notices that everyone is speaking slightly differently, the signs have strange letters, and the world is not the same place it was when he left just a fraction of a second before. Everything changes, just because he crushed a butterfly in earth's primordial past.

You could call it the law of unexpected consequences creating change on a cataclysmic scale.

George Bailey wasn't hunting any dinosaurs. He was just disappointed with his life and his own opinion that he made no difference in the world. When the angel Clarence Odbody took George back in time to see how different the world would be if George never existed, he was employing the same idea that Bradbury wrote about.

Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that "It's a Wonderful Life" premiered in 1946, and Bradbury's novel was printed just six years later. The theme was incredibly popular in a world recovering from the horrors of World War II and fearful of the menace of global communism.

We do read, watch and think about the world in the condition we find ourselves in. It is rare to find people who can overcome the world around them to reach for something greater beyond.

The rain fell softly on my window ,and after a couple of days of thinking about climate change, global warming and associated thoughts, this column came to the fore. But I didn't notice any butterflies.

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