Changing Planet

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

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
  • Christine Drew

    I was in a very small town in England with my sister-in-law doing some research on family history. Entering a store, two British sales clerks started discussing whether or not to tell us about “their two towers.” When they decided to tell us the news, of course we couldn’t really get oriented to the story. Around the corner was a Sony store and we went there to watch the scenes, over and over again, on the British televisions. When I went to find my husband, he thought I had seen a preview of a movie-likely starring Arnold Schwartzeneger. When we all really understood the gravity of the situation, some English storekeepers insisted we all have some tea while we recovered from the shock. Later we went to visit a family cemetary where some children insisted they find the vicar to pray with us and to take us into the chapel and up into the parapets of the church. The British were warm, wonderful, and loving as we waited to see if we would return home to our own families, as we were certainly fearful of what would be next on this eventful day.

  • Manfred Hoefert

     On September 11, 2001 I was sitting in my garden in Meyrin (Geneva) enjoying my retirement in the mild afternoon autumn sun when the telephone rang. My son could hardly speak: Papa, switch on your TV. A plane has crashed into the World Trade Center. I saw one of the WTC-towers emitting smoke but the correspondent of German television talking from New York couldn’t make out what was going on. Suddenly a plane appeared on and disappeared from the screen. It had smashed into the second tower. This happened shortly after 3 p.m. As the German voice on my TV started to panic I switched to CNN. As time went by I learned that four US heavily fueled long flight carriers had been hijacked by terrorist commandos early in the morning and used as firebombs. I sat up the whole night listening and watching,  horrified. What I experienced was beyond my imagination. I couldn’t and wouldn’t believe what I saw. Like in the case of Pearl Harbor America had again been maliciously attacked.

     Only a few days later I realized that I had been witness of one of those dates that changed the world.

  • Alice Calaprice

    A very nice summary of events, Bulent. Funny how we all like to talk about where we were when we heard big news, such as JFK’s death and the 9/11 disasters. I had just come to work at Princeton University Press, and at 9 a.m. I received a phone call from a physicist friend, Kenji Sugimoto, in Japan, asking if I have more news about the Towers incident. I didn’t know what he was talking about, so I immediatley turned on the little 7-inch black and white TV that I kept in my office . Soon, almost everyone at the Press surrounded that little TV–I was the only one there who had one, and there wasn’t immediate news available on our PCs the way it is today. So–I learned about the disaster from someone in Japan, where it was already 10 o’clock in the evening and Kenji had probably been watching the evening news, while the rest of us here were just starting the day. I’ll always associate Kenji with that day.

  • Dan Kohanski

    I was up early that morning and was telecommuting, because I had a dentist’s appointment that morning, when my mother called me from southern California to tell me to turn on my TV, that New York was under attack. By that time, the second plane had struck the towers and we all knew that what had happened was no accident. I also began receiving emails from coworkers in the North Tower that they were evacuating; all of them made it out, except for a few whose offices were around the 90th floor.

    I grew up in New Jersey and remember the towers under construction. When I lived in Greenwich Village they dominated my skyline. It is still difficult to go back to New York and register their absence,.

    Often times we are not a nice species.

  • Georgiana hall

    I was on the Palmetto Expressway in Miami, Florida, driving to a job fair. The announcement came on the radio ( it was a rock station that i was listening to and did not pay much attention). By the time I returned home, the world had fallen apart. I called my parents and warned them to stay home, should there be further attacks. The college and university that I was teaching at back then both closed their doors by 2 PM. By evening, there was an eerie quiet as no flights were leaving the airport and the skies were still. The entire sequence of events did not really hit me until that evening. My only thanks was that I had the great opportunity to visit and tour the Twin Towers – a magnificent architectural accomplishment- back in the early 80s with a college roommate.
    Peace is for the world not just for us. Let’s hope this horrible event never repeats itself anywhere on the planet….

  • Christine, Manfred, Alice and Dan, thank you for the thoughtful comments. Do you realize that the ‘bearer of evil tidings’ becomes part of the unforgettable story — a son, a mother, Japanese physicist Kenji…

  • Elizabeth Atalay (

    It was the first ever day of pre-school for my oldest child. I had just dropped her off, and the other mothers were talking about a plane hitting one of the towers. I too thought it must be an accident. A small plane. On my way home the news was unfolding on the radio. After speaking with my husband I called to check on my best friend who lives in NYC. Her husband worked in one of the towers. Luckily he was late to work that day because it was also the first day of school for their kids, and he had wanted to send them off. He was just coming up from the subway in time to watch the first tower fall. He had called his wife to say he was o.k., but after they spoke the second tower fell, and she could not reach him again. It wasn’t until 4pm that day when he returned home that she knew he was o.k.. He had walked home to the Upper East Side, I’m sure in shock, and unable to call. Many people he worked with perished that day.

