|RUNNER UP IN THE NEW SCIENTIST/WELLCOME FOUNDATION
SCIENCE WRITER OF THE YEAR COMPETITION 1995
"Morning", I reply with a groan. I'm harassed, the legacy of a weekend-longbattle trying to convince my seven year old that the
earth goes round the sun and not vice versa. He says it doesn't make sense. I tell him lots of things in life don't make sense,
including him. But there we are. Such is life.
"Hi, Dorrian", chirps a cheerful voice as I walk into the research lab. The voice is coming from behind some refluxing equipment
that is performing an amazing balancing act. I'm sure there must be a COSHH regulation about that.
Dorrian's not my real name by the way. My much younger colleagues insist that I bear a striking resemblance to the lady of
Birds of a Feather fame. I'm blonde and blue-eyed! I guess it's just because I'm over 40. They say it's a compliment! Who're
"What's wrong? Zimmer frame broke again?"; the jibes continue.
Muttering something to the effect of, "Shut up, I've got one like you at home", I don my proverbial white coat, safety specs and
adjustable spanner, (which is chained to my pocket). Tools are more precious than gold in our Chemistry department. They
come in very handy for all sorts of things - not least as improvised instruments of torture for unruly post-grads who think it's
funny to joke about a lady's age.
With a deep sigh I switch from Mum mode into student mode and prepare for another hard days sweat and toil. I reach into my
cupboard to inspect the product of my research of the past two months. Dismay! Horror! Pure unadulterated grief grips me.
OH NO!!!! MY BUGS ARE DEAD!
They were my extended family. My kith and kin. I gave them life. How could
they do this to me? I try to control myself, so far I've only succumbed to
groaning but I'm fighting the urge to weep and wail, gnash my teeth and tear
my clothes. I must remember I'm a mature adult and they were only bacteria.
You're probably asking yourself by now, "What's she doing with bacteria in the Chemistry lab?" There must be a COSHH
regulation about that too.
The answer is simple. There was no room for them in my rent-a-space cupboard in the Microbiology lab. Let me explain. I'm
researching The Degradation of Cellulose Triacetate Motion Picture Film for my PhD. Very important work. Our heritage is
degrading in storage vaults worldwide and I have been chosen to save it. And a good job I'm doing too, (it's very important for
scientists to hold themselves in high regard, it makes up for the low status accorded us by Government). I've already
developed an indicator sensor which quickly and cheaply identifies films which are in danger of drowning, (figuratively
speaking), in their own acetic acid. But where do the bugs come into this I hear you ask. Ah well, that's my own bit of creative
science - which I'm sure is what makes a truly great scientist. If there are bacteria growing on the gelatin emulsion layer of the
film they may be contributing to the breakdown of the film material. But look what's happened! The obnoxious smells that
emanate from the work stations of the other research chemists must have killed my offspring. I couldn't even give them a
decent burial. They had to go into the incinerator with a whole load of commoners - the E. coli and Staphylococci that nobody
wanted anymore. It crossed my mind to scatter their ashes at the foot of the John Dalton statue outside the University
entrance, but I thought better of it. There's bound to be a COSHH regulation that forbids it. Anyway, I'll never forget them. I may
have been their adoptive parent but I cared about them as if they were my own. Their real parents are in cold storage waiting
to be given the go-ahead to go forth and multiply again. I don't suppose the loss of a few million offspring really matters to
them. Still, I'd better not mention it just in case they turn virulent and seek to avenge the perpetrators of such appalling
genocide. Then again......., that would put a stop to the Dorrian jokes.
I console myself with the thought that they had a good life. Short, but comfortable.
They never wanted for anything, I made sure of that. An abundance of yummy
nutrient gelatin, the like of which their ancestors could only have dreamed of. Until I
came along they were destined to eek out a meagre existence on the impoverished
flatland of an old Hollywood movie. A barren land that rolled on, unchanging for over
2000 feet. If they'd set out in search of The Promised Land there, they'd have been
However, in honour of their memory I have vowed that my new brood will have clean, fresh air, be kept nice and warm and
draught-free. Somewhere where chemists never go - the Animal Behaviour department.
I have this theory. If I could attach electrodes to my bugs I might be able to establish communication with them. I could link them
up to the Internet; bugs all over the world could bounce their ideas back and forth. Hackers could eaves drop on "Bugtalk". It
could give a whole new meaning to bugging device. I could even ................
[.....text withdrawn - Patent pending......]
Research really is such fun!
©Joan C. Whitehead (now Harthan) (1995) Manchester Metropolitan University