Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

Just Another Day in NYC ..

Today, I went downtown to fetch a book that Houghton-Mifflin had sent to me to review. Because the UPS station is at 43rd, this required me to go through Times Square with its huge tangle of humanity. When I got there, Times Square consisted of barely controlled chaos, as usual, with its sunshine and commotion and bright lights, giant televisions and blinking advertizements everywhere. Sirens whooped and police directed traffic as thousands of people poured across the streets like a river of corpuscles in a blood vessel.

Just as I reached the other side of the street, there was a huge explosion from only 10 feet away from me. A manhole cover flew five or six feet into the air and then slammed back down to the pavement with dull thump. Black smoke rose from the now uncovered manhole as well as from the still-covered manhole nearby. What was that?The light changed, fire engines crept slowly through the traffic, police whistles trumpeted, and the sea of people surged forward.


  1. #1 Brian
    February 28, 2007

    Yikes! Every time I visit the city I somehow feel like I’m the only person who doesn’t know where I’m going (it took me at least 10 trips to figure out the subways). The last time I went in (I was visiting the newly opened Hall of Human Origins at the AMNH as an early 24th birthday celebration) I was sick, there were too many people, and I’ve still got many a bruise caused by parents who used their strollers as weapons.

  2. #2 Diane in Ohio
    February 28, 2007

    Probably a power transformer,maybe?…click here:

  3. #3 Albatrossity
    February 28, 2007

    Good thing this didn’t happen in Boston – They would have closed the whole city down for a day while they looked for cartoon characters to pin the blame on…

  4. #4 John
    February 28, 2007

    When I first moved to D.C., we had a rash of exploding manhole covers. That seems to have died down in recent years. I do not remember the exact cause, but it was something like a gas or electrical malfunction – nothing devious.

  5. #5 T
    February 28, 2007

    Confirming John’s comments my daughter worked in D.C. and near the area where some of the manhole covers regurgitated their tops. As a mother I stopped worrying about panhandlers and possible rapists and started worrying about flying metal.

  6. #6 Rob Beagrie
    February 28, 2007

    I have some friends who went on a trip to New York recently, and the exact same thing happened to them in Times Square just a week ago. Deja vu?

  7. #7 David Harmon
    February 28, 2007

    Perhaps the infrastructure is feeling neglected, so it is crying out for attention? 😉 (Hmm, maybe those Harlan Ellison anthologies warped me more than I thought.)

  8. #8 biosparite
    March 1, 2007

    Sounds as if a combustible gas down there found a source of ignition. Methane, anyone?

  9. #9 David Harmon
    March 1, 2007

    To be more serious: Given the black smoke, I’d actually bet on a transformer or similar device. Given we’ve recently been through some shaky weather (freeze/thaw cycles, salty runoff from the streets, interruptions in maintainance, etc.) it seems reasonable that a few of those are liable to “lose it” about now.

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