Rosie O'Donnell and the Failure of Scientific Education

Rosie O'Donnell is a great example of the failure of scientific education in this country.  Of late, Rosie has joined the "truthers," using her show to flog the notion that the WTC was brought down in a government-planned controlled demolition.

I will have to yield to Popular Mechanics for most of the discussion about WTC7.  However, I can, from my own engineering training, rebut one point on WTC1&2.  (Note again, future commenters, this applies to WTC 1&2.  There was a different dynamic at work in WTC 7).

Rosie, as others have, made a point of observing that jet fuel does not burn hot enough to melt steel, and therefore the fire in the main towers could not have caused the structure to yield and collapse.  This is absurd.  It is a kindergartener's level of science.  It is ignorant of a reality that anyone who has had even one course in structural engineering or metallurgy will understand.  The argument made that "other buildings have burned and not collapsed" is only marginally more sophisticated, sort of equivalent to saying that seeing an iceberg melts proves global warming.  (Note that this is all written by a person who has no faith in government and is at least as suspicious about government motivations at any truther).   

Here is the reality that most 19-year-old engineering students understand:  Steel loses its strength rapidly with temperature, losing nearly all of its structural strength by 1000 degrees F, well below its melting point but also well below the temperature of burning jet fuel.  For three years I designed piping and pressure vessel enclosures at a refinery.  Many of the processes in a refinery crave heat and run better at elevated temperatures.  In fact, what refineries can do, and how efficient they can be, is really limited by the strength of steel at high temperatures.  Refineries end up being limited to process temperatures no higher than 600 to 800 degrees, and even then these require expensive special metallurgies.  Anything higher requires a very expensive vessel lined with some sort of ceramic insulation material.

The strength curve of steel vs. temperature is dependent on the type of steel, but the curve below is about what I remember from my old textbooks.  Note by 930 degrees the steel strength has dropped by half and in the next 100 degrees it halves again.


But the proof of what went wrong in WTC1 and WTC2 does not take a college education.  You only have to look at building codes.  Building codes generally require that structural steel members be coated with a fireproofing material

As the critical temperature for steel is around 540°C (give or take, depending on whose country's test standards one reads at the time), and design basis fires
reach this temperature within a few minutes, structural steel requires
external insulation in order to prevent the steel from absorbing enough
energy to reach this temperature. First, steel expands, when heated,
and once enough energy has been absorbed, it softens and loses its
structural integrity. This is easily prevented through the use of fireproofing.

You have probably seen it- that foamy tan stuff sprayed on girders before the rest of the building is filled out.  In fact, this stuff is not fireproofing per se but insulation.  It is there to keep the structural steel cool during a fire, so the steel will not fail.  Generally the standards are set in the code that the insulation has to be able to stand X time of fire (generally several hours) and keep the steel below its critical yielding temperatures.   Engineers know that a building fire, which burns much cooler than a jet fuel fire, can cause steel members to weaken and fail and the building to collapse.  If this were not the case, then why do builders spend billions every year to insulate structural steel building components?? 

I wrote about this issue in more depth here.  In this post, one of the commenters listed a series of building fires and asked, why did these buildings not collapse?  The answer is:  Because insulation is applied to the building structural steel members to try to prevent the collapse.  Even insulation is just a stopgap -- if the fire burns long enough and
hot enough (or if the insulation is stripped off, say by an airplane
shearing through the building) then the steel will heat up and fail.   So there are three reasons that some buildings have fires and don't fail while the WTC did fail:

