On Experimental Karma

Apr 23 2011 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

Scientists are skeptics. At least, most of us are. But we’re also, for better or worse, only human. And this means that we are…superstitious. At least, I am.

Perhaps Sci is moreso than most. After all, Sci was raised something of a theater brat, and there is no group on earth more superstitious than a good troupe of actors. They all had their lucky items. Lucky pens for marking a script. Lucky jeans for the backstage people. Lucky socks for the actors. Lucky underwear (hey, when your costume is not your own, it comes down to the lucky underwear). Many actors (and singers, and musicians) have rituals they pursue on the evening of a performance with fanatical precision. Many will eat or drink only specific items the night of a performance. Some prepare for the stage in a specific order. Heck some BATHE (or not) in a specific order. When they are about to go on, some actors will say their favorite monologue over again a certain numbers of times. Some go through stretches. Some say nonsense words. Yup, backstage at a performance can get REALLY weird.

Sci had her own set of rituals when she was performing (they did not involve socks or underwear, but did involve certain kinds of tea). And I’ve noticed. I have rituals now. Little science rituals. The ones that you KNOW will make the experiment work. Maybe it involves just practicing your telepathy (“please please PLEASE work this time!!! PLEASE!!!!”), or maybe it involves specific pipette rituals (I definitely know people with lucky pipettes). I’ve seen scientists with little shrines of lucky items on top of their highly expensive equipment. I’ve seen others place their coffee in the exact “lucky place” on the podium before giving a talk. My favorite was the guy who thought his electrophysiology results on one day were determined by his poker score the previous night. Bad poker night? Why try?

And hey, you KNOW the little ritual doesn’t mean anything. Listening to that special song while you prep may do nothing but help your mood. But I’d like to think my little rituals help me out. Maybe they make me slow down, be a little more careful, or maybe they just put a smile on my face. When I give a talk, having a special piece of jewelery makes me feel more competent. I’ll take all the help I can get.

My current ritual is of the smiling kind. When I’m wrapping up my samples to take them across campus to the Core Facility, I write little notes to myself. At first, the note was simple “NO FAIL”. “FAIL NOT ALLOWED”. Then I got desperate “PLEASE FSM NO F**KING FAIL”. And then I invoked the power of higher beings “AND
VERILY I SAY UNTO YOU, THERE WILL BE NO FAIL THIS DAY”.

Do they work? Meh. Probably I’m just getting better at the current technique. But am I going to stop? HECK NO. That ritual might be saving my cells!!

So I want to know. Do I just work with weird people? What little rituals do you have? Do you have special lucky items? We might be some hardcore critical thinkers, but it takes more than that to get the superstition out of the human.

12 responses so far

  • physioprof says:

    I had a lucky sharpie I would use to label my eppendorfs.

  • katiesci says:

    I listen to Sparklehorse when I do cardiac perfusions... because the first time I did them really well that's what I was listening to. My theory is that it just gives me the confidence that I felt that day to kick ass at it (probably similar to the poker player).

  • NatC says:

    I love this!
    I make sacrifices to The Gods of Science. Usually pipette tips and such, though sometimes it's a spilled or spoiled sample.

    And I did teach an undergrad who was having problems with a series of westerns to spin around, touch the floor, and shout before starting (and then everything started working). I wonder if he still does it?

  • HennaHonu says:

    I have a favorite pipette (0.5-10 uL). But that's because it's the one that is most accurate and precise (which I tested....).

  • Erin says:

    I had a tricky cloning project last summer that I couldn't get to work, no matter what I tried. Then I cut my hair really super short, and the back was fuzzy. I started rubbing my head for luck, and lo and behold! My cloning worked!

    Now I want to grow my hair back out but I'm a bit afraid too. I still need my cloning to work...

  • Cuttlefish says:

    I witnessed a colleague of mine try to overcome a ritual. He mailed out his manuscript like any normal human being would, and left the mailroom. ... then came back less than 10 minutes later, to tape all the seams, multiply stamp "do not bend" on front and back, recheck the weight for postage, and put the envelope back in the bin, complaining all the while that this was all purely superstitious routine that he wished he could give up.

  • I don't think it's a superstition per se, but I do try to start all the thermocyclers within 1 second of each other if I'm doing multiple plates.

  • Well "please please please work this time!!!" is something you definitely hear in o-chem lab... I sort of just repeat the mantra "itsgonnaworkitsgonnawork..."

  • Shira says:

    Lucky socks. I totally have my favorite/ lucky socks. They are lucky for anything from uneventful travel, to lab work, to patient care... Honestly, I think they probably just make me feel happier inside. But if happier= stuff goes better? I'll take it!!
    Also, I am totally going to share the, "AND VERILY I SAY UNTO YOU, THERE WILL BE NO FAIL THIS DAY", because it's too fantastic to NOT share.

  • leigh says:

    i just try to do the same thing, the same way, with the same pipetter, in the same order, etc. if anything it helps me to keep things consistent and orderly, which is always helpful in science.

  • anne says:

    in med school I had a lucky skirt for exams. the problem was, it was a skirt I made myself in high school so really it wasn't an item that aged gracefully. by the time I was 5th year I had a serious debate with myself and decided to just say no, and then I chickened out at the last moment and still went to all my exams in it. 6th year as well. and I passed them all with flying colours.
    thankyouthankyou skirt, you are the best! 😀 😀

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