Simple science can be clever science


Science sometimes requires skills like Macgyver’s. Image credit:

Science has made leaps and bounds in recent decades with the development of sophisticated instruments that measure deeper and deeper into our world. Discoveries can now be made that confirm the existence of gravitational waves, the structure of proteins and everything in between. This is a golden age of scientific exploration.

And yet there isn’t a laboratory in the entire world that could function adequately without such equipment as a marker pen.

When we talk science and stand in awe at our capabilities and technological advances, it’s easy to forget that much of science uses very rudimentary equipment. Particularly in applied science where a new project with industry means having to measure a characteristic of a real world sample right now.

This includes, for example, the level of sediment in a tank. How do we measure it? Get out a marker pen and draw a line on the tank where the sediment comes up to. Genius.

Or when we need to compare the filterability of samples too small for the real method, how do we do it? Pour the sample through the filter paper and mark the receiver flask with the volume filtered every 10 seconds. Marker pen wins again!

The genius of early scientists was in developing ways measure the world around them. Today determining the structure of an unknown molecule, for example, is very straightforward, as long as you have a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer and mass spectrometer handy and really, who doesn’t? But a century ago this was a real challenge and involved a massive array of indirect measures to get the final structure. And some genius. That always helps.

Even in modern labs, it is an invaluable skill to be able to develop practical and reproducible methods on the fly using everyday, inexpensive lab equipment. Sophisticated equipment is essential but expensive and any cost savings to a research budget is applauded.

Particularly if there is a solid element of ingenuity associated with it. Like rigging up a large hadron collider in the basement using rubber bands and lengths of pipe. I think that might have actually been a Macgyver episode.

While high tech science paves our way to a deeper understanding of the universe, we must remember that it is also the simple things in science that help push that knowledge forward.


Barbequing ‘healthy’ alternatives


Australia Day BBQs. Where ‘yummy’ trumps ‘healthy’

Australia day for many is an obligatory day of barbeques. The sausages are cooked to perfection with charcoal on the outside and still some raw bits in the middle and often stuck between slices of ultra-white bread with tomato sauce. Then eaten. And washed down with beer.

In terms of healthy eating, this is an epic fail. Never mind the fat content of the sausages or the carbohydrate load of the bread, charred meat is straight up carcinogenic. But we won’t mention that because it’s Australia day and it’s a barbeque and stop being so un-Australian.

Exactly what constitutes healthy eating is the subject of ongoing online debates with the same foods killing or curing you in equal measure. As far as I can tell, everything inexpensive and readily available seems lethal while expensive and precious super-foods are the only things that can save humanity.

Different diets have surged in popularity over the years and each have very loyal followers. Team Paleo hold the romantic idea of eating as our ancestors did all those millennia ago without acknowledging that we may have changed as a species over that time.

But it’s the rules I don’t get. No potatoes or lentils? That doesn’t even make sense. People have been eating versions of these crops for thousands of years and there seems no reason to stop now.

And yet at its core, the Paleo diet is a good idea. Less processed foods means less refined sugar and more fibre and that has to be beneficial.

Team Alkaline seem to think that anything acidic is evil and anything alkaline is pure and good and disease-preventing. Yet different systems in our bodies have different levels of acidity for different purposes.

The acid in our stomach is perfectly suited to food digestion and enjoyed by the microflora that live there while our blood is ever so slightly alkaline. Both systems are pH-buffered, which means that the extent of acidity or alkalinity won’t change with what we eat, so there seems little point worrying about food pH.

The really confusing part of the Alkaline diet are the explanations as to why it recommends eating acidic fruits like lemons and berries. Apparently lemon juice isn’t actually acidic despite containing large amounts of citric acid. And having a pH of 2, which is less than 7 and therefore, by definition, acidic. My bad.

After a valiant attempt to get over the term “Alkaline”, I realised that this diet does have some really great elements. Basically it says to eat more fruit and green leafy vegetables, drink less alcohol and stop smoking. That’s got to be good for you.

Many of the popular diets may work for some people because they are effectively touting the same tried and true practices that have existed for generations – eat more fruits and vegetables, lentils and grains, eat less fats and sugar and eat meat in moderation. But that’s boring. Better to add some crazy rules and fancy words to make it sound like it’s a completely revolutionary diet that must be tried.

Ultimately, people can and will eat how they like. Curiosity and a willingness to try new foods and test new ideas are always good strategies. For me, I’m happy with the “everything in moderation” approach. Including the odd carefully burnt sausage at a barbeque.

Lab fashion: when safe meets cool

Will lab fashion ever be as universally accepted as active wear?

Orange is the new blue in nitrile gloves as a new wave of safety wear enters the market. These are just like normal nitrile gloves but orange for “Higher Visibility!” and are therefore infinitely safer and I need them. Because they’re orange. And that’s just cool.

Lab wear has come a long way in a short amount of time. Back in the early lab days there were the black rimmed safety glasses, blue gloves, a baggy lab coat and a top pocket full of pens, spatulas and the ubiquitous timer.

This getup was fine to wear in the lab. Everyone looked the same and no one was in a position to judge. Crossing between labs in safety wear is also fine.

But once I wandered in a direction that was not immediately between Lab A and Lab B, forgetting about my safety wear. It was a strange feeling. The further I got from the lab, the more it became uncomfortable to wear all this safety apparel. Not to mention the strange looks I got.

There must be a mathematical equation for the maximum distance one can be from a lab when wearing lab gear and not look out of place. Like the maximum distance you can be from a beach before beach wear looks weird. Pretty sure there’s an Ig Nobel in it for whoever works that out.

Now lab wear is sleek. Tailored lab coats with designer lapels and cuffs, safety glasses with tortoise shell rims, and discreet black gloves in case you’re not feeling the orange.

It is becoming a sort of essential gear in the same way that active wear has dominated fitness. There was a time when exercise was possible in tracksuit pants and baggy t-shirts. Now any sort of activity requires the latest active wear. Will science soon become impossible without wearing new-wave lab gear?

On the bright side, we may be able to wear our safety gear further from the lab than ever before.