Thursday, December 3, 2009

Into the dark – and back into the light

Speakers are advised to have a “Plan B” so that they can continue in spite of problems with equipment. But, what do you do if there is a power failure, right before you begin your speech? That’s really stressful!

Over thirty years ago I attended an unforgettable Ph.D. thesis defense at Carnegie Mellon University. The conference room was packed with people from both the metallurgy and mechanical engineering departments. The candidate had a Carousel projector loaded with a long, detailed set of slides. He had his notes in hand, and was ready to begin.

About five minutes before he was scheduled to start his presentation we saw the room lights go out, and heard the ventilation fans coast to a stop. A few hundred yards away a mobile crane had tipped over. The falling boom had snapped the main overhead power lines for the campus.

What next? Should he get out a lamp and try to speak in the dark, like the painting of Diogenes looking for an honest man? Fortunately someone suggested that his adviser call the Mellon Institute building a half-mile away. They still had power, and also had a free conference room.

So, the defense was re-scheduled for an hour later. Committee, candidate, and audience walked over Panther Hollow to the new location. By then the candidate had a chance to recover his composure. He successfully defended his thesis, and went on to a distinguished career in industrial research.

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