Chance favors the prepared mind

July 27, 2006

The professor who I will quote in a minute took the quote from some kind of advertising flyer and taped it to his file cabinet in his office.

I on the other hand heard it in a shoot em up movie starring Stephen Segal (Under Siege 2: Dark Territory) when the big bad guy recovered a CD which was needed for his diabolical plot. After he picked up the CD and turned it in the light he said: "Chance favors the prepared mind."

I remembered that phrase the other day as I was taking photo after photo and only occasionally would one "turn out."

My project seemed to truly be a bit of both, chance, the prepared mind, and in this case, the prepared equipment.

When I went out searching for the origin of the quote I found that it was spoken by a master of experimental research; Louis Pasteur. A literal translation of the French does not do it justice. For those who speak French, he said:

Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits prepares.
Lecture, University of Lille (7 December 1854)

Wiki quote provides a translation as follows: In the fields of observation chance favors only the prepared mind.

Unfortunately I don't speak French, but I do understand the difficulties and the nuances that are lost in translation. However, in this case, the subject at hand does indeed happen to be one of observation, and one of chance.

But before we get to the story, I am going to digress just a second into ancient history and bring up a quote from Sophocles that indicates that the genesis of this thought may rest in a period of time, long before Louis Pasteur. In Fragment 302, Sophocles is translated as saying: Chance never helps the men who do not work. (translated by E. H. Plumptre in Sophocles: Tragedies and Fragments volume 2).

Anyway, to the story at hand, I was prepared, I was out there working, and chance smiled upon me.

Here in New Mexico lightning kills more people per capita than any other state in the United States. (as of 2003 - Note that's per capita, not the most people killed in a state. Florida has that honor). To me that's quite surprising, especially since there are so many lightning strikes in places like Florida and this state is after all, quite sparsely populated.

I do know that we have almost daily afternoon thunderstorms in the summer and they can be quite intense, but absent that, I'm not sure why so many people get hit by lightning.

Aas the storms rolled in over the Sandias the other afternoon, I stood on the north balcony of the house and stood there with my tripod and camera and fired and fired and fired away.

The thing about shooting lightning is that especially during the day, the only way you get the shot is if you get lucky and there is a second strike that happens as you hit the shutter in a reflex to the first.

So what does it take, besides the equipment and the desire?

It takes time.

Lots of time, especially if you have a couple of slow moving storms to track. I am quite sure that part of the opportunity that I have here is because of the fact that the storms seem to move quite slowly down the valley.

It can also be frustrating to decide to chase storm number two and just as you move the camera a five-strike hits the peak you were just focused on.

But this is where the digital camera shines, for there is probably nothing more frustrating than getting a roll of film back only to see photo after photo without a good strike.

On Tuesday I took 200 photos and got 6 or 7 that I really liked enough to consider creating a gallery of lightning strikes.

You should see them on a full screen.

I'm still trying to figure out some of the technical issues, such as why is there pink in this image and none in the images I took the other day?

I also learned to make a couple of adjustments that should improve the quality of the images for the next batch.

It's getting so that the plain old up and down strike is not going to make it into the gallery. I want to see loops and multiple strikes and and...

By the way, did I mention that it took over 2 hours both days to shoot all the images.

This shot, which is clearly brighter than the other two, was taken 100% by chance - and I got favored. I was trigger happy at this particular moment and before the lightning struck, I depressed the shutter so the two events just happened to come together.

Makes you think perhaps that one should not run around with a golf club in weather like this.

It rained again on Wednesday and I took 200+ more. This time I only got one or two images that I really only barely like, but then the conditions were not as good as the day before and most of the shots were attempted after dark.

Dusk I think offers the best light for lightning, but then again, this is after all a subject of chance. It's not like I can move a thunderhead around just so that the light is arranged to my liking.

Observation and chance.

Let's add to that patience, a quick reflex and plenty of opportunity and we just might end up with some interesting light in the night sky.

Ride with me.