Vignette: Inside the Halls of Science

Summer Solstice, 2012: Unpopulated corridors in Bi Hall reveal hundreds of unoccupied cubbies, homework bins, and backpack hooks. Empty bulletin boards dotted with vacant pushpins and thumbtacks take on a certain semblance of constellations in the sky, especially on the longest day of the year.Not long after, in the Tormondsen Great Hall, a reception for the 30 or 40 student research assistants and faculty rings the air with lively voices. On serving tables are 24 boxes of pizza, 4 salad containers, and 5 urns of water and iced tea.

Students enter the building from the outside’s 90-degree furnace to the refreshing, cooled air of the building.  In minutes, food consumed and liquids downed, everyone bustles off to begin work. As he stacks 18 empty pizza boxes on a recycling cart, Dean of Curriculum and Director of Natural Sciences Bob Cluss, of the chemistry and biochemistry department, looks remarkably cheerful.

“We did pretty good with our estimate,” he remarks to colleagues. The statement takes on a greater resonance, this being the Middlebury temple of science.

Past the open lab door of MBH 355, Christopher (biology student, madras Bermuda shorts, auburn T-shirt, black vinyl gloves) uses a syringe to transfer stripped streptococcus cells into medium, inside tiny glass tubes. The Van Morrison tune “Brown Eyed Girl” murmurs nearby, only slightly more audible than the humming fridge stocked with bottles, flasks, petri dishes, buffer solutions, and boxes of Ambion RNA and Novex Protein. Christopher carefully pours the contents of the vials into small electrophoretic tanks. He will apply electrical current and note how the streptococcus DNA migrates.

Down the geography department hall, past “The Sandbox,” the departmental reading room and its proud sign, “MAPS R US,” past the GIS lab with its framed portrait of the late Professor Bob Churchill (1946–2004) who was instrumental in making the lab among the first in an American college or university, student-research posters line the corridor. One reads: “Landscape of Experience: The Oswiecim-Wodzislaw Slaski Evacuation March, Seminar on Historical Geography, Prof. Anne Knowles, Stephanie Ellis and Chester Harvey, May 2008” This “narrative map” demonstrates the method of illustrating the “landscape of experience—the physical and human landscape as perceived by those living within it—of concentration camp evacuation marchers near the end of the Holocaust.”

A line is inscribed across a 1945 map of the terrain west of Auschwitz, the line progressing in rainbow colors from green to yellow to orange to red to dark purple, green signifying “least suffering” and purple “greatest suffering.” Professor Anne Knowles, a principal investigator in the five-year, five-study, multi-institutional project on Holocaust Geographies, scurries by the depiction; she carries a well-buttered muffin from toaster to research room. She joins her research assistant in front of two adjacent computer screens, where, sitting beneath an ancient world map, they stare at an inventory database of the Nazi camps, displayed in tiny columns, banal facts and figures transmogrifying into life and death.

Walk tentatively into the fifth-floor Goodsel Lab, where Connor Fitzsimmons ’12, Alex Clement ’12, and physics professor Anne Goodsell construct “an apparatus for laser-cooling rubidium atoms, radically reducing their temperature to within one degree of absolute zero.” To achieve this, they bombard a cloud of atoms with photons of the correct frequency to excite the atoms, employing a diode laser, isolator, rubidium vapor cell, beam chopper, and an acoustooptic modulator, all supervised by a Fabry-PeÅLrot interferometer. Rubidium, a soft, highly reactive and non-radioactive alkali metal, is notoriously unstable, especially when introduced to water, when it reacts by releasing hydrogen gas that often immediately ignites and burns with a vivid violet color. This cause and effect is not explored in the cooling experiments in MBH 511.

Topical subjects and the political philosophy of the Aquarium Room and Cephalopod Research Lab, MBH 367, are unequivocal: “OCTOPI WALL STREET,” reads one handbill taped on the door. “We are the 97%,” reads another. “Invertebrates are 97% of animal diversity.”

In most of the corridors of Bi Hall, display cases contain the representative enthusiasms of 200 years of the sciences, back all the way to the European scientific excursions of natural philosophy and mathematics professor Frederick Hall.

There is a surveyor’s level, cartographic drafting tools, a stereograph, and the personal microscopes of Professor Ezra Brainerd (Class of 1864; president, 1886–1908) from his home study in the large brick house at 39 Seminary Street.

There are multicolored models of crystalline structures, labeled “cubic,” “cubic body-centered,” “orthorhombic face-centered,” “monoclinic,” “hexagonal,” and “rhombohedral.”

There are samples of many elements—antimony, arsenic, boron, calcium, cobalt, fluorine, lithium, vanadium—but not visible samples of argon, chlorine, francium, krypton, palladium, or radium.

