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.