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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« When Drug Launches Go Bad | Main | A Broadside Against The Way We Do Things Now »

November 29, 2012

There Go the Lights

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Posted by Derek

An awful lot of people are using an awful lot of bad language in Cambridge, MA right now. At about 4:25 PM (EST), the power flickered and went out in a large swath of East Cambridge, out to somewhere near Harvard Square. That takes out MIT and more technology-based companies than you'd care to count, so everyone is getting the chance to find out how their backup power supplies work (or don't), and how their expensive, finicky equipment takes to having the current lurch around.

I was in my office when things browned down and went out, and it soon became clear that the whole area had gone dark. Public transit was working (when I got on it, anyway), and my commute home is the same as always (for better or worse!), but that won't be the case for people depending on spotty streetlights and the like. Not to mention the various homeward-bound folks who are presumably sitting, none too happily, in elevators right now.

Servers, NMR machines, LC/MS units, -80 degree freezers, lab fridges, automation of all sorts are to be found in heaps in that part of town; it's probably got one of the densest concentrations of such equipment anywhere. Getting it all running again will not be enjoyable.

Comments (32) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events


1. JP McGrath on November 29, 2012 5:48 PM writes...

Actually, MIT has its own power plant, including the nuclear reactor in the heart of Cambridge, just off Mass Ave. No power here in East Cambridge.

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2. Anonymous on November 29, 2012 5:58 PM writes...

No power on memorial drive area near bu bridge out to riverside tech area that i can see. That's a lot of -80's and the like. Hopfully there were no critcal experiments being carried out at 4:25 today...

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3. Andrew Dalke on November 29, 2012 6:05 PM writes...

The MIT Nuclear Research Reactor is not a power reactor.

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4. PharmaHeretic on November 29, 2012 6:11 PM writes...

Sounds like the USA is increasingly becoming part of the developing world.

What do they mean by "While the real reason for the lack of lights is still undetermined". Surely something that causes a blackout in a largish city cannot be that mysterious- especially in an age of redundant sensors in all large systems.


Parts of Cambridge Lose Power, People Left in the Dark About the Cause

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5. anon2 on November 29, 2012 6:40 PM writes...

How about all the people living in the area without power and heat too. (It's not all about -80 freezers!)

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6. Derek Lowe on November 29, 2012 6:48 PM writes...

#5, that's because I blog about science and the pharma/biotech industry, so things around here tend to have that slant. I haven't mentioned the grocery stores, either, but if someone has a Grocery Blog written from here, I'd expect them to cover things from that angle.

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7. TeddyZ on November 29, 2012 7:01 PM writes...

NMR have UPS and back up power supplies. Magnets are superconducting and thus don't need power to stay at fields, cryo probes do, and don't take well to no power after the UPS is used up.

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8. EJCorey on November 29, 2012 7:04 PM writes...

It's ok guys! It's just me doing electrochemistry!

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9. Anonymous on November 29, 2012 7:29 PM writes...

Yup...and the drive home was nasty! What was up with that low flying heli over Cambridge center?

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10. MoMo on November 29, 2012 7:29 PM writes...

Most importantly, Are the beer taps at the Middle East still operable? Since I can't get home yet might as well hang out for a while!

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11. McChemist on November 29, 2012 8:08 PM writes...


If the Middle East is out, it looked like Cambridge Brewing Company and Tommy Doyle's had power, if you can make your way over to Kendall Square.

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12. chemjabba on November 29, 2012 9:01 PM writes...

nmr machines? let's call them nmr instruments.

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13. Matt B. on November 29, 2012 11:36 PM writes...

It happened here in New Haven CT too around 4:30ish this afternoon. The Yale chem labs kept power but a big chunk of the next door East Rock residential neighborhood lost power for 3 or 4 hours. Weird.

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14. li on November 30, 2012 3:20 AM writes...

I shouldn't say anything but I have poor impulse control...
When someone 'reminds' you that, for instance, people are more important than freezers, rather than seeming defensive, just say "good point, we hope everybody stays warm". For us chemists, we need to swallow hard first, I know. It the grace full way out. Ultimately you aren't going to win that one if its pursued.
I'm old and bear the wounds of too many futile encounters.... Have pity. fwiw hth

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15. dearieme on November 30, 2012 6:28 AM writes...

