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Power Lost, Power Gained

My alarm clock was blinking an erroneous time, but I ignored it; I had just taken a much-appreciated nap, and I needed to get back to a yeast cell biology conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. I was staying 10 miles away at a Vincentian seminary that housed students like me. My fan was running, and my cellular phone recharger was pulsing red. I had no idea that the power was coming from a backup generator. I was probably one of a few people of about 50 million, from Canada to New Jers

By | September 8, 2003

My alarm clock was blinking an erroneous time, but I ignored it; I had just taken a much-appreciated nap, and I needed to get back to a yeast cell biology conference at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory. I was staying 10 miles away at a Vincentian seminary that housed students like me. My fan was running, and my cellular phone recharger was pulsing red. I had no idea that the power was coming from a backup generator.

I was probably one of a few people of about 50 million, from Canada to New Jersey, Michigan to Massachusetts, who were, at the moment, unaffected by the biggest blackout in North American history. But soon I would be, and I wouldn't have missed it for anything.

Driving through town as the sun was setting, I noticed that no stores were open, no traffic lights were operating, and little traffic was on the road. This was Long Island on a hot night in August? Something was wrong. I turned on the radio and heard nothing but fuzz; none of the FM channels were working. I found one of the few operating AM channels and heard someone say, "... the biggest blackout in US history." Oops. I opted not to get nervous, but to see where the adventure would take me.

Meanwhile, soon after 4:11 p.m. when the lights died, meeting organizers Mark Winey and Chris Kaiser met with David Stewart, in charge of meetings and courses, and Bruce Stillman, director and CEO of Cold Spring Harbor Labs (CSHL), to decide how to keep the meeting running. Stewart, with the help of his sons and the audio-visual crew, quickly assembled an outdoor poster session to replace the evening talk session. Bill Parrish, a postdoc at the University of California, San Diego, told me that most people didn't realize the magnitude of the outage and were surprised to hear about the schedule changes. Both Winey and Linda Huang, an assistant professor at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, said that many people had assumed the flickering lights to be a signal that the afternoon poster session was over.

Although I had slept through dinner, other attendees had eaten hot dogs and hamburgers, cooked on gas barbecues. I wandered into the campus bar, where bartender Tom McIlvaine found a bag of chips to keep me happy. According to Winey, nothing from the schedule had to be cut. Indeed, we were well fed and didn't miss a session.

I had arrived at Cold Spring Harbor to find the candlelit poster session in full swing. Within the hour, we were plunged into darkness and retreated to McIlvaine's venue, exchanging the rumors we heard about why we were sitting in the dark.

Lucky for us, beer taps depend on carbon dioxide for power, not electricity--that is, of course, as long as you took cash out of the ATM before the outage. We could see a few lights shining in some nearby laboratories, which must have had their own generators.

The blackout had forced a romantic atmosphere on CSHL, as all the bathrooms and stairwells were illuminated by hundreds of candles. We all marveled over how many more stars we could see in the sky. The camaraderie that was developing was palpable.

While driving back to my room, I thought that this would be the first and possibly only night when returning to the seminary was the best option for a good night's sleep. That night I slept with my fan on, charged my cellular phone, reset my alarm clock, and took a hot shower, knowing that this could be the only time the other meeting attendants would be jealous of my accommodations.

The next morning, fueled by packets of instant coffee, we made it through an entire session of signal transduction presentations. The CSHL staff, using a small generator, had pumped enough gas from a nearby station to fuel larger emergency generators for running the fans, projectors, and computers in the main auditorium.

Rumors about some scientists' adventures coming from Manhattan flew among us. The most entertaining of the bunch was from meeting organizer Brenda Andrews and University of Toronto professor Charlie Boone. Stuck somewhere in Queens on the Long Island Railroad, they bought bicycles at a local shop and pedaled their way back to the meeting.

To everyone's relief, power was restored towards the end of lunch, just in time to cool down the auditorium before the afternoon's presentations. That night, I stayed in the seminary again, but this time, I wasn't as pleased to sleep there. I sorely wanted to be 10 miles away, where we had fostered our bond. And I wasn't willing to give it up. Not yet.

Karen Schindler is a PhD student at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia.


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