Hands of Science

SteelyKid has recently begun to figure out her hands. As I noted last week, within the last couple of weeks, she’s started to be able to reliably grab things near her. Just within the last few days, she’s discovered that she has two hands, and they can interact with each other:


She’s started grabbing one hand with the other, and exploring them. I’ve also seen her start to use both hands in concert, holding a hanging toy steady with one hand, while manipulating bits of it with the other, like a good little scientist.

Hands are, of course, critical to science. You can’t be a good scientist without having good hands, as Phillip at Biocurious reminds us (inspired by Dr Jekyll and Mrs. Hyde):

This is important for a variety of reasons: pipetting solutions, filling the wells of a gel before running electrophoresis experiments, or even simpler things like not stabbing yourself with a needle or not dropping expensive samples. The shakes can be the difference between having to do experiments only once and wasting an entire week repeating them, with questionable results each time.

Not drinking coffee is, for me at least, not an option. Thankfully, my Ph.D. work involves very little that explicitly requires extremely good hands (mind you, pipetting solutions in a dark room under dim red lights* is annoying no matter how good your hands are…). I was not so lucky for my Master’s work, where, you may recall, I dealt with micropipettes.

He goes on to tell a lab story that makes me glad I’m not a biologist.

I’ve never particularly had problems with the steadiness of my hands. My problem has always been the size of my hands. I’m a big guy, and as a result, I have big hands. This poses a problem with a lot of precision scientific equipment, as one of the best ways to make things stable is to make them small. I’m forever encountering bits of apparatus where some critical adjustment requires me to wedge my hand into a space where it just won’t fit.

It also poses problems when it comes to lab cleanliness. I ended up asking the Chem department stockroom to special-order me a box of XXL nitrile gloves, because the “one size” kind that they have on hand simply do not fit. The fingers are at least half an inch too short, giving me a sort of amphibious look whenever I tried to use them to do tasks where I needed to avoid touching things with my bare hands.

This doesn’t come up very often, but I’m set for the next 500 or so times that I need gloves to fit me. And if I get really bored, I can always rubber-band them over the top of a beak full of liquid nitrogen, and watch them inflate to ridiculous proportions.

Another problem with hands is that I never seem to have enough of them. This most frequently comes up in the context of electronics, particularly when trying to solder circuits together. I’m forever finding myself with a soldering iron in one hand and one end of a component in the other, while pushing the piece I’m attempting to connect the component to around the table with the soldering iron, hoping to get it hot enough to form a good joint before it slides out of my reach. A third or fourth hand would be really valuable in those cases.

(One of the post-docs at NIST when I was there used to say he wanted a prehensile tail for those situations. His claim was that you rarely need a third hand with all that much dexterity, so a tail would do the job. Also, having a tail would be really cool.)

And then, of course, there are “good hands” in the metaphorical sense. Some people just seem to have a knack for lab work– when they adjust an instrument, it just works. Whatever they do turns out to be the right thing, or at least, whatever they do is never the wrong thing.

Some of this is a matter of tacit knowledge, the sort of thing that Harry Collins talked about at the Science21 meeting (presentation, microblogging). He had a fascinating story about the development of the TEA laser, saying that for several years after it was first developed, nobody was able to get one to work who hadn’t been part of the original research group, or had a visit from people in the original research group.

The reason, he said, was that the laser required an enormous heavy capacitor, which most people would set on the surface of the table next to the laser. In the original set-up, though, the capacitor had been mounted above the laser in a very odd way, because it was absolutely critical to have the leads between the capacitor and the laser as short as possible. The laser wouldn’t work properly with longer leads, which is why the original group had mounted it in such an awkward place, and that was invariably the problem that would be fixed by a visit from somebody who had been part of the original group.

This sort of tacit knowledge (I believe Collins called it “somatic,” but I’m not entirely certain) is a big part of the “good hands” phenomenon– I can do a lot of routine optical tasks very quickly, because I’ve been doing this stuff for better than fifteen years, and I know a lot of little tricks that I can’t quite articulate. New students starting in my lab find some of these tasks absolutely maddening, but they eventually figure out the same tricks, or variants to accomplish the same thing.

There’s something else to it beyond that, though, because I’ve seen some students who just got everything the first day they set foot in the lab. and I’ve seen other people who struggled for months with the simplest lab tasks, before giving up to become theorists. “Good hands” aren’t just about practice.

