Friday, May 25, 2012

Sometimes I Worry; Mostly I Don't

I work in a pretty scary lab.  When I give my friends the tour, I always give them two perspectives about it: (1) how we do cool science and (2) how the lab should serve as the set for a horror movie.

Even then, the lab and its vibrant personality doesn't bother me much.  After spending more time with this lab than probably anything or anyone else in the past six years, it's hard for its noises, building-shaking compressors, and quirks to ruffle my feathers.

Today, the other research group started up the compressor and I complained to my office mate.  "What?  They're running the tunnel today?  On a Friday afternoon before Memorial Day weekend?"  The fact that they were turning on an experiment that burns oxygen and hydrogen at supersonic speeds didn't even really cross my mind.

However, about an hour ago, something felt different.  I pulled myself out of the email I was writing and stopped to listen and feel.  The office was shaking while a loud rumbling and high pitched squeal echoed from outside.  In a second, I was on my feet and out the door and down the stairs.

I spent the next few minutes searching for the lab manager to ask him about the new noises and the shaking.  I wasn't worried, I told myself.  I just wanted to make sure.

Not finding him nearby, I went to investigate.  When I went to the back of the lab, I looked over at those pressurized tanks that I see outside my window every day.  They were rumbling in that weird frequency that drove me outside in the first place.  Meanwhile, the large wheel valve in the middle of the system and its chains shook slightly.  I looked at that valve with its rusty hinges and suddenly realized how little I worried about all the possible problems with my lab.  Without wanting them too, the 'what ifs' started rushing in and I fairly ran past the oxygen tanks with their ominous warnings.

I hurried over to the old nuclear fall-out bunker, its roof just peeking out of the ground, and settled onto the top step that led down to its entrance, nestled well into the hill my lab is situated on.  Then I caught the interesting situation I was in, finding an old bunker that was intended as security during the Cold War but which has only been used as testing for experiments with explosions and projectiles and started to laugh at myself.  I looked down at the bushes near the steps and found myself looking staring down at a groundhog, cautiously watching me from the entrance of his own safety bunker.  On those steps, the noises seemed far away.  The air was calm and I felt cut off from my self-propagated anxiety.

There I stood, on the steps of that bunker, feeling a sort of kinship with that groundhog, while I looked at my lab and marveled.  My lab, for all its quirks, demands respect.  I must never forget that.

When another machine started up, one that was almost deafening, I smiled and started walking back towards the entrance to the building.  This machine was one that I was well acquainted with.  On my way out of the back area, I ran into the lab manager who was releasing pressure from one of the machines, pushing down the grass around it in large swells of energy.  The manager saw me and paused what he was doing so that we could hear each other when we spoke.  I asked him about the machines and the strange new noises.  He smiled at me and thanked me for coming to find him.  "Those noises aren't normal but we are well aware of the situation and are shutting everything down."

Just a typical day in the lab.  It's times like this that I realize I chose anything but a typical career.  :)

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