An explosive finale to a hammer-and-drill duet

June 26, 2008

It would drive any lecturer to distraction - the constant noise of drilling and hammering interrupting a key and complex lecture to a hundred attentive students.

After months of similar problems - and with the workmen in a neighbouring room apparently going out of their way to provoke him - John Allen, professor of biochemistry at Queen Mary, University of London, had reached the end of his tether.

When his students agreed that the interruptions were being deliberately orchestrated, and after several polite requests to the workmen to keep the noise down, he burst into the corridor and gave them what he refers to as "the hairdryer treatment".

A recording of the lecture, which corroborates his claims of provocation, is explosive.

Professor Allen is heard screaming at the contractors to "shut the fuck up" - to gasps from his second-year students - before proceeding with his lecture on the chemiosmotic hypothesis, an explanation of how cells convert energy.

"I get these idiomatic expressions from my family's taste in Hollywood action movies," he told the students on his return to the lecture room. "Do they imagine that I can't interfere with them because they're doing the work of the university?"

Speaking to Times Higher Education, Professor Allen said: "This had been going on for weeks, and I started with polite, civilised requests but it cut no ice with these guys. We got to a situation where they didn't have much to do if they were going to keep quiet, so they decided to wind me up.

"Two guys were using a hammer and drill together as a duet, so I went over and said fairly robustly that I'd already asked them to keep it down.

"They backed off, but then they sent a guy walking past whistling to see what effect that would have, and then set off a symphony of tools operating.

"I am not proud of this, but what else can you do in extremis?"

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