I am based in the UK. The UK has two very specific properties that I like very much. Firstly, the UK has a climate that for the vast majority of the year could be best described as incredibly and exceptionally okayish. Secondly, we never ever shut up about how occasionally our okayish weather becomes very slightly warm or very slightly cool and when it does we act as though the apocalypse will soon be upon us…
Oh dear god summer is coming, we’re all going to diiiiiiieee!!
1. Get your climate control system serviced NOW
This piece of advice is only to people lucky enough to work in labs with air conditioning systems. These are not always a thing even to people working on temperature sensitive experiments (which to be honest is basically ALL experiments). BUT if you happen to one of the lucky few with air conditions systems then now is the time to get them serviced. For the last 9 months they’ve been sitting happily doing practically bugger and the shock of actually needing to cool the air is liable to give them the electronics equivalent of a heart attack.
2. Order supplies in advance
Amazingly people go on holidays over the summer, often to places where there is even more heat than in mildly warm Britain. This includes the nice support staff that spend all year fielding weird purchasing requests and having to fend up health and safety investigations. So if you are not going away this summer then you might want to plan carefully what you’re going to need because the people that make that happen are going to sipping cocktails on a beach selfishly not caring one iota about your un-ordered BSA.
3. Work out how many bits of equipment you can turn off
Turning things off serves two purposes. Firstly less equipment means cooler labs. For reasons that are often not even know to the designers almost all lab equipment kicks out more heat that an Samsung galaxy on charge. Turning it off will make for a cooler lab space, and one with less of a strange out of harmony hum. But secondly you should do it because you know energy saving it a good thing. While it’s always nice to have the company of a windows default screensaver all day in the lab I’m pretty sure the environment at large would consider it a nice thing to no have to fuel that screen saver for 6 weeks while it’s not being used for science. You’ve co-workers will understand.
4. Idiot proof your machines
The absolute worse thing over the summer is some idiot accidentally turning off you experiment. Even if you don’t take time off you might turn your back and find someone has turned off your screen saver modelling system. The best thing to do is look at your experiment and label it as much as possible and big signs, and where possible signs covering the power buttons. You can’t be too clear about this so be sure to make the write the notices in clear simple language, something like “turn this off and DIE” is direct and clear, add a thank-you if you want to be extra polite.
5. Design an ice cream rota
Those of you still in the labs over the summer are going to need vital summer supplies. This means ice cream or ice lollies. You can’t do science without consuming either weirdly flavoured ice cream of a stick of ice with an almost clinically dangerous amount of sugar in it. But it’s important to make sure that you all pitch in to supplying the lab with this vital supply line.
6. Save work that can be done in the park
We’re currently in early June. You’ve got at least another month before the ‘summer’ starts properly so you have time to start delaying work and moving your schedule around. The best thing to do is to try and put off all your paper work till summer months when you can go sit in a park to do it. Labs generate plenty of paper work and it’s a lot nicer done in pleasant park under a tree then it is in a lab or office. Depending on your work you can even take some lab work outside. Sadly ever since that squirrel took my laser I’ve not been allowed to do lab work outside, especially after all those cats turned up with “cats sux” mysterious burnt into their fur.
In research, budgets are being squeezed everywhere. We are all suffering cutbacks in vital areas such as capital equipment spending, salaries and the quality of office biscuits. Often the target of the cut back is determined by the age old management technique of cutting the thing that management is most confused by. But some things are nearly universal targets for cuts and one of the first things within an organisation to get squeezed until it’s essentially non-existent is travel.
Travel in research has many purposes from meetings with collaborators to travelling very very quickly away from a place that you fear may be quickly about to stop being where you left it and might be spread very thinly over a wide area of places around it. And it’s very easy to cut these travel expenses and see immediate savings both in staff travel time and in some cases the number of surviving staff.
Of course these meeting often still need to happen. Science is very very hard to conduct without talking to peers or suppliers. In most cases the simple solution to this is to move meetings from the real to the virtual with the use of conference calls. And like it or not conference calling is rapidly growing as way of running projects, meeting potential collaborators and informing local authorities of possible tentacle + waste water incidents.
But as horrible as this trend is I think it’s important to take the time to focus on some of the positives of conference calls so that we can all embrace this rising trend in ‘communication’.
First off, we have the technology. Right now on my computer I have 4 separate conference call software packages installed while I sit here with a mobile phone in my pocket and a lab phone next to me. They all have their issues, software tends system have more compatibility issues than the time I tried to install iOS on my multimeter, mobile phones have reception based on wind direction and landline phones suffer from squirrels. But starting a conference call by spending 10 minutes waiting for everyone to coax their squirrel of the wiring and a 10 minutes trying to get one person’s microphone to work is an important ice breaking part of the experience.
Secondly, all this technology allows new and exciting possibilities during a conference call. Mid meeting you can hit the mute button and happily munch on some cake. Or if you’re with a colleague you can use the mute button to add mad-libs to some of the things other people are saying. As they talk hit the mute button and add you own sarky remark much the amusement of your colleague. A variant of this is where you only pretend to hit the mute button and let you colleague say something sarky to entire call. It’s not very enjoyable for them but everyone else will love it.
Thirdly, I think it’s important to remember that face to face meetings have a hidden cost, clothing. In real life meetings you have to look presentable and after some awkward meetings I’ve discovered that charity shop Hawaiian shirts don’t fulfil that. Conference calls (which are often audio only) allow you more freedom to dress how you want free of the anxiety of having to ‘dress up’. Embrace this and attend your next conference call dressed up as a Disney princes and you’ll be amazed how relaxed about it you’ll feel.
Finally, I think one big advantage with conference calls is that you can always sound much more knowledgeable than at regular meetings. Being able to say “sorry didn’t catch that” three times is perfect for buying enough time to google the answer and then read out the wikipedia page, which is to be honest exactly what I’d do after the meeting anyway.