So, it’s critically important to have good hands, if you want to do science, particularly experimental science. Hands are the main thing setting us above dogs, after all, hands and brains. Without those, who knows where we would be.

8 thoughts on “Hands of Science

  1. For the stuff folks in my lab do – brain surgery, insertion of intracranial needles, etc. – having hands that are both stable and confident is a *big* deal. I have one person right now who just started and while otherwise superb, has the worst hands I’ve ever seen, so this is something I’m working on right now. Using an orange to practice and pretending that it’s a rat only goes so far :-).

  2. You can’t be a good scientist without having good hands

    Those who can, do. Those who cannot… become theorists. Those who cannot do anything useful set policy. Insubodinate pariahs like Yang and Lee, Bednorz and Müller, Charles Pedersen, Jean-Francois Borel, Gordon Gould… are intolerable. At least Gould got it good and hard.

  3. A couple points.

    1. Some without good hands (or who become bored with endless repetitions/variants of the same kind of benchwork) become scientific information specialists/librarians.

    2. A very useful substitute for a third hand on soldering jobs is a hemostat — available in various sizes and curvatures. Ask the folks in the biology department to order you one or two.
    People (like me) with large fingers often learn to manipulate hemostats easily with just the tips of the thumb and ring finger.

    3. I suspect Emmy might have some comments about people with “good hands.”

  4. Ugh, my shaky hands have always been the downfall of my lab work. I have many times had to re-do experiment due to the fact that I can’t can’t get a drop out of a pipette without it flying off in some unwanted direction, or disrupted some layer during an extraction. Guess I’ll never be a surgeon, that’s for sure.

  5. I have just re-entered the world of fiber optics labwork after a 6-year hiatus as a paper-pusher. Some things have come back to me very quickly while others are more gradual. It’s interesting to see which of these skills are in “muscle memory” and which are more cognitive, and therefore subject to faster decay rates.

  6. I guess I do not. I mean, I have decent hands, but not all the time, due to a tremor I inherited from my father’s side of the family (makes soldering a real pain sometimes). On the other hand (no pun intended – honestly) I handle mathematics well, and in fact truly enjoy doing QFT. So it’s off on the theory road I go.

    And to be fair, while it’s true that people who don’t have the hands for experiments (or find it difficult to design/run experiments well, or are just accident prone) go into theory, there’s a decent number of folks who try to do theory and find that that kind of work is too difficult. Science wouldn’t work nearly as well if everyone came with the same generic skillset.

    Also, on an unrelated note, am I the only one that’s not sure exactly what Uncle Al’s point is supposed to be (most of the time)?

  7. Though I am loathe to comment upon myself… The names listed made fools of common sense with good hands, and impudently so against managerial oversight. Gould was destroyed for being clever.

    Yang and Lee empirically falsified Weak Interaction mirror symmetry. Pariahs Christmas 1957, geniuses New Years Day 1957, Nobel Laureates that December. Strongly coupled physical theory arises from deep symmetries, loosely coupled observed reality arises from symmetry breakings. (Gravitation anomalies from opposite parity mass distributions must be examined.)

    Bednorz and Müller were threatened with criminal prosecution for embezzling IBM/Zurich lab funding. High specific heat cryogenic insulation was the project, high temp superconductivity was their (quiet) passion. Official unpleasantness was uncreated post-Nobel Laureates.

    Charles Pedersen was severely reprimanded at duPont for diddling with a small tuft of wiry white crystals found in a large volume failed reaction pot. Pedersen was enthralled by crystals. Dibenzo-18-crown-6 made him a Nobel Laureate.

    Jean-Francois Borel got his ass handed to him at Sandoz for screwing around with cyclosporin. It was the only macrocyclic polypeptide antibiotic of its kind that did nothing. Borel suspected it did something and kept on looking despite extreme orders to the contrary. Sandimune® brought in $billions.

    Gordon Gould invented the laser under Federal funding. it was declared Classified then Gould’s security clearance was yanked. Others got the Nobel Prize while Gould bitterly litigated for 30 years.

    “Autoritätsdusel ist der größte Feind der Wahrheit”, Albert Einstein, 1901. Then SR, GR… and ironic revenge of quantum mechanics in the 1920s.

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