New physics grad students at Caltech in the mid-1970s shared offices in the basement of the department's main building, a lovely half-century-old edifice. (Senior students had spaces upstairs, so their faculty advisors could more conveniently catch them napping.) The underground location was pleasant --- quiet, well-lit with fluorescent fixtures, and bearing only a slight musty odor. Perceptible earthquakes were infrequent, maybe one every few years. An antique freight elevator provided an alternative to the stairs: slide the lattice door shut, push a button, and listen to the relays clickety-clack and the motors hum.

A narrow corridor separated the east and west wings of the basement. Naked pipes for steam and water ran overhead. (Easy access to the (in)famous Caltech steam tunnels was via a side door.) The lights in this part of the building were usually off, to save electricity. After going to and from one's office a few hundred times, it hardly seemed necessary to turn them on for the journey. The path was familiar: a dozen steps, turn left, two dozen more, jog right, then left, and you reached the lighted alley where the student offices were.

One day the obvious happened. Thinking about something else, carrying books under each arm, I turned left a step too early ... and in the dark walked smack into a solid brick wall. Ker-whap! My forehead was in the lead. I can testify that "seeing stars" is a real phenomenon, not just a cartoon metaphor. Ouch! Luckily, no major damage ensued ... just ugly bruises to face and ego.

Monday, January 10, 2000 at 05:49:44 (EST) = 2000-01-10


(correlates: SigilOfPower, The Mysterious Island, IndexerBrowserFlashback, ...)