Wednesday, August 18, 2010

When the lights go out in Budapest

After a kind introduction by one of the conference organizers, I presented the Monday afternoon plenary lecture at ICOOPMA 2010, an international meeting on optical materials and technologies. Budapest is a beautiful city rich in history and culture, but also the host to the horrors of World War II. The lecture hall, which was a large room in the lower level adjacent to a pool and reception area, could have been anywhere.

The gentle hum of the air conditioning system was barely perceptible, as it toiled to protect the room from the hot and muggy air that blanketed the city. My wife and I had traveled almost a full day to get to Budapest from Pullman, albeit in the relative comfort of business class, courtesy of a complimentary upgrade from Delta Airlines. The five star Intercontinental Continental Hotel provided a tad of luxury at a bargain price of $49 per night, thanks to But the purpose of my trip was to attend the meeting and to give my talk.

With 25 years of public speaking experience, I am pretty calm in front of crowd, but only when talking about physics. Ask me to say a few words at a wedding or a family event, and I am barely able to stammer out a few words before feeling sick. Physics provides the ultimate comfort. The enjoyment of presenting my work is akin to a parent bragging about the accomplishments of a child. But pride is not an accurate characterization of the feeling. It's more of a mutual admiration for the beauty and depth of how mother nature has written her story in the fabric of our universe. I am merely the story teller.

I derive great satisfaction in sharing insights with a couple hundred scientists, many of them strangers, but all having in common an appreciation of the beauty of the physical world, and the potential for new wonders that it offers.

``So as you can see, the Photomechanical Optical Device represents the 5 device classes, but using only optics rather than electronics..." My trance-like state was briefly interrupted by the rumble of distant thunder. I continued to present my talk with great excitement. A second bolt shook the building, the lights faltered, then the room went dark for an instant until the emergency backup power kicked in. The main transformer for one region of the city was fried, leaving a nonfunctional projector for the second half of my Power Point presentation.

I continued to speak, waving my hands, and making air drawings to get though the remaining part of my talk. While the lack of visuals undoubtedly detracted from the information that I tried to convey, it made my talk more memorable than if all had gone smoothly.

At the end, I fielded many questions and comments - a sign that people were listening and were interested in the topic. After the Q&A, the conference organizers presented me with a bottle of Chardonnay with a special label sporting my name and the conference's name and coordinates. I was also given a Rubik's cube, which I believe was invented by a Hungarian. After the event was over, several more people hung around to ask questions and make comments.

We hailed a cab back to the hotel, and prepared for our return trip, which commenced with a 3:00am wake-up call and a 4:00am shuttle to the airport. We ended up missing a connection that prolonged our travels over eight hours. In the end, I was satisfied with the trip - not because I could add another destination to my list of travels, but for the opportunity to share with others the work that I love. We will be landing in Seattle in an hour, and will make the 5-hour drive to Pullman, getting us home by about 3:00am. The stresses associated with the start of an academic year will be upon us when we awaken, but I am also looking forward to all the new results awaiting me in the minds and notebooks of my students and collaborators.

I can't wait to get home!

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