What a real science lab actually looks like

Every so often I see an advertisement on TV for some product or other – usually toothpaste – that’s being demoed in a ‘science lab’.

OK, so I'm a geek. Today anyway. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.
Not a lab – this is my workspace. From the left: laptop, i7 4771 desktop, i7 860 desktop.

All these labs are the same: sparsely furnished, clean, white, sparkling benches; brilliant lighting; lots of Perspex; bits of immaculate lab gear and high-tech flat-screens with glamorous white-coated supplicants wandering around being scientific. Very cool. And also very silly.

Real science labs don’t look like that at all. They come in all shapes and sizes, of course, depending on purpose, but all the ones I’ve seen are cluttered beyond belief. And for me the classic science lab was the one I visited during my energy journalism jag in the mid-late 1980s.

I was sent to what was then the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research – New Zealand’s government research facility – to check out their new discovery: a ‘high temperature’ superconductor.

By ‘high temperature’ they meant something running at the temperature of liquid nitrogen, which is warmer than the liquid helium that superconductors of the day normally used.

The test setup was designed to cool an electromagnet to the temperature of liquid nitrogen and juice it up with an electrical charge, creating a magnetic field. The energy needed to sustain a magnetic field at superconducting temperature was less than that needed for ordinary conduction. That could be tested by floating a suitably conductive object on top of the magnetic field.

Now, do you think this would demand a lot of high-precision custom construction by some technical engineering lab at a cost of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars?

Not a chance. The lab was set up in what looked like an old school pre-fab building with chipped and worn desks, all down-at-heel. The test rig itself was a gimcrack arrangement with school lab-style gear – a stand with a couple of clamps to hold a styrene coffee cup and a small ring electromagnet, all lashed up in breadboard fashion with bits of twisted wire – not No. 8, but certainly of that league.

Next to this Heath Robinson setup was a thermos flask which turned out to contain not coffee, but liquid nitrogen (don’t drink it, OK?). The team – suitably clad in slightly down-at-heel lab coats over their sweaters and corduroy jackets – poured some liquid nitrogen into the styrene cup and lowered the ring electromagnet into it. A quick blat from a battery, and a moment later one of the scientists lowered a two-cent washer into the mix, where it slowly spun on the magnetic field above the liquid nitrogen (which was boiling by this time).

Superconducting, New Zealand style. It all worked a treat. And there wasn’t a Perspex bench or glamorous lab-coated tech anywhere to be seen.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2016

12 thoughts on “What a real science lab actually looks like

    1. I gather the design of a lot of chemistry apparatus was derived, originally, from the gear built for alchemists. Not too surprising, I suppose, given that stuff to capture evaporates or whatever is going to look much the same. Even if the logic behind the experiments is very different.

  1. That’s kind of how I envision a lab. Odd-looking pieces resting between half-finished circuit boards, half cannibalized circuit boards, bunson burners, a beaker of Pepsi beside a beaker of Hydrogen Sulfide, and half-eaten slices of pizza.

    1. Exactly! The hydrogen sulphide is there so when the device under construction warps in the Flator Monster from Planet Phartt, it has something to drink. Hopefully not confusing it for the Pepsi which sends it into a gas-emitting rage down town. I think I have an idea for a story…

  2. The key ingredient in my experience/travels seems to be aluminum foil. I grew up on a farm and ranch, and I equate it to bailing wire in that environment. Each one is an adventure and story in its own right about far more than the science conducted there.

  3. I have spent my fair share of time in dissection and chemistry labs and I concur with the fact that their normal state is anything but pristine. There is a HUGE difference between a dissection lab and a surgical suite, thankfully!

    1. For me, that side of the sciences is the ‘icky’ part. True though – it is amazing the vast contrast between the ‘Hollywood’ lab (even on The Big Bang Theory) and the real thing for all the many sides of science.

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