Although we live in a highly wired-up household – rather more so since we got to the US and Mike began insisting that he needs one of every device “for work” – I have a longstanding fascination for the lowest level of technology at which a task can still be efficiently accomplished. This is one of the reasons I spent a whole morning a couple of weekends ago making pumpkin pie from scratch (the other part being my landlord giving me eight butternut pumpkins, which is a lot of pumpkin to do something with) and probably closely related to how much I’ve enjoyed taking up knitting over the last few months. It’s definitely neither cheaper nor quicker – nor always better-quality, as I stumble up the learning clothes – than buying any of the items I make, but it’s much, much more satisfying.
But I think the sphere in which I most enjoy the low-tech solution is science. It’s true there are many things which are infinitely improved by the application of the latest and greatest devices – basically anything in the field of genetics and genomics is exponentially easier now than it was a generation ago – but that doesn’t mean everything is now shiny and electronic. (True fact that I try to impress upon anyone who gets ideas about the glamour of Doing Science: about 90% of microbiology is doing the dishes. Occasionally doing the dishes with hydrochloric acid, yes, but still doing the dishes.)
One of those minor but necessary tasks, in our lab, is adapting rubber stoppers to our purposes. We have a lot of glassware with rubber stoppers in the top – they do a good job of keeping what’s inside free of oxygen, once we’ve exchanged the atmosphere for something more congenial to our anaerobic organisms – but we still sometimes need to have things sticking down in (thinner stoppers that needles can penetrate, temperature and pH-measuring probes, etc.) Which means boring holes to suit. You can get machines to do this, along the lines of this beauty; our lab uses something a little less impressive.
All these really are are metal (brass) tubes with a handle one on end; at the other, they can be sharped with the cone-shaped tool to the left of the photograph above, by adjusting the edge you want sharpened to an angle against the blade. Hence brass; it dulls much more quickly than steel, but it can be sharpened again, too. Then you just select the size you want – appropriate to whatever’s going in it – and twist it into your stopper until it cuts through to the other side. Gardening gloves (we keep a lot of them around the lab for handling hot things) are definitely required. But damned if it doesn’t do a very neat job.
There will come a point, I imagine, where these neat little tools will be too battered to be useful, and maybe not able to be replaced; like other things we have lying around the lab, they’ll be retired to the status of curiosity. And the graduate students of that day are certainly going to save themselves a lot of sweat. But I rather hope it’s not any day soon.