Research – an extract from ‘Farther from the Sun’.

 

Life is about experience. What else is there? You gotta get out there and experience everything! Change your mind! Go everywhere! Meet everyone! Find the best minds and rap the hell out of them! Do everything once and avoid the ruts! Avoid the humdrum! Avoid the rot and decay. So much more than fun! So much more than sex! So much more than children!

There’s a galaxy out there! It spins! There’s a mind in here! It thinks. It spins. I wanna know what makes them spin!

11.11.01

 

I did research towards a Master’s degree.

It seemed a good idea at the time. I was working as a laboratory technician and I they gave me day release to do it.

Research sounds fun. Research is not fun. Research is the ultimate in boredom.

As an entomologist I negotiated to study the eutrophication of Lake Windermere through the presence of Chironomid Midge Larvae fossils in sediments – the afore-said-mentioned Chironomids being indicator organisms – an indicator organism being an organism that can be used to determine the quality of the water in a lake or river.

You see! Now that even sounds boring! But I can tell you that that does not sound one tenth as boring as actually doing the research! That is real boredom!

When Malcolm Mclaren sorted out ‘Boring’ as one of his key words and phrases, along with ‘Never trust a hippy’ and ‘Anarchy’, he did not know what he was talking about. If hanging about on street corners, with no employment, no prospects, no money and nothing to do, is boring, he ought to try research identifying the fossil head capsules of midge larvae. That’s boring enough to ossify what’s left of your brain.

I was studying Lake Windermere but I did not even get to see Lake Windermere! They sent me a slab of mud!

And when I started I didn’t have a clue as to what one Chironomid larval head capsule looked like compared to any other type of midge head capsule. I’d never even heard of Chironomid midges! I wouldn’t know what one looked like if it flew up and bit me – and they most probably have!

Still research was research and I got stuck in.

What fun!

I negotiated for someone to send me a complete core sample of mud from the surface through to the boulder clay sediments laid down when the lake was formed. It was thirty metres long. A great long brown turd of mud.

The basis for my work was that the mud was laid down sequentially year by year. So by studying what organisms lived in the water, and hence were preserved in the mud, you could tell what conditions in the lake were like at the time the mud was deposited. The boulder clay was the earliest stuff. The turd got progressively more organic and rancid as we went from glacial to present time.

My first job was to cut the huge tube of mud up into ten centimetre chunks and bottle each chunk in alcohol to preserve it and then carefully label it. I put these on a shelf in a sequential order. There were hundreds of jars, each one representing a period in the lakes evolution.

My next task was to learn to identify all Chiromid larvae from the diagnostic characteristics of their head capsules, which were the only part of them preserved in the mud. Each different species had distinctive arrangements of their scraping plates. Each different species lived in different oxygen tensions.

The first problem was that no one had ever bothered to describe them all. I had to search through all the literature and gather stuff together. I had to take photomicrographs of head capsules and describe them myself. When I knew all the different types and how to identify them, which took a year, I moved on to being able to find them in the mud samples.

I had a binocular microscope, a pipette and hundreds of slides. I’d put a squirt of mud in a dish along with ethanol, peer down my binocular, tease out the grains of mud with a needle and carefully find every head capsule that was present in the sample. I’d make these into slides and identify them. This took hours. The room was full of the fumes of alcohol, xylene and Canada balsam (used to make the slides).

Only when my supervisor was satisfied that I could find each and every one of the head capsules in the mud sample was I allowed to attack the mud stored in the jars on the shelf. You see, some head capsules were large and easy to find and some were small and irksome. You had to find them all to get accurate data. If you missed some the data was skewed.

See, I told you it was boring.

By the end of two years I was the world’s third leading expert in Chiromid larvae. Fucking hell! I’m not sure where I would be now? Perhaps, unbeknown to me I am now the world’s leading expert, the others all having died of boredom.

You are most probably dead from boredom just reading about it.

If you want to really know what boredom is try doing research. I can promise you it is not scintillating.

Then I was let loose on the mud. I had to take samples every so many metres along the sample and record a hundred fossil head capsules at each level. The idea was that the lake started as a pure Alpine lake and then gradually silted up to become the putrid eutrophicated mess I was these days. I was to plot that progress and make comments on what had happened to the oxygen levels as organic material built up in its pristine glacial waters.

Sounded easy enough.

It took me a year to do. The preparation of the slides using xylene and mounted in Balsam was tedious and also a health hazard. It stank and gave off fumes that filled your head with muzzy carcinogens. Your eyes went crazy staring intently down a binocular microscope for hours on end. It was horrendously boring.

