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Lowe's Laws of the Lab

Think Twice

Time for another one of Lowe’s Laws of the Lab. This time, it’s some more advice for synthetic organic chemists, but it applies to many other situations as well: “Think Twice Before You Get Rid of the Old Route, or You Will Spend Months Saving Time.”
It’s an insidious trap, that one, because you stay busy the whole time (and staying busy in the lab is what it’s all about, right?) I’ve spoken before about how almost any problem can be interesting, which means that you might as well work on ones that are both interesting and important. The same principle applies here: almost anything will fill your days doing research. You can come up with enough work to keep you going 20 hours a day – alternate reactions, different conditions, back-up plans. But to what avail? It can be hard to slow down enough to ask yourself.
I’ve fallen for this one more than once, of course. I’ll hit some roadblock in the science, and think about how to get around it. I think up a plan, and it sounds good, so I’ll start in on it – and run into another hitch just trying to get that to work. But there’s a way around, that, too, of course – just try this other reaction over here, and if that doesn’t work, well, there’s a way around that one, too, and. . .
Notice that at some point in there, things go off the rails. If you don’t watch out, you’ll end up working on the third alternate route to the reaction that could make the second way around the problem in your possible backup route work. Busy? You bet, more work than you can handle! But productive? Well. . .depends on how you define productivity. If, like a fool, you measure it only by notebook pages consumed and flasks dirtied, everything looks fine.
I recall being impressed at one point in my career by a guy down the hall from me, who was working like a man possessed. Every time I went past his lab, he was in there cranking away, looking like a multi-armed Hindu deity with each hand holding an Erlenmeyer flask. Closer inspection revealed the truth. It turned out that he was working like this because he was doing almost everything in the longest, most wasteful way possible. No wonder it looked so much effort. Cutting your lawn with a bread knife is a lot of work, too, and will fill your day up like nothing you’ve ever seen.
This law of mine comes down to the old advice of “Measure Twice, Cut Once.” It’s a hard rule to remember, when you’ve got a box of saws and the wood is just sitting there, daring you to have at it. But it’s worth looking through the clouds of sawdust to see if there’s any real carpentry going on.

One comment on “Think Twice”

  1. Sigivald says:

    This reminds me of a quote from the Unix Hater’s Bible.
    “Some people, when faced with a Unix problem, think ‘Aha! I know! I’ll use sed!’.
    Now they have *two* problems.”

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