This article is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert. Please join the mailing list to be notified every time new content is posted.
About the Expert
Today’s expert is nuclear chemist Rebecca Enzor. Rebecca has a BS in biology and chemistry and has spent the last eight years working as a nuclear chemist at an environmental testing laboratory. She writes most of her fantasy novels on sticky notes while dodging explosions in the lab. You can read more about her obsession with science (and My Little Ponies) at her website or in her Twitter feed.
Proper Lab Technique for SFF Writers
Thanks for inviting me to guest post, Dan. As you said, my day job is analytical nuclear chemistry, but I don’t blow things up. Often. When I do it’s a complete accident and a bit scary. Like the time a bit of the Manhattan Project exploded…all over my face. Or the time I dumped radioactive liquid down the front of my pants…a half hour before I had to leave for the airport. Turns out they don’t let you leave the country if you’re radioactive (thank goodness I ripped the pants off in time to keep it from my skin!).
But mostly my job is to test water, soil, and tissue samples for radioactivity, pesticides, herbicides and PCBs. There are a lot of steps in this process – a lot of places where it can go wrong – and we have to have defensible data in court so I have to be very careful when I’m working. Which is why it bugs me so much when scientists in books/movies have a laissez-faire attitude towards how they use their equipment.
What are some of the things you need to keep in mind when writing about laboratory work? Let’s start with PPE.
Proper Protective Equipment (PPE)
Most books/movies get at least the basics of PPE right. After all, what’s a scientist without the white lab coat and oversized safety glasses? And gloves, because no self-respecting scientist is going to touch anything in a lab without gloves on.
But did you know that you can’t wear tennis shoes in some labs? My lab requires leather shoes, preferably slip-on so that if you spill something on them you can quickly slip them off too. You wouldn’t want to have to untie your shoes when there’s hot acid all over the laces. Not to mention the hot acid will seep through the cloth quicker than you can slip the shoe off even if you don’t have laces.
Do you have long hair? You’ll have to put it in a ponytail. Long necklace? Leave it at home. Deep V-neck shirt? You should wear something else. Expose as little skin as possible. Speaking of exposing as little skin as possible: don’t wear a thong in the lab. It’s *really* embarrassing when you spill something dangerous on your pants and have to rip them off, only to leave your butt-cheeks flapping in the breeze for all to see.
Once you’re properly clothed you can finally get to work, but depending on what you’re doing, you might need some special equipment. Working with chemicals? You’re going to need a fumigation hood. (Unless you’re isolating Radium-228, which they’ll let you do on a counter with no hood, even though the acetic acid will give you a headache.)
The biggest thing to know if you’re working with a fume hood is don’t stick your head inside. Because the whole point of the hood is to capture the dangerous fumes and if you stick your head in there your nose will capture the fumes instead. There’s also usually a glass or plastic moveable “door” on the hood that you want to keep closed as often as possible, not only because fumes will escape otherwise, but because it’s a great barrier to all those dangerous chemicals you’re working with. When you add chemicals to other chemicals, they often splash – sometimes they explode. If you don’t want them to explode all over you, there needs to be a barrier.
Other things you might be working with?
- Acid dispensers – definitely use these things in the hood with the barrier between you.
- Centrifuges – make sure they’ve stopped before you go sticking your fingers in there.
- Syringes – well this is just a big DUH.
- Glassware – easy to break and cut yourself. Bonus points if there’s acid, radioactivity, or other nasty things in the glassware to contaminate your cut.
- Vacuum flasks – when these explode they make an awful noise and an even more awful mess! Never mix acids and bases in a vacuum flask.
And then we get to pipettes, which is the whole reason I wrote this post on Proper Lab Technique.
How Not to Use An Eppendorf Pipette
I’m sure most of you have seen, or at least heard of, James Cameron’s AVATAR (as opposed to the Avatar where the characters can control the elements). That movie came out in 2009 – five full years ago – and there’s a scene in it that to this day bugs me. Sigourney Weaver is using a pipette, which is a tool we use in the lab to transfer a specifically measured amount of liquid from one container to another.
You hold the pipette upright, depress the plunger, stick it in the liquid you want to transfer and release the plunger. It sucks the exact same amount of liquid up each time (we calibrate the pipettes daily so we know that they are, in fact, sucking the exact same amount of liquid up each time). You then place the pipette tip over the container you want to put the liquid into and depress the plunger again so all the liquid exits. It’s a super easy and mostly fail-proof way to get the exact same amount of liquid into each sample. You could do the same with a syringe, but there’s a lot more human error involved in a syringe.
So Sigourney Weaver is using a pipette, gets the appropriate amount of liquid into it, and then tips it upside down. *insert facepalm here*. Friends, I have done this exact same thing on accident, and do you know what happens when you turn a pipette full of liquid upside down? The liquid goes into the pipette’s mechanism and then you can’t use it anymore because it’s contaminated. Part of the liquid can squirt out too – very dangerous if you’re using it to transfer radioactive sources. I’ve done this – on accident – more times than I’d like to admit. And pipettes are expensive. My boss probably hates me.
I can tell you I’m not the only one who’s noticed this, either. If you Google “Sigourney Weaver, pipette, avatar” the first hit is this YouTube video entitled “How Not To Use An Eppendorf Pipette” and then pages and pages of scientists like myself gasping in utter horror over her misuse of said pipette. It would be funny, if I wasn’t still horrified five years after watching a SFF film. Obviously this one stuck with me.
Respect for Science
The last thing you need to know about writing a scientist in a lab? We care about what we’re doing. We check constantly to make sure we’re safe and the people around us are safe. We make sure we’re doing every step correctly, because a misstep could lead to bad data…or an explosion.
So never, ever, ever write this sentence: “Scientists have their heads in the clouds and don’t bother with maintenance.”
Because I will throw your book across the room.
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