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May 19th, 2009

Travels since April (now, May): In the Lab

Let's see, last time I posted I was in Prague; after a weekend in London I am home (sort of) in Castel Gandolfo.

To continue the travelogue, with a philosophical interlude about science and credit:

I spent a week at Boston College working in Cy's lab. Cy is a fellow Jesuit, indeed a member of my province, and an old friend who by coincidence has built a lab to do the sorts of measurements that I have wanted to do for a long time.

The idea was that he would show me how to do thermal conductivity measurements and then go off doing his end-of-term duties (writing and giving exams, etc.) Well, he showed me the best way to get the measurements done: let him do it. It's a phenomenally complicated process...

1. Melt epoxy#1 at 50 C; use it to glue the sample onto a piece of aluminum

2. Use a diamond saw to cut the sample into a parallelepiped.

3. Dissolve away epoxy#1 in acetone, freeing the sample

4. Mix up epoxy#2; use it to glue the sample to two metal disks with flanges. Cure for at least an hour at 100 C.

5. Mount the sample in a holder, attaching some incredibly delicate wires to the flanges.

6. Insert it into the refrigerator; start the program that sends pulses of heat on one side, measures the temperature on the other side, and thus calculates the thermal conductivity, while stepping the temperature down from 300 K (20 C) to about 3 K (-270 C).

7. Go home and get a good night's sleep.

8. Next morning, come retrieve the data and be amazed.

Needless to say, for certain meteorites I want to skip steps 1, 3, and 4 as the heat and the chemicals would not do good things to certain carbonaceous chondrites. For them, Cy did the cutting (step 2) holding the sample by hand against the saw, and we cured the epoxy#2 at room temperature for 24 hours.

Now the philosophy... OK, so who's science is this?

It was my idea to do the experiment and I supplied the samples. So is this my science.

Cy did all the work in the lab, not to mention buying and setting up the lab in the first place. So this is his science. Besides, he will be first author on the paper since he's up for tenure (and I am not).

But the nice people at Quantum Design built this wonderful gizmo, which is to me merely a black box and I have to trust them that it works the way they did. So it is their science.

All of which tells me that trying to claim credit in science not only misses the point of what we do, but is a fool's game in any event.

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