It's 12 o'clock. Lunchtime. I stagger out of Imperial like a boxer after a lost bout. It feels like the end of a long day at work. Even the bright sun up high can't convince me otherwise. I shouldn't feel like this. Bright sunlight and such utmost tiredness don't go together, but my inner clock has been completely messed up by another night at the synchrotron. This time it was a proper one. We wouldn't have needed the rooms in the guest house. There was no time for sleep. Our shift started last night at 10 and ended when the hour hand had come full circle, much like the electrons in the accelerator but much slower, at ten in the morning today.
The twelve hours on the job were only interrupted by frantic dashes to the toilet. Time was precious and our samples doubly so, and we were loaded to the brim. It was impossible to finish everything, but we kept on target. There was no proper break until some monkey tripped the beam shortly after six in the morning and the whole facility sat in the dark for forty minutes. The student working with me tried to sleep for an hour when I took charge of experiments but he looked much worse for wear when we got back to London. Better not give your body ideas.
Shivering with tiredness, I walk through Kensington, heaving periodically with yawns that could swallow entire beds. For long second, I inhale liters of oxygen in an attempt to stave off sleep. I'm only half successful. There's not much I notice going around me. I can't even tell if it's cold.
If I had a real job, I'd receive some compensation for the suffering, overtime, double overtime even because of the ungodly hours, but my time isn't clocked. I can't even enjoy the per-diem because the only place to have dinner was the on-site refectory where a perfectly adequate meal costs all of six quid, soup and desert included.
Breakfast came with the room but by the time we were done with our shift, they had stopped cooking. Dead tired and starving, we hurled back to London. It's amazing what speeds are normal in a country where the speed limit is seventy. But in my state, traffic would have been a blur even at thirty miles an hour.
Everything was clear when we had started out. Pumped by excitement, anticipation and a sense of formidable challenge, we went through the first few hours without looking left or right. We immediately fell into a routine of shared responsibilities, changing samples, taking data, processing and analyzing it, logging our progress and laying out plans for the hours to come, plans that evolve with every sample that adds a little dot to the developing picture. Seamless robotics, a comfortable user interface and six big screens in front of us make efficiency easy.
In Atlas Shrugged or its Soviet brother, How the Steel Was Tempered, the heroes don't feel pain or get sleepy because they can't be bothered. The future of mankind is on their minds and they have no time for distractions. We had our experiments (and our own futures by tenuous extension) to keep us focused, and time flew until way past midnight. But there comes a time at night when the will is no match for body anymore. For me that's usually somewhere between four and five. Cracks appear in smooth procedures, speed wanes, errors can go undetected.
Our planning had accounted for that. We did the hard stuff first and made a clear list of the easy things that just needed ticking off later. With the sun returns our energy, and the last hour of our shift is a mad rush. Another dataset and another one and maybe we can squeeze another one in if we push hard enough. Then we're done – and fall off a cliff. The drive back is a struggle.
Shortly before noon, we get back to South Ken, drop the Golf outside campus and carry the Dewars up to the lab. The sun is shining brightly. It shapes up to be nice Sunday, wonderful even, considering it's the middle of December, and totally wasted on me. If a blizzard went down and dumped three feet, I wouldn't know the difference. I'm sleepwalking home with a empty stare into a non-existing distance.