Despite the passing of Labor Day, summer had not gotten the hint that it was time to pack up and leave. The sun shimmered in humid air, hanging slightly to the west now that lunch was done. Millie had a pink card in one hand and a stopwatch in the other. Her experiment didn’t need a thermometer, but she was sure that if she had one it would be somewhere in the nineties.
A blast from the air horn at the end of the quad shook her back into the moment. A second or so later, another air horn blast replied from a few hundred meters behind her. She stood on her tip-toes on the cement bench, squinting in the sunlight to see if the students were scribbling down their data. They seemed to be chatting more than they were writing. She waved to Aneesh, who was lazing in the shade off to the side of his group of students. Even from here, she could see him frown back at her. He pushed off the tree that was his brief umbrella, pointed to the students in front of him, and said, “Less chatting, more physics!” Even from her perch on this bench fifty meters away, she could hear his Indian-colored English whip the students into silence.
She raised the pink card high into the air again, and again came the air horn blast from the students in front of her. Again, moments later, came the response from an air horn hundreds of meters behind her. Millie put her pink card down by her side and waited while the students recorded their data again. In her brief moment of peace, she shut her eyes and thought about just how cool this actually was. This experiment, something of a ritual for introductory physics students at the Institute, followed in the footsteps of people like Galileo Galilei. His experiment, with two men on different hills flashing lamps at one another to try to measure the speed of light, was the failed and ancient equivalent of this attempt to measure the more humble speed of sound.
“Are you thinking about how fucking cool this is, Millie? Because you’ve got your eyes shut and that look on your face.”
Millie opened her eyes to see Aneesh standing a few feet in front of her. “What are you doing here? Who’s watching the students take their data?”
Aneesh looked over her shoulder and nodded. Millie turned and saw that a policeman on a bike had been standing behind her and that another couple of cops had just pulled up in a cruiser. They’d driven up the sidewalk from the roads flanking the quad and were now parked just meters from Millie, who was still standing on the bench.
“Oh, shit shit shit,” she said.
“Ma’am,” said one of the officers, who was wiggling a finger in one of his ears, “I’m gonna need you to step down from there and tell me what is going on.”
Millie hopped off the bench and approached the officer. Another car pulled up behind her. The two cars and the bike cop now had basically penned Aneesh and Millie in. Students crossing the quad were beginning to stop and watch.
“What’s the matter, officer?” Millie asked, squinting in the sun.
“We go a complaint . . . actually, we got several complaints . . . of noise on the quad. Are you making all that noise, ma’am?”
“Complaints? Yes, well, we are making that noise. These students,” she said, pointing at the group of students nearest her, “are doing this for a class and the horns are part of that.”
“You realize there are other classes going on, ma’am, and that we’re getting complaints that your horns are disrupting those classes?”
Millie didn’t know what to say. Professor Buck had been doing this lab this way every semester for 10 years, and nobody had ever complained before. She wasn’t sure where this was headed, but the five police officers now on the scene suggested nothing good would come of this.
“I teach for Dr. Buck, and he told me to do the lab this way. It’s the only way the students can collect this data.”
“Just WHAT are you doing with those horns?” another one of the police asked.
Aneesh chimed in. “We’re measuring the speed of sound.”
“Look you two, this is a use of the grounds. If you use the grounds like this, you gotta have a permit. You can get one from folks in Facilities, but you ain’t gonna get one on short notice today. You’re bothering a lot of people right now.”
“I came up behind one of those student back there,” the bike cop gestured toward the group of students further away, “and they blasted that horn and my ears are still ringing. At least the students have ear protection. What about everybody else?”
Millie realized that class was over, no matter what she did or said now. The police weren’t going to let this continue, there was no way to get a permit, and she was going to have to cancel the other two lab classes that day. All of them were measuring the speed of sound that day, and none of them were going to get to do it.
It was at this point that things got weird. “Ma’am, you gotta understand that 9/11 changed everything. People get jumpy. Lots of strange noises on a college campus. You can’t just go around making strange noises in broad daylight on a college campus.”
Millie shot a look at Aneesh, who was doing his best to not laugh. He managed to calmly say only, “No offense, sir, but it’s a little strange to be told to watch our noise level on a college campus.”
It was at this point that all police eyes zeroed in on Aneesh. It was also at this point that Millie realized the policeman in front of her had been keeping one hand on his sidearm this entire time. Strange air horn signals on the quad. A dark-skinned male involved. Millie’s heart started to race. Until now, it had been amusing but manageable. Somehow, in the last 30 seconds, a new line had been crossed.
“Sir, I need you to understand,” said the cop in front of Millie, “that you can’t use the grounds to measure sound without having the proper permit. You’re disturbing other classes, and this whole thing stops right now.”
“Don’t we already know the speed of sound?” asked one of the other cops.
Millie screwed up her face at him and was about to say something when he waved her off. “I’m just kidding,” he said, and broke eye contact.
“Take these students, pack up, and try to find another place to do this class. Can’t you go to an empty field or something? This is a city. You can’t just be making all this noise here.”
Millie gestured to the students closest to her, yelling “Pack it up!”
“Thanks, officers. Sorry to waste your time.”
“We’re on duty, ma’am. You’re not wasting our time.”
With that, the cops eased back and started to disperse. Millie looked at Aneesh and realized he’d gone stiff. He didn’t move a muscle until he was sure that the cops didn’t think him a threat anymore. Millie clapped him on the shoulder and said, “C’mon, let’s pack this up. I’ll call Buck, and let him know we got in trouble.”
“I don’t understand why this never happened before,” Aneesh said. “Buck says he’s been doing this 10 years without anybody making a stink.”
“Our lucky year,” Millie said as they walked back to the students.