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August 24, 2005
Having the Hands
After working so many years in organic chemistry labs, I notice that I have all these little motions and flourishes in my technique. For example, when I'm draining the bottom layer out of a separatory funnel, I always drain it down almost to the bottom, and stop. Then I swirl it around a little bit, because there's always some of the bottom-layer solvent that's still stuck to the sides and hasn't crept down yet. That quick swirl knocks it down, along with any droplets that were holding on to the meniscus at the top. Then I take the stopper out, wiping it edgewise across the ground-glass joint to catch any dripping solvent, and always put it on the side area of my stir plate. Only then do I drain the remainder of the bottom layer. And every time I turn the stopcock off, I automatically reach up with the flask or test tube I'm using and swipe it across the tip of the funnel, to catch the drop that's always hanging there.
I don't usually pay attention to these things in such Proustian detail, but I got to thinking about all the lab habits I've built up in the last 25 years or so (I'm counting back to my undergraduate days.) These things are instant signs, in any field, of someone who's been doing it a long time. They have a set of automatic routines that work and have always worked, and they don't need to think about them any more.
I couldn't tell you, for example, when the last time was that I poured something into the top a sep funnel whose stopcock was left open, although in my first years in the lab I did that a few times (to loud curses.) I'm past all that. Now, I make the advanced mistakes.
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