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How I was helped by Superman

By Geraldo A. Barbosa

The title may lead you to expect a cartoon story. Comical it may be, but it happened in real life. I am one of the few people–perhaps the only person–ever rescued by Superman.

In the late 1970s, I was a professor of physics in Brazil, where I was building an optics laboratory at a federal university. I had graduated from the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, where lasers had already become common laboratory equipment. It was also quite common to encounter problems with these newly created marvels. The laser companies, eager to please and increase their clientele, always helped as much as they could. They replaced defective tubes and fixed electronics at lightning speed. Just a telephone call, and zap! All problems solved.

Back in Brazil, inflation was roaring and the bureaucracy created complex processes for the expenditure of any government funds. For overseas purchases, the red tape was almost impossible to cut through. The simplest request could take more than a year to be approved through an exasperating rigamarole of form-filling, stamps, signatures, and various other formalistic delays designed to forestall expenditures–preferably until the resquestor changed careers or died of old age. Even replacing an item under warranty could take more than a year, and required the same expedition through all the red tape a fertile mind could dream up.

In my lab a new Coherent-brand krypton laser tube proved defective. I called Coherent, explained the problem, and asked them to prepare a replacement. They promised to do everything as fast as possible. I also explained the many Brazilian bureaucratic steps necessary to perform this exchange so they could help meet the requirements.

A few days later my phone rang. An angry customs officer complained that a large box with my name on it had arrived, and that it was presently violating all applicable laws and import policies. Coherent had just placed the new tube in a box and shipped it as they would do in California–without any documentation. This was a mortal sin against our bureaucracy. Apart from storage fees, the volume of supposed illegalities created a huge sum of taxes and fines to be paid. Collecting all possible composure, I tried to explain the whole story and emphasized that this equipment actually belonged to the federal government. Deaf ears. Insurmountable barriers. A serious offense had been committed.

Days passed. I tried phone calls, technical consultations, legal support, but found no sign of a breach in the steel chain around this problem. Even worse, although the address was at the university, it was my name on the box. The problem would crash directly on my head.

I decided to try face to face negotiation. I went to customs to talk to the officer involved. The explanation was simple and, I thought, persuasive: there was no purchase, it was only a replacement. And anyway, it already belonged to the same government that was now in effect trying to tie its own hands and charge itself an import fee. I begged his understanding, and again hit the same brick wall.

In desperation, I demanded a written document. If I could not leave customs with the box at that moment, then I would have to be released from any responsibility in case that fragile tube cracked, leaking the rare krypton gas into the atmosphere where it might contact innocent bystanders. I required that the document would detail my failed attempts to remove this complex piece of equipment from the customs warehouse.

Suddenly this became a delicate situation for the officer–not an expert on rare gases, I hoped. He called a few colleagues aside to deliberate over the problem’s new dimensions. I recall glances alternating between the laser-tube box and me, and nervous whispers. I heard one of them speak the words “Kryptonite” and “Superman.” A few minutes later, the officer in charge emerged and told me that as a special exception they were going to liberate my equipment, and would I please take it away as soon as possible?

So, do you know anyone else who was ever rescued by a superhero? Got yourself in a tight spot? Blocked by bureaucratic red tape? Call me: I have a friend who can help you.

Geraldo Barbosa is a professor of physics at Northwestern University.

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Editor: Alan Chodos
Contributing Editor: Jennifer Ouellette
Staff Writer: Ernie Tretkoff