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Considering the majesty and malevolence of tornadoes

In Storm Kings, Lee Sandlin examines the science behind twisters and the scientists who first tried to catch them.

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As a child, Lee Sandlin was fascinated by tornadoes. He even had dreams about them, he writes in his latest book, Storm Kings: The Untold History of America's First Tornado Chasers (Pantheon), which explores his fascination. "The dreams were all pretty much identical: they began with a feeling of horrible dread."

Chicagoan Sandlin (the author of Wicked River and a former Reader contributor) examines not only the science behind the mysterious twisters (contradictory and inconclusive, especially in preradar days) but also takes readers through some extremely compelling stories of rival scientists in the new field of meteorology ("knowledge of the upper air") in the 1800s. Men of towering intellect—and ego—presented their theories in public lectures, then carried on the rancorous debates in scholarly journals and newspapers; it was nearly a form of popular entertainment, as well as a matter of public interest.

Though most people had never encountered a tornado, when they did it was generally unfortunate: the destruction could be hellishly awesome. And the storms were hellishly hard to predict. Documentary evidence was sketchy, the science was complicated, eyewitness reports varied, and experts had their own agendas to further. Not until a Japanese-born University of Chicago scientist named Tetsuya "Ted" Fujita was able to incorporate advances in Doppler technology into his research did anyone come close to reliably predicting tornadoes. Even so, Fujita, dubbed "Mr. Tornado," relied a lot on intuition.

The real stars of the book are the storms themselves. To read of them is harrowing: entire towns destroyed, bridges torn apart and raised into the sky, wakes of destruction hundreds of yards wide and hundreds of miles long. One storm Sandlin describes thusly: "a vast ghost of filthy brown and black . . . a giant cloud moving away with lumbering grace, crowned by brilliant white cauliflower domes and strewing dragon tails of lightning in all directions. At its base, amid a turmoil of black earth like the wake of a furious motorboat, is a curving, tapered funnel cloud. . . . Lightning flickers there, like the glare and smoke of an eternal battle, Godzilla versus the military . . ." It's a reminder that Nature can take you out whenever it has a mind to.

Much of Sandlin's writing first appeared in the Reader; start with "Losing the War" and keep on going. Meanwhile, I'm going to work on building a storm cellar.

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