Coffee shops are the place to do work. I can say with the certainty of someone making up a fact that every Costa an Starbucks right now has at least one author writing a novella about a troubled young teenager trying to understand their place in a society that hates hummus.
Authors and artists have really spearheaded this concept. As soon as big chain coffee shops started springing up they were populating them faster than you can say “how’s your novel coming?”.
I think this is a trend that scientists need to get right on top of. Science should always adapt to try and integrate with society at large and if working in coffee shops is trendy then that’s where we need to be doing science!
Now, to start sciencing in coffee shops I think it’s worth understanding the drive and reason of the authors and artists that already follow this trend. Some quick internet reading suggests that the two main reasons are to do with money and human contact. Interestingly, coffee and hot drinks didn’t seem to feature at all.
Money as a driver is simple to understand, authors and artists are stereotypical often broke. For those of you that haven’t looked into what it costs to rent an office or enough of a desk to hold an A4 pad I can assure you that it costs a lot more that a cup of coffee an hour, it would be at least a cup of fancy coffee possibly with a muffin, an hour. For authors and artists who are paid very little on a chaotic schedule of commissions and contract work any desk space more expensive than a cup of water per hour is enough to make most consider it an expense akin to buying a bath tub of caviar.
This fits very well with scientists. Research salaries are catastrophically bad, but they are also not something that often affords scientists anything as fancy as a house big enough for a study… or in some cases even a table.
Human contact similarly parallels well between artists and scientists. Being an author or an artist typically isn’t a team sport. It can be very isolating, especially if you insist on telling everyone about your ideas about a fictional hummus repressing society. Coffee shops may not provide much conversation (especially not in the UK where we have a strict no eye contact with strangers policy) but they do at the very least allow you to spend some time in the company of other human beings.
Science can be equally isolating: long hours in labs that are either so small that you are the only person that fits in it or in labs so large that even when there are other people they are some how always round the next corner, like some kind of very white well lit horror movie scene. Or conversely you can end up so harassed by students and health and safety inspectors it’s impossible to get any work done. Spending some time in the company of other human beings that won’t ask you how to write their own name or question why you need that to be on fire is something we all need from time to time.
So I think scientists need to learn from authors and artists and see coffee shops as the solution to these issues. For the price of one coffee per hour you can have a space free from students, desks covered in towers of paper work and silent lonely labs. Obviously there are some technical challenges in working from a coffee shop depending on your speciality, but with the correct PPE you’ll be able to do your hydrofluoric acid etch experiments safely protected from accidental cappuccino spills.
Joe woke some indeterminate amount of time later feeling simultaneously freezing and in a terrific amount of pain. He tried to sit up with an excellent impression of an unfolding broken step ladder as he realised that various parts of him were now pretty well locked up. He eventually managed to sit up on his lab coat and hugged his knees with a shiver. Just being off the heat leaching floor was already allowing his body temperature to tick up a few degrees from near hypothermia. His whole body felt like it was experiencing a cross between and ice-cream headache and a hangover without consuming either of the enjoyable precursors.
He rubbed some circulation back into his arms and looked out of the glass wall wondering what time it was. The previous total darkness had given way to at least an ambient grey light. There were no windows close to the lab so either it must be shining through the windows of labs further down the corridor or while he was asleep management had installed the most depressing light bulbs known to mankind. From his half bent position Joe was pretty sure it looked like the glow of daylight filtered through the other labs. As it was Summer this put the time of day anywhere from about 04:30 onwards. So at the very least he’d slept through 4 more hours of his ordeal, which was better than a smack in the face, although he realised that a smack in the face might have been more pleasant than his current all body cramp.
Joe stood up with a minor orchestral accompaniment of “agh”, “oooh” and “ow”. He was pretty sure it was going to be a while before he was able to walk normally again as it appeared that a number of his joints had almost totally forgotten that they were meant to bend. Joe did wonder if a trip to the gym might be in order to try and get himself into shape to help his poor joints. At least that way he could drown out their protests with a general sense of embarrassment at how red faced he got by just looking at the equipment. This threat apparently was enough to persuade several of his joints to make more of an effort and Joe managed to stand almost totally upright while only using one hand to prop himself up with!
Stretching and yawning Joe again wondered about the time and looked over to the still peacefully sleeping computer. He limped across the lab, turning on the lamp as he went and sat down in front of the computer and tapped a few random keys on the keyboard. The computer started to whirr back into life and this time Joe pre-emptively looked away from the screen before it flicked into life with blinding whiteness. It wasn’t clear if this ocular preservation was a sign that Joe was finally learning something or if Joe’s retinas had seized control of his brain and taken matters into their own hands. Joe turned down the screen brightness while looking sideways at the monitor until he felt it was safe to look. The clock showed “05:26” – wow, he’d actually slept for quite a while. Maybe the floor was a better bed than he thought, deceptively restful, in fact so deceptively restful that most people would have actually mistaken it for a vicious joint torturing device. Joe stretched again and the shooting pain confirmed that it really was a very convincing deception.
Joe started to again think about when people might actually come around the labs and find him. He’d never been in the labs any earlier than 10:00 so really had no idea when anyone got in. He had once come in early for a meeting but he’d been too groggy to remember much more than his excellent idea/day dream of how IV coffee should be available for all meetings starting before 09:00. He assumed that the technicians would probably work a fairly sensible day and might appear sometime between eight and nine. The technicians were by far the most reliable people in the building; if they weren’t in to work then there was a good chance that it was the apocalypse and they were busy quietly rebuilding society.
