Teleporting through the holidays


The wibbly wobbly timey wimey experience of the holiday period

Teleportation and time travel have ignited our imagination for over a century and yet, in so far as I know, neither technology currently exists. While we wait for science reality to catch up with science fiction, there is one way we can and do experience these phenomena, and that is over the holiday period.

Star Trek is the prime example of teleportation used as an effective mode of transport with more favourable outcomes than those depicted in, say, The Fly. My childhood of long car rides and my adult life of even longer plane rides have been plagued with teleportation fantasies.

H.G. Wells created a Time Machine for his intrepid protagonist to travel into the future. The younger version of me was never impressed by this. What is the point of having a time machine if you don’t go into the past to see dinosaurs? A waste. Like buying an expensive sports car just for driving around town.

Of course the car as a time machine in Back to the Future made perfect sense for traveling to places with both fuel and roads. The DeLorean may not cope in dinosaur times but I would be willing to give it a go.

Traveling through both time and space is a tantalizing prospect made famous in Doctor Who with the TARDIS. The possibilities of combining the two concepts in one clunky police box are seemingly endless and surely warrant further research.

Recently, teleportation research has yielded impressive results. Although so far this involves teleporting the state of a particle up to a few meters and not, for instance, me with my luggage to somewhere over the other side of the world. Useful for super-fast internet, not so much for avoiding airport lounges.

As for time travel, there is still much conjecture about whether or not it is even possible. But it is. Because every year at this time many people experience what could only be described as being teleported through time and space. They enter a time warp around December 24th and the next thing they know, it’s early January.

What happened during that between-time is never clear. Only fuzzy memories remain of being very, very full but still finding room for pudding, of being surrounded by lots of people who look vaguely familiar, and, at one point, there being a lot of pretty bright lights and a feeling of heartfelt love for whoever was standing next to them at that moment.

This is the first year for many years that I haven’t worked through the between-time and it’s been amazing. I need to document this time for future reference because certainly by next week it will feel as though I never left work. Which is kind of like traveling through time and space.

I think I’d prefer a TARDIS.

Holidays are for the good of science


Science demands occasional indulgence, especially in the holiday season.  

‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the lab, not a creature was stirring…. except for the odd scientist thinking they can just get ‘one more’ experiment running before the holidays.

In fact the only thing in the lab that even hints at the proximity of Christmas is the gradual accumulation of lab-constructed decorations on the Laboratree. There’s still the scurry of scientists and the whir of instruments in action that gives no indication of the impending holiday.


xmas tree 2014b

Our Laboratree. Like a chemistree but with more yeast-culture ornaments

The lead up to holiday season has been spent planning and executing perfectly timed experiments and constantly calculating how long things should take so I can get the maximum number of results before the break.


But then I think that by coming in just one day between Christmas and New Year I’ll be able to get more experiments running and have the data ready to analyse upon my return! Or maybe I could just work through that time and get so much done because it will be so quiet…

Hang on a minute. Contrary to my presumptions, the world will not in fact end if I don’t get those experiments running during the break.

And, based on the irrefutable truth that experiments will not work on Friday afternoons nor Monday mornings, it follows that experiments also won’t work when started in the stress-out, manic mindset that  is pre-holiday existence.

The experiments are likely to be better planned and conducted after I’ve had a few days off and come back to work in the New Year refreshed and ready, with a relaxed, focused mind. Particularly if I’ve eaten chocolate in that time.

Research shows that chocolate makes us happy, happy people are relaxed and relaxed people don’t make so many stupid mistakes in the lab. The best thing we can possibly do for our projects at this time of year is therefore to take some time off and indulge just a little.

That’s what I’ll keep telling myself anyway.

Before Paris: The humble beginnings of climate change research


Climate change wasn’t always this high-profile

While headlines are made about the official acknowledgement of human-induced climate change this week, more than 30 years ago it was just an odd result that a researcher observed amongst the reams of other data collected for a project. Here’s what might have happened sometime in those first years before “global warming” was established as more than just a crazy nutcase idea:

The researcher’s boss leaned back in his chair and frowned at his employee. “Well obviously you did the measurements wrong,” he said.

The researcher shook his head. “We checked the instrument calibration and the baseline. The nights have definitely been getting warmer over the past few years.”

“Then it’s most likely a sunspot or solar flare,” the boss said. The researcher drew a slow breath. He knew he should have waited til Thursday to tell him. The boss was always more receptive to new ideas on Thursdays.

“The nights are warming,” he said. “The days, not so much. Kind of thought solar activity might change daytime temperatures more.”

The boss sighed. “Natural anomaly then. It’s not like the temperature has never changed before. Write up your other results and don’t mention the temperature thing.”

