#sciconfessions: Our bloggers spill their darkest secrets

On August 1, 2013

Over the last few days, scientists have been telling all on Twitter. Failed experiments, stupid mistakes, accidental E. coli poisoning… you name it, someone has admitted to it. See the latest #sciconfessions here.

We asked our bloggers to share their scientific confessions that don’t fit into 140 characters.

Have your own? Tweet with #scionfessions or tell us in the comments. And if it’s really too scandalous to attach your name to, don’t forget you can comment anonymously…

Andy Newsam is an astronomer, but even he gets lost in the night sky:

Confession: I have no idea how to find my way around the night sky. None at all. On a really good night, I can find Polaris and perhaps Orion, but then I get lost.

Perhaps the strangest thing about this confession, though, is about half my colleagues are exactly the same – we are all fascinated by how the universe works, but have very little idea where anything actually is.

Thankfully, now, I have a mobile phone that can guide me around the sky – day or night – thereby preserving a veil around my ignorance…

Former medical physicist Jude Dineley was once stumped by background radiation:

We all have experiments in our past that have gone horribly wrong. One from my days as a baby physicist involved measuring the count rate from a gamma-emitting radioactive source.

My undergraduate lab partner and I did all the right things, or so we thought: we repeated measurements over several minutes each for both the natural background radiation and the source. But each time, we got a background count higher than the source count.

How this happened remains a mystery. Potential causes ranged from the pragmatic (we miscalculated our errors), the embarrassing (an impressive ineptitude at conducting basic scientific measurements), the suspicious (did our cheeky lab demonstrator give us an inactive source?) and the fantastic (were there mysterious tidal currents of granite moving about our physics building, throwing out our background measurements?).

As a postdoc, Philip Moriarty found himself channeling Basil Fawlty when an experiment wouldn’t go his way:

2:00 am on a wet and windy autumn morning back in the mid-nineties, in Room A123 of the Physics Department (as it was then called) of the University of Nottingham. I was a postdoc and the experiment that I’d been working on for the last thirty hours straight – positioning of single molecules – had failed right at the crucial moment.

I was, shall we say, a mite peeved by this. So I turned my frustration on the ultrahigh vacuum scanning probe microscope system I was using, loudly berating it in the style of Basil Fawlty – “I’ve laid it on the line for you time and time again” – but with a lot more swearing.

After a couple of minutes of venting my spleen, I turned round to face a security guard who had been doing the rounds, heard the commotion, and unbeknownst to me had let himself into the lab.

“Is everything quite all right, sir..?”

Jim Al-Khalili, nuclear physicist and broadcaster, has a lot to get off his chest. He explains why he chose theoretical physics, the right way to clean a blackboard, and why sometimes two beers is too many:

As a student, I decided on theoretical physics as a career path over experimental physics after narrowly avoiding electrocuting myself. I was cleaning out a vacuum chamber containing high voltage electrodes and had forgotten to unplug them first. How I didn’t get zapped with 4000 volts I’ll never know. But I realised I would be a liability in a lab and chose the safer option of working with equations and computer programs.

When I first began lecturing over 20 years ago, I had to practice wiping the blackboard in slow long strokes rather than short fast ones and thus avoid wiggling my bum comically. I recall asking a class to comment on the improvement in my technique.

While at a nuclear physics conference I spent several seconds apologising to a man walking towards me in a bar while heading along a dark corridor on my way to the Gents – after the always embarrassing manoeuvre of both of us simultaneously shifting in the same direction, then the other, several times in a bid to walk past each other – before realising I was standing in front of a mirror. I had only had two beers.

Suzie Sheehy explains how to get rid of an overbearing supervisor:

Some PhD students in a research group I know were having a problem with a domineering supervisor who was constantly in their offices peeking over their shoulders at their work. They had been scratching their heads about how to keep this supervisor out without having to lock the door. One day a student discovered the supervisor didn’t like smell of bananas. Next thing you know, all the students on that corridor suddenly had an inexplicable LOVE for bananas and needed a huge basket full of them at all times in their offices. Problem solved.

Athene Donald’s Professorship title was chosen very carefully:

From the time I sent a plug of carbohydrate material flying across the biology class at school when heating Fehling’s solution, and later when I leaked alcohol from a burette into a Bunsen Burner flame at A-level;  through the time I stuck a glass rod through the bottom of a glass test-tube in which I’d finally isolated the right compound in my first year undergraduate Chemistry exam; to the delicate electron microscopy stages I repeatedly damaged at the start of my PhD, I’ve always been a ham-fisted experimentalist. That’s why I chose Professor of Experimental Physics as the title of my Professorship — lest I ever forget!

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One Response to #sciconfessions: Our bloggers spill their darkest secrets

  1. It was some time in the mid-80s when the price of laser devices began to drop. The only problem was that their power supplies were quite demanding, in terms of voltage and current, and hence price (before the days of switched-mode supplies). However, I’d heard that a large colour TV power supply unit could be modified to drive the lasing device (can you guess where this is going?)
    I’m not exactly sure what actually caused the disaster but when I plugged it in for the first time and powered up the laser, the mains power in the whole lab tripped. This wasn’t in itself a serious problem; it was 8pm and everyone had probably gone home.
    But I soon discovered that the power was out on the whole of the third floor the lab was on. I decided to cut my loses and head homeward. On the way out of the building, I realised it had actually taken out the whole building. Worse still, walking home, the two adjacent buildings were in complete darkness, on one side the City library and on the other the Council Offices and Guildhall As I remember Gerry Rafferty was due to perform that night). The next day I had an all-day meeting at another university. The day after that I returned to work. I didn’t say anything and neither did anyone else.
    The next time I touched a lasing device was about twenty years later when I acquired a laser pointer. I still use it with some trepidation to this day.