Welcome to 2017, and as usual, it seems like a number for a year in a science-fiction story rather than on everyone’s calendar. I console myself with realizing that I’ve been thinking that way since about 1980, which probably comes from reading a heck of a lot of old science fiction stories while growing up – someone writing in (say) 1948 felt perfectly safe in setting their tale in far-off 1980, and likewise some of the SF books and movies of the 1980s are set right around now.
I will be engaged this morning in the futuristic activity of trying to figure out what I was doing before the vacation .That, at least, has not changed; I’ve been doing that every January since grad school. At least I could leave things sitting around, in one form or another, to await my return. The biologists (some of them, anyway) were in over the break washing cells and feeding animals, and there’s one of the biggest differences between biologists and chemists. Our stuff isn’t alive, and thus tends not to die.
Oh, we have tricky reactions and sensitive reagents, that’s for sure. No one’s going to leave a -78 degree reaction going for two weeks while they go out of town. Some of the things we do, you can’t turn your back on them at all. The guy who hired me to my first job in the industry used to do some pretty serious physical organic chemistry in his grad school work, some of which involved whipping up molten sodium (under hot toluene) to what he described as “silvery shaving cream”. He left one of those going one day while he went over to get some lunch, and returned to fire trucks and billowing smoke, so it’s true that we can’t just treat everything like a pile of gravel. But compared to the biologists, that’s pretty much what we do, because cells and rodents need constant, mindful attention if they’re not going to die. They need to eat, they need to drink, their living quarters need to be cleaned out, and after a while they will probably have to be moved to new ones entirely, because they can outgrow the current situation, to bad effect. My chemistry experiments, on the other hand, do not reproduce. I admit that a transcript of what I’ve said to them over the years would make it sound like I regularly accuse them of procreating, but that’s different. I left a whole suite of slow reactions going over the break, and two weeks of sitting around without me messing with them is probably just what they needed (I’ll find out in a little while).
All this leads to a completely different outlook on research on the part of chemists and biologists. In general, I’d say that chemists tend more to think that we can start reactions pretty much any time we think about them (given the starting materials), and that we can let them go as long as we need to get the desired products. Biologists, on the other hand, are more constrained. How many times have those cells been passaged? Have they reached confluence yet? How old are the mice? There are certain windows when the experiments can be run, and other periods where they most definitely can’t, and you have to adjust yourself to a calendar that you can’t do much about.
This might be a source of what seems to strike some biologists as unseemly self-confidence on the part of some chemists. We chemists may feel (rightly or not) that we’re more the masters of our own fate, since there are so many ways to get from point A to point B that there’s bound to be one that works. And hey, if we have to, we’ll just invent one, if we have the time. Biologists, in my experience, don’t have quite that same attitude towards their own research, and I can understand why. The moving finger writes for them, and having writ moves on, and if you didn’t passage those cells last week you’re not going to be setting anything up with them today. In a broader sense, if there’s no enzyme or cellular system that does the process that you want to do, you’re probably not going to do it any time soon, either. It’s not like chemists can just invent anything they want, either (I want something the size of fluorine that’s electron-donating!), but we do have a lot more latitude, since we’re working with more fundamental building blocks.
Time to go see what happened over two weeks, and to figure out what happens next!