Don’t Be A Physicist
By Peter Sokol-Hessner
It’s a Thursday morning, and I’m arriving to work on my bike. The humid July day is quickly gaining power. I’m sweating from the ride, but I don’t mind: this will be my only contact with the outdoors today. Locking up my bike, I make my way toward the rough gray concrete of a 1970s-era industrial building. Inside is Northeastern University’s High Energy Experimental Particle Physics Lab, and once I go in, I’ll be in a windowless room so air-conditioned it’s practically refrigerated. I enjoy the green leaves and oppressive heat for a last moment before walking inside.
As I climb to the second floor, I reflect on the situation: I’m a high schooler with only the most basic grasp of physics, in a particle physics lab. The professors in charge – British physicists with a penchant for witty jokes and afternoon beer – are skilled in the use of benign neglect as a pedagogical tool. I’ve been teaching myself about semiconductors and circuits so I can make a light detector sensitive enough to register a single particle of light. Walking into a lab space that could fit eight different students and projects, but holds only me and mine, I brush aside the absurdity of my attempting this project. Who am I to question these professors? I need to keep trying.
I take in my setup, a jumble of wires and circuit boards carefully arrayed on my scuffed wood work bench. The sensor’s circuit is so sensitive that it’s been picking up electricity and light from the other seven computers in the room, making it impossible for me to tell if it works. Two days ago, I tried to eliminate light sources – I turned off the lights, taped over every LED on every computer in the room, and sealed the door shut to make the room impenetrably dark, and me effectively blind. Yesterday, I even eliminated electromagnetic interference by building my own Faraday cage: a big foil box surrounding my entire circuit. The foil catches the residual electrical signals and channels them away, leaving my circuit in pristine, absolute electromagnetic darkness. Today I’m going to see if it works.
I power up my monitoring equipment, kill the lights, and flick the circuit’s power switch. Nothing happens. Remembering that I had removed a burned-out resistor yesterday without replacing it, I grope the table in the dark, my right hand finding the replacement. I reach into my foil box to add it to the circuit.
My circuit is a high-voltage device. And though I know enough to make a Faraday cage, I don’t know enough to electrically isolate and ground it. The entire foil box is an enormous, invisibly seething electrode.
My thumb grazes the foil. Time stops.
Three hundred volts of 5 amp current surge through my finger, up my arm and down my body into the ground.
As I sit in cold darkness where I landed on the floor, I notice that I am still alive, though everything in my body seems to be vibrating. I sit, grateful for the stillness, and wait for my heart to slow, the pain to subside, and my muscles to unclench one by one. Since I was a kid, I was taught that it’s OK to make mistakes, as long as you learn from them. Since I’m not getting up any time soon, I begin to reflect on what I’ve learned from this whopper.
One: this much electricity will instantly burn your skin, fusing it into a painful callus. Two: my rapidly pounding heart is without a doubt on the left side of my body, directly in the path of that surge of electricity. I later learn that many electricians work only with their right hand. If they accidentally get electrocuted, the current goes down their right side and into the ground – as far away from the heart as possible. Three: always, always isolate and ground your Faraday cage. And four: don’t be a physicist.
On the floor in the dark, seconds give way to minutes. Eventually my heart calms enough for me to stand. I turn on the lights, and carefully turn off my circuit. The rest of this day is probably best spent with paper, pen, books, and catching my breath.
Biking home that evening through the residual warmth of the day, seeing people for the first time in several hours, I realize that it doesn’t have to be like this: windowless rooms with only photons for company. Ideas for future summers start drifting through my head as I navigate the traffic.
Peter Sokol-Hessner received his Ph.D. in Psychology from NYU. He is now an assistant professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Denver, and still respects the hell out of electricity.