Frederick Ogden Nash (August 19, 1902 – May 19, 1971), often referred to simply as ‘Ogden Nash’, was an American poet with a signature style of whimsical light verses replete with puns, deliberate misspellings, strangely irregular meter, but always ending in rhymes. Having read Ogden Nash as a child, I always find his poems delightful and utterly enjoyable. I recently came to know that I have another connection to him; apparently, Ogden Nash, a New Yorker by birth, called Baltimore his home, having moved there in 1934, and the Johns Hopkins Hospital was where he was being treated for complications of Crohn’s Disease, and sadly, breathed his last. [Source: Ogden Nash Biography]
A long time ago, back in April 2010, I wrote a quasi-ranty post on the erstwhile NatureBlogs on the subject of spam comments I received to my posts. Many folks amongst my co-bloggers at that time shared their experiences. After the move to Scilogs and the WordPress platform, the super-efficient spam filter manages to keep spam at bay with virtually zero false positives. It is, therefore, with a sense of nostalgia that I sometimes visit my Spam Comments folder in the WordPress Admin dashboard, and with a flick of a button – poof! – they are gone forever, consigned to whatever digital hell (or Phantom Zone) deleted spam comments are banished to. However, sometimes, they do have some gems amongst them, worth preserving for posterity because of their sheer surreal quality. Here are a few examples.
Things I learn from Twitter!!
Someone in my rapidly-flowing Twitter-stream posted a link to this brilliant 2005 study from Australia; my apologies for not remembering who posted the link. If someone knows, do let me know and I shall correct the attribution here.
The study by Lim et al., of the Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health Research, Macfarlane Burnet Institute for Medical Research and Public Health, in Melbourne, Australia, was published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), and is freely accessible via PubMed Central: BMJ (2005) 331 (7531): 1498–1500.
This group of epidemiologists decided to apply time-honored epidemiological tools to a seemingly intractable and mystifying problem – the disappearance of stainless steel teaspoons from the tea-room of the institute, framed elegantly by the authors in the paper as “Where have all the bloody teaspoons gone?”.
The authors’ urge to do a systematic study to make some sense of the phenomenon of teaspoon loss was spurred on, it appears, by inexplicable betrayals by Google, Google Scholar, and Medline searches, all of which – probably in on the conspiracy – refused to reveal any pertinent information in response to the keywords “teaspoon”, “spoon”, “workplace”, “loss” and “attrition”. Aiming to answer two questions,
- To figure out the overall rate of loss (defined, rather sweetly, as ‘displacement’) of teaspoons at the institute, and
- To find if any possible correlation exists between the said displacement and the relative value of the teaspoons or type of tearoom,
the authors designed a longitudinal (involving repeated observations of the same variables over a period of time) cohort study, employing 70 teaspoons, discreetly numbered and placed in tearooms around the institute, and observed weekly over a period of 20 weeks, a total of 5668 teaspoon days (teaspoon days = sum of all the days on which the teaspoons were observed). They proceeded with great planning – doing first a small pilot study to determine feasibility, followed by a main study with a larger cohort.
During the main study, half of the total teaspoons disappeared permanently (defined as the ‘half life of the teaspoons’) in 81 days. The type of tearoom setting (communal vs. isolated rooms linked to specific departmental programs) affected the rate of loss, with more spoons leaving the former than the latter. Surprisingly, the quality of the material (stainless steel) of the spoon was not a factor in the rate of loss – an observation which adequately allays my suspicion that this study was covertly funded by the Association of Cutlery Plasticware Manufacturers of Australia. (Not that I am aware of the existence of such an entity; nevertheless…)
The authors discovered that the incidence of teaspoon loss was high enough to warrant an annual purchase of estimated 250 teaspoons, in order to maintain a practical institute-wide population of 70 teaspoons, and concluded that office teaspoons, in their institution, are under constant threat of disappearance. Which is perhaps not surprising, given that, in a follow-up questionnaire, 38% of respondents (from a pool of 90-odd employees) admitted to stealing a teaspoon at least once in their lifetime, and 17% disagreed that stealing teaspoons is wrong.
