Sunday, March 19, 2006

Life in the Lab

I'm really enjoying Chad Orzel's "true lab stories." I linked to his first post in the series, which involved a two-liter soda bottle filled with liquid nitrogen, sealed, and dropped in the bathroom sink. The key words were "earth shattering KABOOM."

He's followed up with a link to a similar story involving a whole tank of liquid nitrogen. This time the key words are "all of the remaining walls of the lab were blown 4-8 inches off their foundations."

Most recently, he's posted a story of his own involving a lab flood. Our lab has had a couple of those, but no really bad ones since I got there. If you don't work in a lab, you probably think the most horrifying words in this story are "the fire department had already been called by the people in the lab downstairs, who came in to find a little waterfall running over the circuit breaker boxes on one wall of their lab"

But our lab has almost exactly the same technology that he describes in this post (only not two but *three* Ti:sapphire laser, each pumped by argon lasers... Or actually, four of each, if you count the ones that don't work. I won't get into the other lasers.) These are fussy, touchy, bad tempered machines that get sick frequently, and have to be painstakingly nursed back to health with days of tweaking. So I know that the most horrifying words are "The external cavity module was literally full of water-- when my supervisor picked it up and turned it on its side, it took a good ten seconds for all the water to drain out. We had to dismantle the whole thing, and clean every single surface."

And the idea of having to remove and clean every single optic (an "optic" is a mirror, a lens, a prism pair, or anything else that the laser beam hits on its way from the laser to the atoms you're aiming it at. There are dozens of things in each beam path, hundreds on a table) makes me shudder. It may give me nightmares.

I doubt that people who aren't optical experimentalists will fully appreciate these stories, but just in case anyone reads the blog in order to get a flavor of what life as a scientist is like... Well, even these stories make it sound more glamorous than it really is. But they're more accurate than any science fiction I've ever seen. A lot of science is trying to fix things that got broken in stupid accidents. When anything works, you don't change it, even if it could theoretically work better. It's almost impossible not to be superstitious, when so many things seem to happen for no better reason than that the universe it out to get you.

I have stories like this from our own lab, of course, but I think I'll wait until I've safely graduated to tell them in public.

1 comment:

Colst said...

"When anything works, you don't change it, even if it could theoretically work better."

Truer words and all that. I'm a spectroscopist building my own instruments and every time I think of a better way to do what I've already done... well, lets just say some things just go untried in the interest of not wrecking everything so I can graduate one of these days.