Friday, March 18, 2011

What's your lab superstition?

What would you do if saw this in front of your hood?
Photo credit: Flickr user AlishaV (Creative Commons)
The ever-prolific Glen Ernst wrote in the comments of last week's dishwashing post that:
Even though was we had a glass washing service at AZ I always, always, always washed my own glassware, so the good luck would no be washed off by those unskilled in the art. Are chemists superstitious? Um, maybe a little.
I have to confess that I am a little superstitious, in that I refuse to consider and/or discuss the possibility of good results before I actually perform the experiment. If you've done a reaction once or twice and it's worked great, great! We need to scale it ten times or run it with a slightly different analogue? Well, we don't know what will happen. "Don't know" means "don't know". Let's not talk about those good results until we get them, eh? I can get a little irrational about adding the word "potential" or "believed" when I want to hedge my bets, as if there was a Great Pumpkin/Scientist who dinging me for my positive assumptions.

I never had a lucky flask or a lucky stir bar or anything like that. But I do knock on wood sometimes, and once I worked in hood number 13. Did I scribble it out and write "Hood 12 + 1" on there? You bet.


  1. One thing you learn over time as a bench chemist is to be superstitious of the phrase "that's an easy reaction" or "obviously will work". In my experience, you can run that Heck coupling, perform that Diels-Alder, oxidize that alcohol....but when it comes time to take off the simple Boc group, it'll take you six months.

    *BONUS - I had a friend in grad school who went to the end of a total synthesis in short order, only to spend the next year of his life trying to remove a benzyl group by every known method in Greene & Wuts.

  2. In the final 6 months or so of my PhD, my lab manager referred to the legend of the lucky Pig. We found him and he kept watch over my bench to the end. I even had a picture of him on my phone, so that on occasions when Pig could not watch over the actual experiment due to its location, I could hopefully carry a bit of his luck with me.

    Maybe we are superstitious... but all in the name of science >:)

  3. Don't touch my stuff was my lab rule. I didn't have any real superstitions.

    Arr Oh does bring up one thing I call "the myth of the perfect experiment." It's the idea that you can run just one well-designed experiment and it will tell you what you want to know. THAT NEVER WORKS. If I have any superstition it's against "just one experiment."

  4. SAO, the killer for me has been ester hydrolysis. Every single person in my group has battled this "simple" reaction at least once.

  5. I'm not superstitious, just a little stitious, but in grad school, I had a magic 100-mL Schlenk flask. It always sat on the same peg on the drying rack, and pretty much every reaction run in it worked beautifully.

    And, of course, any promise of quick results/publication will result in at least a year of frustration.

  6. OK, I have some strong solvent superstitions: I frequently crystallize stuff from straight acetonitrile (works great for very polar or very lipophilic stuff), or from a benzene/cyclohexane mixture. Cancer be damned, benzene is magic for crystallizations.

    For high-temperature reactions I like to use 1-methoxy-2-propanol (works great for cyclizations, SN-Ar of chloropyridines with amines, SN2 with NaCN or NaN3 etc). This wacky solvent is water soluble, it is easier to evaporate than DMF, DMSO and it does not decompose at reflux. It is protic but not very nucleophilic so unlike AcOH or primary alcohols it does not solvolyse electrophilic reactants much. And it is quite cheap and nontoxic whereas cellosolve is nasty.

  7. @See Ar Oh - So true! I dreaded when my advisor would say a reaction should be "a piece of cake," or like "falling off a log." It was the kiss of death.

    In industry I remember a colleague was told in a chemistry meeting that making this amide would be "super easy." Everyone cringed. The poor guy spent the next three months trying to perform an amidation where the target nitrogen was both sterically hindered and non-nucleophilic. Finally succeeded using conditions so forcing that every amine within a 100-foot radius could have been acylated.

  8. One thing that you should never do is writing a structure on a flask with a product before you have taken NMR and run HPLC. Drawing the structure confidently guarantees that there will be a problem. And if you run around and tell excitedly everyone how great this tricky reaction worked right on the first try, you will probably fail to reproduce your procedure on the second and third try. Nature has subtle ways to make you humbler.

  9. Oh Lord, milkshake, that is SO TRUE. Tweeting.

  10. @Arr Oh: Lesson I have seen learned - Never count on benzyl deprotection.

    @milkshake: Is that really a subtle way of making you humble? ;)

    Personally, I always number the steps of a procedure in my notebook, and I never let the procedure end at 13. Making solvent evaporation its own step usually gives me enough flexibility.

  11. I've seen a lot of superstitions from old chemists dealing with agilent GCMS. I think maybe there was a time when it all made sense, but now-a-days, putting special German grease on every time you cleaned a source or saving the method, reloading the method, then saving the method again; may all be overkill.

    I do believe instrument problems come in three. Don't tell your boss things are working again until a couple days confirm it so.

  12. My best analytical superstition story:

    A woman that I worked for once told me that she once worked at a company where one of the super-tetchy instruments needed dirty talk to get it functioning. Stroking it affectionately and telling it what a good instrument it was would get it to behave correctly.

    As always, I am not kidding.

  13. Not exactly chemistry, but Chemjobber reminded me of this:

    "One time some folks held an exorcism for one of the machines that kept breaking down, where they drank whiskey and played songs for the machine. And this one guy came up with the idea to have a bunch of Depends adult diapers sent down so that everyone could stand around drinking beer and pissing themselves. I didn’t make it to that party, but a friend of mine did. He hooked up with this amazing woman after the party. He picked up a chick while wearing a diaper!"

    (I never get invited to parties like this)

  14. As an undergrad, I used to purify clotting proteins from plasma. When the column was done washing and ready to be moved from the walk-in cooler for elution, I would drink vodka (this was usually late afternoon). Only if I drank vodka would the protein be in high enough concentration and have excellent activity. Once the column was ready at 1pm... i could not risk a change in the elution routine and had to start drinking. :|

  15. biochembelle:
    I can't believe I am not the only one! I got through the end of my thesis with a statue of a pig with wings watching over me.

  16. This may not exactly be a superstition, per se, but when my grad advisor would tell us to try a new reaction, we would always wait for at least 2 reminders before we actually did it. Third times the charm?

  17. An undergraduate friend of mine I think once put it best for chemical biology (she's now in grad school for biochemistry):
    "Biochemists can be perfectly rational beings, but when it comes to transformations, they insist it won't work unless you mix by pipetting up and down exactly 7 times"

    Personally, I superstitiously use QuikChange Regular instead of QuikChange Lightning for PCR religiously. I have no data to prove it, but I don't trust anything but the regular. To my PI's credit, they are always willing to order the regular for me (talk about feeding a habit...)


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