Suddenly Joe was aware of a low humming noise behind him that was sort of pulsing. He spun away from the computer to see a cleaner outside pushing a floor cleaner enthusiastically side-to-side down the corridor. The cleaner looked at Joe, smiled and waved in that nice friendly way that cleaners are all trained to do. Automatically Joe waved weakly back, the cleaner turned back to the job in hand a continued on past the glass wall. Still waving out of shocked confusion Joe realised that the cleaner just thought Joe had come in early, he was probably quite used to see academics at strange hours and nothing about Joe’s situation seemed strange.
Joe rushed to the glass window and looked out at the cleaner like a certain trademarked lasagna loving cat stuck on a car window. As Joe had practiced fruitlessly last night he started banging on the glass and shouting at the top of his lungs. To start with the cleaner didn’t appear to hear him and carried on further down the corridor, swinging his floor cleaner back and forth in a well practiced arc that only seasoned cleaners know how to do. Joe upped the yelling and banging to a level which was in danger of breaking the glass given the frantic energy he was now putting into both. This time the cleaner paused and reached down to turn off the hoover. Joe’s shouting reached the same level as the front row of a One Direction concert and the window wobbled.
The cleaner turned and looked very strangely at the academic currently doing very un-acadmic things further up the corridor. Leaving the floor cleaner he waked back up to the window and looked with a confused expression though the glass. The man appeared to be trying to talk through the glass but just sounded muffled and almost impossible to make out. Eventually he started to make lots of hand gestures and pointed at the door to the left of the widow. With a perplexed expression the cleaner decided that this probably wasn’t a wind-up, or at least not one he could work out and followed the directions into the open door, stepped into the antechamber and pushed on the door to the lab. Which, unknown to the cleaner had been very well established some hours ago, stayed quite firmly stuck.
The man inside the lab was now waving frantically at the door. The door was obviously less noise insulating than the window and the cleaner could make out some shouting about closing doors and pressure. Not being well versed on cleanroom design the cleaner was now getting quite worried as to why the strangely animated man wanted him to close himself in this small room. He’d not yet heard of a slew of missing cleaners but he was fairly sure that if he was going to be abducted this was a very strange way to go about it and short of any other explanation he thought he should try following the man’s directions. Besides, the door to the lab appeared locked so it’s not like the now very animated man was going to do anything. He picked up the little yellow floor cleaning sign and the door closed with a swish. The man behind the door seemed very happy about this and started pulling on the door.
After a few trial yanks while the pressure balanced in the antechamber Joe gave one giant tug to the door and it flew open to reveal a very nervous looking janitor. Joe face broke out into a giant relieved grin so quickly that his muscles took a moment to remember how to move that way; they went though at least a few expressions that looked like he’d suffered some kind of series of high speed strokes. Eventually his face caught up and he beamed at the cleaner with the look of a small child that’s just been told that there is too much chocolate in the house and they need to eat as much as they can to get rid of it. He resisted the urge to jump forward and hug the cleaner. Not least because if anything Joe’s look of relief and new found freedom seemed to have actually made the janitor look more nervous and he’d even taken a little step back and had sort of flattened himself against the wall.
Talking quickly and excitably Joe explained to the cleaner what had happened and that he’d been stuck here all night. As he explained the cleaner looked visibly relieved which was a little strange to Joe but after everything else he wasn’t about to question it. Joe reached back to the bench and grabbed his phone, without letting go of the open door and surveyed the lab. He should really pick up his lab coat and wipes pillow but he was reluctant to go any further in to the lab because he’d have to let go of the now open door and he wasn’t prepared to do that right now. He looked triumphantly at the computer which as before looked back with no visible signs of recognition or reaction.
Joe turned and slid past the cleaner snatching up his bag and stepped towards the corridor. Joe got one foot out side the main door before pausing and turning back to the lab. He moved past the again confused looking cleaner and almost sheepishly picked up the carefully labeled bottle on the lab bench and its self created contents. Stepping back into the antechamber Joe briefly slowed to squeeze past the cleaner who looked at the yellow filled bottle and then up at Joe. They shared a look and Joe saw the cleaners gaze switch from confusion to realisation. Joe looked down at his feet and quickly existed the lab leaving the cleaner standing in the cleanroom a little unsure what to make of all this.
Joe practically skipped down the corridor away from the lab never so pleased at being able to leave work. He started to wonder when the first bus would be and how he was going to stop at the first place on the way home selling bacon sandwiches. But as pleased as he was to be leaving again his treacherous mind reminded him he’d have to be back tomorrow. He still had to process his samples and besides then he could move on to the 7th pointless experimental repeat and his supervisor might actually let him do something half sensible, which was a nice thought. Although in all the excitement and panic Joe had forgotten to put his samples in the fridge overnight so when he does get back and check on them he’ll realise that he’s actually got to repeat all that pipetting all over again. But at least Joe would have a happy day recovering before he realised that.
Joe stood next to his bottle and for what seemed like the millionth time looked around the lab listlessly for some kind of purpose. Having now exhausted almost every sane option and one or two insane ones, no new ideas jumped out at Joe. He absentmindedly picked up his phone and again tried the power button to see what the time was only to be quickly reminded that it currently had the energy of a sloth after a large meal. If there was one thing he was going to do when he got out of here it was to buy a case with a second battery in, possibly two batteries, in fact he was going to start carrying round a small phone charging generator. It’s bad enough that it barely lasts his work day but to fail him in his hour of need was just a step too far.
He turned back to the bench with the slightly humming computer and it’s dark screen and gave the mouse a wiggle until the screen flicked back on and nearly blinded him. Apparently his eyes were quite enjoying the half light of the lamp and weren’t overly keen on having a cheap monitor’s worth of light suddenly thrown at them. Squinting Joe read the time “23:53“ – this was not very encouraging. If no one had found him by now then he was pretty certain that he’d need to sit around until the first ultra keen people get in tomorrow morning. They’d probably find him while sipping kale smoothies after jogging to work; chirpy early morning people are a special level of smug that Joe really didn’t want to have to endure. Although Joe was at least pleased it wasn’t a Friday night – apparently his run of bad luck had managed to miss that trick.
