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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

MIT campus lost power! by Anna H. '14

Updates from a blacked-out physics colloquium.

39 minutes ago, I turned in a pset 2 minutes late (fortunately they hadn’t been collected yet) and dashed to 10-250 (one of our big lecture halls) for the weekly Physics department colloquium. The speaker is a guy named Joel Moore from Berkeley, and his talk is on “Topological Insulators and Their Implications for Electronic Order.” Don’t know what those are? I don’t really know either, and it’s ben 35 minutes. That said, he just put up some tensor notation that I’ve been learning recently in 8.05 (Quantum II) so that’s kind of exciting.

17 minutes ago, Professor Moore was mid-sentence when the lights flickered and went off. The hundred+ physicists in the room went “oooooooh!” My laptop screen glowed at me and I shut it, since it seemed out of place. The lights flickered back on, and I happened to find myself looking at –

OH, WAIT! He just brought up Majorana fermions. That’s exciting, since the colloquium a couple of weeks ago was about them. This is what makes attending these colloquia rewarding; you start attending, and understand literally 0.01% of the words used, and gradually pick up on vocabulary as you make your way through physics classes and become exposed to new mathematical techniques and ideas from other talks. It’s a nice way to learn about miscellaneous topics that you wouldn’t necessarily have time to take an entire class on.

And, SWEET! Now he’s talking about two-level systems. I spent pretty much all of Thanksgiving break studying those. They’re one of my favorite topics in quantum; we just learned about constructing a maser (a laser, but with microwave-frequency light – in case you weren’t aware, LASER is an acronym for Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation) by, for example, passing a beam of ammonia molecules through a cavity. They deposit energy into their cavity on their way through, corresponding to a specific transition. It’s very cool.

Anyway, I was telling a story.

-The lights flickered back on, and I happened to find myself looking down the lecture hall at Wolfgang Ketterle, who works in the Center for Ultracold Atoms and won the Nobel Prize in 2001. Three rows in front of him is sitting Frank Wilczek, legs propped up on the seat in front of him, who won the Nobel Prize in 2004.

The speaker looked a little flustered. The projector was off. A technician came down, fiddled, and determined that there was no power. A couple of people grabbed their coats and headed for the exits. Professor Moore, however, is a HERO; he rolled up the sleeves of his white button-down shirt, picked up a piece of chalk, and turned to the chalkboard. Those of us sitting at the back leaned forward.

He struggled with the first drawing, explaining that he “wasn’t expecting to have to get up and teach.” This earned him giggles from the physicists. The enormous wall of nine chalkboards dwarfed him – he looked a lot bigger when he was standing at the podium. He used up all the space on the bottom board, reached for the one above it, and found out that these fancy shmancy 10-250 chalkboards operate electronically; he COULDN’T bring it down, because of the blackout.


He took it like a champ, and picked up an eraser. It made me wonder what I would do if there was a blackout during one of my Splash classes.

Another note about the situation – the scariest part was that the MIT wireless network was temporarily gone. Before I could sink into utter despair, however, whatever system MIT has for this purpose kicked in, and my Facebook page opened up. It had been something like two minutes since the blackout, and statuses were popping up like daisies expressing excitement, demonstrating wit (or not), and quoting some odd MIT emergency speaker that apparently said “you may want to evacuate…I’m not sure.”

The Internet has done a lot of very strange things to society. It was kind of fascinating to keep an eye on my newsfeed while watching the presidential debates.

Another status just popped up, a bit more applicable to me in my haven’t-slept-for-31-hours state*: “power out. naptime.”

*Last night. Was. Not. Fun. But my oral exam this morning went well, and that was my last of the semester, so HOORAY! Also…is it really only 5pm?

aaand an e-mail just came in from my dorm’s Area Director, saying “as I’m sure you’ve noticed, the power in the building is out…it’s out for all of Cambridge and some of Boston.”

Not sure how quickly we’re going to get power back (fortunately I have nothing in the fridge at home…an excessively busy week has not permitted any grocery shopping trips.) The talk just ended; a group has gathered at the front of the room to talk with the speaker and each other in more detail. Frank Wilczek is laughing with a theoretical condensed matter physicist who I remember from 8.044 recitation last spring, as well as a guy who I think is somehow involved with a NASA space telescope mission (I recognize him from past colloquia), and a fourth guy I don’t recognize at all. I’m sure I’ll see him around. Another nice thing about these colloquia: faces become familiar. I just heard Frank Wilczek just say “magnetic monopoles, cosmic strings.” I love this place.

And the theoretical condensed matter physicist just said: “but the feeling I get when facing a problem…I get dizzy, you know? Dizzy.” Frank Wilczek responded with something I couldn’t quite make out, and now he’s talking about universality.

According to Anonymous Fourth Guy, “young people are terrified of entering this field.” Interesting. Someone just made a joke about the “third rail” of condensed matter physics: “touch it, and you’re dead.” Then, they all walked out together.

Now I’m the only person left in the lecture hall. Professor Moore’s chalk sketches are still up on the board, and the enormous blank white projector screen is still down. There’s a cavity with a magnetic field marked. An insulator, I think. Some Hermitian operators. A girl walked in, saw I was in here, and left – whoops.

That’s my cue to post this and head out. On the menu tonight: the last two problems of an 8.05 problem set, a science journalism essay, science journalism class, reading and poster-making for my UROP, a J-Lab paper, and beginning to study for the linear algebra exam I have on Monday.

Isn’t it wonderful to have such a selection?

I should probably be a little embarrassed to admit that the moment the lights went off, my first thought was “OH! COOL! A BLACKOUT! I SHOULD WRITE A BLOG POST!” but there you are. Not every day does the chance come along to post a shoutout from a blacked-out MIT campus.