Storms Above the Desert


Storms Above the Desert came into existence in an unusual way.

It was planned and researched by a college writing class at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology. That class had twelve juniors and seniors enrolled for the fall 1984 term. I assigned them to write the history of Langmuir Laboratory and thunderstorm research in New Mexico as an exercise in communication processes: organizing, researching, interviewing, writing, and editing. In other words, the collaboration and teamwork, as well as the writing skills, they would use later in industry. I was most gratified as a teacher to find that from the class project came a publishable manuscript.

Storms above the Desert was written by one of those twelve students: Joe Chew. Taking the raw material provided by his classmates, he transformed it into a coherent, interesting historical narrative. That Joe would be the author of record was no accident. Early in the project, it became clear that he possessed both the knowledge of the subject and the maturity of style to write the final draft of the book. He took control of the manuscript at an early stage and stayed with it far beyond the end of the fall term. It truly is his creation.

The publication of the book was made possible through a special program of the Historical Society of New Mexico. In association with the University of New Mexico Press, the Society periodically elects to underwrite the publication costs of manuscripts that, it feels, preserve significant parts of New Mexico's past. We are most grateful to the Society for selecting Storms Above the Desert.

Then there is the subject itself.

The year 1985 was the silver anniversary of the decision to fund and build what is now the Irving Langmuir Laboratory for Atmospheric Research, a thunderstorm laboratory high in the Magdalena Mountains of west central New Mexico. Run by New Mexico Tech (formerly the New Mexico School of Mines), it is the only laboratory of its kind in the United States and one of the very few in the world. The work done there each summer during the all-too-brief thunderstorm season has resulted in some major contributions to the understanding of thunderstorms and lightning.

Coincidentally, 1985 was also the fiftieth anniversary of atmospheric research in New Mexico. The science of atmospheric physics was in its infancy when Dr. F. J. Workman began studying thunderstorms at the University of New Mexico in 1935. From those depression-era beginnings rose not only pure science, but also the art of rainmaking and other practical things. Although weather modification is out of fashion these days, atmospheric research is doing better than ever. Some of the top experts in the field believe that they are on the verge of truly understanding just what goes on inside a thunderstorm. But, then again, people have said that before.

Those who imagine science to be an abstracted, impersonal pursuit will be surprised to learn how atmospheric physics was torn and reshaped by academic politics, personality conflicts, and even a lawsuit or two. The fifty-year saga of thunderstorm research has been a human drama as much as a scientific one; the science itself, though, is unusually interesting. We hope that we have accurately portrayed the people who played roles in that half-century, and, even more, that we have also done justice to the science.

A great many people have assisted directly and indirectly in this project. Noteworthy contributions were made by the students of TC 301, in particular Kim Eiland, Toni Ball Johnson, and Kathy Smith, and also including Jill Bartel, Chris Benedict, Rick Clyne, Diane Hattler, Terry Jackson, Mary McClure, Heidi Miller, and Dave Pellatz. Special thanks are due Dr. John DeWitt McKee, Professor Emeritus of English at New Mexico Tech, whose suggestions on style greatly improved the quality of the manuscript; to Dr. Paige Christiansen, Professor of History, who provided valuable leads for fruitful research, and to Dr. Spencer Wilson, Professor of History, who helped secure a publisher for the manuscript. The support of Dr. Marx Brook, who gave us access to his photo archives, and of Floyd Willard, who runs the New Mexico Tech Research and Development Division photo lab, was invaluable in helping us illustrate the book. Beverly Ohline, former director of Tech's Information Services Office, was very helpful in providing news releases, photographs, and facilities, and the Tech librarians were similarly helpful when it came to providing research materials from the school's archives.

But we would especially like to thank the scientists we worked with: Bernard Vonnegut of the State University of New York; Robert Holzer of the University of California at Los Angeles; New Mexico State Engineer Steve Reynolds; and New Mexico Tech's Marx Brook, Charles Holmes, William Hume, Dan Jones, Paul Krehbiel, Charles Moore, Marvin Wilkening, and William Winn. By cooperating with our historical research and by figuring importantly in the story itself, all of them have made this book possible.

Jim Corey

Table of Contents

Next: Chapter 1 - The View from a Height

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