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July 14, 2006

Lab Notes

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

According to MD, "pathologists are notorious for bad dressing." According to Derek Lowe, the labs chemists work in aren't glowy, colorful and glinty, or lit like a Jerry Bruckheimer tv series, the way they're so often portrayed in magazines and promotional materials. "This is addressed to all professional photographers," Derek writes: "Please, no more colored spotlights."

A question for the professional-science types out there? Has there been a book or a movie that has done a good and fair job of presenting the science life as you've experienced it?



posted by Michael at July 14, 2006


No. Laboratories are pretty boring places really, whether clinical or research. In the former, small numbers of procedures are repeated en masse on large numbers of samples; in the latter, a larger number of procedures trying to solve one small problem. The grunt work isn't done by actual scientists anyway, for the most part, but by underpaid assistants, grad students, and postdocs. It doesn't make for exciting entertainment.

As for pathologists, of whom I've known many in my career, not a single one I've met was anything but pretty weird. They're doctors who prefer corpses to live patients. And no, they don't dress well either.

Posted by: Dennis Mangan on July 14, 2006 12:25 PM

Ouch Mr (Dr ?) Mangan!

Most of the pathologists I know are hospital based, and not forensic types, so the fit more into the mold of hospital specialist types. And, I think the younger crowd is a wee bit different. It's a more competitive specialty and you work with living people a lot - technicians, other clinicians, in my instance medical students, residents and fellows. But, yeah, I know a lot of wierd pathologists, too.

(I don't prefer corpses to live patients and never cared much for doing posts/autopsies, myself. I like looking at patient biopsies, helping clinicians with diagnosis, teaching, writing, etc.....)

Posted by: MD on July 14, 2006 2:24 PM

The people I hear are really weird are anaesthesiologists. "They like to knock people out," is what one doc told me about 'em. Any truth to this?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 14, 2006 2:46 PM

During my many years in Davis (where I'm moving once again on Monday, hoorah!) I met many people working in food science, one in entomology, one in materials science or something, and a few in viticulture. Needless to say, the latter group are cool and cool to know. (Unless you're working under-the-table as a semanticist classifying and comparing taste terms as employed by experts and novices, in an embarrassingly ill-defined study.) But the other researchers were pretty universally cool as well. I don't think I know any doctors or medical researchers on a personal level, except for a cardiologist cousin who I rarely see but who seems very friendly and has a large functional family. So for what it's worth (not much), my own experience tells me that there are more weird antisocial types in fields like history and political science than in lab science.

Posted by: J. Goard on July 14, 2006 3:37 PM

Has there been a book or a movie that has done a good and fair job of presenting the science life as you've experienced it?

Not really, although I found "Infinity" (1996) with Matthew Broderick and "The Race for the Double Helix" (1987) with Jeff Goldblum & Tim Pigott-Smith to be less embarrassing than most. They captured the swirl of emotions that punctuate the long, hard slog, while still doing some justice to that slog.

in re Books, the question is easier. Many scientists have written books about their work. Scientists don't make movies. ;-)

Posted by: Jeff in SF on July 14, 2006 5:25 PM

Has there been a book or a movie that has done a good and fair job of presenting the science life as you've experienced it?

Young Frankenstein?

Posted by: Mitch on July 14, 2006 7:37 PM

None. Movies have always been unable to keep from speeding things up, just to fit within the time allowed. Most discoveries take a lot, lot, longer to stumble over and verify than any dramatic form can comfortably handle.

Even novels haven't quite hit it. I haven't enjoyed Richard Powers, for example, although I was sure that I would. The scientists in "Galatea 2.0", for example, all seemed to be from some alternate universe, and I've never been able to get going in "The Gold Bug Variations".

There have been competent incidental depictions of science and scientists, though, inside larger works. The grad-school parts of Franzen's "Strong Motion", for example, are right on target, I'm sad to say.

But I haven't actually tried to seek out too many examples, when I think about it. Part of it is that the success rate is so small, and part of it is probably that since I do research for a living, I already get the enjoyment that I could get from the depictions, but first-hand.

Posted by: Derek Lowe on July 14, 2006 9:32 PM

I'm pressing a little here, but Real Genius has a cult following among scientists. The science is laughable, but it captures a lot of the details and personality types you see at a science school pretty well.

Posted by: Zach on July 16, 2006 1:38 PM

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