Joe stared at his lab, 6 hours at least he had to now deal with. He walked back to the glass to look down the corridor while he pondered his options. Staring at angles out of the glass had replaced the door handle as his lab equivalent of a comfort blanket. Pressing his face in vain hoping to see 1 meter extra down the corridor. As comfort blankets go cold glass was certainly a strange choice but being trapped in a lab will do that do you, besides his other option was a spill kit which wasn’t looking particularly snuggly either.
Joe thought that he could either try and sleep on the floor, or try and find something to actually keep him awake until he’s eventually discovered by the smug brigade. He reasoned that at least if he was a awake he’d be able to attract someone’s attention if anyone did happen to come up to this floor. Besides, sleeping on the cold, hard and possibly chemically contaminated floor didn’t exactly sound appealing. Trying to make a half decent effort of sleeping on a lab chair sounded like a quick way to find out what it’s like to wake up falling off a lab chair. So awake it was.
He dragged the lab chair over to the corner of the window where he could best see down the corridor and got as comfortable as he could manage with one cheek up against his blanky/glass, crossed his arms and stared. He wondered what Frankie would be thinking right about now. Frankie was also a student and quite used to random changes in Joe’s work day. The biggest problem was that it would probably interfere with their late night plans to play some games. Joe was conflicted as he was worried Frankie would be annoyed for being let down, but he was also worried Frankie might go on a raid without him and he’d miss out on the loots. He was pretty sure it was mostly the first one, which was reassuring. Oh well, by now Frankie would either be deeply immersed in some game or would have assumed Joe was working late and had gone to bed expecting to be woken up at some very studenty hour by Joe bouncing off the furniture in the dark.
When he did get home later tomorrow, Joe expected that he’d get little sympathy, probably just several minutes of having to hear Frankie laugh about his ordeal. Joe smiled, pleased that at least someone was bound to find this funny in the morning. Although he was pretty sure his colleagues would find it funny too, but somehow their laughs would be much less endearing. Oh god his colleagues, they would never let him live this one down. He was too tired to think what nicknames they’d come up with but he was certain they would barely make sense and yet somehow be impossibly annoying. Three years ago when he was an undergrad he dropped a tray with 5 glass bottles on it and even now some of the researchers that were around then still say “careful” and laugh every time he carries a tray anywhere. At least Joe might now be known as the guy that broke the bottles and also got locked in the lab one time. Which would at least add some verity to their comments. Although if they found out about what he did to the bottle then Joe was pretty sure that the other two would be forgotten in place of a more bathroom based story. That little anecdote was staying between Joe, the bottle and the lab.
The computer screen clicked off again. It snapped Joe out of his daydreaming – he blinked himself more awake and rubbed his face. Joe’s energy drink binge had worn off now and the late night combined with the sugar crash were working hard to make Joe’s brain feel about as sparky and alert as wet cake. Every time he relaxed he found himself staring in to space, day dreaming in that very particular way the brain manages minutes before making you faceplate the keyboard as you fall asleep. Joe recognised this sensation well enough to keep trying to snap himself out of it, there was no keyboard to break his fall and he didn’t fancy slowly sliding down the glass and ending up in a heap on the floor. Being stuck in the lab was bad enough without faceplanting the floor.
After a while of blinking and face rubbing, Joe wondered how long he’d been sat staring in to space, it must have been a while by now. He realised that for the first time in years he actually missed having a watch. Like everyone he just used his phone for the time and in the many years since switching, this was the first time his actually felt it’s loss. But as his watch couldn’t play Pokemon Go it really wasn’t that tough a decision. Although it’s feature of having a battery that didn’t need charging twice a day was now looking like a very smart invention that might still have some advantages, at least until someone manages to make a wind-up smartphone.
Eventually curiosity got the better of him and he got up and walked across to the computer and gave the mouse another wake up wiggle. Once again his retinas made clear their objection to being suddenly subjected to that much light, clearly Joe didn’t listen the first time but they hoped the large white screen that was now burned onto them would remind him plenty over the next few minutes. The screen helpfully said “00:15” in the bottom corner, and Joe sighed with a combination of surprise and annoyance. Clearly Joe’s current situation was giving him lots of time to really get the hang of various dejected sounds and expressions and he had now graduated to mixing them in exciting new ways.
00:15 was no time at all! Joe was never going to make it through the night at this rate. He was either going to go insane from boredom or he was going to fall asleep on a lab chair and wake up as he very painfully moved to the floor. There was nothing for it – Joe was going to have to try and sleep on the lab floor. He looked down at the floor with levels of enthusiasm normally reserved for his supervisor update meetings.
Joe walked across the lab picking up a pair of purple gloves and crouched down in front of the the glass wall and ran his hand across the floor. No sticky patches grabbed at his glove which he took as a good sign but his glove did pick up some very curious colourful specks. He got up and went over to the cupboard and took out one of the out of date bottles of saline solution and a pack of paper wipes. He returned to the window and splashed the saline solution on the floor liberally. Getting down on his knees he wiped the floor as best he could, looking slightly disconcertingly at the array of pretty colours currently smeared across the wipes in his hand.
Eventually the floor was dry and seemed to no longer be making fun rainbow patterns. Which was probably the best Joe was going to mange right now. He did consider also giving it a bit of a wipe with alcohol to get rid of anything that wasn’t water soluble but even in his tired state he had the presence of mind not to use quite a lot of alcohol on the floor in what is a room quite obviously without air extraction. Although on the plus side he would have probably got to sleep a lot quicker.
