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Sunday, July 10, 2016

Peace in the lab

One of the first things I noticed when I started working in the lab was the lack of noise. No one felt the need to fill in the absence of sound with workday radio, podcasts, or the coffee shop buzz that is available on a livestreaming feed. The silence was only cut by the occasional hum and click of machines. At first I thought I might ask to bring in my much loved public radio broadcaster which is ever-present in my home but after a day of silence, I decided quiet was preferable.

Even on that first day, when I was inputting data into a spread sheet, I noticed the novelty of silence. It is such a rare commodity these days. As I focused on my data sets, they took on meaning and patterns appeared leading me to make observations about the research environment which I had not actually observed first hand. It was a surprise when I realized I could see the stream in my mind's eye through the numbers.

Work in the lab has progressed from data input to actual experiments and collection of data but there is still the silence; and I like it. The lab has become a kind of oasis from both noise and people. This being summer there are no students in the hall and very few people in the building. On my floor, I can easily count on one hand the number of people I see every day...and that is a very different life than the one I inhabit as a reporter where I am constantly in touch with people, it is the job description.

In the lab you get drawn into the small triumphs; when a measurement is a perfectly even number, when a specimen is quickly and easily located, when a dish of samples all turn out to be the same species – these are daily wins that give me a secret thrill.

And then there are the specimens in question. The animals I am working on are small water bugs similar to the relatively well-known caddish fly. They protect themselves by assembling a outer-case of stream debris, typically small grain particles. To the naked eye they look like small pieces of bark but under the microscope they are a mosaic of colours finished with a glistening shellac. The beauty of the world is astonishing and I am thankful that I have this opportunity to witness it. Without the lab, I never would have known about these miracle mosaics.

It is often remarked that experts know nothing in the world other than their speciality. Working in the lab I can see how this occurs. The lab is a bubble that insulates you against everything that happens outside of the lab. You become fascinated by everything in the lab to the point where there is no room for anything else. Once you open the pandora's box of scientific investigation it leads from the inaugural question to hundreds more, perhaps creating a lifetime of work on one seemly obscure insect, plant, or cellular function. Science is a rabbit hole that many plunge into like a high diver, moving deeper and deeper into the depths of the burrow. It is a comfortable place to be especially when the rest of the world is in turmoil.

The other morning I woke to reports of a shooting in Dallas, Texas. Five policemen were dead and others were wounded. I was happy to escape into the lab away from the non-stop coverage of the event. I am not saying one should ignore the news and pretend the world doesn't exist but I do think it is beneficial to turn it off. One news report a day will likely keep you abreast of all the major world events; remember when news was something we sat down to watch for half an hour an evening. We did not seem to be any less informed but I do think we were less traumatized.

The lab is good; a silent mediation focused on small insects. I enjoy their microscopically visible eyes, I occassionally talk to the specimens especially if they are easily found and measured and I appreciate the discipline of concentrating on one thing, with no outside distractions, for several hours a day. The lab is a doorway to another world where I unplug from one dimension and inhabit another. It is a good place to be.

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