  • Murray Lines

    I was in the Dorint Hotel, Augsburg in Germany after arriving from Australia. I turned on the TV and amazed to see the repeated visions of the burning towers, i thought it was a movie, but it was reality, horrifying. The meeting we held later that day had a minutes silence as some of the attendees were from all part of the affected countries. Lets all hope such a tragedy doesn’t happen again in our lifetime. We live in a global village these days when anything could happen anywhere.

  • Barbara Stec

    In that moment when they attacked the United States, I was at work. That day we were very busy. My coworkers were speaking about an airplane accident — that an plane had crashed. We were trying to get some more information when another coworker called — another plane had crashed!!! Initially, I thought that they were making a film, and it didn’t even cross my mind that anyone would attack the United State. But seconds later we realized out, that this was a REAL ATTACK, and not just film. This was and still is a very tragic day and will stay with me forever. We cannot and we should not ever forget it!

  • John Maenhout

    Dear Bulent,

    I think that every one remembers exactly where they were at this moment. I was in the hospital by my son, where he was in for surgery. That a small group of people could cause so many millions of people such misery and sorrow in our modern age, where we think of ourselves as civilized, is beyond comprehension. Perhaps all religions have to rethink what is freedom. War is never the solution. Here in my country we have suffered through two horrific world wars during the 20th century.

    Just yesterday I was with people from Belgian, Canada, Poland and Britain for the commemoration of Adegem in my community. The lives of a generation of soldiers, young men between 17 and 28 years old, were snuffed out during the five years spanning 1940-1944. This is just from and area of 10 miles radius from where I lived with my parents! And for what!

  • Carmen Clement

    I will never forget that day I was 7 years old. I was in school, and my school was right next to the Pentagon. All I remember is that we were all taken to the cafeteria, and my parents came to the school to pick me up. I did not know what was happening, but my principle was in tears. Until I got home and watched the news I did not realize what was going on. It was so sad and I will never forget that day.

  • Nobuaki Honda

    I was in Germany, in one of many banks. As I was on my way out from there, I saw an image of World Trade Center on fire on a large TV screen in the hall. I thought first it was another Hollywood movie, so I continued watching. Then, very slowly I began to find out the true nature of what was happening. I do not recall for how long, but I just stood there and watched the second plane smashing into the second tower. There were many others who witnessed the moment. I was one of them. Then I could not have a realistic feeling and was not capable of realizing the seriousness of what it was happening in New York City. It took me a few days to truly realize what had taken place. I took my telephone and called a friend, just in case he happened to be there, a real possibility. One of the most tragic aspect of all this, and war in general, it is always the innocent who pay the price for what they are not responsible. Violence does not solve any problem. My parents’ generation [in Japan] knows that very well. What is even more tragic is the fact that we still do not have the solutions for it. So the violence continues to be used as a means for some people to achieve what they believe is their right.

    • How sad it is that the only thing we learn from history is that we do not learn from history!


    Dear Bulent,

    Ten long years passed since the first catastrophe event of the 21st century occurred! “Tempus fugit” … I remember well, I was sitting in a board meeting, discussing the budget of the coming year and other important company matters. It was my last year in the company. On 31st of December I was going to retire. My mobile phone rung; there was a message from my wife, “Switch on your television!” I left the meeting room and went to my office to turn on the TV, and watched in shock and horror! Then, I returned to the meeting and notified my colleagues, and that was the end of the meeting. Neither I, nor anyone else, was interested in continuing the meeting where one of the topics was to have been Christmas deliveries of our famous Divan Turkish Delight to our US retailers ! It was the only time in decades that we did not have any confectionery deliveries to United States!

  • Mary Anne Burns

    I will never forget my wonderful staff. On the US West Coast I was running the 5:30 AM Pacific Time telephone shift to collect East Coast wholesale gasoline prices from local gasoline stations for US domestic major oil companies, a survey collected by the oldest gasoline price trade publication in the nation, Lundberg Survey. Their prices are often quoted on NPR and CNN. From my office I heard a surveyor, typically a very staid fellow, cry out. I walked into the phone pit to ask him what was wrong. He told me his contact had just seen a plane hit the World Trade Center. A native New Yorker, I reassured my staff that since the building of the Towers there was a known risk of this kind of accident. But I privately emailed our Vice President, not yet arrived in the office: “Bob says plane hit World Trade Center. Terrorist?” In a short while we had the answer when the second plane hit. I had 20 years in the oil business, but my staff consisted of college kids, single Moms, young parents supporting new families, and retirees with little or no interest or background in the industry. I will never forget how they performed that day. I explained the country was at war, and that at this moment the oil industry was deploying its resources to emergency operational centers. I further explained that in a time of war the President typically would impose price controls. I told them they could help the country today by going back to those phones and getting each and every price, that this information was going to be very important for our leaders but also for the corner retail gasoline station owners across the nation who would want to be treated fairly. I also knew that the snapshot of where our prices were before this attack was going to be meaningful for a host of reasons, economic, social, even psychological.

