Sunset on the World Trade Center

Words and Photographs by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Excerpt from City of Stars, a Natural History special issue, January 2002

Rising a quarter of a mile into the sky, the World Trade Center's twin towers were about five blocks tall.

I live four blocks from where they stood. I saw them ablaze. I saw them fall. All from my dining-room window, which, within ten seconds of each tower's collapse, offered less than one inch of visibility while the opaque dust cloud of pulverized concrete rolled by. From that same window, blue sky now appears where the twin towers used to be.

The World Trade Center was a veritable vertical universe. I think about it often. I think about the people who worked in the towers, the tourists who visited the observation deck, the diners at Windows on the World. I think of all those who lost their lives.

Sunset on the World Trade Center, by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Sunset on the World Trade Center's north tower. © 2001 Neil deGrasse Tyson

When I look hard for a peaceful way to remember the towers, I cannot help but think of them as observatories. On the top floor, you could type greetings into a computer that would transmit your message into space via the north tower's radio antenna, for all eavesdropping extraterrestrials to decode. The towers were so tall that for someone on the observation deck, the horizon was forty-five miles away. This distance was far enough along Earth's curved surface for the Sun to set two minutes later for the person on the observation deck than it did for someone on the ground floor. If you could have run up the stairs at one flight per second, you would literally have stopped the sunset. Alas, you'd eventually have run out of breath or run out of floors. In either case, at that moment you'd lose the Sun for the night, as it set gently below your horizon.

New York City's twin towers have lost the Sun forever. But I take comfort in knowing that the Sun will rise again each day, as it has done a trillion times before.