Friday, September 11, 2009

Reflections on Eight Years Ago

Looking back at 11 September 2001.

What stands out in my mind was the first anomaly that hinted that something was going on. We had not had the TV on, so I had no idea anything had happened as I headed into campus just before 9 (between the two attacks on the World Trade Center). As usual, I turned on the computer ... but it simply would not boot up properly. It was taking forever to load various shared applications off of a network server. Forever, meaning something like 15 minutes to do something that normally took less than 1 minute.

Was something wrong with the network? Yeah, people all over campus (and one just down the hall) were hammering it trying to get an update from CNN, or other news sites. When I saw what an office neighbor was trying to understand better, I also went to CNN once my machine was up.


Just before I had to leave to teach my 10:00 class, I got lucky. I killed a page load to shortcut its failed attempts to load all the advertising crap from akamai, and managed to 2nd click to just load a single news image. Its name actually said all I needed to know: "second plane". You know what it showed.

We were under attack.

So I went and taught my morning class, which was probably a lecture about electrostatic potentials and fields. I don't recall anything about that part of the day, except that most of the students had no idea that anything had happened. (And the studies of 9-11 indicate the government was in a similar state at 10 AM.) When I got back to my office, it was clear we were likely at war. In truth, of course, we had been at war with Al Qaeda for almost a decade but only Al Qaeda was taking it seriously until that day.

The indecision on campus was amazing to see. Are classes cancelled? No. OK. And it was soon time to teach my afternoon class on classical mechanics. That was the hardest class I ever taught. But before getting down to doing physics, I told the class what was on my mind:

That I had a much better idea of how my parents felt when they learned about Pearl Harbor.

And I told them that saying that made me wonder if we would learn the same things about this attack that we now knew about Pearl Harbor -- that we had plenty of evidence that it was coming, and missing it was a failure of intelligence rather than of Intelligence. (I knew all of the details of our code breaking and what had been done with it in late 1942, how our code breakers knew the Japanese were breaking off negotiations before their diplomats did, but that information was so secret that the military could not be told about imminent war and be put on alert.)
Wow, did that turn out to be insightful! But it was just a good guess based on the odds that we had too much excellent data to be able recognize a totally novel method of attack as a real possibility. Novel military tactics have a long history of working really well the first time.

By the time that class was over, it was announced that the rest of that day's classes were canceled. No labs that afternoon. Time to adjust schedules and make it work for the rest of the semester. (One of several cases that tell me I could figure out how to accommodate the disruption of H1N1 if it only led to the closing of campus for a week.) But we were back to normal only in the most limited sense.

The class that started the first semester of physics that Fall of 2001 was different from any of the others I have had. It took quite a while for them to get back in focus, and quite a few lost focus and quit. But the ones that stuck it out were serious about being ready to win that fight as engineers. That was a hard working bunch of students that year.


Neil B ♪ said...

Dr. π, I just replied to you at Uncertain Principles. Please take a look and consider my points carefully.

Re 9/11: Yeah, stunning. I remember there being some Internet troubles, but I thought just excess traffic. As for a local server, maybe lots of people turned on the same time to check.

Some people tell me, they have trouble believing a steel-frame building hit in upper floors, even with burning jet fuel, would just collapse down and pancake the successive lower floors, that fast etc. I can believe it's physical concerns (in these cases, my conversations) and not "politics." Yeah, Nova, Popular Mechanics/Science have come up with explanations etc. But it does seem strange and rather too effortless a collapse. Just on physical grounds, what do you think?

Doctor Pion said...

I think the structural engineer who designed the building, not to mention the one who attacked it, understood perfectly well why it would come down when it was attacked in that way. The designer said he knew it was doomed as soon as he looked out his office window at the damage.

One thing I happen to know from my Dad's civil engineering magazines is that the 1993 attack came closer (something like 20 feet in the placement of the truck bomb) from taking down one tower, and possibly both, than was ever let on at the time. The damage across multiple parking levels seriously destabilized the central core that held up the building. They knew exactly what they were doing when they bombed the building.

The second building came down first because the second pilot did a better job (angling the plane to take out more floors of the exterior structure and doing so across a corner of the building at a lower level).

Also remember that "near the top" only applied to the first building, and even there the load consisted of almost 20 stories. The size of the building makes it easy to forget how much mass is up there.