He took off his lab coat and laid it as best he could across the floor, it wasn’t exactly the best mattress in the world but he was optimistic that it might mean he didn’t wake up looking like a join the dots puzzle of chemical burns. He thew down the pack of wipes at one end as a makeshift pillow. It wasn’t going to give him the sort of straight spine poster that is so often touted in mattress adverts but it might be nicer than the almost certain headache from having his head directly on a floor that he suspected was somehow getting harder the more he looked at it.
Joe lay down and was pleasantly surprised to find that the floor wasn’t any more uncomfortable than he had predicted. Unfortunately he’d predicted it was going to be about as comfortable as sleeping on a gravel road and he’d been pretty spot on with that estimate, which was no comfort at all. The subtle blend of being hard and that special kind of cold that feels like it’s actively trying to suck out all your body heat really made for an impressively horrible experience. He stared a the ceiling, willing his brain to think of soft comfortable mattresses, though he found that bit quite easy as his brain was all to happy to flood his mind with memories of soft, warm, comfortable beds for him to compare to his current circumstances. Joe realised that his brain had got so tired that it was now actively taunting him.
Before relaxing into his newly created bed Joe got up and turned off the lamp. No one was going to see its 40w glow and there was no point making sleep any harder to achieve, with the bed from hell Joe had already set himself a fairly impressive challenge. Joe also went and turned off the other bright light source – the computer monitor – before turning round to realise that he was now the other end of the the lab in total darkness. Joe felt his way along the fume hood, being very careful not to put his hand into it. Putting you hand blind into a fume hood full of mysterious glass is a very good way to have one less hand, at least one normal un-mutated hand. Eventually Joe reached his bed and lay back down. It was as uncomfortable as his back muscles remembered. In the short walk back and forth the floor had not, as Joe had hoped, suddenly turned into soft eiderdown.
Joe lay awake thinking about anything he could that wasn’t the lab. He ran through shopping lists, what he wanted to do at the weekend, books he’d wanted to read, anything to try and take his mind off his surroundings. Although his desire for freedom often brought him back to cycling through ways out of the lab. None of which were any more helpful than before, but now they had the added downside of keeping him awake. Although Joe reasoned at least that was better than obsessing over his failing experiment, Joe’s brain helpfully switched to overthinking about that instead.
Just as he was starting to feel like he might be winning his battle of wills with his brain there was a click and the tone of the background hum changed. Joe sat up a little and look into the lab. From the far end the computer, which had just gone to sleep and powered off looked back with absolutely no air of mocking achievement. Joe lay down again with various thoughts about what horribly violent things he could do to that computer.
Joe peered at his lab now only illuminated by the glow from the computer monitor still showing the message “Network connection missing” and counted slowly to 5. This was partially a technique for calming himself down to just a slight simmer of rage but also he thought that he’d wait a few seconds to see if some other hilarious crisis presented it’s self. Maybe a meteor would hit the lab? Or a series of freak circumstances that would cause a lorry from the motorway a mile away to leap into the air and embed it’s self in the lab wall. Somewhat to his surprise none of this happened by the time he reached 5. He took this as a sign that worse things were to come and the universe was now taunting him.
Sitting on the chair in the dark Joe mentally listed all the ways this evening had not gone exactly to plan and stopped fairly quickly when he realised that he was in danger of becoming suicidal. Instead he tried to list all the things that had gone well – he stopped doing this quickly as he ran out of ideas and this had the same effect as the first list. Joe decided that right now making lists probably wasn’t going to be a good way to staying positive. Then again being positive was quite definitely not going to open the door so perhaps he should carry on anyway, at least it was something to do in the dark. Although, speaking of the dark, perhaps solving the dark problem might actually be borderline a good idea.
He got up and gingerly walked over to the bench, rooted around in a cupboard the took out a cheap bench top lamp. The bench top lamp casting the sort of weak beam of light that only a cheap 40w light bulb can muster. Joe looked grimly over his now hauntingly lit lab and looked around wondering if this new light would make it look any better that the last time he surveyed it. Oddly enough it didn’t, if anything it now looked more depressing. Low mood lighting, Joe decided, didn’t suit labs. Labs really only suit glaring fluorescent tubes; standing lamps, for example, look great when placed round a trendy room in a reality TV show but pretty terrible when placed next to an incubator with agar plates in it. That said, a nice throw might work wonders and a couple of scatter cushions wouldn’t go amiss.
The light filtering through the array of bottles on the lab bench was casting long colourful shadows along the floor and part of the way up the walls. Joe moved the lamp around a bit to try and spread the light better around the room, but every position he put it in seemed to create another horrible set of strange shadows that looked like effects from a low budget horror game. Eventually Joe gave up and left it projecting some horrific pattern of ghostly shapes onto the walls. If there was something missing from his ordeal it was certainly not spooky jump scares. Joe tried to think less of zombie filled low polygon graphics and scary animatronic bears and more about relaxing soft toned lighting. It didn’t work.
Joe considered how many horrible things are in labs – it’s amazing that not more horror films and games are made in them. Hospitals, mansions and abandoned factories with an alarming number of boxes are all mainstays of the horror world, but spooky labs somehow get missed off. The best they get is a small scene at the end when the protagonist discovers that it was the mad scientist in the home laboratory with the green liquid. Joe was reassured that he didn’t have any green coloured chemicals so the likelihood of this being the start of a zombie outbreak was low. Besides, he did have some bottles of blue stuff and that was always zombie antidote so he’d be fine. Oddly, Joe had made those bottles of blue stuff and he should know pretty well that they were suspensions of latex particles and very unlikely to help a zombie infection. But luckily a zombie outbreak was very unlikely for a lot of reasons so it was probably not going to be an issue.
He made his way back over to the lab chair, sat down and peered out of the window, half hoping to see something for all his efforts. Sadly no one else was anywhere near the lab right no so no saviour appeared at the window. Although given the lighting if someone did suddenly appear at the window right now it would have probably been a scary clown or a man in a red stripy sweater with knives on his fingers. As Joe stared distantly out of the window thinking about various creepy things that jump out in horror movies, the computer chose that moment for it’s screen to click off. Joe visibly flinched at the sudden change in the shadows through the window before recomposing himself a second later enough to realise the source.
