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September 14, 2001

Where were you when the World Trade Towers fell?

I have no doubt that this question will stand along side those for Pearl Harbor and the Kennedy assassination.

It happened only a few hours ago, as I write this, and my intended lighthearted column will not do.

I tried calling friends in NYC, just to know, but got only busy signals. Kathy Berg did reach her son, who lives about a mile from the World Trade Center. They had heard “something” but didn’t think much of it and went to work as usual. Of course, soon enough they knew, from the dire reports, subsequent panic, and overwhelming smoke.

My stepdaughter called this morning and asked if I was “watching this.” I said no. She said it was terrible but didn’t say exactly why. What she was really calling about was to let us know the bear had come back, so we should watch our trash again.

Her voice was off, but I figured she was tired, what with a two-week-old baby and all. I went for tea, with my copy of physicist Richard Feynman’s memoir in hand, only to find the Cornucopia bakery empty and the quiet urgency of NPR on their radio. I finally understood my daughter’s voice.

I tried to conjure images of the old NYC skyline before the towers. It was too strange to imagine. I went home to watch the awful footage.

I had Feynman’s memoir because I was trying to find the page on which he tells his experience watching the first atomic bomb test. I found it. But, on the heels of the terrorist attacks, I could only think of the carnage from the Bomb, of the never-ending wars and destruction and suffering before and since — all of it in that mind-spinning way that turns the world into nonsense.

Feynman’s anecdote had been obliquely related to my original article, which even now has a little lesson in it. It was about Maxwell’s Demon.

James Clerk Maxwell, a father of modern physics, had imagined a microcopic demon who could defy the Second Law of Thermodynamics by operating a trap door between two chambers of gas. It would let fast molecules go one way and slow molecules the other, thereby heating one side, cooling the other, without requiring thermodynamic work: a free decrease in entropy.

The catch is, of course, that the demon is part of the “system” and must consume energy to do his own work, no matter how microscopic. All local decreases in entropy require at least an equal increase somewhere else.

There is an analogous relationship in human affairs. Communities at all kinds require the input of “work” to keep going. “Life” is energy flow — whether biological, organizational, institutional, political, whatever.

Our democracy and our freedoms are in this way living things that require constant feeding. As strange and helpless as most of us feel on a day like this — the day the towers fell — we must not forget that everything we do matters. We are part of the energy flow.

It has always been the case that our technologies are useful for good and bad. One of the biggest threats in our world today is from the incomprehensible actions of terrorists for whom even their own lives mean nothing. They become pawns of evil. As the world gets “smaller,” it will take more energy, more work, and more vigilance for us all to live together. Best wishes to us.


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