That researcher did write up his other results but included a comment in the discussion section of the paper about the increasing temperatures. Another researcher somewhere else read the paper, found the comment which happily concurred with her findings and published her results, citing the first paper with a statement to the effect of “See? It’s not just me.”

Now, several decades on, we come to the epic Paris Agreement. It might not be perfect but it’s definitely a start. This is a triumph of thorough research and an ode to the persistence and perseverance of the researchers involved.

And so, for the people who made those original observations and recordings and noted it in peer-reviewed publications, and for all the other people who read the minor comment in those publications and made this the goal of their research, and for all the people who thought the whole thing was bollocks and set out to disprove it but accidentally found more evidence for it, this is victory is yours. Kind of makes it all worthwhile.

Lab rats no longer play when the cat’s gone away


Cats let lab rats play

The best and most fun part about being a research scientist is getting results, making sense of them and adding your new-found knowledge to the pool of scientific understanding. Some might consider something else more fun – like, anything else – but this is my driving force. This is also why I can’t leave the lab for a life of a research manager.

I recently got a taste of managerial life when my boss was off swanning around on leave for a couple of months while the rest of us mere lab rats spread his work load amongst ourselves. It was so much less fun than lab work.

First there was the research project coordination. This was kind of fun. In a way. I was in charge of chasing collaborations with internal and external research groups, keeping tabs on existing projects and attempting to engage other groups in new and improved project ideas.

This also meant chasing funding. Funding applications are fun in much the same way that all-night road works are enjoyable to listen to. And have the same effect on your mood. I have experience in both in recent weeks. In the beginning there is the promise of something new and interesting that could be undertaken. In the end there is just frustration, jarred nerves and exhaustion.

Then there were the mysterious internal processes that were never explained until after I had done something the wrong way. What I thought were very straightforward processes of knowledge dissemination required many rounds of hitherto unheard of approval from people I didn’t know were even interested in the project. This must have been taught somewhere along the managerial succession line and assumed to be common knowledge. Which presumably works well until a lab rat steps into that position all of a sudden.

Finally, and this is the killer, there was the administrative report writing. Wave upon wave of updates and reports that need to be written for everyone from line managers all the way up to the board and the funding body. And never in the same format. Each wanted the report in a slightly different way. This meant hours of non-lab work work and non-academic paper writing writing, which, as a research scientist, made no sense.

For all the trial and tribulations of lab work, the painful, horrible days of accidently spilling something and subsequently having to redo several weeks-worth of work, as well as the carefully planned and executed experiments that for no particular reason just don’t work, it is still so much more enjoyable and rewarding than management.

My boss has now returned to much fanfare and rejoicing. He has again shouldered the managerial burden and we lab rats are free to play in the lab, making data and writing academic papers just as it should be.

Superstitious research


Lucky charms are essential in a research laboratory

Research is based on sound logic with systematic processes, rigorous controls and reproducible outcomes. And yet it is virtually impossible to conduct proper science without delving into superstition. Labs worldwide have developed their own quirky practices to ensure reproducibility in their results.

This is particularly the case when dealing with any sort of instrumentation. One of our instruments only works if you turn it off and then on again and tilt your head to the left when pressing start. Another instrument only works reproducibly if we keep a wooden mallet next to it as a quiet threat. Burning incense is another remedy appeasing instrument gods, though this is potentially counterproductive in GC-Olfactometry.

Any sort of dealings with biological substances always relies on superstition. Yeast and bacteria adamantly won’t grow in the same manner twice if they feel the broth culture wasn’t shaken sufficiently the second time. Or if it was shaken too much. Or if the radio wasn’t playing an agreeable song at the time.

Logically this makes no sense. But for the love of not having to repeat something, I’m happy to indulge in any additions to a method that may improve the results. This includes putting on the right glove before the left, using tips in systematic left to right fashion and cleaning glassware in a particular way to ensure no luck is washed out of it. More great examples here.

Having a background in natural projects chemistry, luck is something I know all about. Many years have been spent searching for new compounds with wide-reaching medical properties from plants and marine organisms. This takes some serious luck. The rewards are well worth the effort with current anti-malarial medicines and the best anti-cancer drugs coming from plants. More are surely waiting to be found.

Luck is essential in any sort of research. The happiest of discoveries come from doing something wrong and it working out all the same. Or doing something right and accidentally discovering something completely different to expected results. And then there are the just-try-it-and-see experiments that actually reveal good results.

Science is unpredictable and this makes research both so stressful and so rewarding. Happily, we can make our own luck. We just need to stay observant, keep taking chances and keep trying new things. Even if logic disagrees.