Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Just for show

Life stripped of its illusion and its seeming becomes a rather deadly thing to contemplate.
Theodore Dreiser - The Genius (1915)

The other day while checking the weather forecast on whatever Ceefax is called these days I stumbled across a TV programme showing clips of people working in a laboratory. Something nefarious was going on in the world outside and lab folk were dutifully proving evidence to show just how horribly nefarious it was. BBC nefarious that is.

At the sight of a working laboratory I came over all nostalgic for a minute or two. I always enjoyed lab work and recall a number of occasions where promotional cameras invaded our domain for a disruptive hour or two. As one might expect, the folk behind the cameras are only interested in things that move, bubble or just look techie. The person at the bench tends to be a senior scientist finding out if their rarely-used lab coat still fits.

I remember one occasion where our laboratory had been chosen to supply some promotional images. To set the scene we were asked to set up a row of bottles containing coloured water just for the camera. As for the science, the PR people had brought along a blonde model to do that. Her job was to wear a pristine lab coat and pretend to do something scientific for the camera. I’m sure she was pleasant enough, but somehow she managed to convey that sense of vacant prettiness models are so good at.

The final result was just as artificial as it usually is. Anyone with any kind of technical background must see the artificiality. Scientist peering at a tube of liquid, heating it up over a Bunsen burner with the flame set incorrectly to make it visible to the camera. A reflux extractor set up to extract lots of nice clean nothing. A robot injector system selecting the next sample vial - it usually runs overnight but just for the camera we’ll make it do something harmless.

One is left wondering why things are done this way, why the artificiality has to be so obvious. Perhaps it has to be so because it is expected, because promotional artifice is normal and realistic is not. Expectations have to be met and we have wandered too far from reality to turn back now.


Sam Vega said...

My first wife did a degree in experimental psychology, and told the story of how a team came in to film rats navigating mazes. Rats are incredibly fast in mazes, and the camera couldn't catch them. So they were sedated to slow them down. Which then meant that they were too stupefied to remember the maze route. What the viewer actually saw was a collage of semi-conscious rats being propelled along the maze by means of pipettes and bottle-brushes, and some unsedated rats being held squirming at junctions so that they looked as if they were "deciding" on the route.

Roger said...

Recently passed a bus stop hoarding advertising job training. A couple of earnest young people holding measuring instruments - completely wrongly.

When a friend's business first started he brought in all his mates to a newly hired office to make it look busy, that ruse worked very well. Image is everything, substance is nothing. That is why Corbyn is going nowhere, Mrs May on the other hand has plenty of image - for the time being....

Demetrius said...

I was banned from the school lab's after bringing in one of my old incendiary bombs and asking how I could make it nuclear.

A K Haart said...

Sam - they could have made tiny little lead boots to slow them down. Or they could have filled the maze with water and made them swim.

Roger - I hope you are right and Corbyn really is going nowhere. If May doesn't do well then she probably isn't going anywhere either.

Demetrius - seems rather harsh. There would be some interesting chemistry in an incendiary bomb.

Dan said...

You should have had someone pouring some potassium permanganate solution from one container to another; that's almost a traditional scientific image sort of thing.

The other favourite is computers with lots of flashing lights on them, and robotics that whirr and clunk realistically.

Having seen the set-up required for an undergraduate practical lesson, though, I do think that almost none of the general public know what real science looks like. Little tricks such as collecting twice as many of whatever that afternoon's experimental animal is to be, and auditioning them to make sure they know what they're supposed to do is needed for semi-rigged practicals, but it isn't science.

A K Haart said...

Dan - we had some pick and place robots in the early days of lab robotics and a group of Chinese visitors were fascinated by them, took loads of photos. Now they probably have far better ones of their own.