August 14, 1998

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Demo Inconclusive, But Talk Well-Attended

It has descended upon us. That manipulative little demo-demon that hovers invisibly in warm conference rooms and whispers in the machine-of-the-moment's ear, "Don't work. I don't care how well you ran through your colors earlier, it's imperative that you not work NOW." And machines, not having minds of their own, obey unquestioningly. They fail to turn on, fail to move, crash dramatically...stubborn, obdurate, and condemning their human owners either to rage or misery.

Or slightly irritated acceptance, on David's part.

But let me start at the beginning.


We arrived back at the conference only twenty minutes before I was scheduled to speak. Luck was on our side, as everything seemed to be running a bit late. In addition, there was a business center where we could run off copies of my paper (twenty) and copies of fliers inviting the attendees to a water test tonight at our motel pool. When we walked into the very small room, we were flabbergasted to see it packed shoulder to shoulder, practically steaming with all the body heat being generated. Apparently, the engineering track was the one everybody came to see. Not surprising, since the people who care about getting to Mars would naturally be concerned with the "how" part, rather than the "why" part.


I made my way to the front, and began speaking as people slowly wedged their way in. I had to yell, so my voice hurts, but I think that most of the people there were able to hear sufficiently well. I introduced the subject first -- amazingly, no one left the room in disgust, though I did see somebody grin widely with a knowing look when I mentioned the topic o'the day, inertial propulsion. I didn't falter, I remained humble throughout the speech, and I tried to keep it short so that we would have time for the demo. As soon as I asked for questions, many hands shot up. I answered as many as I could until there were six minutes left in the time. Many of the questions related to testing -- there were the helpful suggestion that we should try an air hockey table, a vacuum chamber, and the KC-135...

My personal favorite exchange was with a young guy who was quick enough to ask the obvious question, "But what about conservation of momentum? Doesn't it have to push off something?"

My reply: "Hmmm, well, that does seem to be a little sticking point, doesn't it?"

Which got a laugh from the audience. I went on to explain that, in fact, it did seem to violate that law, but we were pretty much at a loss to explain it. The basic idea behind my presentation was to combine my own humility and their innate curiosity in order to keep everyone's interest. (Well, I WAS proud of that little bit of repartee above, especially in light of the scientific and mostly serious atmosphere.) Huffing and puffing and pompously exhorting them to believe based on our own admittedly skimpy evidence would only have alienated people and insulted their intelligence. And clearly these were intelligent and interested people -- there were many questions, nobody asked any questions about things I had already explained (they must have been listening), and there seemed to be a lot of activity generated in the audience as soon as I told them about what we were doing.


But when I turned it over to David for the ice-test demo, the expected happened: it didn't work at all. The table was tilted slightly off level, and each time we turned the DemoGIT on with its two little orbitals, the unit would slide off in the direction of the tilt. Thankfully, nobody jeered us -- maybe failed demos have happened to a lot of them as well.

But we handed out eighty invitations to the water test in the pool, and David is at this very moment working on a styrofoam boat, twenty minutes away from the Appointed Hour of Demonstration. I'm a bit nervous on his behalf -- what if it doesn't work? We are facing some serious wind problems that may make the water test even less credible than the ice test. The surface of the water might not be still enough to really make the test possible. But in just a few minutes, we'll get our second and last chance to show people what we've been seeing, so we'll just have to cross our fingers and hope it works.


Glowing with partial success,

 

Amanda Gilbert, A Hoarse Voice in a Small Room, Gyroscopic Inertial Flight Team


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