NASA Visit 11/28/22

Humorous Recollections with Richard Bleil

He had applied for the job of physics professor.  I wondered why, since it was a painfully small university and he was a NASA physicist, but how could you not invite him to campus for an in-person visit?  He seemed young, so maybe he just wanted practice speaking in public, or maybe he was ready to interact with students.  Either way it was an odd interview. 

We asked our candidates to prepare a sample lecture, and he asked if it could be about his research.  That was fine, so there we were, the entire science and mathematics faculty watching this man pitch his research.  I forget what the research was about, but as part of it, he described shooting the sample with a red laser, and measuring the blue light emissions from it.  Uh, no. 

Red light is lower energy that blue light, so to get blue light out from excitation from a red laser would violate the law of conservation of energy.  You can’t get more energy out of a system than you put into it.  My mother and I got into an argument about this as we drove through South Dakota.  She was complaining that the light was on her side of the car, as if I could do anything about that.  I doubt that even Kristi Noem has the power to reorient the universe despite what she believes she can do.  During her tirade about the direction of our destination, she said that light is stronger when it comes through a window.  Well, you can’t say something like this to a scientist.  As I was beginning to explain why that’s not possible, she cut me short snapping “I saw it on television!”  Well, if it was on television then it must be true.  She probably saw it on Faux “News”. 

So of COURSE I had to ask how he was getting blue light out when he was using a red laser to excite the atoms.  He just kind of smiled and said, “I wondered if anybody was going to pick up on that.”  Damned STRAIGHT I did.  He explained that the red laser was actually one of two lasers they were using.  The first “priming laser” was used to get the atoms into an excited state before shooting it with the second laser, so the two lasers together provided the energy necessary.

Sometimes I feel like Chet from the movie Weird Science, when he says, “I’m not a moron you know,” as he turns to a cabinet to grab a drink.  Seeing his grandparents catatonic in the cabinet, he says, “Hi, granny, hi grampy” as he takes the drink and closes the cabinet doors turning around.  “I…” is how far he gets until it strikes him what he saw. 

In graduate school we had seminars every week.  They were given by guest scientists, which is easy to do in Boston since there are over forty institutions of higher education in the metropolitan area.  Okay, they’re not all science and technology oriented but with Boston College, Boston University, MIT and Harvard all on one single public transportation line, it’s definitely a power city. 

To give you some idea of the time frame of this, and a lot of my younger readers might not understand this, we didn’t have a projector on the ceiling of the room, and no standing computer.  These presentations were often done with slides in a carousel fed from a projector.  The projector was kind of halfway up in the audience to get the proper screen ratio, and the clicker to advance it was attached by a cable (no, not wireless) to the front of the lecture hall for the speaker to control.  Unfortunately, in this hall, it was so far away that we needed an extension cord to reach. 

As I was watching a rather well-known speaker as I was in graduate school, I was sitting just a few chairs away from the projector when I noticed that the cable from the clicker came unattached from the extension cord.  Without saying a word, I quietly stood up and moved over to be next to the projector itself and watched his thumb.  

Every time he pushed the button, I just advanced the slide.  Was it perfect?  No, sometimes he was turned or holding the clicker in such a way that I couldn’t see his thumb move, but when he looked at the clicker, I advanced the slide.  At one point, he even remarked that the clicker wasn’t working well because it didn’t always respond quickly.  Gee whiz, thanks a LOT, buddy.  But our dean appreciated my efforts.  Eventually somebody got up and plugged the clicker back in allowing me to actually focus on his presentation, and when it was over the dean was escorting the speaker out to the next item on his agenda when he thanked me from preventing the department some embarrassment.  The speaker never knew.  What can I say?  I’ve always been a problem solver.

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