Me and my shed


Following an article on the BBC about sheds I remember my own shed, site of my first laboratory. I wish I still had it, but I'm a grown-up now. They don't let you. If you had your own lab what would it look like and, being a grown-up, how would you pay for it?

When I was thirteen I got a shed for Christmas. My Mr Toadish tendency to skip from one hobby to another, accumulating stuff as I went, had left my bedroom filled with rocks, bits of wire, microscopes, telescopes, fungi, dead bees... anything scientific. My Mum was very happy the day it all moved into the shed.

A shed (not mine). Photo credit

My shed had shelves filled with neatly catalogued rocks from every continent (except Antarctica), drawers upon drawers of calamites and crinoids, a cupboard crammed with batteries and motors and lights, boiling tubes and candles (you can do a surprising amount of chemistry by candle power), microscope slides, magnets and a specially-made glove box so I could watch mould grow. The warm smell of fermenting yeast mixed with the tang of a leaking battery.

One day I tried to make phenol following a protocol from a 1912 chemistry textbook that used names like "marsh gas" and "oil of vitriol". I don't remember the details - one of the starting materials was crushed up aspirin. Judging by the smell I got pretty close. I probably didn't do myself much good though. Another day I got shouted at after coming lurching out of the door coughing violenty in a cloud of chlorine gas.

Everything was scrounged, salvaged, donated, or made from scratch. It's the best way, you learn everything. I'm forever trying to come up with ways to rediscover that simplicity, excitement and freedom, and bind it without loss to more dreary considerations, like mortgages and pensions. Being a grown-up sucks.

The other day I described my ideal laboratory, a mixture of edutainment and research involving an aquarium, medicine garden and a laboratory. Blogger, allotmenteer and scientist Duncan Hull says if he wasn't in academia he'd work on olive research, again mixing science with business. I think coupling loss-making research to something profitable is the way forward for non-grant maintained basic science.

As with both our ideas, the science shouldn't be wholly parasitic on the business but try to extend it - in my case adding research would give the garden and aquarium an interesting purpose and hopefully a unique selling point, in Duncan's his science would aim to improve olive oil.

Imagine you are setting up your ideal laboratory for your (non-commercial) research and that you want it to pay for itself. What will it look like? What sort of research will you do? How will you couple your science to something that brings money in? The numbers might not completely stack up, but that's okay, it's ideas that matter.

In case you were wondering, my parents still have my shed on their allotment, living a more conventional shed life full of plant pots and fertiliser.

1 comment:

  1. My shed/laboratory would preferably have several floors and be located on my alloment, something like this perhaps?

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