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.