Joe glared at the computer again and again the computer sat impassively because it had still not yet gained any sentience capable of dealing with this situation, although Joe could swear it was smirking. Trying his best to ignore this Joe fidgeted on his chair and tried to get comfortable. Lab chairs aren’t exactly built for prolonged periods of sitting and are more a place to temporarily rest between time points. If they were built for comfort then the person doing the designing is either very strangely shaped or thinks back pain is someway a desirable thing to have. The most likely theory is that the person that designed the original lab chair was trying to see how horrible he could make the lab conditions before his students quit and it accidentally got made into the default lab chair shape. If Lazy-boy ever get tired of making sofas they could make a fortune by designing the first actually comfortable lab chair. Although in Joe’s case even a Lazy-boy lab chair 2.0 wouldn’t have really helped a great deal as his discomfort was partial caused by his bladder starting to have some serious opinions on his captivity.
Sitting in the antechamber outside the lab next to Joe’s bag were two large cans of Monster energy drink. Two large and empty cans of Monster energy drink. Like most students Joe had a choice of how to deal with the inevitable late nights and long hours that came with being a PhD student. Either eat right, exercise and try to stick to a regular sleep pattern, or drink copious amounts of stimulant laden drinks and eat a diet of sugar and junk food. Like almost all students Joe had gone with option B, which while a little more expensive was quite a lot more fun than option A. Which was unfortunate right now because drinking 1L of energy drinks before running his experiment might have just about kept his brain awake for all the pipetting but it had now passed through and was quite keen on getting back out of his body.
Joe crossed his legs uncomfortably in the vain hope that he could try and find some position where by his bladder would magically double in size. Unfortunately for him that wasn’t going to happen and like it or not he was going to have to do something slightly private in a minute. Good thing he was in a lab where he had an abundance of privacy, which was so far literally the only good side effect of his current status. Although as it is also the cause of the need for privacy this positive really only just about breaks even, just in case Joe was starting to actually feel positive about anything.
After a couple of minutes of quite biologically optimistic fidgeting Joe eventually got up and started searching round the lab. He took out one of the larger pyrex bottles from the glass ware cupboard and looked at it in his hand and weighed up the options, which really were just the one option, as Joe was fairly sure that holding it in for 7 hours was not a decision that was going to get approval from his bladder. Eventually resigning himself to what he had to do he reached down and started to undo his fly when he was suddenly very aware he was standing facing a giant glass window. Now he might be in a lab with no way of contacting the outside world and with almost no hope of being discovered, but that didn’t stop the small hope of someone rescuing him from turning to a fear of them first catching an eye full of things they probably didn’t want to see. He politely turned and shuffled over to the far corner before doing what he needed to do with only one slightly nervous glance over his shoulder.
A much more relaxed looking Joe turned back into the room and put his ‘fresh’ bottle down on the bench and screwed on a lid. Loosely at first and then after considering it for a second a lot more firmly. He paused looking at the bottle reached for a pen and scrawled DO NOT OPEN on the bottle and then wrote “Joe’s” underneath with the closest thing Joe had had to a smile all night. Finally he placed the bottle on the lab bench near the door, he didn’t want to accidentally leave it in the lab when he did actually get out, explaining it wasn’t something Joe really wanted to have to deal with. Besides he was slightly worried that he’d get hauled in front of an ethics committee for storing human samples in the lab without the proper health and safety forms.
With his head gently resting against the keys of the keyboard, Joe began to run through all the same things he had already pondered on to aid his escape. Joe considered that he might fit through the air vents if he stripped off and covered himself in oil. He was pretty certain he would absolutely be able to make it through. Although he discounted this idea because, on the off chance that he did get stuck, when he was found in the morning he’d be naked, covered in oil and wedged in a wall, which he might struggle to live down. This was probably a good thing – if Joe had actually thought about it a bit then he’d have realised that the vents don’t work like in movies and have some nasty 90 degree turns that he wasn’t going to make it round without a hinge about half way down his spine.
Smashing the window was another possible option. Joe did work-out at the gym and he was pretty sure he could heft a lab chair hard enough to break the glass. Although this was at least partially questionable, because when Joe told people he went to the gym what he meant was that he went to the intro session 5 months ago and had been paying membership ever since without actually going. Regardless, Joe discounted this idea because he was pretty sure that his supervisor would take a pretty dim view of him demolishing one of the walls of the lab just because he was locked in it. In fact he was pretty certain that if the situation arose his supervisor would expect Joe to take a bullet in place of the cleanroom.
The computer bleeped angrily at having Joe’s forehead pressed against the keys for too long, so Joe sat up and glared at it threateningly. The computer sat impassively because it’s a computer and really has no opinion on any of this. In fact, the whole situation was quite a way beyond the computer’s grasp and it was really not that bothered by any of it. Although it was starting to feel that it liked making the beepy error noise.
Joe got up and went over to the glass wall and looked out for any sign of possible external help. The lab was one of many labs on this floor and the glass wall looked directly out into the corridor. Opposite the lab was a featureless wall which looked pretty much identical to the cleanroom’s own walls, with the additional accessory of a selection of art like false colour pictures of some unnamed thing. No one had ever commented on the fact that these photos were clearly taken with equipment that the department didn’t actually own. But as a science based department it was required that pretty false colour images be put on the walls to make sure everyone knew that sciencey things happened here.
