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June 4, 2002
A Clean Lab is A Happy Lab
I've been throwing away piles of junk from my desk the last few days, and I can now see the darn thing again. My fume hood and lab bench need a bit of organizing, too, but they don't get as bad as they used to when I worked in them full-time. The desk, though, has always been bad, and now it gets to its final maximum-entropy state more quickly than ever.
I'm not one of those people who can automatically find things in the shaggy piles of paper, either. Well, I can for a while, but when I start losing things I know it's time to clean up. A majority of the paper goes straight into the recycling bin; some of it should have gone straight there without visiting my desk at all. Some of the photocopied papers get filed (I still have some I copied off when I was an undergraduate, and boy, do they look raggy. Makes me feel old every time I get one of them out.)
There's reason to be suspicious of people who keep incredibly clean desks, but I can see how someone would like to. The folks I really wonder about are the ones with spotless and well-organized labs. I just can't see how you can get a reasonable amount of work done and take the time to keep everything shining simultaneously.
Back at my former company, high school groups would come in for tours once in a while, and they were usually struck by the condition of my lab. That's because I didn't clean up for them - no Potemkin in a lab coat, me. "This is the real thing," I'd tell them. "Those other labs you'll see today, the ones that look like you could make tuna salad in there and eat it right off the bench? They're not doing enough work."
I'm reminded of the (apocryphal?) story of Alexander Fleming taking a tour of one of the first large-scale penicillin operations. Everything was gleaming (the closer you get to putting stuff in the bottle, the more gleaming it should be - that's why my labs have been such stys.) Fleming was impressed, but pointed out that he never could have found penicillin under such conditions!
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