  • Some building fires can and do cause buildings to collapse.  Insulation on steel members help many buildings to survive, and often does save the building from collapse, but not always.  This building did collapse, at least the top 6 stores.  Oddly, this is actually used by truthers as further proof, somehow, that the WTC fires could not have brought down the building (the link is actually one of their web sites, I think).  But in fact, the Madrid building failed the same way as WTC 1 and 2, with the top six floors collapsing.  Since the building was not fully constructed on these top floors, there was not the huge weight collapsing that created the battering ram effect that brought down the WTC.  The Madrid floors took longer to collapse, but they were 1) under far less stress, since the building above them was not complete; 2) the fire burned much cooler and 3) the insulation had not been mechanically scrubbed from the beams, so it took longer for the beams to heat up.  To me, this is a clear parallel to the official version of the WTC collapse, but even this is distorted somehow by the truthers.
  • Fuel burns hotter than normal building fires, so even insulated members will heat up faster.  I have many pictures in my personal collection of refinery fires where the main thing you can see in the aftermath is all the structural steel bent and collapsed.  Truthers may not be able to find many examples of building collapsing in a fire, but you would be hard-pressed NOT to find examples of collapsed structural steel at every refinery and petrochemical fire.
  • The insulation that normally protects buildings was stripped off by the mechanical action of an enormous airplane shearing through the building at 300 miles an hour. 

This is in addition to the actual removal of some support columns by the crashing aircraft, which put more load on the remaining structure and thereby hastened the collapse.

postscript: By the way, can anyone tell me why the so called "reality-based"
community, that so often criticizes the Right for theocratic attacks on
science, is so quick to fall for this pseudo-scientific junk?

Update: One other thought:  The hallmark of truthers is that they take small abnormalities or uncertainties in the failure analysis and event reconstruction as justification for throwing out the whole explanation of events in favor of an alternate series of events with much, much larger gaps, contradictions, and logical problems (e.g. how did the buildings get wired for demolition without anyone noticing? or, how did the planes manage to crash into the precise floors wired for demolition without dislodging the charges and their wiring?  or, how did such a massive conspiracy get pulled off without one leak when the administration can't even competently fire 9 US attorneys?)

Anyone who has ever done root cause analysis of a catastrophic failure knows there are always questions no one can answer when all is said and done.  And people who say things like "always happen" or "can never happen" typically don't have any real-world engineering experience.

Update2: One other thought on WTC7, since most of the sites I have visited over the last several days really seem to focus on WTC7.  I consider our government capable of all kinds of hijinx, but why WTC7?  I would argue that about 0.00001% of the outrage that resulted from 9/11 is attributable to WTC7.  How many people not associated with the truthers have even heard of WTC7?  In fact, one could argue that the strike on the Pentagon was effectively irrelevant, since no one really even seems to remember that one.

One minor note:  I saw on a conspiracy site the claim that all military planes were ordered to stand down on 9/11.  I know from personal experience that can't possibly be true.  I was in Manhattan during 9/11 and remember well people in the streets hitting the ground in fear every time a military jet rocketed over the city.

I don't buy all this conspiracy theory not because I think well of the government, but just the opposite.  I consider the conspiracies posited at these various sites to be orders of magnitude beyond this government's capabilities.  Remember Coyote's Law:

When the same set of facts can be explained equally well by

  1. A massive conspiracy coordinated without a single leak between hundreds or even thousands of people    -OR -
  2. Sustained stupidity, confusion and/or incompetence

Assume stupidity.

Update3:  I guess I need to throw out a few more things.  This was not meant to be a comprehensive or definitive rebuttal of the 9/11 conspiracy theories.  I merely used as a starting point one stupid comment by Rosie O'Donnell on melting, a comment I have heard a lot of times, and that I knew I could refute of my own knowledge.  Those who want to get mad at me because I did not refute this or that, sorry, go deal with the book by the Popular Mechanics guys.  The only other thing I can contribute other than engineering sanity is the fact I have participated in many engineering failure analyses and the fact that I watched the towers fall live, with my own eyes, from the streets of Manhattan.

Every single engineering failure analysis I have ever participated in, from refinery explosions to airplane crashes, has always left unanswered questions and nagging inconsistencies that had, I am sure, nothing to do with conspiracies. We had many things we could never explain about a heat exchanger fire at our refinery in 1985, but I don't think that those unknowns and uncertainties leave the door open to blame government agents for the fire. 

