Lateral Thoughts Physics World  January 2018
(Cameron Laird / REX / Shutterstock)

How physics saved my life

Little did we know as we sat down for breakfast that fateful morning, on 26 December 2004, that the family next to us would not survive the day, nor would scores of others around us within the idyllic little beach resort on the southern point of the island of Phuket in Thailand. The sea was a few metres off, but several hundred miles away a catastrophic event was unfolding.

As we sipped the last of a pretty awful cup of tea, having ignored the distant rumble moments earlier, we noticed some excitement on the beach below. Villagers and tourists appeared to be rushing towards the seafront as whirlpools had developed within the bay. I ran to my hut to get my camera, and moments later, as I approached the small incline that I had to climb before dropping down to the beach on the other side, I noticed those same, curious villagers and tourists running back towards me. I could see a small amount of water run down the hill, while cooler boxes, diving cylinders and other objects were caught up in the water, which was receding quickly from the beach.

The owner of the resort was trying to wake some recent arrivals who were sleeping off their jet lag. I joined in with choice colloquial words, to press home the seriousness of the situation, and we ordered them in their zombie-like state to get up the hill behind the hotel, as another wave was coming. I sent my son and his mother up the hill too, and then went onto the beach. Already I could see that the steps down to the beach had been washed away and what was once an array of beach furniture was washing back and forth with every wave. Bedrock that was not usually visible was now protruding from the sand. This triggered my memories of a tutorial at the University of Liverpool, where I had read physics, during which my professor had shown us old footage of a Japanese town where the same thing had occurred. At the end of the clip, a wall of water engulfed everything in its path.

“It’s going to come back big,” I said to all those around me. As I was filming at the time, I thought I would keep the camera rolling and see how things developed, but I moved inland a few metres to the foot of the hill my family had just ran up. Suddenly, lots of screaming could be heard from the higher ground and I realized with dread that my suspicions were correct. With my all-terrain flip-flops, I ran up the hill as hard as I could, holding my camera above my head to continue filming below. But the water was already encroaching upon me from the hedgerow, and I could hear the roar of the wave behind me. When I looked back, most things had gone. As those of us who had survived gathered on higher ground, yet another wave engulfed the now empty, former site of our resort.

We remained on the island to provide help where we could, pulling vehicles out of the sea, fixing pumps where cellars had been flooded, including within a shopping centre where visitors and staff had been present as the tsunami arrived. Here existed a thin line between death, destruction and normality, where some shops were still open, selling fresh fruit and vegetables, just metres away from rotting material. After a few days, fearing for the health of our little boy as the smell of death and decay lingered in the air, we decided to leave.

Rather than return to the UK, we went across to the other side of Thailand that had not been as badly affected. As we passed through towns and villages on our journey, we witnessed strange and macabre scenes. In one village, we were waiting in a traffic jam, watching people give away free food as members of the press circled around the crowds. Suddenly a farm truck went by, on the back of which were several men wearing masks, holding down a sheet over its load, with arms and legs hanging out from beneath it. We passed what was left of the town square and market place, which was now full of bloated bodies in the state of rigor mortis. It was impossible to tell at a glance their age, gender or ethnic origin. We learnt that some of the bodies had been found in trees, with the poor souls having tried to escape the waters in vain.

A year later and back in the UK, I was invited onto the BBC Breakfast television show with Bill Turnbull, on the next Boxing Day, where they played my video. Along with other guests, we discussed how future disasters could be handled better and what survivors needed most, agreeing that fresh water was the single most important resource. Information on where help and supplies can be found is also key, as well as reassuring survivors that the worst had passed and they could rebuild their lives.

We don’t know what lies ahead in the future, and one day physics could save your life, as it did mine!

Having experienced all this, and realizing how lucky I was to survive it, and how many lives I had saved by banging on the hotel doors, I decided to take up a career as a physics teacher, to pass on the skills that my professor had taught me. When a child asks “Sir, why are we studying this?”, I often reply, “We don’t know what lies ahead in the future, and one day physics could save your life, as it did mine!” I have worked as a representative of the Institute of Physics, giving presentations to undergraduates that are designed to encourage them to consider teaching the subject and that reiterate how rewarding it can be. I always finish my presentations by playing the tsunami footage that I recorded, with the final message: Become a physics teacher and save lives.