The Symbolism of Los Alamos: From Oppenheimer’s Cigarette to Feigenbaum’s Chaos

In the annals of scientific history, certain symbols recur with a resonance that transcends mere imagery. One such symbol is the glowing ember dotting the night sky of the Los Alamos desert; Oppenheimer’s cigarette ember, a solitary beacon amidst the darkness, as he, dressed in suit and tie, with his hat pulled low over his brow, trudges along, searching for the elusive key that one fateful day unlocked the gates of hell.

His eyes, akin to quantum kaleidoscopes, emit turbulent reflections each time the nuclear mushroom cloud looms in his memory. The footage of the delivery of the devastating “gift” over Hiroshima was captured by a young Harold Agnew, Oppenheimer’s apprentice, who had flown as a scientific observer on the bombing mission. With time, Agnew would ascend to the position of director at the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where he delved not only into the behavior of subatomic particles but also into the enigmatic wanderings of a young man with curly locks, who took long, nocturnal strolls through the desert, always with a somber countenance; perhaps he too sought the key that eluded Oppenheimer. Who can say?

This young man with curls was none other than Mitchell Feigenbaum, a chaos explorer who, on one of those nighttime excursions, effectively concluded classical science. For in order to trace the origins of the cosmos, one had to relinquish Newton’s laws, which are deterministic and assert that the future behaviors of matter can be predicted. Feigenbaum sought the impossibility of certain predictions over time; the behavior of matter depends on various variables that do not always allow for precise prediction. For nature is complex, and the only way to describe it is through mathematics, through numbers rather than letters, acknowledging that science can only be exact if we accommodate the unpredictable.

Thus, stepping on a butterfly may bring about grave consequences, as depicted in Ray Bradbury’s tale “A Sound of Thunder,” dated 1952, a work of fiction that foreshadowed the endeavors of mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz by almost a decade. It was in 1961 that Lorenz stumbled upon the butterfly effect. What had hitherto been fiction became scientific reality.

It all unfolded as Lorenz punched values into his computer system to predict atmospheric weather patterns. He inputted a series of parameters to measure wind direction, humidity, atmospheric pressure, and temperature, only to receive results that—surprisingly—diverged when he reentered the data. The weather forecast was no longer the same; it had changed from the initial prediction. This discrepancy arose because the second time around, the computer program did not round the figures, so minuscule decimals, seemingly insignificant, wrought significant changes. In other words, the flutter of a butterfly in Brazil can unleash a tornado in Texas.

Thus, in broad strokes, the “Chaos Theory” and its “Butterfly Effect” were born. With this, physics opened a new door, the keys to which Mitchell Feigenbaum found on one of his walks through the Los Alamos desert. The story of Chaos Theory is captivating. Therefore, it is not without merit to recommend a book that presents chaos and unpredictability in a didactic manner. Enter “Chaos” by James Gleick (published by Crítica), where the American journalist and science communicator elucidates how this theory has been interwoven with various disciplines, from physics to biology and mathematics, as well as economics and stock values. Gleick accomplishes this feat without losing sight of Oppenheimer’s cigarette ember, a beacon of light amidst the darkness of the Los Alamos desert.

“The Stone Axe” is a section where Montero Glez, with a prose-like approach, besieges scientific reality to assert that science and art are complementary forms of knowledge.