Unfortunately, other than the mail order art there wasn’t anyone in sight, no moving shadows, not even any lights. Pressing his face to the glass Joe tried to get a better angle to see down the corridor. This didn’t help a great deal, but it did leave a nice Joe print on the otherwise quite clean glass. With nothing else to particularly do Joe banged on the glass and shouted “hey!”. Well okay, he sort of half shouted; the corridor was so quiet Joe felt oddly silly shouting and so only half shouted half whispered it so not to disturb people. Even Joe’s tired and panicked brain realised, though, that trying to both attract attention and not disturb people is impressively stupid. He took a breath and this time did it with a bit more enthusiasm. “HEEELP!”
He pressed an ear to the window listening for any reply. There was nothing – all Joe could hear was the hum of power supplies and a far off beeping of a piece of equipment in need of some form of human input. No tell-tale squeaking of shoes on the impossibly loud plastic/rubber flooring that science buildings are all made out of, or any opening and and closing doors. Joe shouted again, and again listened to the surprisingly noisy silence that followed it. He banged on the glass partly in frustration but also in the hope that that would attract more attention. He instantly regretted it as he’d not taken his ear off the glass first and the sound resonated directly into his ear with a *BONNNNG*.
He sat down on the floor with his back to the glass, held his ear and looked defeated. The lab had no windows to wave to the outside world there was no way to attract anyone’s attention unless they happened to walk along the corridor. The technician’s workshop off on one side of the lab would be empty now and the lab on the other side wasn’t currently in use, and Joe didn’t have anything to bang the ceiling with to try and see if there was anyone upstairs. Besides, the cleanroom had a false ceiling so banging on it was mostly likely going to just cover him in bits of ceiling. But downstairs were the student offices!
Joe got up and stamped on the floor. It felt amazingly solid but maybe there was a chance that something might get through to below. Directly underneath this floor was a large open plan student office – one of those ones where everyone gets a small desk with a 30 cm high carpet partition which offers absolutely zero privacy or noise reduction. Joe stamped again as hard as he could and pressed he ear to the glass again to try and listen for the tell-tale opening of the door to the stairs. Nothing. Joe started jumping with both his feet as hard as possible, over and over again, desperately trying to make as much noise as a 73 kg student can manage. If anyone did happen to look through the glass at that moment, the very last thing they would have done is to let this clearly mad researcher out.
Eventually an out of breath Joe stopped jumping and pressed his ear back to the glass and tried to listen over the rasping of his breath. Nothing. Joe again slumped down and sat on the floor and thought how could there be no one in the student office. There is always someone down there with some impossible deadline. Joe wasn’t wrong either, there were people in the office downstairs working, and what’s more they could have heard the banging from the floor above. Open offices are great for space conscious building planners but terrible for actual productivity unless you can either work with a constant barrage of office sounds or buy yourself a good pair of noise cancelling headphones. Most students opted for option two, including the 3 students in the office below who were perfectly placed to help Joe but still had no idea he was there. Joe’s bad luck was keeping up it’s fantastic consistency.
Leaning on the glass wall, Joe tried to think about when security were likely to check on the labs and might wander around and find him. Although now he thought about it he wasn’t sure they actually checked every lab. If he was working past six o’clock he was meant to tell them he was still here so they can be sure to check up on him. Something he might have possibly forgotten to do. At best, security were probably just going to shine their special security flash lights down the corridor and not actually walk far enough to see him. So unless Joe was actually banging or shouting at the moment they happened to be on his floor he’d remain undiscovered till tomorrow. Joe wasn’t sure which he wanted to try – it was really a choice between either loosing his voice or giving himself a heart attack from jumping on the floor.
But, he realised, there was a 3rd option. Joe got up and dragged the lab chair over to the door and sat on it. He moved it a few times and tried out a few comfortable positions that he thought he could put up with for a while. Once was comfy he reached up to the light switch and flicked it on and off and couple of times with a *click-click*. It wasn’t exactly fun and he was probably going to end up with hand cramp but if he flicked it on off a couple of times a minute then anyone passing the corridor was bound to see it and would hopefully come investigate. Despite what you see in movies, flickering lights are actually not a common sign of science experiments and should make someone curious as to why there was an impromptu light show going on. And this required much less shouting or sweating, which, as he’d probably have to keep it going for a while, was a good thing. Joe settled in for what would probably be a boring hour or so while he waited to catch someone’s attention. Besides, compared to hours of pipetting this was going to be a breeze *click-POP*
Joe sat in the darkness flicking the switch back and forth. Eventually he stopped and sat in the dark feeling stupid. Apparently these were the kinds of lights that you could blow if you turned them on and off a lot, who would have guessed? Well not Joe obviously.
With a sigh, Joe’s head slowly fell against the door with ‘bonk’.
Peering through the little window at the cleanroom antechamber the other side. In theory, the antechamber is designed to stop this very thing happening. Cleanrooms are designed so that the little antechamber acts like to step down the pressure so is half way between the internal pressure and the external pressure so exactly this kind of thing can’t happen. Joe looked glumly at the cleaning sign that had been used to pop open the outside door breaking this delicate pressure system. Helpful for letting the floor in the little antechamber dry, not so helpful for being able to actually get out of the clean room to enjoy the nice newly clean floor.
But having now solved how he was trapped wasn’t doing anything to help him actually get out. The door was stuck and wasn’t opening anytime soon without some external help fixing the pressure problem. Joe slumped with his back against the door and yet again fruitlessly looked round the room for anything that might help. Maybe he could get a message out instated of trying to fix the setup. Perhaps on one of his previous searches of his lab he’d missed a convenient box of carrier pigeons or a ham radio.
Computers, there were two computers in the lab, computers with possible internet access! Joe sat down at the nearest one and booted pressed the power button. Nothing happened. He pressed it again and it continued to stare back with all the impassiveness that a powerless computer tower can muster. Peering round the back Joe saw that it was lacking the rather crucial component of a power cable. Joe mental cursed whoever had selfishly nicked it. Although before he’d even finished inventing horrible punishments for stealing he remembered that it was actually him that had borrowed it some days earlier. He decided to curse that the manufactures had made the power cable so interchangeable instead, clearly this was their fault.
