Thursday, May 25, 2006

Trap Day!

Wait, didn't I already have a post called "Trap Day"?

Well, yes, and we saw the trap pretty much every day after that for a while, but this is an even better trap day than that.

That trap used a set of magnetic coils which had been handed down to us from grad student generation to grad student generation. Unfortunately, those coils were too large for our purposes. To make any progress, we were going to have to replace them. Last September, we did that... And the trap stopped working, for reasons we never exactly figured out. I thought it was never going to work again, until that day in January, when it finally did... With the old, too large coils.

Last week, right before we left for Hawaii, we opened the vacuum system and put in a different set of smaller coils. (Then we sealed it up and gave it the week it needs to bake out and pump down.) I was morally sure they would never work, and ready to quit if they didn't. It would have meant eight months worth of work down the drain, and no way forward.

But we got a trap! We got a trap! We got a trap! And on the first try. That never happens. Ken, at least, has been through this process many times, with a couple of different post-docs, and it just isn't supposed to work that fast. And this despite the fact that the chirp laser was seriously messed up this morning (Ken is now killer at fixing diode lasers) and the argon laser is dying (Pati made it work, eventually) and the Ti:Sapph laser control box kept messing with the lock (Ken and Pati together) and we ran out of liquid nitrogen (it takes an hour to fill) and the vacuum is still fluctuating and the trap cameras all got moved, and the new coils blocked their angles of view... In spite of almost everything going wrong that could go wrong, we got got a trap on our first try.

And now we have coils that will work, in there, and a mock-up of our cavity, and our impossible project is still on, and Ken can say in his thesis proposal (coming soon) that a major hurdle has already been overcome.

But I don't want to press our luck. Maybe we should quit while we're ahead, take a break to savor the success... Maybe we need to go back to Hawaii, now.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Hawaii: A Pretty Nice Place

So, my dad has been saving up frequent flier miles for years to take my mom to Hawaii. But my mom wanted to take the whole family. (Thank you, Mom!) The complicated nature of a project like that, and the sheer number of frequent flier miles required, and the way that busy people have of putting off vacations, meant it felt like it was never going to happen.

Until some friends -- they were our next door neighbors twenty years ago in San Antonio, and moved to Colorado shortly after we did, for the first time -- invited us along on their Hawaii trip, to see their daughter's graduation. (These same friends had come along on my parents' trip to see my graduation, in the Seattle area. So there was a kind of symmetry.)

What this meant for Ken and me was that we got a call out of the blue one day: "If we went to Hawaii in May, would you be interested in coming?"

There is only one possible answer to that question. (Well, there are two, but "Duh!" isn't very polite...) That's the kind of prize you usually only win on a game show. On Fear Factor, you'd have to eat a couple of pounds of live insects just for a chance at a prize like that.

Since we had nothing to do in regards to planning this trip, it sort of got pushed out of our minds, as work got more and more stressful and Ken's candidacy came over the horizon. But all of the sudden it was time to go. Frequent flier miles had been spent on tickets in our name. A beach house was reserved with room for six (if two slept on a futon in the living room.) All we had to do was pack our bags the night before, and catch a cab to the aiport. (We caught the cab at 3:00AM, from the lab, where we had stopped to check on the baking vacuum system).

It was a surreal experience (especially with the ten hour flight and the five hour time zone change.) But when we got to the beach house, it was literally on the beach. You could watch surfers from the deck.

And we did. For a week, we watched surfers (including my brother and sister, and also the friends who invited us) and grilled out, and played in the waves. Gorgeous white sand.

And then we did all the activities the guide book told us too, too many to describe. But the highlights were a swim with dolphins who really did seem uncannily human, and, the final night, a luau and show at the Polynesian Cultural Center, complete with Fire Knife Dancers.

I filled up my camera's flash card for the first time ever. And half a dozen rolls of film. So even though it went fast, I'm definitely going to remember it.

Saturday, May 06, 2006


So, two Fridays ago, we were in the lab doing the kind of horrible stuff I described in the "Happy Monday" post. I was trying to shine light onto one end of an especially skinny fiber optic fiber and get it to come out the other end, and not having much success, when I noticed a funny smell. Usually in our lab, when you smell something funny, it means something is burning, probably the insulation on some high current wires... I asked Ken and our post doc if they smelled it. Our post-doc said "that's gas." And we were all confused, because what in our lab uses gas?

Still, we assumed the problem was coming from our lab, and went to tell our advisor. He could smell it in his office, too. And the hallway. Could it be coming from our other lab? Should we see if it smelled so strong in other hallways? He called facilities management to report it. They had no advice for us. As we stood around trying to decide what to investigate, we all began to feel a bit woozy, and went outside.

Other people were pouring out. From all of the hallways. We decided it probably wasn't us. There was some construction on the north side of the building, maybe they hit a pipe. Beautiful, sunny day. We stood around talking with a friend for a while, and then decided to go for lunch. The Fire Department had been called. We could see emergency lighting. We figured the building would be closed for a while.

