I had a hard drive failure the other day, which naturally got me to thinking about backing up data, and about the times I’ve been more paranoid about it. I wrote my PhD dissertation back in those far-off days (1988) when you could put Mac versions of Word and Chem-Draw on one 3.5-inch disk (yes, that was possible, and I still have the disk to prove it). But I went to the disk-swapping trouble of putting my dissertation-in-progress on a separate floppy.

So there I was, with a couple of week’s worth of dissertation draft on my floppy disk, when one fine day I insert the thing into the slot, and. . .it can’t be read. Hrm. I try other machines. I try them all. None of them can read the disk, under any conditions. It slowly dawns on me that my two weeks of work have evaporated, and a little later it dawns on me that things could have been much, much worse. I converted to the Backup Religion.

Grad students writing up tend to get a bit paranoid under the best conditions. Once I made my backup copy, I realized that I might run into a problem with the floppy drive – what if it subtly ruined my disk? Then one floppy would apparently be bad, so I’d feed the next one in, and the evil drive would chew that one up too. Hmm – better have three copies. I decided to keep one in my lab dsek, one at home, and one in my car. But then I started thinking of the unlikely – but still possible! – combinations of drive failures, fires, accidents, etc. that could still wipe me out. In the end, I had, I think, five separate copies of the dissertation in progress: one back at my apartment, one in the car, one in the lab desk, one back in a drawer by my hood, and one in my coat. I never needed any of the backups at all.

But it was a comfort to know that they were there, and mentally I needed all the backup capacity I could get in those days. Late one night I was awakened by a host of fire trucks roaring down the street. I lived only a quarter-mile from the chemistry building, and I found myself wondering, there at three in the morning, if that’s where they were headed. Ah, but I had my latest dissertation disks. But. . .I also had all the hard copies of my NMRs there in my lab. Aargh. (I should note that digital backups of NMR data were quite rare back in that era, at least in much of academia). What if the building caught on fire?

Worse, what if I’d been the cause? Had I really turned off that heating mantle when I left at midnight? Or did I just think that I had? Wasn’t there a bottle of hexane in my hood? (I did mention that this was three in the morning, right? Why the brain gets into these loops at that hour is a mystery, because that kind of thinking is normally alien to me, as my wife, to whom it’s second nature, will tell you). So I sat there, wondering if my lab and my data were at that moment going up in flames, until I finally rolled out of bed and called the lab. Ring. Ring. Ring. “Hello?” I recognized the voice – it was Randy, down the hall – but I suddenly realized that I didn’t know what to say to him. “So the lab’s not on fire?” didn’t seem like a good conversation starter, so I just hung up, and went back to sleep.

The next day I made my late-morning entrance into the lab, and ran into Randy. “How late were you here last night?” I asked him. “Oh, really late”, he said, and looked at me. “How did you know?”, he asked, and I looked embarrassed. “Hold it,” he said, “that was you, wasn’t it? You must have heard all those fire trucks going past! Thought the lab was on fire, didn’t you?” All I could do was turn red, because he had me.

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