I'll say again, if you want to argue that the WTC buildings were demoed by explosives, you have to explain how the explosives were laid, and, more important, how the explosives and their delicate wiring and detonators survived a plane crashing into the same floors.  And by the way, given that the buildings had not external markings showing the floors, how did the people flying the airplanes hit the exact correct parts of the building?  For every problem with the core hypothesis I could name 10 problems with the truther alternative.  I have no problem with offering an alternative hypothesis to the original thesis, but it is silly to criticize the core thesis for small problems only to replace it with a hypothesis that has problems that are orders of magnitude larger.


  1. Brandon Berg:

    So it actually gets stronger up to 400 degrees? Is that because it gets less brittle and gains some elasticity?

  2. Pixie:

    Rosie never said that the government was behind anything. Go back and read/listen to her comments, rather than just repeating when you heard on television.

  3. Jim Collins:

    Let me ask a question. Where did the theory that the US Government destroyed the WTC come from? It didn't start gaining momentum until just before the 2004 elections. This has to make me ask, "Who gains by all of this?". Charlie Sheen is supposed to be narrating a so-called documentary on how the Government caused the events of 9-11. You already know Rosie's views on this. Anybody see the common denominator here?

  4. Yeah Right:

    First of all your scientific "evidence" and statements are wrong and are lies. Secondly you don't even say who you are. Anyone can write out lies and then not have the courage to stand behind them. I also have taken advanced physics and I know you are lying on this page. Of course I won't tell you who I am either- just to show you that anyone can make any statement they want. It means NOTHING if you don't stand behind it and back it up. If you're real stand by what you say. What are you hiding from anyway? You have the support of the government.

  5. Jay Jardine:

    The peak is the known as the Yield Strength, where the material goes from elastic to plastic (i.e. won't return to its original shape after the load is removed).

    Anyone with an engineering background will be able to pick at least a handful of goofs out of Loose Change The road lighting "popped out of the ground" at the Pentagon was the other item that an expert would catch, but a layperson might find fishy.

    I've often thought that Loose Change would've made a pretty interesting and compelling drama if they had sold the rights to a big movie house and did a Hollywood job on it. Market it like the Da Vinci Code or something like that.

  6. Jim Collins:

    I can pick out more than a handfull of inaccuracies in Loose Change. I have pounded my head into the wall on more than one website trying to point them out. Originally I did it for something to do, but I have noticed a trend. Lately these off the wall theories seem to be getting more and more previliant. From what I've heard Loose Change is going to be brought to the big screen. I've also heard that Mark Cuban is providing the financing for it. Just look at how Hollywood has embraced Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and Michael Moore's collective works. Hey it's got to be true they made a movie about it.

  7. rox_publius:

    you give these people too much credit by even bothering to respond

  8. Mesa EconoGuy:

    My sister, a CivE, reminds me that both main towers were stressed to withstand the impact of a Boeing 707, the largest commercial jet at the time of construction.

    I wonder what would happen to Rosie O’Donnell if a Boeing 757 broadsided her considerable frame?

  9. Bill Giltner:

    This isn't about Rosie, or Libs, or Dems, or Bush haters.

    Those of you, including the author of this blog, who haven't studied 9/11 need to shut up until you do your home work.

    The facts aren't at all like you are thinking.

  10. MGW:

    At first I thought some of these comments were jokes. However, it seems that your blog got linked to by a "truther" blog. I guess that explains these comments that seem to be akin to "shut up, I stayed at a holiday inn express last night, so I know all about engineering." So much for welcoming a true and open debate about what happened.

    I think that rather than just try to poke holes (like Loose Change does), people who doubt the real version need to actually come up with a solid theory of what happened and then stand it up to the same scrutiny they've subjected the official story to. Since their opinion seems to be that if a theory can't be 100% perfect then it must be a giant conspiracy, I suspect their theory would fall pretty quickly.

