March 25, 2020

This Mortal Coil

It was fitting that Dorothy lived in Kansas; At over 1,200 annually, the US experiences about four times more tornadoes than all other nations combined, and the Great Plains states are America’s “Tornado Alley.” Two huge geographic features make for this: The Rocky Mountains and the Gulf of Mexico. The Gulf, Earth’s warmest water body at its latitude, supplies warm, moist air that flows north at low altitudes. When this meets cold, dry, high air blowing off the Rocky Mountains, the conditions are particularly ripe for twisters.

“Death spiral” often refers to a causation loop which makes the situation continuously worse. For example, a small town loses population, so it receives less tax money to fund basic services, so raises taxes to make up the loss, causing more residents to move out to avoid the higher taxes, etc. However, “death spiral” (AKA “graveyard spiral”) was first an aviation term which began when early pilots experienced extreme sensory disorientation from flying through clouds, dense fog, or darkness with no view of the horizon for reference. Pilots often reacted to this with an instinctive slow turn, but disjointed visual and equilibrium cues led them to misjudge actual angle and elevation, causing pilots to bank further and descend more, initiating a “death spiral” which was often ended in a crash. On-board instruments were developed to give pilots a better sense of their true positions and orientation relative to the horizon when personal perceptions could not be relied on.

The often-raucous party game Twister began with a flash of inspiration from an ad executive hired to do something much different: create a promotional display for a shoe polish company (this same executive, Reyn Guyer, later invented the Nerf ball). He brought in some game developers, and after passing on the name “King’s Footsie,” and finding “Pretzel” unavailable, settled on “Twister” before selling Milton-Bradley the rights to it. Twister did not initially sell well, since company execs had reservations about the sexually suggestive nature of the game, and Sears refused to sell it in their catalog for the same reason. However, in May of 1966, Johnny Carson and the beautiful Eva Gabor played the game on The Tonight Show to great hilarity, and the game became an immediate success.