But when we got to the student union building, on the other side of campus, the power was out. So then we started worrying -- if there's a power outage and our pumps go off, and then later the power goes on but the pressure is high, that can kill the pumps. About $10,000, right there. And if the power wasn't out... Should we tell people the lasers were on? We hadn't wanted to turn them off in case that caused sparks..

So, anyway, we went to our post-doc's place, spent some time on the phone with some very confused people who contradicted each other but finally said the power was on in our building (which seemed very strange, as that's where the gas leak was) and that our equipment was fine, decided we'd done all we could. We enjoyed a delicious lunch, and then a walk by the lake. We eventually went back to check on everything, after the all-clear, but it was basically a really nice day off, outside, out of our darkened lab with its tedious little knobs... We decided there should be a gas leak every Friday.

But what we didn't know, was that the fates were conspiring to give us our nice day off...

From: Eugene S. Sunshine, Vice President for Business and Finance, and C. Bradley Moore, Vice President for Research

On Friday April 21, 2006 at approximately 11:02 AM University Police (UP) began to receive numerous phone calls of a strong odor of natural gas in campus buildings. The Fire Department was immediately notified and responded along with UP officers and Facilities Management personnel.

As building evacuations were proceeding, a member of the Office for Research Safety responded to the incident command post and reported a small spill of the reagent Thiol in the Center for Nanofabrication and Molecular Self-Assembly. This chemical is not harmful but emits a strong odor similar to the smell of natural gas. This chemical spill was later identified as the cause of the natural gas smell in multiple buildings.

At approximately 11:30 AM a power outage occurred affecting a portion of the campus. The outage was caused by tree removal work that damaged a power transformer. The outage affected approximately 16 campus buildings including some of those reporting the smell of natural gas.

At 12:34 PM, after the affected buildings were reopened, a fire was reported in a laboratory hood in the Center for Catalysis and Surface Science. The Fire Department responded and learned that a subject in the lab had utilized a fire extinguisher to extinguish the fire. The subject then left the room and activated the fire alarm system in the building. The Fire Department inspected the affected hood and determined that damage was confined to the inside of the hood. The fire alarm was reset and the building was declared safe.

No injuries were reported in these incidents. No significant damage to facilities occurred. A post-event action report to analyze the response of participating agencies and departments is being developed to identify strengths and areas for improvement.

I have only two further comments to make on these amazing revelations: First, Eugene S. Sunshine? And second, a "subject" in the lab? Because grad students are subjects of his royal highness, their advisor, I guess...

But for a single day, all us subjects threw off the chains of our oppressors, and enjoyed the sunshine.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Happy Monday

Today, I spent trying to turn eight teeny tiny screws by hundredths of a degree at a time (without going too far) in order to line up teeny-tiny reflections, which disappear when you try to see where they are. Oh, and they can only be seen at all through a special viewer. In the dark. And that's not counting a couple of dozen other screws that had to be adjusted before I could even start... And this is also what I did Friday. And Thursday. Except those days, I didn't give myself a 400V shock on the piezo. (I'm fine.) I don't know why this is so hard for me. It shouldn't be. It wasn't, before. Somebody shoot me.

Fortunately, the weekend was spent doing other things. Watched the Cubs get embarrassed twice by the Brewers (just after I posted that last thing about them, with the stuff about Derek Lee being everybody's hero, he broke his wrist on an unlikely collision at first base, and was sidelined for the first half of the season. Because he's a Cub.) Listened to sports radio all day as they covered the Bears draft. I don't even like football that much, but I can tell you all about Danieal ("Dan-yell") Manning's career at Division II Abilene Christian. And we went over to a friend's place (actually, our post-doc's) to watch the Bulls win a playoff game.

Yes, I have watched a lot more sports since I got married, but just in case you think the influence is all one way -- Ken did go to a local farmer's market with me on Saturday.

So, busy weekend, mind-numbing, spirit-destroying workdays = little blog material.

But here's a link I want to put out there as a follow-up to my last post:

More worker riots in Dubai. Most of the deported rioters were construction workers from India. The blurb is short, and mostly interesting because of its context. The blog luxist mostly covers crazy and crazy-expensive products like "beer spas," pet jewelry, and celebrity real-estate. This story belongs because the building they were working on targets "the sophisticated, young and upwardly mobile professional of the middle to high income class" and "offers a very select number of sought after villas and one extravagant penthouse apartment that takes up the complete top floor of the building and is complemented by a private outdoor swimming pool and rooftop entertainment area." It's just a not-quite-ironic contrast.

A commenter links a Washington Post story about the life of workers in Dubai in general -- about what was described in the Tribune's article, but here the "villains" aren't American corporations but only American-style corporations.

But I'm not up for the full length post this deserves, with asides on immigrant rights rallies, and outsourcing.

Maybe later.