  11. Brandon Berg:

    According to Wikipedia, yield strength is the amount of mechanical stress a material can withstand before permanently deforming, not the temperature at which it becomes plastic.

    Anyway, I understand why steel weakens from 400 degrees up. What I don't understand is why it gets stronger as it heats from 70 degrees to 400.

  12. Craig:

    I saw a debate between the Popular Mechanics editors and the Loose Change freaks. The Loose Changers entire argument was, "you're lying, and you're part of the conspiracy." They withered under the spotlight of facts and reason.

  13. Montag:

    Ummm, your post uses the devices of politics (misdirection) and broad application of simple physical properties, which is really physics, under the guise of engineering to push a personal agenda and make unwarranted personal attacks with vulgar language, adding to the devisevness which plagues our nation.

    The failure in application of science is demonstrated above where you focus on one factor to prove many points.

    I politely point out that your ideas (which are spot on and correct) and application of such, do not address the steel that was not under duress of fire and does not explain the failure of the core vertically. Your assessment of the strength of steel only relates to deformation through heat. It does not take into account the shear and bending that did occur where no heat was applied. Of course this is due to the loads imposed and the reaction to deformation at the area of the fire. Without discussing this with a floor plan and the quantities and location of deformed steel and undeformed steel and the location of the fire, you do no justice to the argument, but rather frame well known facts to dismiss other ideas. Nice graph, impressive.

    Also, not metioning the elastic wave model as put forth as the official explanantion for the vaporized steel that allowed for acceleration of the falling mass, you demonstrate a focus on your expertise while excluding other factors.

    Another ignored fact is the reversal of the overturning moment in the falling top portion of one of the towers. Fire does not stop motion.

    Would you care to discuss the moment frame analysis of WTC7 and the "bridge above the fire"?
    OH, right , Popular Mechanics... I don't see any professional societies running that report up their mast head. That magazine is for dentists offices.

    I hate Rosie just as much as you, but if your gonna claim science proves the bitch wrong, do it right. If you wanted a licensed architects opinion, you got it. It is not just about the fire.

  14. Montag:

    It is funny you posted this graph.

    OK you have our tall towers. You apply the fire, essentially a torch, to one side or a portion of all the columns composing the core until the steel melts beyond its yeild point. With columns that may have been bisected by the plane, floors and the outer skin structure fail because of the imposing mass of floors above upon the deformed steel. So the mass of the building above the fire is now falling down upon the multiple continuous solid steel columns of the core. This has nothing to do with the floors and outer skin. They serve pancakes at IHOP. It is safe to assume they would shear off the core and fall/peel away as observed. The point being, the core was a continuos structure.

    Now using your graph above, the mass being applied downward is impacting each new molecule and bond of the steel as it falls and progressing through this deformation period in the graph until it fails. Remember, we are now talking about the steel structure below and unaffected by the heat of any fire. It is not so simple to say the steel is heating up, but also reacting by shear and elastic properties. The summation of all these properties is the yield point of shear, bending, and moment.

    So as the mass impacts this continuous structure of steel it is assumed by the "elastic wave model" that the mass/energy was so great that the steel did not display the properties in your graph. This assumes that the steel failed immediately without any gain or absorption of energy to reach it's yeild point. This is the official explanation of the observed acceleration of the falling mass. Continuously, molecule by molecule, the shear of the bond is assumed to happen instaneously or "vaporize".

    I have yet to see an equation that proves mass or energy applied can, so to speak, "skip" this phase of absorption and deformation and allow for acceleration by simply applying gravitational force. If anything, there should have been 70 stories of the core remaining in at least one of the towers with observable failure by shear of joints and bending of members.

    As to the reversal of overtuning moment in one of the top of the towers, you would assume if the force began to move away from the vertical axis of the core that some of the imposing energy/mass was being relieved and that the core should have remained even if the floors and outer skin structure failed. Elements of the structure below the area above the fire failed even after this imposing portion of energy had been relieved.

