Flashback: Dec. 23, 1996

In a newly published post, Recalling the Joys of Reporting, I make reference to a column I wrote in December 1996 about being trapped in ORNL’s Wigner Auditorium (formerly known as the Central Auditorium). It was kind of fun to look back.

Here’s the column in its entirety:

Sometimes you get trapped. It happens to everybody, and it happened to me a few days ago.

 There I was, slinking down in my chair at Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Wigner Auditorium, hoping an unknown ally in the crowd might yell, ”Fire!”

 If you cover science, as I do on occasion, you have to pick your spots carefully.

 For instance, I monitor ORNL’s weekly Technical Calendar and avoid — at all costs — seminars with titles like, ”Polyoxometalate Anions: Inorganic Ligands and Cryptands,” which was presented recently by Michael Pope of Georgetown University.

 It’s easy to get in over your head, especially if you write for an audience several educational notches below Ph.D. There are some topics I don’t even pretend to understand. Otherwise, my editors might ask me to report on stuff that makes no sense whatsoever. Like politics.

 Anyway, I thought I was safe recently when I told the ORNL staff I would be on hand for the dedication ceremony of the Holifield Radioactive Ion Beam Facility.

 It seemed pretty straightforward.

 The Holifield accelerator nearly got killed a few years ago, but some innovative folks at ORNL convinced the U.S. Department of Energy to reconfigure the facility and equip it with a new, more productive research identity. The experimental beams will enable scientists to do neat things like study particles associated with the forming of stars and other stellar events.

 And the rehab project only cost about $2.6 million. By government standards, that investment would be a bargain no matter the outcome, but in this case it appears taxpayers really got their money’s worth.

 Good deal.

 I figured I’d rush over to the Oak Ridge lab, take down a quote or two, grab a few hands, nod, smile, and be back at the office in time to churn out a story before attending two other news events on that day’s schedule.

 Or so I thought.

 That plan fell apart as soon as I entered the ORNL auditorium and picked up a program. The dedication ceremony had tiers of speakers, stacked like a royal wedding cake, one after another and grouped by category.

 First there was the ”Welcome” (2 speakers), then the ”Introductions” (1), ”Dedicatory Address” (1), ”Remarks” (4), ”Scientific Speakers” (2), ”Acknowledgments (1) and, finally, the ”Closing Remarks” (1).

 The beginning and the end were pretty simple. Even I can understand comments like, ”This is a very happy day for all of us!” or ”This facility will enhance the nation’s scientific infrastructure.”

 However, like chocolate-covered nougat, the tough stuff was in the middle. After the fluff and pleasantries, and concerns about the federal budget’s impact on science research in general, there was real talk about real physics.

 Uh-oh.

 The first time I heard the term ” neutron halo,” I knew I was in trouble. By the third or fourth time, my eyes glazed.

 Next came a discussion of HF potential and harmonic oscillators. Some terms seemed to have geographic implications, like the valley of stability and the neutron drip line . As one speaker addressed quark effects and interstellar nucleosynthesis, my brain began to lose its audio feed.

 I apparently wasn’t alone.

 University of Tennessee President Joe Johnson, who told a football story when it was his turn to speak, looked like he’d achieved cocoon status on the front row.

 To Johnson’s credit, he showed up. His counterparts at Vanderbilt and Oak Ridge Associated Universities sent their regrets. (The hosts, however, didn’t use those opportunities to shorten the program. In each case, remarks were read for the absentee speakers.)

 I surreptitiously surveyed the auditorium, and the only one I found taking notes was Lee Riedinger, UT’s physics chairman. I’m not sure what that was all about, but I did spot another distinguished gentleman rustling papers that turned out to be his flight schedule.

 As one of the speakers displayed a drawing of something nuclear that looked like a pepperoni pizza — accompanied by all sorts of isotopic numbers and scientific symbols that can’t be reproduced here — I wondered how the interpreter for the hearing impaired was passing along that information. I watched her for a few minutes and decided she was faking it, giving what appeared to be continuous sign language for ”Etc., etc., etc.”

 Finally, two hours after it all began, lab physics chieftain Fred Bertrand marched to the microphone and officially proclaimed the entire affair ”stimulating.”

 As for me, I simply shrugged my shoulders, confessed my shortcomings, and recited this bit of scientific scripture:

 ”Blessed be the physicists, for they amuse themselves.”

Merry Christmas.

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About Frank Munger

Senior Writer Frank Munger covers the Dept. of Energy’s Oak Ridge facilities and many related topics — nuclear weapons, nuclear waste and other things nuclear, environmental cleanup and science of all sorts. Atomic City Underground is, first and foremost, a news blog, but there’s room for analysis, opinion and random thoughts that have no place else to go.