Attempting to explain the phenomenon of uncontrollable teaspoon displacement, the authors have drawn a parallel with noted ecologist Garrett Hardin’s essay, The Tragedy of the Commons, an instance of over-exploitation of shared resources by individuals, who – in spite of being aware that the depletion of shared resources is ultimately detrimental to all users – nevertheless persist in that behavior finding no harm in the fractional loss via their own agency. To me, this also hearkens back to the story (of uncertain provenance, heard during childhood) of a king who had urged his people to donate a jar of milk, one jar from each household, to the royal pond during the night. Everyone thought that one could simply pour, unnoticed, a jar of water in the pond, since everyone else was sure to bring milk. The following morning pond was only filled with water, since everyone was driven by the exact same thought of self-entitlement.
The authors have, as a result, recommended the development of effective control measures to deter the migration of teaspoons, ranging from designing (or renovating) tearooms – which, in my opinion, should probably be equipped with continuously monitored surveillance equipment – to tagging individual teaspoons via Microchips and Global Positioning Satellite (GPS)-based tracking systems. Other intriguing possibilities, proffered subsequently by other distinguished researchers with experience of similar predicaments, include:
- Immobilisation, or altogether non-provision of the teaspoons as alternative solutions to manage their disappearance [T Watts, BMJ (2006) 332 (7533): 121]
- The reappearance of truant teaspoons on their own following a day of complete unavailability of the said items, which may reduce the anticipated need for repurchase [K Darton, BMJ (2006) 332 (7533): 121]
- Inherent flexibility in the very definition of ‘teaspoons’ (given the various modes in which spoons may be utilized) which may invalidate the very premise of the study [D Silver, BMJ (2006) 332 (7533): 121]
- Potential confounding factors, which have not been considered in the design or analysis of the study, including the numbers of tea-bags, forks, and the ratio of tea-drinkers vs. instant coffee drinkers [A Woodall, BMJ (2006) 332 (7533): 121]
In a comment, B Herer, a physician from France, alerted to the possibility that this may be not an Australian or English, but a global, phenomenon, given the observation at his hospital near Paris that approximately 1800 spoons disappeared during lunchtime from the hospital cafeteria during first five months of 2001 [B Herer, BMJ (2006) 332 (7533): 121].
The cynic in me can’t help feeling that this is a sad commentary on the greed and selfishness of human individuals – an idea reinforced by the revelation, in the article, that as many as five potentially lost teaspoons reappeared after the results were disclosed internally. Nevertheless, the authors have brought up two intriguing (albeit speculative) alternative possibilities in the discussion:
- Resistentialism, the belief that inanimate objects have a natural antipathy towards humans, driven by which the teaspoons are migrating and disappearing on their own, or
- Escape to a spoonoid planet; in their words:
Somewhere in the cosmos, along with all the planets inhabited by humanoids, reptiloids, walking treeoids, and superintelligent shades of the colour blue, a planet is entirely given over to spoon life-forms. Unattended spoons make their way to this planet, slipping away through space to a world where they enjoy a uniquely spoonoid lifestyle, responding to highly spoon oriented stimuli, and generally leading the spoon equivalent of the good life.
Any scientific paper, which references the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by the inestimable Douglas Adams (referred in the article in support of the spoonoid proposition), is an absolute winner in my book!
Or, perhaps, there is no spoon?
Oh, and fun stuff I learned from the paper: the word ‘flunky’ – for a research assistant – can be unabashedly incorporated in a scientific paper. Now I simply have to find a context to use it in my next paper.
I got a fascinating list – titled as above – that I could just nod my head to – from my dear wife, who collected it from an emailed newsletter she received from a professional body (N.B. PDF here, open at Page 22, if you are reaaaaally interested. Else, it’s all below).
