Wednesday Roam – Vortex

Dust Devils and Physics…

”There was no room for dust devils in the laws of physics, at least in the rigid form in which they were usually taught. There is a kind of unspoken collusion going on in mainstream science education: you get your competent but bored, insecure and hence stodgy teacher talking to an audience divided between engineering students, who going to be responsible for making bridges that won’t fall down or airplanes that won’t suddenly plunge vertically into the ground at six hundred miles an hour, and who by definition get sweaty palms and vindictive attitudes when their teacher suddenly veers off track and begins raving about wild and completely nonintuitive phenomena; and physics students, who derive much of their self-esteem from knowing that they are smarter and morally purer than the engineering students, and who by definition don’t want to hear about anything that makes no fucking sense. This collusion results in the professor saying: (something along the lines of) dust is heavier than air, therefore it falls until it hits ground. That’s all there is to know about dust. The engineers love it because they like their issues dead and crucified like butterflies under glass. The physicists love it because they want to think they understand everything. No one asks difficult questions. And outside the windows, the dust devils continue to gambol across the campus.”

Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon

I was born in the land of vortices — tornadoes. The Midwest knows how powerful they can be and how devastating. We usually saw the evidence of their passing and only caught sight of one on rare occasions. Tornadoes devastated large parts of St. Louis, my home town, in the late 1920s, the 1950s and most disastrously in the 1890s with great loss of life. I was a boy scout in the 1960s and we helped clean up debris from a tornado that touched down a couple miles from my house. The damage was very random– a house would be gone but the birdbath was left untouched. Asphalt shingles from the roof were imbedded three feet into the ground by the force of the wind. I lived there for sixty-five years but only saw one tornado, about three miles away.

When I moved to New Mexico I learned that tornadoes were rare here in the desert and mountains but show up occasionally — pretty much of a fluke. My neighbor could remember one way back in the mid-1990s. They are more common on the east side of the state.

This is the land of  dust devils. In a short time I’ve seen dozens of impressive dust devils travelling across the desert. I don’t understand the process or physics of dust devils. They develop on sunny and clear days and aren’t storm related. I assume they are created by the wind and maybe differences of surface temperatures. They seem to be short lived but can extend a thousand feet into the sky. They will suck up dozens of tumbleweeds and carry them up into the sky for hundreds of yards and then drop them on peoples’ houses or into their yards. They seem playful and the couple times I’ve been in one or very close to one they seem almost invisible. They’re best viewed from a distance. We are already on the downhill side of winter and heading toward the windy season so I imagine I’ll be seeing a bunch in the coming months. I’ll try to get some pictures.


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