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.


Jens Ayton said...

I was going to comment on the “subject” thing, but then, what can you expect from a Vice President for Business and Finance, even if he isn’t called Eugene Sunshine?

Mary said...

And why is the Vice President for Business and Finance writing our safety reports?

If that e-mail appeared in a mystery novel or something, I'd roll my eyes at implausibility of it.