Editors' Corner

Dwight E. Neuenschwander

The Spring 2011 issue of the FHP Newsletter was unfortunately delayed due to inclement weather. On May 24, in a spectacularly violent display of non-equilibrium thermodynamics in a nonlinear system, an EF5 tornado collided with our house, and the houses of our neighbors (see Fig. 1).

The articles in this issue represent the views of their authors and are not necessarily those of the Forum or APS.Photo by Mark Winslow, of the SNU Physics Department

Fig. 1. My house (transformed into a high-entropy state) on May 24, 2011. I needed to clean out that garage anyway.

My priorities suddenly changed. Thankfully, former Editor Michael Riordan, and the recently appointed next Editor Robert Crease, approached me through an email message aptly entitled "Your Plight," and offered to steer the Spring 2011 issue to completion. Their thoughtful initiative solved a pressing logistical dilemma for me, and foreshadowed a flood of thoughtfulness to come.

I am not writing this to elicit sympathy —we are going to be fine—but to express gratitude. Within hours of this event and ever since, my wife Rhonda and I have received e-mails, telephone calls, and letters from friends and colleagues. I wish to take this opportunity to express our gratitude and appreciation to the Forum on History of Physics members who sent messages of concern, and offered various means of helping us through this challenging time. Throughout this experience we found a force stronger than a mere EF5 tornado: the care and concern of so many kind and generous people. We have so much for which to be grateful.

Having your house suddenly annihilated by a tornado imposes a Janus-like predicament, where you find yourself looking backwards and forward simultaneously. New beginnings can be good. Rhonda always wanted to design her own house, and now she can do so. But looking back forms an indelible part of the experience. Although a tornado makes history, history lost must be counted among its casualties. Before going there, let me return to the tornado itself.

The May 24 tornado that honored us with its impersonal visit cut a 65-mile swath across central Oklahoma (the English units stick in the mind from local weather reports). Its rain-wrapped, half-mile-diameter main vortex evidently carried within it at least four tighter vortices. We have reason to think that one of them passed through our den and dining room. That part of the house was cleaned off down to the slab; the rest of the structure collapsed into a pile of twisted rubble. Our roof, doors, appliances, sofas, and dining room table were nowhere to be found, not even as fragments. Tornadoes famously produce bizarre effects—your refrigerator vanishes but you find the tiny wheel of a toy car. We have done the experiment, and can affirm that, for objects having large surfaces, the integral of PdA trumps mg when the wind slams into your house at 300 mph. I wish that high-speed cameras, like those used in the nuclear weapons tests of the 1950s, had been mounted throughout the house. It would have been interesting to see how our Silverado ended up on top of the Highlander. Most of the vehicles on our street landed in a wheat field half a mile from where they had been parked, folded into a right angle or rolled into a ball with wheels sticking out. When the tornado hit, we were on our way home but were turned back twice by the police. Had we been at home we would not have survived. Our new house will have an underground shelter. Assuming that one can dash into a neighbor's shelter now seems too uncertain a strategy. We are thankful to still be among the living. We can still look forward to seeing our grandchildren grow up.

Not everyone was so fortunate. Although no person on our street perished, this particular twister killed ten people in Oklahoma that day. On our street eight horses lost their lives, including our own dear Annie, my wife's equine companion for eleven years. Our two weenie dogs, Heidi and Maggie, amazingly survived unscathed. Their steel wire kennel was found wedged between two heavy pieces of furniture buried beneath rubble at the far end of the house. They were probably the only witnesses above ground who emerged unhurt. I wish they could tell us what they saw and heard as the roof lifted off, and the walls crashed around them in a turbulent blizzard of sheetrock fragments, 2x4s, and muddy insulation.

A house is a state of matter that exists in the transition between the Home Depot and landfill phases. The morning after the tornado my son Charlie said to me, "Dad, you and Mom don't have a house right now. But you are not homeless." That was a perceptive distinction. Garrison Keillor once said that "Home is where they know your story." History is the knowing of the story. Without our story, we do not know who we are.

