Saturday 2 February 2013

Close encounter

In the last post, I paid homage to a colleague of mine who was a Good Pair of HandsSome people have a knack, an intuitive grasp of the physical world – even if that world is invisibly small.  The rest of us have to work really hard to improve their practice.  Some gradually develop their skills but there are others who remain a liability to themselves and those around them.  I did get better, but it took me six months of slog and even at the end of that time, it was still Hard Work.  In those days, you had to label the DNA with radio-active phosphorous, cut each double-helix into precise lengths with enzymes and run the DNA fragments out along an electric gradient.  The larger fragments travelled more slowly and you could visualise the distance each bit had gone by clapping the whole caboodle up against a sheet of X-ray film (the autorad) and leaving it in a light-proof box for ten days.  For reasons which were then and are now murky, the box had to be developed in a -20oC freezer.  The radio-active phosphorous would not only fog up the X-ray film – hopefully in nice crisp ethanol-free bands indicating the size of each piece of DNA – but also could be absorbed by the careless body where it was liable to cause cancer and an early death. As radioactive sources went P-32 was fizzy! We were therefore required to work with a sheet of plexi-glass between us and any radio-active material.
Towards the end of the summer, the pressure was on and I needed to get things squared away by the weekend, so while everyone else was at lunch I was busy in the lab pushing back the frontiers alone. I was a dab hand now at modified Step 7, so I lifted that day’s rack of eppendorfs out of the waterbath and started flipping open the lids for Step 8. On the second tube, a drop of radio-active condensation flew out of the lid into the corner of my eye.  Simultaneously, from the corner of the other eye, I saw the plexiglass shield, which should have been protecting me from such a misadventure, standing ineffectually 2 feet to my right. 
I don’t think I shrieked, but I did clap one hand to my face and stumble over to the sink where I rinsed out my eye under the tap for a llllooonnnngg time.  From the sink, I went to the Geiger-counter and heaved a sigh of relief when, as I thrust the detector up to my orbit, that didn’t shriek either. 
As a scientist, ideas come to you at the weirdest moments.  Several weeks later, I was walking home through the summer evening and I realised with shoulder-sagging certainty that the reason the Geiger-counter hadn’t registered was because, in my incompetent panic, I hadn’t switched it on!
Twenty-five years on I’m still expecting an ocular orbital tumour to appear.

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