Lateral Thoughts Physics World  July 2017

A chemist in physicists’ clothing

(Matthew Partridge / errantscience.com)

I am a biochemist, a vocation that has little to do with physics. I will grant you that everything is based on some form of physics, but if you have a complex physics equation to solve you aren’t going to be calling the biochemist – not unless the answer you are looking for is “have you tried a different pH?” Despite this, I currently work in a physics engineering group.

I initially thought that there had been a mistake in human resources and eventually someone would come around and frogmarch me towards the life sciences. But no-one came, and rather than releasing me into a department of other like-minded biology and chemistry types, the university actually closed what little life science was left elsewhere. As the last biochemist left standing, I was afraid that the university’s crack downsizing teams would find this final bastion of biochemistry and excise me too. Instead, I’ve spent seven years here, and so far all that’s happened is I’ve learnt a lot about physics. Also, my colleagues have discovered that if they call everything I do “squishy stuff” my left eye twitches. It’s been a truly multidisciplinary heaven.

Being the lone biochemist has given me a unique, outside perspective on physicists; one that I think is worth sharing. Much like Jane Goodall’s excellent documentaries on living with gorillas; my time in the physics department is basically the same, but with more lasers and fewer leaves (although the amount of poop being thrown is about the same). I think where Goodall had it easy though, was that she and the gorillas are clearly different. I mean, you could find some similarities – two eyes, four limbs, both have hair that I’m weirdly jealous of – but they are essentially dissimilar.

Physicists and biochemists are tougher – sure, some still have hair I’m jealous of, but the core differences are more nuanced. Take, for example, respective appreciation of risk. Being a biochemist, my knowledge of electronics and lasers is frankly shameful; while my colleagues have the kind of awareness of chemical hazards that I’d expect from people who stopped studying chemistry in high-school. I, therefore, have a very healthy respect for lasers, wear all the prescribed “personal protective equipment”, and try to spend as little time around them as possible. My colleagues on the other hand treat my chemical labs much like one would treat an unexploded landmine that you’d just seen a teenager give a swift kick to.

This is the case despite my very careful explanation that the big bottle labelled “saline solution” is about as scary as an enthusiastic hug, and the brightly coloured stuff is not some new deadly toxin, but food-dye I use to visualize a reaction. Similarly, I still insist on wearing two pairs of safety glasses and an all-body laser shield, despite my colleagues showing me that most of the lasers in the optics labs would probably burn out their flash-lamps before they did me any actual damage.

Problem-solving is even more of a gulf as my colleagues typically use careful design and modelling to solve a problem, while I apparently do so with “glowing chemicals”. They’re not wrong most of the time, but there are options – sometimes I solve problems with explosive glowing stuff, while other times it’s smelly glowing stuff.

Our respective levels of planning also seem to differ – I once asked a colleague for help on a project and they were shocked and horrified to know that my forethought consisted of “I reckon this might be the best concentration.” This same colleague, however, had been working on the precise settings and conditions for their experimental rig for months. While I can’t fault the fact that their experiment worked perfectly when switched on, to me that’s witchcraft, not science!

I’m convinced that the months of planning that my physics colleagues require is mostly spent on trying to sort out all of their kit, from the billion tiny wires and small screws that are liberally distributed into every drawer and shelf. The optics labs often look as though someone took a stack of hardware catalogues from the late 1990s and fed them into a shredder pointed at the doorway to the lab, showering it with pictures of tiny out-of-date components. My chemical lab, by contrast, is a model of carefully segregated and neatly catalogued chemicals, with a special cupboard for glassware and other equipment. Every surface is clean and clear of mess, with just the occasional beaker drying on the side of the sink. This description is entirely true and accurate, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the fact that my colleagues never actually come into my lab for fear of being dissolved or poisoned.

Working in a physics lab is a challenging experience for a biochemist. I live in constant fear that at any time one of my colleagues is going to demand that I explain Maxwell’s equations or be deported (I’m pretty sure they indicate the correct amount of instant coffee to use, right?). But I think the biggest challenge of being in a physics lab is that I’ve ended up working with a diverse range of people who are all interested and excited about all kinds of science aimed at solving a problem in ways that neither of us would have ever considered on our own. Quite simply, it’s exhausting. I think I’d rather go live with the gorillas in the mist.