Only when you’d got all your data could it become remotely interesting. The culmination of three year’s work was to analyse the changes in species and plot what had happened to the lake.

Wow! That was weird!

Contrary to work carried out on pollen and crustacean indicators my research did not show steady progress from oligotrophic conditions, through mesotrophic conditions, to eutrophic conditions. No. The lake didn’t start pure and sparkly and gradually silt up through the centuries. It started pure and then rushed into being eutrophic. There was nothing gradual about it. It even started to get a bit clearer later on and then silted up again. I found that fascinating.

I handed in my report.

It was a highly detailed report with flow charts and photomicrographs and bar charts. It was bitchin’. Even if I say it myself. I was proud of it.

A Master’s degree can be done in a year. Mine took three. But it was the Biz. I had stuck it out.

My supervisor was a really interesting man. He actually enjoyed assessing reports. He started off by reading the report backwards for spelling mistakes. Bear in mind that this was before the age of computers. It was all typed. If there was a single mistake and you had to type the whole page again and there were no spell checks. He found a few, well actually a few dozen per page.

He then read it for grammar. Then he read it for sense.

I received my report back from him covered from head to foot in corrections.

I retyped it all. I am a prolific one-finger typist. Then I resubmitted it.

He went through the process again and came up with a few things he wanted changing. Then he consulted the oracles as to the validity of my findings.

We had a meeting.

“Very impressive bit of research, hrrrmmph.”

“Thank you Doctor Watson.”

“Trouble is that it conflicts with other research carried out on the lake.”

“I know. But those are my findings. My overseer was satisfied with my results. They are accurate.”

“I don’t doubt that. It is just that I cannot submit them without further proof of their accuracy. They do not conform to research in other areas done on this lake.”

“What do you mean, you cannot submit?” I was getting annoyed. I’ve been three years doing this. I’ve been overseen and checked all the way. My results are accurate and my conclusions are valid. Surely this is something for me to discuss at my Viva?”

“No. I can’t give the colleges name to research that is in any way suspect. You will need to back it up with further study. I suggest two more core samples. That would amply back up your findings.”

“Two more core samples!” I was horrified. Even with my increased speed, I was looking at two more year’s work! Two more years of xylene fumes and pawing cross-eyed over a binocular microscope. I was horrified at the thought of it. No way was I going to do that! I argued. “I don’t want to convert this to a Doctorate. I just want a Masters!”

“Oh, this will be a Masters.”

“You are not seriously suggesting I spend five years doing a scabby Master’s degree?” I was angry.

“I think that is what will be necessary to enable us to have full faith in its credibility.” He replied in a calm and reasonable tone. Doctor Watson was an extremely refined man.

Our first baby, Dylan, had just been born. I was a father now. I had responsibilities. I was working as a laboratory technician on extremely low pay while I did my Master’s degree. We were living in a very dingy little bedsit but we had been offered a house in Hull. Liz’s Grandma had died and her mother had offered us a whole house! That seemed like a dream. I didn’t need this hassle with my research. I needed to get it out of the way and get on with my life.

“Look. I don’t need this,” I explained to him in my best controlled manner. ‘I have written up a valid bit of research. It is more than enough for a Master’s degree. I am not going to do any more core samples. I’ve had it with all that! If it isn’t good enough then fuck it! You can stuff it up your arse!”

I wasn’t furious. I wasn’t out of control. It felt really good.

He stared back at me aghast. He was a professor with refined tastes, a man of decorum and manners. Nobody talked to him that way.

But then, I was heavily into ‘fuck it’!

I walked out.

I went down-stairs and wrote out my notice for my technician’s post. The lecturer overseeing my research was a really nice chap. Derek had become a friend. He begged me to rethink. He urged me to go back immediately and apologise. He would see Doctor Watson. He would explain. Maybe we could compromise on one core sample. It wouldn’t take that long. He would help. We could publish the results anyway. I did not have to throw it all away. He begged me to reconsider. I apologised to him and thanked him for all his help but I had made my mind up.

I never went back to that lab. I left all my slides in the drawers, all my work scattered over the work surfaces and all my core samples on the shelves, and never looked back.

Fuck the Masters degree.

I served out my notice, all but the last three days, when I went down with a heavy dose of hepatitis.

And that’s how I came to move to Hull and become a teacher!

31.10.01

 

The trouble is that we all let ourselves down. We can’t live up to the ideals we set ourselves. We fall short.

31.10.01

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