Credit:  Reeve Jolliffe (Flickr).Credit: Reeve Jolliffe (Flickr).

Making Science with The Lights Off

by • May 2, 2014 • Brent WellsComments (0)2188


By Brent Wells, PhD

Good science has always depended upon the proper equipment and experimental conditions, and as techniques and equipment advance, so do the requirements for accurate temperature control, computer-automated micromanipulation and laser-based imaging equipment. So what do you do when the power grid serving all of those high-tech necessities suddenly ceases to be that thing you take for granted?

You certainly don’t panic. There will be plenty of people taking care of that for you.


Having worked in New York City labs during both the 2003 and 2012 (Hurricane Sandy) blackouts, I’ve become a bit of an expert on science in the dark. Here’s some advice to consider should you find yourself in a similar situation.


First thing’s first, they will evacuate you from the building whether you are finished with your experiment or not. Your best bet, in the instance of sudden power loss, is to scramble to finish whatever you can (assuming it requires no electricity) before they have time to assess the situation and make a decision to evacuate. And for God’s sake, if you’re rearranging shelves in the -80°C freezer, cram them anywhere you can and shut the damn door immediately. If you know you will not be able to finish something critical before being dragged from the building, a well-scouted, temporary hiding spot can have its benefits. Just practice stealth when sneaking out of the building an hour later.


When your pipette is finally pried from your white-knuckled grip, you’re probably looking at a 10 to 17-story walk down to the street. Ease yourself down the stairs. There’s no hurry. You will be seeing plenty of stairs in the immediate future. With any luck, you have a few hours of daylight left; you’re going to want to use them wisely.


Now, this is important; before you’ve parted ways with your lab mates, plan your evening. In a few hours, your cell phone will be nothing more than a sick tease in your pocket and I wouldn’t recommend subjecting yourself to the kind of insanity brought on by a night alone staring into the darkness. I would, however, recommend immediately agreeing on a place to BBQ. Not even Edison can prevent you from lighting a fire underneath anything edible, and besides, you’ll want to clean the perishables out of your refrigerator now. This would also be a good time to grab your beer and booze. Where would be the best place to BBQ, you ask? Well, on a rooftop of course. The stairs will be an added hazard, especially later in the night, but you’ll want to get as close to the moon as possible – for the extra light, the diminished gravity, and the right amount of howling.


Money saving tip: this is the perfect opportunity to try out your bargaining skills before that trip abroad while becoming a BBQ hero at the same time. Rush to your local grocer and convince them that $5/lb for all of their New York Strip now will seem pretty good in a few hours when they are filling trash bags with unsold chicken thighs.


To be certain, all of this is not going to be easy. You’re going to have to make a lot of difficult decisions. For example, when you realize the emergency lights are out in your apartment building stairwell, do you use the flashlight on your cell phone to light the 10 flights or save the battery? Do you reevaluate this decision on the way back down when you are carrying five bags of meat and glass beer bottles? Do you take your new jar of Mayonnaise? You will not see your Mayonnaise again if you do.


When I had to make these decisions in 2003, I had just had pins inserted into the second toe of each of my feet and I was supposed to be on crutches. If you, likewise, have limited mobility in this situation, I urge you to convince someone else to grab supplies from your apartment; you will still have to get to that rooftop, remember?


I can guarantee, with some certainty, two things about that night the power goes out and two things about the day following. On that night you will 1.) Go too hard and too long, realizing there is nothing better to do and that work will be canceled the next day and 2.) You will be lucky to get from rooftop to street level without incident. On the day following, you will 1.) Feel like hell, especially considering the fact that your AC will have deserted you, and 2.) A friend will come knocking on your door to beg for your assistance in moving precious, temperature-sensitive lab strains to a distant building that happens to be served by a generator.


With the subway system crippled, biking will be the only logical means of getting to lab to help your friend. Please, use caution. While your head may be pounding and the morning will seem unusually bright, the intersections will be hazardously dark. You will be quite amazed at how fast morning commuters can degenerate into lawless maniacs when you take away traffic lights, and I wouldn’t recommend testing the new hierarchy of the road on your 30lb Specialized. Ride slow and give way.


The move will be tedious and painful. You will not believe how much this person deems ‘critically necessary’. They will offer to buy you lunch and beer for helping, but it will be an empty gesture considering every restaurant and bar are closed. They will forget to make it up to you later.


What started as fun and games, as something novel, will get old pretty fast. If it were just lab that were out of power, this might be a decent predicament, but the fun of carrying fresh water up countless flights of stairs daily will begin to wear thin. You will realize that you have, in fact, developed quite a taste for television, climate control and high-speed Internet. You will spend the rest of your week, in the very generator-powered building you were cursing your friend for making you visit, microwaving burritos, watching Netflix and playing board games, wondering if this is some sick approximation of what life will eventually bring. Purchase your checkerboards and dominos now. And I hear army ration packs have a decent shelf life.


In the end, you will welcome the power like an old friend when it returns and you might even welcome the idea of getting back to lab. But when the harsh reality of dealing with work that has been suddenly abandoned, as opposed to wisely suspended, is realized, you will look at the Amish with a newfound envy.


And don’t forget, you promised your friend you’d help get those precious strains back where they belong.


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