I dropped a million dollars from a crane

Here’s what it taught me about resilience.

Well, to be precise, I didn’t drop a million dollars, cash, from a crane. I was working in an experimental physics laboratory at the time, on a project which was later carted off wholesale by a federal agency with a compelling interest in our national security.

Having the feds seize your lab is not at all unlike this

While the DoD does throw money around figuratively, they tend to frown on running experiments on crates full of $100-bills.

For science!

More specifically, I was operating a crane which had, in a former life, been used to install turrets on battleships and in its present incarnation was usually used to move 10,000-lb blocks of concrete around. For science! Incidentally it had also been used to install a battleship turret in the lab floor as part of a different experiment. That, and Stanford’s long-standing relationship with the Office of Naval Research, is how the lab had ended up with a battleship maintenance crane in the first place.

STEM can be so much fun! The crane was very much like this one (for all I know, this is in fact the same crane).

At the moment, though, instead of a few hundred dollars worth of concrete and gravel, I was about to move our lab’s million-dollar experimental platform. Hat tip to Stanford University for training undergraduates to operate ten-ton equipment and putting them on the frontiers of human understanding (yes, they did have me get properly trained and licensed before putting me up there).

We were following all the correct safety protocols. My partner on the ground had double-checked all the straps to make sure the platform was properly secured to the hook and ensured no-one was in the line of fire, so to speak. Hard hats were donned (not that it would have helped if a 2,000-lb cast-iron hook block fell on you, hence the other safety protocols). He gave one last look over everything, signaled, and up we went!

I wonder what we were simulating when we were moving ten-ton blocks of concrete around our sensor apparatus

For about a quarter of a second. Due to Stanford’s location on a fault line the platform was bolted to a shock-absorber frame which was bolted to the floor. As soon as we maxed out the shocks the crane jerked to a halt. Reflexively I jammed the “down” button and the platform slammed back to the ground.

Ok, so it wasn’t a drop- more of a barely controlled fall- and it wasn’t a million dollars cash, but a million dollar highly sensitive lab platform. I challenge you to condense this story into a more accurate but equally pithy title.

I thought I was done. Certainly with the undergraduate research program, probably with my advisor (it was his lab, after all) and maybe with the whole physics department. Sure, I wasn’t the one responsible for checking the load but I had pushed the button.

I thought I was done… I wasn’t the one responsible for checking the load but I had pushed the button.

I’ve never seen anyone’s face look quite like my advisor’s did at that moment. Or for quite a while afterward. I think it froze in that expression for about ten minutes. If I had to label it, it would be “crippling dismay.”

The depth of his emotion sent reverberations throughout time and space, such as to 1893 Norway

And then he collected himself.

Sure, a couple of twenty-year-olds had potentially just destroyed three years of work. This also put future funding in jeopardy — sponsors tend to frown on researchers who destroy million-dollar equipment packages. But there wasn’t any way to go back in time and undo it. He could only go forward.

He collected himself and immediately began plotting a way forward. His face was still locked in a death grimace, but he persisted. He conducted a post-mortem which had a few take-aways, like going forward there would always be two people checking before the crane was fired up. For me, though, one was the most important and the most broadly applicable.

He created a new baseline.

You see, we were developing very, very sensitive sensing equipment (can’t imagine why the DoD would cart that off in a van) and so the slightest change to the environment could invalidate the entire data set. Such as applying 5,000 lbs of lifting force to the shock absorbers.

The slightest change to the environment could invalidate the entire data set. Such as applying 5,000 lbs of lifting force to the shock absorbers.

But he realized that whatever happened to the platform, it would always be that way from now on. The shocks were now adding noise to the experiment, but it was always the same noise. Which meant we could subtract it out and still use the data.

We spent the rest of the week performing basic experimental runs and taking a baseline of the noise created by the damage. We verified his hypothesis that it would be a consistent change to the data. We updated the sensor program to subtract it off of future runs.

And we moved on.

I’m no longer a practicing physics researcher, and my crane operating license has lapsed. Most days go by without me using a lot of the technical skills that my summer as an undergraduate researcher gave me.

The lasting lesson, the one that still helps me the most to this day, was this lesson in resilience. Bad things happen. You can’t undo them. Sometimes the effects are lasting. But you can take time to collect yourself, establish a new baseline, adapt your new experiences against it, and keep doing great things.

At least until the government seizes your lab! But that’s another story.

Jonathan is no longer a practicing physicist or crane operator. By day he is an Assistant Director of Research Information Systems at UCLA. He is also the co-founder of the Peach Pie Apps Workshop, a consulting business that specializes in data collection and analysis for non-profits and small businesses. If you enjoyed this story and want to see more like it, don’t forget to share!