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July 18, 2007
Over There, Behind That Stack of Whatchamacallits
Laboratories are not immune to a problem that affects many a kitchen. Surveying the counters and the cabinets, ones eye falls on a space-filling gizmo that hasn't been used in months, and the thought comes up before it can be repressed: "I wish I hadn't bought that thing".
As scientists, we don't have late-night infomercials to blame: the fault is not in our cable packages, but in ourselves. A likely way for white elephant equipment to get in the door is by the efforts of someone who used it somewhere else and just loved it. They agitate for it, they get the authorization to buy it, they order it. . .and, likely as not, only they ever use the thing. No one else likes/feels the need/can be bothered to learn how to use it. The advocate eventually moves on, but their hardware, perforce, stays behind.
These things migrate to unused fume hoods, should any exist, or to bench areas so inconveniently located that no one ever occupies them. This natually helps to ensure that no one uses the apparatus again, since it's now so far off the jungle paths. Should anyone try, they often find that vital pieces and accessories have been shed along the way, along with chunks of the documentation.
Biology labs are particularly laden with these things, in my experience. In chemistry, the combichem craze of the 1990s left a lot of stuff washed up on the beach, as did the proliferation of (semi)automated reaction stations and multiple-simultaneous-reaction gizmos. But none of these items are useless - it's just that some of them aren't quite useful enough for the space they take. By the time some of them get thrown out, you can tell how old they are just by the color of their plastic housings and the fonts used for their brand names.
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