As a matter of habit, I started looking for the source; I searched Google with the title. And lo! And Behold! What jumps up but Linda Lin’s brilliant post with the same title and photos and all, posted early last year! I felt so sad for not having discovered that gem sooner. To assuage my grief, I promptly (of course!) joined the Facebook group that she mentioned in her post.
I also fondly recollected how much fun I had, dropping various microliter volumes of water onto the remaining liquid nitrogen in an ice bucket, to watch the water freeze instantly into globules of ice. Another perennial favorite has been to pour some dry ice in the sink and turn the water on, to make white, cold, billowy smoke. Sigh!
But I understand. We are busy scientists, and can’t go running to find every little thing, can we? So here is a definitive list, compiled from above-mentioned, multiple sources, for your kind perusal and enjoyment.
“You know you’ve worked in the lab too long when…”
- You say “mills” and “migs”. ✔
- You say “orders of magnitude” in regular sentences. ✔
- You say “conjugation” instead of “sex”, and “pili” sounds dirty.
- You can no longer spell normal words but have no trouble with spelling things like immunohistochemistry or deoxyribonucleic acid.
- You refer to your children as the F1.
- You think the following is a quality insult: “I’ve seen cells more competent than you!”
- You use acronyms for everything and never stop to elaborate. ✔
- You use the word “aliquot” in regular sentences, especially with reference to tea, coffee or curry. ✔
- You flinch when you hear the word “significant”. ✔
- For you, media is something which increases your culture.
- When you hear tween, you think of the surfactant not the age group. ✔
- You are fed up of people saying alcohol, when they mean ethanol.
- SOB is not an insult; it’s what you grow your bugs in.
- You actually threaten your cells whilst waving a bottle of virkon or some other disinfectant.
- You give the lab equipment motivational pep talks: “Work for me today or I’ll reprogram you with a fire axe” is my favorite. ✔
- You’ve seen how far away you can hit a target with a squirty water bottle or seeing how far away from the bin you can fire pipette tips. ✔
- You still get amusement out of “freezing” things in liquid nitrogen. ✔
- You rejoice when grabbing a handful of eppendorfs/bijous/anything and it turns outs to be the exact number you needed. ✔
- You decide the courses and conference you want to go on by the quality of the food served. ✔
- When you start making patterns in your pipette tip box as you take the tips out. ✔
- You’ve played Battleship using tip boxes.
- You’ve used, “I’d like to get into your genes” as a pickup line.
- You have made some kind of puppet out of a nitrile glove and kept it as a pet. ✔
- The scent of latex reminds you of work, not play.
- Safety equipment is optional unless it makes you look cool. ✔
- A timer clipped to the hip is not only practical, but dead sexy.
- People wearing shorts under a lab coat disturb you slightly as they look as though they might be naked underneath. ✔
- You can tell what cheap and expensive white coats look like.
- You hate having to change your lab coat to a new one because ‘it just won’t fit right’ and because the wrist bits are way too tight.
- You’ve never worn a clean lab coat.
- You have an irresistible urge to rip your shirt off superman style because it has press stud fasteners just like your lab coat… Most often occurring as you walk through a door just like exiting the lab… (I prefer to apply the Hulk style to disposable PPE) ✔
- You’ve left the lab wearing a piece of PPE (personal protective equipment) because you forgot you had it on. ✔
- You consider a green laser pointer to be science bling. ✔
- You own Invitrogen t-shirts and actually wear them. ✔
Kitchen and home skillz:
- No matter what the timings in the experiment protocol, there is always time for lunch in the middle.
- When you organize your kitchen cupboard contents the way you would your chemicals… all labeled in alphabetical order.
- Although all cooking is a glorified chemistry experiment you just still can’t seem to get it right.
- You’re also very good at transferring small amounts of liquid between containers. ✔
- You’re very good at diluting things. ✔
- When your fruits go bad and you get fruit flies, you can’t help but check their eye color.
- You open the toothpaste with one hand.
- You want to have parafilm at home too. ✔
- You wonder what absolute alcohol tastes like with orange juice.
