The Frankenstein Moment

Over at Swans on Tea, Tom has a great story of his Frankenstein Moment, that moment in science when the lightning flashes, and it's immediately clear that everything just worked, and you have successfully reanimated your creation, or split the atom, or discovered high-temperature superconductivity, or whatever.

As he says, these are rare. My own career has been lacking in real, definitive laughing-maniacally-during-the-thunderclap Frankenstein Moments. It's not that I haven't had experimental successes-- I've done some things that I like to think are pretty cool-- but most of them have been sort of delayed. The best candidate for a Frankenstein Moment would've been the time-resolved collision experiment, which was something that I thought would take an afternoon that took three months and became a PRL. The crucial signal there was the appearance of a peak in the signal on the MCS we used for data collection, and its appearance was dramatic, but it was accompanied by a second, unexpected peak, and it took us two full days to realize that it was a real and useful signal, and not just some irritating electronic glitch.

The closest to a real Frankenstein Moment was probably my very first experiment in grad school, on optical control of collisions.

This was another experiment on ionizing collisions, where we monitored the collision rate by counting the number of ions produced from our atoms trap in some time interval. We were trying to modify the collision rate by shining in another laser, which could excite the colliding atoms to molecular states that would either enhance or suppress the collision rate, depending on the laser detuning.

We set up a jury-rigged system with two different counters having digital readouts, one looking during the control laser pulse, and the other in a time when all the lasers were off. The ratio of these two numbers was the factor we cared about, and Matt Walhout and I tuned the laser to various different frequencies, and carefully wrote down the readings from the counters, with occasional arguments about the number of significant figures we should be using, and the rounding off of numbers, and so on.

It was a slow process, not a single transcendent moment, but I still remember the excitement when we realized that we were, in fact, seeing the behavior we expected. Over the course of three or four data points, the control laser switched from enhancing the rate to suppressing it, exactly as predicted. We didn't exactly high-five each other, but it does stick in my mind as one of the most exciting lab moments I've had. Early on, too-- I was definitely hooked after that.

Of course, for responsible scientists (as opposed to deranged lone geniuses in remote castles), the Frankenstein Moment is really only the beginning of the work. You get the biggest jolt from the first signal you measure, but then you need to buckle down and do all the vvariation of parameters and cross-checking of results, and all that other stuff that you need to do to be sure that the thing you saw was really the signal you thought it was, and that it behaves in the way you think it should.

But there's nothing like the moment when everything just clicks and that first good set of data shows up on the computer or in the lab book. It's hard not to cackle maniacally at that point...

So, what's your Frankenstein Moment story?

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Er, you do know that having a Frankenstein moment isn't necessarily a good thing, right? Especially if the townspeople gather with the torches and pitchforks.

My frankenstein moment was Seeing my Tesla Coil work the first time. After spending months of studying the theory, aquiring the parts, assembling the machine, measuring and fine tuning the resonance of the coils. The first time I plugged it in and turned the volatge up, as the spark gap started firing and the first little lightning bolts appeared, I had almost an out of body feeling. I didn't want anyone around to see it fail, but when it worked I regretted not having someone to share the moment with...IT WORKED !!!!!!!

By Eric Juve (not verified) on 15 May 2008 #permalink

In the space flight hardware business, there is a Frankenstein moment every time the instrument, or some critical subassembly, is put together for the first time and works as intended. The biggest one I have been associated with was the one I started with at my current job: delivery was eight months away, we were already behind schedule, Gingrich was carrying out his threat to shut down the government (including both our NASA funders and the DOT office whose approval we needed to ship the instrument anywhere), and shortly after I joined the machine shop that was making our magnesium parts burned to the ground. Somehow, we made our delivery schedule, and the instrument worked.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 15 May 2008 #permalink

I would guess the Frankenstein Moments are more common in engineering than they are in science. Although even in engineering-- large scale engineering, anyway-- there is really a series of moments, none of which has the full impact equivalent to what you see in the movies.

Skipping past all the breadboards and whatnot, there is:

o The Delivery moment, when the technicians, operations group, or whatever, gives you your first prototype built professionally

o The Smoke Test moment, when you turn it on and it doesn't spark, explode, or otherwise produce smoke... but does consume power. Yes, we actually do smoke tests. Yes, sometimes they produce smoke, which is catastrophic.

This is probably the closest thing to the Frankenstein Moment, because once you're over that hump-- and you'll know within a second, typically-- you can deal with most anything else.

o The various Functional Tests, where you establish that, regardless of how good the thing may meet spec, it at least acts as an object of its class. If it's an amplifier, it at least amplifies. If it's a receiver, it at least downconverts and receives. This can be a Frankenstein Moment if it's a simple object. If it's an amplifier, you'll know in a minute whether it amplifiers. If it's an avionics package, it can take days to convince yourself it's functioning.

o The various Performance Tests, which take months. That's when you obsess over data and decide if you've made your specs. Contrary to Star Trek, performance tests take more than a few minutes, or even days. Think months or for really big things, years.

My own story here is from much earlier in my career, my first real design of any serious complexity. I still had oversight from above, but it was management making sure I wasn't doing something stupid, rather than management giving me detailed instructions every week. I won't even bother explaining what the gadget was supposed to do-- it's boring to everyone else.

But, after a year and half of design, and six months of guiding the production of the first article, I had my first Gadget. Inspected it, checked prints, found fabrication errors, fixed them. Put it in the test fixture, put the microscope over it, closed my eyes tight, turned it on. No snapping sound, good. No smoke smell, good. Open eyes, inspect through microscope, no scorch marks, good. Check voltage, still correct, good. Check current draw.... nothing, on a critical line.

Well. Fuck. Me.

And worse, it turned out to be intermittent.

This drove me insane for something like three weeks. It turns out that one of the components in the power regulation circuitry was photosensitive, and not in a good way. And so every time I swung the microscope over it to inspect it, it was guaranteed not to work. The rest of the time, it depended on the light level in the lab or whether I had decided to put the cover on. This is, I assure you, an entire category of mistake I will never make again.

After that, at least, I sailed through the functional tests and staggered through the performance tests. But Christ, I still have flashbacks about those three weeks of confusion.

By John Novak (not verified) on 15 May 2008 #permalink

I was going to write about a particular moment when I realized that I knew something no one else in the world knew about what was lurking in a data set that had interested people for over a decade, which was cool for a few hours (until I had to get back to work to get other people to do the work needed to confirm my observation and start writing it all up), but picked something different.

The first time I single-handedly brought up a pretty big particle accelerator from a "cold" start and put beam on target. Yeah, I followed a well defined procedure, but some parts of that procedure required a bit of a touch and all of it required confirming rad safety conditions and managing serious amounts of both DC and RF electrical power.

The comments up above about "it worked!" and the "smoke test" step in engineering made me remember this experience with Big Hardware. Those days are pretty much gone in my field, but thank goodness students can get that kind of hands-on experience in labs like yours.

By CCPhysicist (not verified) on 18 May 2008 #permalink