Make Shift Science

Science has this high-tech persona; expensive machinery, precision equipment, clinical laboratories. However, in reality science is a lot more home made! It is true that science is expensive, I recently came across a piece that I needed, a piece of acrylic which held a fiber optic at a 45 degree angle and at a set distance from the surface, I was shocked to find that it would set me back £700, I mean that’s a joke right, I just bought a Nikon D90 Digital SLR with a lens and accessories for the same price! Luckily we have a workshop on the university campus which we can contract to make us items. I took the design down and he said he could knock me up two in less than a week for a few quid! Amazing, I have the finished product now and it works a charm! Companies can charge what they like as there are very few scientific specialists. All of our chemicals and lab products come from one of two companies, and all of out photosynthesis equipment comes from another one of two companies. Science is all about making it yourself, the problem is, that it doesn’t come with instructions or a manual, many things are trial and error, and very time consuming!

People may be very surprised that the study which revolutionized world hunger was done in a garden shed in the garden of someone on your street, or that atmospheric chemistry data was collected from a shack with no electricity, running water or toilet! My whole aquarium is made from waste pipe and cable ties, I slaved hours drilling, sawing and filing. My experimental containers are glued, cut and painted. I spend more time making, designing and waiting for deliveries than I do data collecting! My current experiment will take approximately 20 days where as it took about 3 months to get everything ready for it.

What has highlighted this issue for me was a recent article in the new scientist! Now this is quite a high end scientific magazine and so you would expect that it would be filled with the latest developments and technology. This particular article was entitled “Do snails dream of slime covered sheep?”. Now quite an intriguing title, however upon reading the article I found the whole experiment was basically conducted in someone’s pond and consisted of the scientist poking snails with a glorified stick. The main conclusions of the study “the pair reasoned that if the quiescent snails only sluggishly withdrew into their shells when prodded in the head with a metal rod, they are probably sleeping”. Now that is some top of the range science right there! If you want to read the article its available free on the New Scientist website

New Scientist - Fotonatura/FLPA

At the end of my first year at university we visited a marine research station named Millport in the Firth of Clyde in Scotland. This course consisted of us students having to conduct a three day experiment and then present the results. Myself and my good friend Samantha Bull conducted a project regarding hermit crabs and shell selection. Basically we had to prise the tormented crustaceans out of their shells by heating them with a lighter, killing roughly 70% in the process, and then allow them to select a new shell of those we laid out for them. As I sat there watching these poor naked hermits, vulnerable and squirming to cover their modesty, I couldn’t help but feel slightly sadistic, I carried on though as I wanted a good mark!

Science in a way is very selfish, we use other organisms to benefit ourselves and in some cases other scientists! Its a dog eat dog world and you need to be at the front of the game if you want to make a mark. I’m not going to lie, I want to do well, to pass my PhD and publish first authored papers, I’m not so sure I’m cut out for a cut throat life of prolonged research however. Its early days right now though and I guess once you find your specialized niche that could all change! For now I’m experimenting with my work, developing methodology and building contacts around the world and using on hell of a lot of cable ties along the way!

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