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The special way hundreds of storm chasers honored ‘Twister’ star Bill Paxton

Bill Paxton (Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP)

On Sunday, on a weather map used by storm chasers and spotters to track tornadoes through the American Midwest, giant initials appeared. Dot by dot, spilling from Kansas south to Texas, the markers formed the letters B and P. It was a unique tribute to the actor Bill Paxton, a star of the most popular tornado film of all time, “Twister.”

Paxton died Saturday at the age of 61. The cause of death was complications from surgery, according to a statement from his family released Sunday. He was known for such roles as a treasure hunter in “Titanic” and a suburban polygamist in HBO’s “Big Love.” Before his breakout role in the 1995 film “Apollo 13,” Paxton played several supporting characters in popular genre flicks. Along with Lance Henriksen, Paxton held the distinction of being one of two actors defeated on-screen by an alien (killed by a pack of xenomorphs in “Aliens”), a predator (killed by one of the intergalactic hunters in “Predator 2”) and “The Terminator,” when the T-800 series cyborg threw Paxton, playing a switchblade punk, into a fence.

Six years after completing this hat trick of sci-fi deaths, Paxton scored his first major leading role. In 1996’s “Twister,” he played Bill “The Extreme” Harding, a meteorologist who sought violent storms and matrimonial harmony. The film proved to be a $494.4 million hit. So, too, were its tornadoes, which stood out even among the mid-1990s popcorn lineup of bioengineered dinosaurs and apocalyptic asteroids.

“Twister” was, as meteorologist Kathryn Prociv wrote for the Washington Post in 2013, the “one mainstream, pop culture event responsible for making storm chasing sexy.”

Some 200 storm chasers honored the actor who helped give supercells and Oklahoma fields that Hollywood patina. They wrote the B and P in majuscule on a tornado map with marks made by checking in with GPS coordinates. (Several points were logged remotely by computer, though a few storm spotters drove to the proper coordinates to mark a dot.) The tribute centered around Wakita, Okla., a Tornado Alley town destroyed by a fictional F4 tornado in “Twister.”

Actor Bill Paxton, known for his roles in movies like “Aliens,” “Apollo 13” and “Titanic,” died at the age of 61 from complications due to surgery. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

The nonprofit tornado tracking group Spotter Network coordinated the event. Though such a tribute had before been bestowed on a handful of departed meteorologists, this was the first time that a non-scientist had been so honored.

“There are probably hundreds, if not thousands, of meteorologists today — myself included — who were impacted by the movie ‘Twister’ and the role Bill played in that,” John Wetter, Spotter Network’s president, told the Associated Press.

While making “Twister,” tornado researchers took a few of the actors out into the field to look at a real tornado. Paxton shadowed experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Severe Storms Laboratory. But, as is the norm when Hollywood tangos with science, the science stumbled in translation to the screen. (The film offered “a mere wisp of the true experience of storm chasing,” one critic sniffed.) A few experts took issue with the incorrect cloud formations seen in the film. Of a more mortal concern, they noted, was the fact that storm chasers do not get nearly so close to dangerous weather systems.

To some scientists, though, movies — even the ones that deal with science — should not aspire to the perfectly factual. Film is “not an educational medium, it’s an emotional medium,” Seth Shostak, an astronomer at the SETI Institute and a consultant on films such as “Contact,” told Livescience in 2010. “Kids get turned on by the emotion.”

Despite the inaccuracies, meteorologists cite “Twister” as the sort of movie that stokes an interest in science among young viewers. “Whether meteorologists love or hate the movie, there is no debate that it has been responsible for getting many young people sufficiently interested in weather to pursue a career in meteorology,” Prociv wrote. “That is a great thing!”

John A. Knox, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Georgia, said the film was responsible for what he called “the ‘Twister’ effect.” In 2008, he calculated the rise of undergraduate interest in the field of meteorology. In the decade between 1994 and 2004, Americans receiving bachelor’s degrees in meteorology increased by 47 percent. In the late 1990s, after “Twister,” undergraduate meteorology majors rose by up to 10 percent a year.

“Before the ‘Twister’ effect, meteorology was a pretty sedate and obscure pursuit, a small department or program at only a few dozen universities,” Knox wrote in an op-ed at USA Today in 2013. “But the total market penetration of ‘Twister’ changed everything.”

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