Lab Rats

Who says science is silent?

Decoding the lab soundscape

Amy Unsworth 7 January 2007

The halls are alive: lab noises are varied

iTunes has fostered an entirely new arena for noisy lab conflict

Most people think of labs as solemn, quiet places, a view promoted relentlessly by science TV documentaries. But the labs I’ve worked in have never been quiet environments. At the very least, some kind of gentle background noise is always present to soothe us as we go about our experiments, whether the hum of a spinning centrifuge, the tinkling of a magnetic stirrer coaxing a solid powder into soluble form or the swooshing of a solution on a rotating platform. And at their most extreme, lab noises can be excruciating – the sound of a sonicator, which pulverises biological matter with soundwaves, doesn’t only shred the contents of a test-tube – it’s pretty harsh on the ear-drums as well.

And then, you may be utterly oblivious to the charms of these background noises, because banging music and a general party atmosphere often prevail. Labs of this type were previously identifiable by the battered old portable stereo standing in the corner of the room. Now they are more likely to have embraced the services of iTunes on their computers. Such technological progress has fostered an entirely new arena for noisy conflict – a seemingly infinite catalogue of music tracks will inevitably lead to an infinite number of arguments over whose turn it is to DJ. My old research supervisor used to select fast-paced tracks in the belief that the work in his lab would progress at an equally rapid pace. I, on the other hand, used to prefer a chilled-out sound, because I thought I would perform my experiments more slowly and carefully, and that they then might actually work. As it turned out, neither belief was correct.

In my current lab, however, there are no squabbles over who gets to choose the music – because there is no music. This is mainly because our lab area (for experimenting) and our office area (for reading, thinking and eating biscuits) are pretty much one and the same. Much as I love doing my benchwork to background music, it’s too distracting when trying to read a scientific paper whose mere title is incomprehensible.

But this doesn’t mean that we’re condemned to working in silence. Our supervisor ranks among the best in personal sound effects. Equipped with an astounding range of ‘Hmmmmm’s and ‘Aaaaaah’s and ‘Sooooooo’s, he deploys these during our conversations in such a way that their precise tones and durations determine whether the listener should feel encouraged about the excellence of their scientific endeavours – or dismayed by their downright shoddiness. Meanwhile, silences in the lab are frequently punctuated by furious French mutterings from behind a black curtain. Rather mysterious, until you realise that what actually lies behind the curtain is a microscope and a furious French post-doc who hates microscopy.

Other post-docs have their own sound effects. One communicates extreme excitement or enthusiasm by alternating between his upper and lower register while saying a prolonged ‘Oh’ like an alpine yodeller striding across the green hills. Another likes to aurally enhance the experience when talking you through an experimental protocol – ‘invert tube vigorously several times’ becomes a steam-train-esque “ch-ch-ch-ch-ch”.

As I write this piece, I realise that the best sound effects are all produced by the more senior members of our lab. Why are we humble students so silent? Why have we not yet developed this special skill? After some consideration, I conclude that our contribution to the lab soundscape simply takes the form of normal, everyday speech. Maybe one day, when the manipulations becomes as automatic as breathing, we will have the head-space to come up with something more challenging!

Other articles by Amy Unsworth