Joe reached round the back of the second computer and liberated the power cable and plugged it in to the first one. Joe pressed the power button and the computer rather pathetically whirred in to life and beeped enthusiastically. Joe sat back and patiently waited for it to go though the thousands of seemingly random lines of text whizzing up the screen faster than a human can read. This is the computer equivalent of trying to look smarter than you actually are, this could be easily hidden behind a nice calming picture but then how would you know that the computer is doing things that you have no hope of understanding.
Eventually, the login popped up asking Joe for the ultra secure password that was the last resort preventing illicit access to the computer by any malevolent hackers. As per university regulations this was a 16 characters password with numbers, some capitalised letters and alphanumeric characters. Joe quickly flipped over the keyboard and read the login details off the back where someone had helpfully scrawled the login and then quickly typed them in. The computer continued doing strange computer things, this time with an unmoving hourglass and a default blue screen.
After several tuts from Joe and a few annoyed taps of his feet, the computer finally finished doing all the computerty things it needed and finally released the mouse to his control. Joe quickly booted up Firefox and waited what seemed like forever for the little blue whirly circle to load up google. Technically Joe did actually wait forever as it never actually appeared. Instead he was shown a “Network connection error” page. With the sigh of a man that has so far had less luck than a Vegas gambler that thought the object of the card game 21 was to get more than 21, Joe stood up and peered round the back of the computer.
Joe reached round and tugged gently a the network cable running into the machine and followed the cable along the bench, past the network port and into the back of the spectrum analyser at the end of the bench. For the second time since discovering he was trapped in a cleanroom Joe said a word that would have elicited harsh looks from his mother. He looked back to the computer and instantly felt elation and hope at the sight of a wireless network card with a little black ariel poking out the back. Obviously whoever setup the computer realised that locking the network port to running equipment was going to seriously impact their ability to browse Reddit while working and so had installed a second internet connection!
With rented energy Joe sat back down and clicked the little wi-fi task bar item and loaded up the list of available networks. He watched with giddy excitement as the list remained absolutely totally and utterly blank. Joe’s was proving to at the very least be fairly consistent. Even if it was so bad that at this point he was starting to suspect that he was on a hidden camera show. A small part of him suddenly had an urge to look around for hidden cameras.
In quiet desperation Joe clicked on a few more network options and eventually got to the network connection wizard. This helpfully informed him that he didn’t have a network and would he like to go online and check for solutions. With flagrant disregard for the computer’s safety, Joe jabbed at the power button and brought the computer’s consciousness to a premature end. Joe was pretty confident he didn’t do it any lasting damage that wasn’t already due.
With absolutely no enthusiasm Joe stepped across the lab to the second computer and poked despondently at the power button. Nothing happened. Joe went over the the other computer, yanked out the stolen power cable with a overly vicious tug and plugged it back in to the second computer and sat down with a sigh. Well, a sort of sigh. To be honest given all the sighing so far at his previous failed attempts a escape and communications was getting hard to tell the difference between sighs and Joe’s regulate breathing, every breath seemed to have some edge of despair. Suffice to say Joe wasn’t extruding joy and happiness right now.
With an excitable beep that was whole not in keeping with the situation the computer started up and went though a remarkably similar routine to the first one until again the login window popped up. Now this computer was special, IT had not yet fully got its claws into and it was setup by the researchers. So no stupid IT security protocols to follow the researchers had been able to create their own login system and security to ensure that they sensitive data was well protected. Joe typed in ‘Admin’, left he password box blank and hit the enter key, the computer carried on merrily with its boot up routine safe in the knowledge that the user had passed the stringent security test.
Once the greeted by a desktop Joe skipped the inevitable disappointment of browser window and went straight to the network connection thingy which helpfully showed the message “Cable unplugged”. Okay at least there’s a functioning network card in this computer. Joe peered behind the machine and saw the free network port by a singular lack of network cable. No problem, Joe went over to the first machine and unpluged the network cable to the spectradoohicky thing, unfortunately a quick look at the end in the spectradoohicky thing showed that it was a proprietary connection. Why your would possibly need to make a proprietary plastic connection for a network cable was a mystery but Joe was willing to bet that a replacement cable cost considerably more than 2m of network cable from Amazon.
But not all was lost, Joe had already seen a network cable int he lab. He looked round expectantly and eventually his eyes rested on the yellow cable wrapped round the door handle. He eagerly went and unwrapped the cable and looked with absolutely no surprise at the bare end that he had accidentally broken earlier in his efforts to pull open the door. Joe’s mind which was initial full of mild panic at being trapped was making nice friends with growing despair had now invited in a strong sense of regret.
He looked down a the spekley patterned floor and began to scan it for the small translucent plastic connector. He put the cable on the table got down and began delicately running his hands across the floor. Half a second later he stopped when his hand passed over the sticky patch and he remembered that this was a chemical lab and generally running your bare hands over it was not a good way to avoid multi coloured chemical burns. After wiping his hands on his trousers (a well know way of removing any chemical contamination) Joe put on a fresh pair of purple nitrile gloves and went back to running his hands across the floor like a human mine sweeper.
After a few minutes, several strangely coloured patterns on his gloves and the discovery of a surprising number of small screws Joe eventually bushed against the small plastic connector. Grabbing the cable he say in front of the computer and carefully jabbed the bare wires of the network cable in to the little holes and hoped that wishes would hold them in place long enough to get some semblance of a network connection. He carefully placed the delicate connector into the wall socket and winced as it clicked into place. Plugging the less damaged end in to the computer Joe returned to the network connection program and retried the connection which now read “Cable unplugged”.
Joe banged his head into the keyboard and considered what detiy he had wronged and if stabbing the computer would appease them.
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