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The White Scourge

Are iPods changing lab culture?

Jennifer Rohn 22 October 2005

The quiet plague

A lab is like an organism, and chatter is its heart...

Recently I found myself in the Genentech Building, a center for biological research presiding over the new Mission Bay campus at the University of California San Francisco. The building was donated by the biotech giant of the same name as settlement for a highly-publicized scientific scandal, in a convoluted plot of alleged DNA theft that wouldn’t be out of place in a film or novel of the ‘lab lit’ genre.

For someone who spent the majority of her formative scientific years slaving away in aged, dingy, cramped and ill-lit conditions, the laboratories within were a marvel, and I was curious to get a closer look. As I passed though a broad corridor on my way to an appointment, I peeked right and left into the open doors. Each of these revealed a large space, flooded with light and glinting with expensive equipment. As the labs had already been occupied for some time, they were each stamped with the personality of their owners – bespoke apparatus, cartoons, photos and clippings pinned up over the benches, the smooth surfaces beneath running the usual gamut from obsessive-compulsive cleanliness to a ground zero of notebooks, test-tube racks and empty beakers encrusted with yesterday’s experimental fluids.

Though all looked familiar, something wasn’t quite right. But it wasn’t until I entered one of these labs, in search of its chief scientist, that I put my finger on the problem.

The lab was deathly still. Come to think of it, so had been the ones I had passed on my way. At first I assumed that its denizens were away, perhaps at a seminar or group meeting. But then I saw a number of people at work in the lab, flitting like ghosts between the high shelving separating each lab bench. There was no music – and odder still, no talking.

Most labs are fuelled by their stereos. And threaded through the music tends to be banter – running commentary, wisecracks, the swapping of lab tips, a soundtrack of camaraderie that tempers repetitive tasks and so renders them bearable. Could it be some draconian policy, I mused, preventing the usual blasting CD player? One heard the occasional tale of a lab head banning music in the lab. But if so, why weren’t these scientists at least talking to one another?

Then I saw it: the telltale white cable emerging from one researcher’s fleece jacket, terminating in the inevitable white earplugs. The man had a glassy expression on his face as he loaded a series of plastic tubes into a centrifuge, and his lips were moving slightly. He didn’t seem to notice me. In the next bay, two women sat pipetting side by side, similarly kitted out in iPods and in their own sonic worlds. In my trip down the length of the room toward the office door at the end, I did see a few researchers without headphones, but as they were sandwiched between other people with personal stereos, there was, in essence, no one to talk to. They were stranded in silence.

There is a colleague where I work who wears headphones, and while I don’t mind tapping her on the shoulder to make a major request, I certainly don’t feel comfortable interrupting her reverie for mere small talk or a stupid quip. When the headphones are removed, usually with a patient sigh and an expectant expression that clearly says well, what it is?, suddenly the joke no longer seems funny.

I love the iPod as much as the next person, and mine makes the commute on the London Underground bearable. But – call me old-fashioned – I don’t think they belong in labs. Science is not a solitary endeavor, and labs are not meant to be quiet, introspective places. The banter may seem irrelevant, but one’s benchmate is also a rich source of creative inspiration, a sounding board for crazy theories and a library of quick advice when an experiment starts spiraling out of control. A lab is like an organism, and chatter is its heart.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that ‘iPod white’ would accessorize very well with the mythical Ivory Tower.