How to p*ss off a scientist


I was more than a little mad when I came into the lab and found that my experiment had been hijacked. I was purifying a protein, which was supposed to stir overnight in a beaker of activated charcoal, but someone had moved my beaker off of the stir plate and onto the bench.

At first, I assumed someone had made a mistake. They needed the stir plate, moved my beaker off for a second, and forgot to replace it. But no: This, clearly, was a deliberate act of aggression.

If you spend a lot of time around scientists and you think you might someday want to piss one off, this is important stuff to know.

We were graduate students, and we had each been assigned an area of the lab to be “in charge of.” If you know anything about graduate students, you know this was a bad idea. Sparse resources breed territoriality, and no one has sparser resources than graduate students. Our principal investigator (PI) had assumed we’d just keep the instruments in our area calibrated, keep the benches clean.

Even more frustratingly, he didn’t ruin my experiment. The protein still purified just fine (stupid, robust protein). So I didn’t get to report him to our PI as triumphantly as I would have wanted to (“Um, no, he didn’t ruin it—but he might have!”), nor could I get any nonscientist, such as my then-girlfriend-now-wife, to care.

WHAT SHE PROBABLY SAID: So … this guy moved your experiment 4 inches to the right.WHAT I PROBABLY SAID: Yes!WHAT SHE PROBABLY SAID: And … it still turned out OK.WHAT I PROBABLY SAID: Yes, but you’re focusing on the wrong part of the story! You’re not seeing the whole picture! You’re missing the point entirely!WHAT SHE PROBABLY SAID: … Am I?

Okay, so the transgression may sound small, but I was pissed. In fact, I was so pissed that I still remember the incident a decade later, even though other things from that period—like, say, all of cellular and developmental biology—have faded from memory.

I don’t think scientists on the whole are angrier or calmer than the general population, but different triggers make us mad. If you spend a lot of time around scientists and you think you might someday want to piss one off, this is important stuff to know.

Let’s say there’s a special scientist in your life that you’ve really been hoping to enrage. Here are some fun things to try:

  1. Tell the scientist the day before the new semester begins that he or she has to teach a large section of a new class designed to bring communications and geography majors up to speed on basic quantum thermodynamics. Provide no educational resources, teaching assistants, or additional salary. Spread a rumor that the class is an easy “A” and that the professor will happily admit new students at any point during the semester.

Also, decaf coffee.

Following up on a call for reform

Elsewhere in Science, 27 February 2015