"When someone 'reminds' you that, for instance, people are more important than freezers ...": you mean it's wise not to reply "Do shut up you sanctimonious prig"?

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16. Anonymous BMS Researcher on November 30, 2012 7:53 AM writes...

According to WTNH the outage in News Haven's East Rock neighborhood yesterday was caused by a guy trying to steal some wires he thought were not energized. He is in critical condition at the hospital.

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17. bad wolf on November 30, 2012 8:00 AM writes...

Yeah, losing power at home vs the lab can be the difference between losing your lunch and losing several months worth of work. But sure, pile on the guy writing the blog to entertain you.

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18. Friday Morning on November 30, 2012 8:05 AM writes...

So far, everything looks up and running!

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19. Lyle Langley on November 30, 2012 8:25 AM writes...

This is entertainment? I was under the impression this was hard hitting journalism....

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20. Pig Farmer on November 30, 2012 9:08 AM writes...

@16. It must be the season for stealing copper wire. Here in Kanawha County, WV we just had a power outage for the exact same reason. Suffice to say that the culprit (who I believe is still at large) is not exactly flavor of the month...

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21. Harry on November 30, 2012 9:23 AM writes...

@20, I'm just west of you (still in Kanawha County, though). We didn't lose power here.

Too bad that idiot didn't cut an energized wire. I seem to recall a few years ago some genius got fried trying to remove grounding cables at a substation.

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22. luysii on November 30, 2012 9:40 AM writes...

Still, you have backup generators (or should have), which is far better than the situation I faced in '67 as an intern in a tall (>10 stories) Philadelphia hospital during one of the first brownouts. No one had thought hospitals would need backup power, and we wound up carrying patients up and down the stairs on litters. Thank God it didn't happen at night -- we were invariably doing emergency operations on stabbings and gunshot wounds (in the City of Brotherly Love).

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23. Nothermaus on November 30, 2012 9:54 AM writes...

#20, 21: I'm northeast of you both (Morgantown) and we never lost power.

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24. Anon on November 30, 2012 10:00 AM writes...

MIT didn't have power until 7:30 PM. My wife's test was postponed and she did a little dance.

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25. Pig Farmer on November 30, 2012 10:08 AM writes...

@21,23: It was fairly localized.Some parts of MacCorkle Avenue SE I noticed had no lights yesterday morning, and some of the big houses on the hill behind it. The guy on WKAZ was going on about what he thought of the clown responsible. Hope they catch him.

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26. Pig Farmer on November 30, 2012 10:19 AM writes...

Here's the link if you're interested:
Not quite as bad as what happened in Cambridge, but still....

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27. isodope on November 30, 2012 11:59 AM writes...

@12: in this day and age of LOL and WTF let's just call 'em what they are - NMRs

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28. Flatland on November 30, 2012 3:10 PM writes...

This thread reminded me of a question that Ive wanted to ask academics/industry people for a while: Whats the backup power like at your institution? UPS before a generator kicks in/Just a generator that kicks in after power is lost (~30 second blackout before power)/ or none at all?

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29. Lyle Langley on November 30, 2012 4:17 PM writes...


Graduate students riding stationary bikes to power a generator constitutes our "back-up" power.

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30. anna on November 30, 2012 4:22 PM writes...

Yeah. We're right in an office at 1 Main Street, right by the Longfellow Bridge, and staring out at Genzyme and saying "man, I hope their backups are working where they should be". Crazy dark views into the square itself. (For us, we only had to worry about a few servers, since I've jumped ship to the technology side)

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31. Sili on December 1, 2012 3:30 PM writes...

He is in critical condition
Good. Permalink to Comment

32. Red Fiona on December 3, 2012 8:47 AM writes...

After either a firework strike or cable stealing (rumour varies) the uni I'm at has had two blackouts in the past month. The second time was the backup generator breaking down.

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