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The resourcefulness of the frequent traveling physicist September 12, 2008

Posted by dorigo in physics.

Yesterday evening I got back at 9.30PM to Hotel Balladins, the place where I sleep when I am out to CERN, for my last night there. Upon sitting in front of my laptop for a few hours of work I realized with horror that the battery was empty. The problem was twofold. First, the outlets in the rooms at Hotel Balladins have a protruding ground pin; and second, the holes lie inside a circular fit which did not match at all with the US/Europe adaptor I happened to bring with me. In the picture on the right you can see the wall outlet and my useless square adopter, taken apart.

Now, you could well ask why on Earth had I forgotten to recharge the battery in my office, and why I had not brought with me the adapter I always have in my bag, which fits everywhere. I have no answers for you: it just happens sometimes to lose control of similar important details…

Anyway, back to the adapter and the outlet. There was absolutely no way to fit the two together, as I realized by taking apart my stupid square thingy. I had no screwdriver, no tools, nothing but some scotch tape and said adaptor. I was desperate for electric power, but it looked like I had no way out.

But then, I looked around. The rooms of Hotel Balladins are really Spartan: they have a small table with a chair, a minuscule cupboard, two single beds occupying 95% of the floor, and a 4’x4′ restroom with toiled and shower. There is one electric outlet in front of the table, another one in the restroom, and a third one where a TV hanging from the ceiling is plugged.

What to do ? I first unplugged the TV screen to see if I was lucky enough that the US-style plug of my power cord fit in. No way. So I went back to the adaptor. When I had taken it apart, I had noticed two thin pieces of copper, which provided electrical contact to the outer pins, and could be removed with no effort; you can barely see them in the picture above. In principle, I could use those metal pieces to create some electrical contact… But with no tools, the thing seemed desperate, as I realized after a few dangerous attempts.

In the end, however, moved more by the need for a computer than by the will to succeed, I found a way to fit the two plugs together. The arrangement involved a 90 degree matching, with the two copper elements fit inside one plug and bent as well as I could around the pins of the other. I finally solved a mechanical problem -some pressure was required to keep the thing together- by using a toothbrush and some scotch to make the whole assembly more solid. The handle of the brush is stuck between the ground pin and the other two, pressing the copper contacts enough to make the thing work.

Here is a more detailed view of the ugly but effective kludge. Now, in absolute terms, my “invention” is really a stupid thing that a child of five could put together (where are they, when you need them). However, I rather measure achievements by the benefit they provide, and I tend to assign more importance to yesterday’s assembly than most of the other spells of creativity I had during the entire week.



1. Alejandro Rivero - September 12, 2008

But the square adapter do not work at CERN, neither.

2. dorigo - September 12, 2008

Yep. In fact, I had borrowed an adaptor in my office, but last night was the last one, and I had to give it back…


3. Anonymous - September 12, 2008

The maids must just love you…

4. island - September 12, 2008

Great, but now your teeth are yellow, and your breath stinks… 😉

5. carlbrannen - September 12, 2008

I’m glad to understand that you survived this incident.

6. changcho - September 13, 2008

Ah, the resourcefulness of the desperate physicist…works most of the time!

7. Tom O'Bulls - September 13, 2008

By the way, is it true, as someone on Sabine’s blog claimed, that the God particle is named after Peter God, a Scottish physicist?

8. Masry in USA - September 13, 2008

Hi Tomaso,

Do you have any comments on the hacking of the CMSMON web page at CERN?

9. chiara bortignon - September 13, 2008

Here it is, a real physician’s problem!!!:)
not the end of the world…as most of jounalists was thinking!

regards from Trieste!


10. tulpoeid - September 13, 2008

“Do you have any comments on the hacking of the CMSMON web page at CERN?”

Oh well, after the black holes we’re looking for other doom scenaria… At least save the effort for 21 October 😉 The intrusion was detected, users were warned, I personally seriously doubt they were “one step” away from any control system.

As for the GST team, I give them one kudo for being different! The text they replaced cmsmon with reads:
“Trials for running the experiment are taking place at cern at this moment.
We didn’t choose this page because of personal issues with cern’s admins, but because of the number of visitors this website will attract in the next hours it was a goog chance to have some things reminded.”

After the system details and a couple of account (the ones they got access from, probably), which are *-ed out because “we have no reason to make these people look bad”, they repeat they don’t intent to harm the site and reveal that their goal was to humiliate their opponent hacker team!!!
The rest of the text is about the current greek hack scene, something this team always does after their attacks (hey, it’s not like the first time we see their work).

11. dorigo - September 13, 2008

Anon, that was a setup that stayed there only during the night, I set things back in order the following morning.

Island, same as above.

Tom, it’s true, but it is not Peter God, rather Mike Gold. Got misspelled.

Masry, no comment, these things happen. CERN has a rather good security system in place, but everything can be punched through every once in a while.

Ciao Chiara, let me know how you’re doing!

Cheers all,

12. dorigo - September 13, 2008

Tulpoeid, thanks for the details of the story.

13. Luboš Motl - September 13, 2008

Well, let’s hope that slovens like you are not employed at CERN as experimentalists. 😉

14. carlbrannen - September 13, 2008

Among the technicians of the electronics industry, the above is called a “suicide plug”.

