Please visit our new site!


Rhythm method

From the LabLit short fiction series

rpg 18 May 2008

They work through lunch, through the afternoon, and into the gathering gloom. Finally they leave the lab together, and catch different buses

There is a rhythm to this lab.

The whirr of the vortex, the whizz and the click of the centrifuge. The rattle of the magnetic flea in the bottle. The sub-hertz murmur and roar of the thermal cycler. The bubble of the water-bath. The chatter of the students in the next lab. In the corridor, the constant hum of huddled freezers and the susurration of the autoclave.

There is another rhythm, only apparent from the distance of a few years. The students arrive each autumn, and leave after a few months. Some persist, extending the wavelength irregularly, out of phase with the post-docs.


Here is Juergen. He is pipetting solutions: tiny amounts of liquid from stock tubes to experimental ones. He uses the vortex, the centrifuge, the thermal cycler. He has faith in invisible partnerships, and hope that it will be rewarded.

He has been in this lab for seven years, dampening the rhythm of the students and the less able post-docs. He has an arrangement that suits him. It suits the boss, who is freed from the recruitment beat. It suits the Head of Department, and because it suits him it suits Admin. The bureaucrats in Brussels would not be sympathetic, but because Admin understand the importance of an untroubled Head of Department, Brussels is not about to find out how convenient everything has become.

And here is Daniela. She has come from Cambridge, a sequence of constructs in her backpack and a procession of Nature papers in her CV.

Together, blond head next to dark, they puzzle over the most recent Western data. Something is not quite right, and they go to coffee. On the way they meet a laughing crowd from a lab upstairs. One notes their serious faces and hushed but urgent tones.

Coffee is inconclusive. They decide to run the experiment again. They work through lunch, through the afternoon, and into the gathering gloom. Finally they leave the lab together, and catch different buses.


Here is the observant one from upstairs. He was unlocking his bike as Juergen and Daniela left the previous night. He is collecting bottles from the autoclave when Juergen walks past. He asks if Daniela enjoyed wherever they went last night.

Juergen looks blank. Then he laughs. No, he says, we do not have that sort of relationship.

The observant one apologizes for forcing the wrong conclusion from the available data, but is waved away with a rare smile.


Two different periodicities coincide: the end of the week and the pay cycle. The lab – boss, students, post-docs – retire to the pub. Daniela and Juergen are still working, feeding films through the processor, varying exposures in the darkroom until they are both satisfied.

Laughing, and coloured from an undignified run across town, they arrive at the pub. Eyebrows are discreetly raised. The Boss offers to buy more drinks, and Daniela goes to help her with the glasses. You and Juergen, she says. You have been spending a lot of time together. Do we celebrate?

No, says Daniela, blushing. It is work. We don’t have that kind of relationship.

There is laughter around the table, rising and falling in syncopated friendship.


Nights shorten, new leaves appear on old wood, and spring puts on her most extravagant dresses, resuming her interrupted dance: the oldest and most constant rhythm of all.

The manuscript is ready; read and re-read, revised, changes tracked: submitted. A phony peace. Planning new experiments, grants; job applications written and reviewed. A sudden urgency – the frenzy to make reagents and perform the experiment requested by not unsympathetic reviewers.

Celebration, barely breathing space. Dead calm.

And the year peaks: a new project, another grant cycle. Summer students fly in and out. Hot, lazy wasps contest the orchards. Wheat is mown, grapes are harvested, steins are emptied. The year shakes out its best clothes for the last time, red and gold detritus nuzzling lanes and parks. First year graduate students learn by induction: the older ones contemplate some sort of closure.

A blackbird sings out of season. Plastic lids bang against wheelie-bins. The hum of traffic is almost turned into melody by the first muffling snow.

Here is Juergen, drowsy, fumbling for the alarm clock. Outside his window icicles deliquesce.

He lies back, his hand leisurely tracing a waveform in the bed. “Will you make the coffee?”

“No,” says Daniela, as she smiles and draws him close, “we don’t have that sort of relationship.”