    In summation, posting this graph and talking about the melting point of steel prove nothing about the causes for collapse since it is not even applied in the elastic wave model nor does it explain the failure of the core or acceleration of falling mass.

    So if I have confused or lost any of you. Kindergarten Science... when a asteriod hits a planet, it slows down. Get it? This was not observed in 3 collapses in one day. That is the issue, not your graph.

    Please use other devices besides science to continue the polarization of our country into two sides of a false line drawn in the sand. Both you and Rosie.

  15. Ryan Cupples:

    Good, god, christ. These comments read like when Scientologists attack a blog.

    Hay guys, "BIG WORDS".

  16. Montag:

    Hey - I offer an explanation of the, "official theory", whereas the author uses the same psuedo science he attacks Rosie with to prove nothing. There is no doubt Rosie is a blabbering idiot who only confuses the issue.

    I was hoping for more, but using your own "big word" you immediately frame or demonize by grouping real science with a faux religion. That is a french word. You can jump all over that and opine tangentially to redicule, but I will direct you to the Manual of Steel Construction, latest edition, and the periodic table to better understand what I have said.

    I beg the author to explain the phrase, "hastened the collapse" and all that it implies in any different terms or words available to either agree or disagree with the official theory.

  17. Anon:


    Who exactly in the "Reality-Based Community" believes Rosie's crap? Anyone of the top 10 liberal bloggers? Any Democratic congressman or senators, or any senior members of their staff? Any editorial boards of the MSM?

  18. gumshoe:

    "perception is reality" is all you need to know about the
    "Reality-Based Community" .

    no fact checking required.

  19. Montag:

    I gave you a day to respond but, nothing. I then have to accuse you of using the same exact high school science to play pundit and go incite your own mob, exactly the same as Rosie. My fellow practioners in the NYC metropolitan area are sick of the issues being diluded by the likes of Rosie. You grab factoids from common science knowledge and use it as a tool of ridicule no better than Rosie or Sean Hannity.

    No serious architct or engineer is denying what you claim. Certainly fire caused a reaction. But what happened after that below the areas of fire? You make anecdotal references to blast furnaces, but provide no commentary on the building structure partially or as a whole. You make no use of relative facts (except this one about fire)and then imply a catastophic root cause analysis would alway leave gaping holes, convenient. That does not cut it in the real world, where you have to answer to actuary statistics and liability claims.

    Serious minds are addressing this issue. Ones that are not playing the politics game or peddling a cause in a blog or on TV using partial facts. The pancake theory has quietly died. You don't see PBS and the History channel repeating that ad nauseum. That theory only partially described events and completely left out mention of the core. This is now replaced by a theory of a plastic wave front that traveled ahead of the actual impact zone. That is the official theory as of today.

    You provide just enough information for someone who graduated high school to say, "that sounds right to me". Before you try to refute an asshole like Rosie by recollections of textbooks, check your facts and do your research.

    As simple as I can put the question to anyone reading. How can a body at rest begin to fall through the force of gravity into a simliar body of mass and density and after impact, acceleration occur?

    Sadly, as the few comments indicate, until the atmosphere of you vs. them dies down, a serious discussion can not occur.

  20. Montag:

    Sorry stike "plastic", replace with "elastic".

  21. Joseph Hertzlinger:

    For some mysterious reason, a technorati search for "rosie o'donnell" 911 "scientific consensus" located no blog posts.

  22. Timmy:

    Let us remember that about 18% of the U.S. population believes that Bigfoot is real.

  23. peri:

    great post, it is truly amazing how many people i run into that have the same mindset as Rosie and believe crazy things.........the blind leading the blind.

  24. skeptic:

    I commend you on your scientific approach. As a scientist you know that those who make assumptions have the burden of proof and part of that relies on peer evaluation. Skeptics (you call truthers) do not have to make alternate theories.

    NIST does not have peer review and we can conclude nothing. They will not even share their computer simulations.

    And what's with getting rid of all the steel? What happened to the pancake theory?