There is an electromagnetic telegraph; a Bunsen-Kirchhoff spectroscope; a Bohnenberger’s machine; a set of Klinger orbital models; a leather-cased haemacytometer; clear, graceful Wheaton flasks; and documentary sets about evolution on VCR tapes, whose utility may already be mysterious to the inheritors of the science center.

There are, in the heady procession of technology, vintage computer disc drives and removable diskettes of varying size.

There are nesting Chinese dolls and Vermont mineral samples—fuchsite from Clarendon; garnet, asbestos, and serpentine from prolific Eden Mills; jasper from Colchester; malachite from West Rutland; actinolite from Dover; kyanite from West Fairlee; and iron pyrite (also known as fool’s gold) from Montpelier.

Observations (while sitting on an end-of-the corridor windowsill, north side of building) of student research assistants’ migratory patterns: Despite the building’s relative emptiness due to the time of year, it hums and breathes. There are echoes of whistlers in adjoining halls; the odd trudging steps in a stairwell; a door opens, another closes; a young man in jeans and eye protection, carrying a jug of liquid, steps out in the hall and disappears through another doorway; an assistant wearing an orange shirt, khaki shorts, and sandals that flap on the linoleum floor balances two tubs full of lab samples down the corridor and also vanishes; five minutes pass while no activity is observed; a young woman in a white smock glides down the hall while checking signals on her iPhone, and grimaces.

Placards taped to the door of MBH 268: “Research Area Quiet Please: Behavior Testing May Be In Progress.” And a quote from Young Frankenstein: “After 5:00 pm, Slip Brains Through Slot.”

The College admissions guide has walked backward across campus to stand and lean confidently against a third-story railing overlooking the Great Hall. She is dressed in Midd colors—navy blue top, white shorts—and burbles enthusiasm for visiting high school students and attentive parents. “Writing is stressed in all aspects of the sciences,” the admissions guide is saying.

“It helps students solidify what they know and learn.” A sandy-haired high school boy bends out over the balcony to look above, and his sandy-haired father reflexively puts a hand on his arm.

“A good friend of mine” the guide is exclaiming, “down the hall, is castrating a rat right now!” Several parents blink.

Facing the sunny south side in the sixth-floor greenhouse, an Araucaria heterophylla, or Norfolk Island pine, may experience brushing the glass ceiling in another month or two. The swelling root ball has shattered its eight-gallon clay pot, which has been mended with duct tape.

An adjacent succulent, Stapelia gigantea from South Africa deserts, makes a visitor feel at home because it has not yet flowered—the blossoms mimic the smell of rotting flesh (it is called a Carrion plant), which attract pollinating insects.

Centimeters away, water trickles through a small mossy rock garden of Sphenophyta Equiestaceae, horsetails from the Carboniferous period.

A poster at student-faculty research lab MBH 237, from the National Institute of Health’s Animal Research Advisory Committee, features the famous depiction of Uncle Sam in an Army recruitment poster, painted in 1917 by the commercial artist James Montgomery Flagg.

“ I WANT YOU…TO BE PROPERLY TRAINED,” it now admonishes.

In the year 1917, 58 Middlebury students enlisted in the armed forces to fight in the First World War. One of that group, Eugene P. Hubbard ’17 a science and literature student of Chatham, New Jersey, was killed in action the following spring.

On the sixth-floor west-side lounge, colossal windows look out over trees and fields. An observer’s eyesight swoops out past the organic garden, over Cornwall hills with their symmetrical rows of Malus domestica trees and their swelling fruit, past the 440-million-yearold Taconic orogeny upthrust of Snake Mountain (elev. 1,287 ft.), leaping the 4.5 miles beyond its western cliffs to the invisible north-draining freshwater lake, all 125 miles of it, and beyond, the upper tips of the billion-year-old metamorphic upthrust named by aboriginal Mohawks for the “tree-eating” Algonquian tribe of what became known as the Adirondacks.

There is enough wind passing over these mountains and the intervening terrain to stir the crowns of the tree grove near Bi Hall, but it is insufficient to turn the nearby windmill with any authority. Solar collectors swivel to the west in midafternoon, drinking light filtered through wispy cirrus clouds. A tractor tows a bailing and wrapping machine to produce round bales of alfalfa, clover, and birdsfoot trefoil, the white-wrapped shapes dotting the green fields almost like constellations in the sky.

Outside the western door of McCardell Bicentennial Hall, a brown leaf-footed bug with its bright orange-tipped antennae, dragging a gimpy right rear leg, follows the edge of a stone tile and over an opportunistic seedling in a crack, and then pauses to scratch its abdomen.

It requires exactly four and half minutes to cover the length of the tile. Thereafter, it continues its journey westward.

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