- Showing up at 10AM and having a coffee is a productive day. ✔
- You’ve worked out that a trained chimp could probably do 90% of your job. ✔
- You always seem to use the microscope after the person with the impossibly close-set eyes. ✔
- When you say goodnight to your microscope on a Friday night and tearfully hug it goodbye as you won’t see it all weekend.
- You can identify organs on roadkills. ✔
- You can’t wait for lab clean-up because you get to do random pointless “experiments” to figure out what’s in all the dodgy unlabeled bottles.
Accidents & discomfort:
- Accident reports are a badge of honor.
- Warning labels invoke curiosity rather than caution.
- Blinking real fast has saved your eyesight on more than one occasion.
- Burning eyes, nose and throat indicate that you haven’t actually turned on the fumehood/ downdraft bench.
- Liquid nitrogen is only about a 1/3 as dangerous as you thought.
- You bitch about not being able to pipette by mouth any more. ✔
- When you wonder: how much will it hurt if I pour just a smidgen of this phenol/chloroform/ trichloroacetic acid/ any random chemical on myself?
- The fire alarm ceases to bug you. You only evacuate when you see the fire. (Hand on the floor to check for heat is a good indicator.) ✔
C’est la vie:
- No one in your family has any idea what you do. ✔
- Sometime you momentarily vanish from social activities because of a time-point. ✔
- The front page of Science is your light reading.
- You realize that almost anything can be classed as background reading. ✔
- When a non-scientist asks you what you do for a living, you roll your eyes and talk science at them until they’ve lost the will to live.
- When you rejoice when grabbing a handful of eppendorfs/bijous/anything and it turns outs to be the exact number you needed. ✔
- When you’ve got that callus on the side of your thumb from opening PCR tubes (0.5ml and 1.5ml eppendorf tubes for me). ✔
- You are strangely proud of the collection of junk you’ve stolen from vendors at trade shows. ✔
- You can make a short film in Powerpoint. ✔
- You can’t watch CSI without cursing at least one scientific inaccuracy. ✔
- You don’t fear rodents, rodents fear you. ✔
- You have to check the web to find out what the weather is outside. ✔
- You’ve bent down to pick something up off the floor only to scatter the contents of your top pocket under the largest machine in the lab. ✔
Health and Hygiene:
- You wash your hands before and after using the washroom.
- You’ve suffered carpal tunnel from the pipetman. ✔
- You’ve used Kimwipes as Kleenex. ✔
- You’ve wondered why you can’t drink distilled water in the lab- shouldn’t it be clean? ✔
- Your nose invariably itches when you’re doing mucky stuff with your hands so you develop the habit of scratching it on your upper arm. Unfortunately, you sometimes carry this habit over to real life, where it looks like you’re sniffing your armpits. ✔
- You are slightly too fond of the smell of (pick one or many) Xylene/ Agar/ Ethanol/ Undergraduates/ Alcoholic hand-wash.
- You’ve removed your gloves to find a small hole which has left you with either – wrinkly old person hands, a brightly colored finger (histologists especially) or a burning sensation and dermatitis at some point.
Enjoy! I realized that I’ve been guilty of many of these many times (especially ones with a check mark!). Don’t forget to write your favorite or add your own in the comments.
This morning, a friend and colleague of mine forwarded a gem of a forwarded-email to me. Ordinarily, this would elicit a “meh” from me, be glossed over and sent to the trashcan. Not this morning. It was a series of cartoons —focused largely on postdoc life— in Biology! I started idly flicking through, my day’s and week’s lab to-do list fluttering at the back of my mind. But soon all was forgotten. I snickered. I giggled. I guffawed. I bellowed in laughter much to the consternation of myself and my fellow labmates. The cartoons were FULL of WIN —and now it is my sacred duty to disseminate them as widely as possible… After all, misery loves company!!
I came to the Nature Network seeking intellectual stimulation. Of that, I do have plenty. But I believe that now NN may even be offering a different kind of stimulation. Or, more likely I think, finally my geek cred is being recognized and appreciated, and my charm is having an effect!