A Decade After 9/11

9/11 Boat Rescue

The photograph shows a mangled piece of the original antenna crowning one of the 110 story buildings. The relic is on permanent display at the Newseum in Washington, DC. (Photo by the author.)

This is a sad day in the United States, as well as in the rest of the civilized world. Exactly ten years ago on Sept. 11, 2001 the United States was attacked by terrorists. It was a Tuesday, and I was just getting ready to walk into a classroom to teach my twice-a-week Quantum Mechanics class, when a colleague in the Physics Department ran up to me to announce, “Did you hear what happened! A plane flew into the World Trade Center!” I cannot imagine many individuals who do not remember what they were doing at the exact moment when they heard about the attacks on the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center.

Dated 1 April, 2000, the photograph shows the World Trade Center Towers from a helicopter. (My deep gratitude to BW Jones who allowed me to use it in this blog.) The mangled relic seen in the lead photo to this blog is from the end piece of the antenna on top of the tower on the left.

Like many others on 9/11, initially I thought it must have been an accident, that an airplane had lost control and collided with one of the twin skyscrapers, just as in 1945 an American B-25, flying in the fog, had flown into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building. My colleagues and I found a television set in the department, but as we watched the fire and smoke billowing out of the structure, we saw a second plane, “…at full throttle” as the British Prime Minister Tony Blair would later describe it, slam into the second tower.  (Events now felt eerily similar to those of Nov. 22, 1963, when I was a young university student, someone ran into my classroom, blurting out that the President had been shot.) Transfixed, we watched the havoc that followed — people running out of the buildings, and a few actually jumping out of the upper stories. I remember one couple holding hands as they jumped out of  the 80th floor — the ultimate act of solidarity, and shared misery. Then we all saw the two buildings collapse, dust and debris exploding through the streets, evocative of the pyroclastic flow from a volcanic eruption, people, covered with dust, desperately sprinting away from the oncoming cloud.

Almost simultaneously with the planes flying into the World Trade Center buildings, a third plane was flown into the Pentagon in Washington. A fourth plane that had been highjacked, with an intended target again in Washington, crashed into the ground in Pennsylvania. In that case, it was the action of the passengers that prevented the terrorists from flying to Washington and destroying another government building with countless additional casualties. Their’s was the ultimate sacrifice. The total number of deaths that day was around 3,000.

Life has not been the same since 9/11. Most of us feel the consequences of that day only in the inconvenience we must put up with at airports. But the United States went to war in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. Tens-of-thousands of innocent lives have been lost in these wars. How very sad that it is along religious lines that this sort of act of terrorism takes place. What a truism it is that there has been more bloodshed  in the Kingdom of Heaven than in all other kingdoms. Unhappily, one more time we see the effects of ignorance, illiteracy, and religious intolerance.

In the early 1970s on visits to New York, I had photographed the Twin Towers as they were being built. In the early 90s I had taken photos from a historic church down the street, with magical light and shadows illuminating the towers, and the ancient headstones at the church lying in the shaded foreground. It was one of my favorite photographs, but I now see it as symbolic of the buildings’ fate. Accordingly, I decided to integrate several other photos into this blog: a photo of the Towers from a helicopter shot in the 1990s; a photo showing the array of newspapers hanging on a wall behind the mangled antenna (seen in the lead photo), and photos of the Newseum itself.

An array of newspapers from September 12, 2001 line the wall behind the mangled relic. (Photo by the author.)

The Newseum, one of newest museums in Washington, is dedicated to the news gathering business. A view of the exterior, and another of the interior (the atrium) are seen in the diptych below.

The diptych shows the exterior and interior of the Newseum where the relic is on permanent display. (Photos, courtesy of B. W. Jones.)

I’ve spent most of my professional life teaching theoretical physics, and I’ve written about the very rare geniuses, Leonardo and Newton. Ultimately, even in that rarified level of intelligence, genius has its limits, but stupidity has none.

If you have read this far, take a few additional minutes to watch an extraordinary video, narrated by Tom Hanks: The Great Boat Lift of 9/11

Changing Planet

Bulent Atalay, a scientist, artist and author, has been described by NPR, PBS and the Washington Post as a “Modern Renaissance Man.” He is the author of two successful books on the intersection of art, science and mathematics, with Leonardo, the pre-eminent Renaissance man, serving as the foil. His best selling book, "Math and the Mona Lisa," (Smithsonian Books, 2004) has appeared in 13 languages. Professor Atalay's academic background is in theoretical physics. He travels around the world lecturing at academic institutions and on cruise ships on the "A-subjects," art, archaeology, astrophysics, atomic physics and Ataturk, confessing that he knows much less about the "B-subjects," business, banking, biology and botany... He is the President of the Ataturk Society of America (ASA), dedicated to promoting Ataturk's ideals of science and reason over dogma and superstition, of a secular state with full equality of genders. For more details click on Bulent Atalay