Looking Inward

I’ve had enough of didactic posts to no audience, so I’m going to write about something near and dear to my heart today: fixing things.

In a physical chemistry lab, a good 90% of your time is devoted to fixing things. About 30% of the time, something is broken outright, i.e. not functioning properly. The other 60% of the time nothing is broken per se, however you find yourself having to tweak your apparatus in order to get “good results”–strong voltages, aligned optics, signals from compounds you want, etc. The remaining 10% of the time is divided between setting things up (99%) and actually observing good results (1%). The diagram says it all; study it well, future p-chemists.

It is the strange and disturbing truth that while fixing an instrument, you will inevitably cause at least one additional problem in the instrument. In addition, the number of additional problems that surface after discovery of the initial problem is proportional to the age of the instrument.

That’s why, I figure, it has taken us a week now to fix a twenty-five-year-old Bomem FTIR. Each time we fix a problem, a new one arises. We are also at the mercy of a phantom light fixture, which turns on and off at random regardless of the voltage it sees.

I must admit that I like fixing things, though. Each solution brings with it a certain sense of accomplishment, even if it also brings more trouble. Working in a lab where observing good results takes up less than 1% of my time, I have to cherish the little victories.



  1. AMEN! I’m learning that the hard way this summer.
    However, my time is maybe 15% fixing broken things, 45% tweaking, 30% setting things up, 9% getting useless data, and 1% getting meaningful results.
    Fixing things is very fun, though. I probably won’t see enough screwdrivers and soldering irons when I get back home.

    And what’s that about having no audience? Am I nobody to you…? This makes me sad.


  2. Haha the lab you’re in must be newer/better maintained than mine. It’s the tweaking that really drives me nuts. Sitting there trying to optimize a signal just to squeeze an extra 10 mV out of it…gahh…

    And that’s not what I meant! Just trying to goad whoever else reads this to start commenting, if those people do exist.


  3. I just found your blog, but as an experimental physical chemist, I must say that I understand exactly where you’re coming from here. Personally, I enjoy the challenge of making things work. I doubt I’d be a physical chemist otherwise.

    Nice blog, I look forward to reading more.


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