    One surveyor said: they won’t talk to me when I call! They’re glued to the TV! I said–explain to them that today we can help the President make the very best decision he can make for our economy if we work together.

    They did that. They did it perfectly!

    Keep in mind that we did not yet know the scope of the attack–that the entire country could be hit. The news of the Pentagon attack came in, confirming our worst fears.

    We all called the East Coast together, then the Heartland, the Mountain states, the West Coast, until we were done, without a break. I am proud to say that the numbers we gathered that day were quoted on CNN daily for the following 18 months, as a benchmark for where we were when the world changed.

    I am so fortunate there was something I could DO to help the country that day. I had my personal moments, crying in private as I thought of The City of my carefree childhood, then composing myself and going back to the floor. Calling an oil industry friend in the privacy of my office with two words “The Saudis!” (Every industry professional that day knew something had gone terribly wrong with the Saudis, although at the time we had no facts. Later it was determined most of the hijackers were Saudis.)

    Professionally, when our President and VP declared prices would now skyrocket, I challenged them. “Yes, in war typically commodity prices would go up, but the FAA has grounded all planes over the US, and no one is driving! Prices will go down!” Exxon immediately soared 8 cents–a lot for that time–so they were redeemed. I admired Exxon–the rest of the majors were confused. (I have often wondered if it was the sight of the Pentagon burning near their headquarters that provoked that clarity.) But in a half an hour our fax machines began pouring out wholesaler, jobber, price changes like a river, down,down, down, everywhere. The downward spiral did not stop for days. Exxon later retracted their prices.

    What was most remarkable about being there that day was that I saw firsthand the complete flattening of the US economy. We were stopped in a flash. And how utterly vulnerable our entire industrial infrastructure was. I made up my mind that day to join with those wanting to end our oil dependency. It began as an effort to minimize geopolitical risk but it quickly expanded to ecological risk. I think this is the more important interpretation of the need to improve homeland security. It isn’t about how deluded people can do bad things, but about how we are living.

    We are still not where we need to be. It is not energy independence we need, but energy diversification built and managed over a strategic timeline of 30 years, shifting the mix of sources and methods toward solar in much the same way we do continuous improvement in high technology. In a kind of portfolio management. We need everybody in the room, not a competition for the entire energy pie. We’re not there yet.

    Thank you, Bulent, for inviting me to share this experience.

  • B W Jones

    On 9/11/2001, I was in front of my computer in my Rockville, MD, office searching for news to update one of our website newsrooms. I Googled the “New York Times” website and it would not open. About the same time, an announcement came over the speakers throughout our office building asking us to go immediately to the conference room. We gathered around a large television and in disbelief saw the North Tower of the World Trade Center burning. Then we saw the terrorists crash the second plane into the South Tower and in a few minutes we knew the Pentagon had been hit. After we saw the South Tower fall, employees were told to go home. The rest of my day was spent at home following the news and, as soon as the phones would work, calling to make sure family members and friends were safe. I distinctly remember as I drove up the George Washington Parkway to work that September morning, the sky was crystal clear, cloudless, and vibrant blue. I thought what a perfectly beautiful day it was. That night and for days to come, I remember the sound of the surveillance fighter jets flying over in the Washington, D.C area.

    PS. What a wonderful surprise to see my photographs of the Newseum in your National Geographic Blog. I am delighted you found them useful.

  • Ray Anderson

    Thank you Bulent for the detailed and informative essay on the tragedy of that terrible day.
    Unfortunately the tragedies following are greater with hundreds of thousands killed in the Middle East military actions.

  • Livia Comandini

    Here in Italy it was about 3.00 in the afternoon. I was at home, and doing housework. when my husband, Renzo, called me from his car. He said that he had just been listening to the radio, and that it seemed something very strange was happening in New York. I immediately turned on the television. (Usually we don’t watch TV in the afternoon, and specially when Renzo is home.) That day, however, I saw everything live… as it unfolded. I saw the second plane going into one of the Towers, I heard about the Pentagon and the third plane. Being home, I felt afraid. It was happening very far away, and yet it was so tragic. The world itself was wounded by this attack! It all seemed surreal!

    The world has increasingly become a dangerous place, including for me in Italy. I felt the urgency of that moment. I even wondered whether I was having a nightmare. Then I heard that American President was in the air, flying on his special plane. The entire experience was much more than a disaster film, the kind I’ve always hated! An hour later my husband came arrived home, and we tried to understand what was happening, and console each other.

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