15. WAH - September 13, 2008

The adapter problem is well-known to me. I have often used my Swiss army knife to “adapt” Italian or French connectors so that my stupid Swiss plug would fit. Horrible!
It seems we have some more things in common, Tommaso. Physics, chess, and a potential for conflict with Lubos Motl. Interesting.

16. Alejandro Rivero - September 14, 2008

On the same topic, I am fascinated about how people ignores the most basic techniques to use Continental connectors in English outlets.

17. Luboš Motl - September 14, 2008

Dear WAH,

Tommaso only has a potential but someone boasting to be a “professor of environmental physics” who links to extremists like Deltoid has more than a potential. He should be shot as soon as possible because his existence on this blue planet is just outrageous.

Worst wishes

18. nige cook - September 14, 2008

I don’t think that this lash up is any more dangerous than some of the electrical problems you can have with bought appliances. (At least you knew not to make a clumsy grab for your toothbrush without unplugging the flex from the wall first…) Ten years ago, I bought a Sony video recorder (manufactured in a factory in France for the British market) which had a spray painted metal case but only a twin conductor flex with no ground/earth. The metal case was live, but the paint mostly insulated it and you only got a slight shock of you touched the corners of the metal case. I thought it was just a static discharge at first, but when I touched it a second time I got the same shock as before, so I checked it with a meter and the metal screws on the case were at 240 volts AC. It was sealed and under warranty so I returned it, instead of opening it. If it has been earthed (three conductor flex), the fuse would have blown when the video was tested in the factory, and it wouldn’t have been sent out.

19. dorigo - September 14, 2008

Lubos, I do not know what exactly you have against Slovens. I tend to liken them to Czechs anyways.

Hi Carl, well I must say I was a bit worried to go to sleep that night, with the idea that a spark could generate a fire in my room. Suicide is not in my plans yet.

WAH, yes, chess, physics, blogging… As for Lubos, I try to avoid a direct confrontation. He can be almost civilized when one does not stimulates him into flipping to Mr. Hyde.

Alejandro, what are those techniques ? I usually know I have to carry an english adaptor when I go to London.

Lubos, I wonder what you think of the government of the Netherlands and their investment of a hundred billion euros to strengthen their defences to the sea level rise they expect.

Nige, even my former PC (a toshiba satellite) had a nasty dispersion. On a corner of the case there was always a small but annoying shock ready for my hands.

Cheers all,

20. Luboš Motl - September 14, 2008

Dear Tommaso,

learn the alphabet, open your dictionary, and find “sloven” in it, to find out that it is something different than a Slovene and something completely different than a Slovak, a member of a nation that has lived together with Czechs. 😉


21. Luboš Motl - September 14, 2008

Dear Tommaso,

I forgot to answer your question: the Dutchmen have been building these defenses for many centuries and I actually think that they know what they’re doing (I mean the engineers in particular, not necessarily the government bureaucrats) and they’re arguably the most skillful as well as the most realistic nation in all these questions.

These things make sense for the 20-30 cm/century increases that were observed in the last few centuries. Of course, if the expenses (or sea level rise) skyrocketed, for any reason, it might be better to move the “excessive” Dutchmen to another place, e.g. Belgium, Patagonia, or Siberia. They’re probably the best ones to do the costs vs benefits analysis properly which is why they also know that in the last 15 years, the sea level rise in NL was about 3 mm/year, near the global average


while the sea level rise in Florida was around 0 and in Bangladesh or California, it was actually negative (the sea level dropped): see the map above. As far as the sea level dynamics goes, there’s not much change to report here. If they’re making a bet on a acceleration, it’s their money. It’s not my business to correct them and frankly speaking, I don’t care whether the Dutchmen decide to voluntarily move themselves to the bottom of the GDP hit parades.


22. dorigo - September 14, 2008

Hi Lubos,

oh, ok. Sloven, not Slovene. Sorry… Actually, I am not really a sloven. But I am not a hardware person either. I think the times when particle physicists had to be a bit of theorists, good detector builders, skilled analysts, cunning phenomenologists, and a bit of computer freaks have long gone. Specializing in either of these tasks prevents one from doing the same in others.


23. island - September 14, 2008

Island, same as above.

That explains how that piece of tape got into your mustache!

24. changcho - September 15, 2008

“…, it might be better to move the “excessive” Dutchmen to another place, e.g. Belgium, Patagonia, or Siberia…”

No Dutchmen in Patagonia…we have too many Welsh there already…


25. chimpanzee - September 17, 2008

My background is engineering, & there is a concept known as “hardware redundancy”. I.e., bring “multiple solutions”, so if one fails (or gets lost) you have a backup. When I was in China 1 month ago for the solar eclipse, I had multiple solutions into 5-6 levels (like the powerplugs from China US).. More outrageous pictures of “hardware redundancy” gone nuts here. One time, I needed a crescent wrench (I bought a mountain bike in China!), & I simply went to the front desk of the motel & they produced one! Did you try going to the hotel front desk? Their purpose is to serve their clients, so surely they must have power plugs for situations like this.

Here’s another outrageous picture from my home office, of “wall warts” on power plugs. More insane pics here.

There’s a saying in USA, “brought everything but the kitchen sink”. I guess I give a new meaning to that phrase. I lost my treasured Swiss Army Knife to security check @Beijing Int’l airport. In my haste to make my flight, I forgot to tuck it into check-in baggage..it was caught by x-ray machine (carry on) & I had to give it up. Damn!

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