Lab Superstition

"Very superstitious, writings on the wall,"
~Stevie Wonder
Getting great results in science can be tough (just check our blog here about it). It's no surprise, then, that some people may develop…peculiar superstitions in trying to appease the science gods. And I mean that in a literal sense. One colleague of mine and her coworkers used to apologize to an HPLC machine god in hopes that it would never clog or have its tubes break. One of my former labmates absolutely has to put her left glove on before the right one. Pipette tips must be used from their box in order, from the bottom right to the upper left corner (otherwise, the world will implode, the experiment will fail, and she'll have to redo the work). Others told me of a scientist who had to walk down the hall and turn around twice, all with his eyes closed before experiments.

In another lab, if experiments were going poorly, the PI would take a squeezable whale toy from benchtop to benchtop, hoping to purify and cleanse the lab of its bad juju. Oddly enough, some crab fishing boat members will bite the head off a herring fish should they have a streak of bad luck. Another captain believed that following bubbles or "crab farts" would lead to a big payday.
  You can't make this stuff up. Let Phil Harris explain his theory to you here.
Image from Finding Nemo®, Pixar Animation Studios.

The Office®, NBC Studios.
In a most extreme case, one woman offered up her firstborn if she could just get her gels to work. And when they did, she was struck with fear…until she subsequently offered up her second-born to get them working again (click here for the full story). You may be thinking to yourself, "I might have a little OCD, but I'm not nearly that bad off." But, everyone comes up with some nervous ticks over the course of their grad school career, including me. When I worked with Western Blots, I used to refuse to look at the films of the experiment until they were completely dispensed from the machine (this didn't help, by the way).
Maybe you have a favorite pipette that never fails to produce great results. Or, maybe you're the only one who can get that outdated piece of equipment to work or run a particular assay successfully. As scientists, we should have a more logical viewpoint on these types of things. We should have a better understanding of how the world works. But, no one wants their three day assay to go to waste or to be in the lab at 2 a.m. for no good reason. So, maybe it's a comforting thought to feel you have a little extra insurance.

The Upturned Microscope.
Superstition isn't restricted to just humans. B.F. Skinner was a behavioral psychologist, and one of his most well-known experiments involved pigeons. Skinner placed hungry pigeons in a cage that was attached to a food-delivering mechanism. The food was released at irregular intervals with no specific causes. However, the pigeons associated the food delivery with whatever action they were performing at the time. As such, they continued to perform these actions in the hopes it would elicit more food. Some would turn in circles in a particular direction, some thrust their head into a cage corner, while others would "toss" their head, as if lifting an invisible bar. Check out this link to see Skinner actually perform this experiment.
  Bert doing the pigeon. Sesame Street®, PBS Kids Sprout.  
It may seem fun or trivial to laugh at these behaviors, but humans can follow these same base instincts. There's always a small degree of luck or serendipity associated with scientific discovery. If a particular behavior pattern or set of rituals always produces for you, there's no harm in it (so long as you're not sacrificing undergrads to the science gods). Do you have any lab good luck charms for your work? What're you superstitious about? Let us know here!
  Just when I thought I got the hang of science...  
Contributed by Ken Lau, PhD
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