Science Rules: Brad Efford on Bill Nye the Science Guy, Episode 22: "Wind"
Have you ever been in a tornado? Kishor Mehta asks. The children shake their heads no. How about a hurricane? More negatories; one kid giggles. All right.
Kishor serves as Director of the Wind Engineering Research Center at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. He came to the States from his home in Ahmdabad, India in 1954, but his accent is still strong. Stubbornly hanging on, he thinks, though it is a thought with affection close behind. Whenever it does strike him it is only thusly: lose the accent, lose the Kishor. But there is something young children, especially young white children, find inherently humorous in accents of any kind. You talk weird, a friend’s son, five years old, told him once. You do, Kishor had shot back. I don’t know if you know this, but everyone sounds like me. Nuh-uh, the kid responded. If you say so, said Kishor, raising his eyebrows in full Knowledgeable Adult mode. The kid was no longer so sure. Kids are too easy; Kishor makes sure to have a good time with it.
These kids, here with him today for a television show, are like most: a little bored, a little interested, a little lost. Kishor’s job is to impress upon them what growing up in Texas entails. The dangers involved in wind.
In the case of a tornado, the house would fall apart, he says. When the houses fall apart, there are pieces of wood that are flying all over the place. What we want to show you is what happens to a window when a piece of wood like that comes by.
A member of his team fires up a motor attached to a mechanism that, when prompted, launches a wooden beam at 50 mph directly at a window. The machine is only a few yards from the window, and the collision is quick, loud, severe. Miraculously, the window doesn’t shatter, but it is toast. So busted it’s no longer transparent. Part of the work of the WERC is to engineer better housing; windows are a major piece of that. In a hurricane, a tornado, or even one of the state’s notorious deadly T-storms, a shattered window can mean massive, gory injuries.
Here in Texas, the tornado is very severe, Kishor continues. This is where you would see a piece of wood flying at about 113 miles per hour. The same team member reloads his beam-machine and fires away, this time at a wall covered in sheet metal. The sound is like sitting inside a thunderclap. He clocks the two-by-four at just over 100 mph. Finally, the kids have woken up. Kishor smiles, tries to hide it.
More storms are scheduled for this weekend. Sometimes they get so bad you hunker down in your one-bedroom apartment’s only (tiny) hallway, cross-legged and frantically refreshing the Weather Channel homepage. The rain can sound like war, the wind a whistling siren. Living in Texas is mostly alright alright alright, but there are downsides, foremost among them the way when it rains it never simply rains: it pre-apocalypses.
Austin typically lies just north or south of the really bad stuff, the storms that take homes, lives, futures, memories, all semblance of reality. These come out of the Gulf or the plains, sailing through the panhandle or straight into Louisiana. Houston’s still reeling, still cleaning up, from the floods of two weeks ago; the week before, you’d been there, touristing on a breezy, sunny weekend. These things happen here, and they happen fast, oftentimes without warning. Only one cyclone so far this year in Austin—a brief formation at the outskirts, by the airport, no damage—but too many sudden monsoon blasts to count.
There are not enough ways to accurately describe how unsettling these moments are. In Virginia, this was a non-issue. A tornado took the roof off your high school in 1973, and when you attended in the early aughts, it was still the talk of the town. With no distinct seasons beyond summer and non-summer, no snow or autumn chill, Texas may as well be an alien landscape, as terrifying as it is captivating.
The Earth is turning--that makes the wind go ‘round and ‘round, the science guy’s young assistant explains. I’ll show you. She drops a white marble into a quickly-spinning wide black bowl. The marble spins wildly around inside the bowl, crisscrossing its diameter at different angles before eventually falling into a track at the edges, going ‘round and ‘round and ‘round.
This demonstration, like most the science guy orchestrates, is on the surface only a metaphor. It doesn’t hold up to too much scrutiny. Why, you wonder, am I inclined to care about whether the wind blows straight down or around in circles? When the wind blows, the wind blows—the study is interesting, but is it essential? Will it rescue in the moments when rescue is needed? You try and imagine what straight wind looks like, anyway. What it feels like—if it feels like anything new or less frightening. It’s difficult being at peace with forces you can’t predict or understand. Supposedly there’s a serenity there, in acceptance. You believe it, but you still struggle to see how anyone could entirely let go. In the middle of the night, the words Tornado Warning—Find Immediate Shelter ping your phone awake, and it beeps until you’re up, too. Do the serene, the right-with-God, go back to sleep smiling? Just some wind, they think. It’ll only blow me ‘round a little.
Wind is always changing the landscape, the science guy says. Wind is wild! That rings a little truer, the odd mix of excitement and fear in his voice reaching a fever pitch. Wind is wild. It is a part of the wild. An animal, a tidal wave, a redwood. Innocuous until not. A reason for a jacket, for a hat, for tested tempered windows. Always changing the landscape, moving sand into dunes into beachfront living rooms. Turning humans to oblivion. Thrilling and insatiable.
Brad Efford is the founding editor of The RS 500, a project pairing each of Rolling Stone‘s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time with an original piece of writing. His writing can be found in Puerto del Sol, Pank, Hobart, and elsewhere. He teaches English and history in Austin, TX.