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February 27, 2005
Law Number One
Three years ago (the Silurian era in blog time) I starting a series on "Lowe's Laws of the Lab." Time to bring them back, because I'd like to have them all in their own category over there on the right. Long-time readers will get a couple of repeats here, but I'm redoing the old posts a bit. (And I owe copies of the list to several people who've written in - could y'all drop me another another line?)
First, some background: when I was in graduate school, I sat down one evening and made out a list of what seemed to be inescapable laws of organic chemistry. I circulated the list among my friends, and some copies made their way around to research groups at other schools - for all I know, there are yellowing copies of those early versions still taped to someone's hood, somewhere. Looking back at the list, it's clear that I was not in a good mood when I wrote it out - but I did say that I was in graduate school, didn't I? No need for redundancy, then.
None of the laws are particularly original. Most chemists will look at them and go "Yep!" For example, Law #1 is:
You can never have too much starting material.
I sure proved that one over and over during my graduate days, as readers will have heard me complain about. My project got so long and unwieldy that it sucked in every available gram of material. I'd start off again, on larger and larger scales, only to find myself back up at the frontier, holding this little flask with 10 milligrams or so of clear syrup: all that remained of all that time and effort. I went up to crazy, ridiculous scales - initial reactions that used the biggest
round-bottom flasks buckets I could find. To no avail. It all led back to yet another little flask with a little oily stuff in it.
Nothing I've seen since has persuaded me that this law isn't universal. Oh, it's true that the occasional project will crash right after a big bucket of starting material has been made. Into storage it goes, until someone thinks up a use for it (at which time there won't be enough of it.) But those cases are far outnumbered by the ones where each lab hoards their precious material, and every new batch gets a parade of supplicants asking for - well, not all that much, really - just enough to do a couple of things we've been trying to get around to for a while - I think all we'd need is, oh, not even more than half of what's in your flask. . .
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