Once all lives were accounted for, an early priority included salvaging whatever could be found that was worth saving. In looking backwards this way, we were not trying to salvage things; we were trying to salvage stories; we were trying to preserve our history. Some items have value for what they are, and can be replaced with mere money. But other artifacts hold deeper value; they are irreplaceable because of what they mean. The wedding photos, the baby pictures, images of family vacations, artifacts handed down from one's ancestors…

When my wife looks at her grandma's pedal-operated sewing machine (which survived with repairable damage), she sees more than an obsolete technology for sewing clothes. She also knows the story of how in 1956 her mother made her wedding dress, with her mother's help, on this very machine. The memory of Grandma Coatney and those events are held within its cabinet.

A creation myth of the pueblo-dwelling Native Americans tells how the People came up from the mysterious nether regions below. The sanctity of a timeless cultural custom was explained by saying "it came up with us."[1] In our salvage efforts, artifacts that were found too seriously damaged to keep were set aside with surprising reluctance. They came through the tornado with us.

A few days after the tornado, Rhonda sadly reflected that "Although our old house had many flaws, I am going to miss it because Charlie and Steven [our sons] will not be able to show Teegon and Sophie [our grandchildren, too young to remember these events] the house in which they were raised." Of course, we will make new memories in the new house. But my wife is right: a part of personal history was a casualty of the May 24 tornado. Grief and gratitude wash over us together, in abundance.

Before the tornado, hanging in my shop was the very chair that my great-grandfather Ed "borrowed" from a hotel front porch in Junction City, Kansas, sometime in the 1890s. He and my great-grandma Grace, as young people not yet married, were on a hayride with their friends. All the hay bales were occupied, so as they rode by a hotel Ed hopped off the wagon and grabbed the chair so Grace would not have to sit on the wagon floor. My father remembers that chair from the summer of 1940 he spent with his grandparents. Seventy years after that, hanging in my shop, it was more than a rickety old chair: it was a tribute to Great-Grandpa Ed's rascally sense of humor. That wobbly green wooden chair is now gone. Telling my grandchildren about their colorful, ornery, fun-loving great-great-great grandpa became more difficult after May 24.

When an artifact has vanished, the telling of the story is diminished. One cannot save everything, but one must save some things, for history. Seeing with you own eyes Galileo's telescope or Marie Curie's letters, Albert Einstein's pipe or one of Niels Bohr's notebooks, brings the story (and the physics) to life. The real thing has no substitute. It came up with us.

The stories of the people and places behind the physics are more complicated than the body of physics knowledge itself, forming incredibly complex webs of relationships that stretch across time and cultures. But without its stories, physics becomes homeless, and loses its identity. The Forum on History of Physics carries an awesome responsibility as a keeper of stories for the physics community.

This is the last time I have the privilege of writing an "Editor's Corner" for this splendid newsletter that others started, and with whose care I have been entrusted for a season. This is not the way I wanted my scheduled term as editor to end (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2. Your outgoing editor hard at work a few days after May 24.
Photo by Daryl Cox of the SNU Chemistry Department

Fig. 2. Your outgoing editor hard at work a few days after May 24.

But I am grateful to Bob and Michael for voluntarily offering to finish what I was unable to finish myself. I will remain an enthusiastic member of the FHP, and hope to be an occasional contributor to these pages.

So many of you have looked after my wife and me with caring concern during these recent events. I knew you as colleagues in APS meetings, sometimes sitting with you at committee tables. When you heard that the world line of the May 24 tornado had abruptly intersected ours, you went beyond roles and duties. You did what the Russell-Einstein Manifesto of 1955 exhorted us to do in another context: "remember your humanity." For your kind gestures, for your friendship, and for all that I have learned from you, I will always be grateful. Thank you.

[1] Paul Horgan, The Heroic Triad: A Portrait of Three Southwestern Cultures (Holt, Reinhart, & Winston, 1970).

The articles in this issue represent the views of their authors and are not necessarily those of the Forum or APS.