I once mentioned pipettes in an e-mail to a non-scientist, who told me he had to google the word to figure out what I was talking about. Curious as to what he found, I googled it myself. The first hit was a frighteningly comprehensive, if completely uninteresting, wiki page. A pipette, according to wiki, “is a laboratory instrument used to transport a measured volume of liquid,” and I couldn’t put it better myself.
Tune into a 30sec. news clip covering a scientific breakthrough, and without fail they will show a scientist at a bench, wearing a lab coat, pipetting into an eppendorf tube (the tube I may cover on a later, equally uneventful, day.)
It is true however, that this is what most of us spend our days doing. No matter how grandiose the big picture of our work is, whether we are studying the cure for cancer, aging, or how the very building blocks of our entire body work, we will still spend the majority of our day measuring minuscule and accurate amounts of liquid into different sized tubes, and doing some combination of heating, cooling, and waiting. Some of this heating, cooling, waiting is electronically assisted (PCR), while some is old-school (putting into water or a fridge.)
So today I present to you the pipette tip. This is to put on a hand held pipette, that can be adjusted to measure liquid from some combination of 1ml, to one thousandth of that volume. The tip is disposable, allowing it to be sterile, and for rapid transition between different solutions. When one is finished with the tip, a button on the top of the pipette ejects it. This is both efficient and immensely satisfying, and has become the subject of many a grad. student competition, judged on both accuracy and distance.
Scientists have a love hate relationship with the pipette. It is a daily fact of our lives, that we take for granted, and that can cause various overuse injuries and a myriad of frustrations. But it is also indispensable for what we do. Although it takes minimal skill to use, it is still a matter of some pride: how fast we can pipette into many tubes, how big our thumb is on our pipeting hand, etc.. None of us can resist a slight smirk of satisfaction when we get a completely fresh newbie in the lab, who actually doesn’t know how to use one.
The smirk may be because knowing what a pipette is, is a dividing line between someone who has a clue about lab work, and someone who doesn’t. The pipette is ubiquitous in our world, and almost never seen outside of it. When it does make an appearance, it seems strange and out of context. It was once a crossword puzzle answer, to the clue “lab tube”, which I could not answer. In fairness to me, the pipettes I use do not look like tubes. (The tubes pictured above are the tips, not the pipettes themselves.) To see the most awkward and uncomfortable use of a pipette ever, watch Avatar (but if you watch it again for this reason alone, please do not hold it against me.) In one scene in the remote laboratory, Sigourney Weaver is apparently pipetting while doing an experiment, although I think she might actually be holding it upside down.
(Running update: Today was yoga day. However, when I got to the gym, 10 min. before class, I found in my bag two running shirts, gloves, two hats, a sports bra, socks, running shoes, a garmin GPS, and a holder for my iPOD. But no pants. I was wearing jeans. No yoga for me today.)