Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Awesome Lab of Significant Science, and Stuff

A few years ago, I decided to name one of my laboratory rooms. This particular lab is a nice little room, conveniently located. In it, various members of my research group do mundane but essential research activities.

I decided to give this little room an Awesome Name: a long, formal, jargony name that indicated the simple tasks performed in this room in a very impressive way. I made a sign and stuck it on the door. I did it entirely to amuse myself. There was no other reason.

The weird thing is that, although my group had been doing these same basic research tasks with essentially the same equipment for years (with a few modern additions now and then), once the lab had an Awesome Name, I started getting queries from other people about using this lab. I even saw the stupid-joke name of the lab show up in proposals by others who used, or planned to use, this lab.

I never use this joke-name for the lab; in official and semi-official (web) listings of facilities, the lab has a boring, simple name that describes what we do there.

I saw the joke-name again recently in a proposal-related document, and now I wonder if I should take down the sign with the Awesome Name. The joke-name is so over-the-top obnoxious that anyone who doesn't 'get' the joke -- i.e., everyone but me and maybe one of my cats -- must surely think I am a pompous jerk rather than (or in addition to being) someone who makes jokes no one else thinks are funny.

I am fascinated by the fact that (1) so many people think this is a serious name, and (2) the lab got noticed more once it had an impressive-sounding name, albeit a really stupid one.

I have no good explanation for (2), and the most obvious explanation for the lack of humor-detection is that it's really not funny, but I wonder whether a tiny part of the explanation for this is that people don't expect humor -- even of the nerdy, strange sort -- in this setting.

Does anyone else believe that? I know lots of people who give strange names to their Lab Machines and Computers, but these are typically obviously nicknames or the names aren't written down or, if they are, on some informal sign. Or maybe there is an inside jokey name that everyone knows. The Awesome Name of my lab room isn't obviously a joke (clearly) and therefore might be sort-of believable in a stereotypical 'academic' context, although it makes me a bit sad to think so.

In the case of my lab, maybe I shouldn't have pretended that it was a serious name, with a sign on the door for all to see (and write into their NSF proposals), but who knew people would take it seriously and notice it? Obviously, I did not.

25 comments:

John V said...

A tenuously related story. My office near the door at my previous job seemed too plain, so I had a nice cast bronze plaque made for a previous occupant with a couple sentences glorifying his career, and mounted it just outside my door.

It was harder than I thought - it had been his lab, not his office, I found out halfway through. It proved too risky for a liberal campus to play up his role in developing atomic weapons, and some did not have kind words by which to remember him. Finally, I should have had facilities install it - luckily the drill did not hit any wires.

It did dignify my doorway, however.

pleclair said...

When they re-numbered my building and changed all the nameplates, I put up a temporary sign that said "Doomsday Devices." Whoever put the new signs up the next week didn't share my sense of humor and removed it ...

My office got renumbered to room 2012 though, and they did leave my "Office of the Apocalypse" sign. They are not without some humor I guess.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm a fan of doing things just to amuse yourself. The fact that other people have unwittingly become part of it has simply transformed it from an art installation into a continually evolving performance piece. I say keep it up.

Or, if you must take it down, put up a nearly identical sign with the official name on it -- not to be helpful, but just to throw people off a bit. Again, for giggles.

(Or, like Prince, you could put up a sign with a symbol.)

Anonymous said...

What's wrong with jargon? I love jargon. Otherwise, no one would take my work seriously (not that even jargon is helping so much)

Eilat said...

That is truly hilarious! I think one explanation is that the emperor has no clothes, in reverse. Meaning, that people saw the sign and thought there must be something very important that they dont know about. So, to compensate for this, they make sure to reference it.
I find that this sort of egotism (or lack thereof) is so pervasive in science and academia. We are constantly evaluating and judging each other (rightly, for the most part) but it can lead to a constant state of stress and crises of self confidence. Am I smart enough? Do I get it? So much so that when encountering something that seems overly complex (because it is a joke!) they assume they must be missing something deep, and as I said, overcompensate out of embarrassment.
Hilarious!

Anonymous said...

That is hilarious yet also depressing. Related story: My advisor's office has another small office attached to it (that you walk through to get to his) so the nameplate outside has space for maybe 6 different names. Before he left for sabbatical he thought it would be funny to fill the empty spaces below his name with the names of well-known scientists in his particular subfield (not with real plastic nameplates or anything, he just printed them out in the right font and color).

Shortly thereafter I was assigned to move to that office since we had an influx of new students and had lost a couple offices. I emailed our brand-new administrative assistant to see if I could get someone to move my nameplate up there from my old office (I tried myself but they were stuck on their pretty firmly, no clue how our facilities guy pries them off). She emailed me back saying, "Are you sure you have the right office number? I checked the door and that one looks like it's full..." bahahaha then I had to explain that my advisor just has a super lame sense of humor.

nicoleandmaggie said...

Another vote for keep the performance art piece going. :D

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Eilat makes a good point: it's the Puss-in-Boots phenomenon.

Anonymous said...

Slightly related - my PhD supervisor had a theory that no one understood or cited much. So after a few drinks at a conference, he gave it a tenuous but easy-to-say acronym. Then it became much more cited!

Anonymous said...

I think you should make up some letterhead with the name on it, and start sending it out to fundraise.

Anonymous said...

Our cold room got a sign proclaiming it the "MY LAST NAME Mycology Lab Annex", not due to any intended use but due to the many interesting fungi growing there on abandoned plates. Meanwhile the 25 degree room where we keep our flies was christened the "Drosophila Hilton". I have not yet seen anyone use these in grant proposals but maybe I haven't been paying attention.

I am also amused by places (e.g., NIH) where ALL labs get a fancy title--my former postdoc just christened his "The Laboratory of Molecular Machines" which we both thought was impressive.

Mark P

John V said...

I think we are slightly in awe of named facilities, and do not want to unwittingly slight them. Maybe a proposal was funded to found them. Maybe an endowment established them. Maybe they are grander in their founder's mind than we perceive them. Better to use their proper name than guess.

Also, once a place has a name, it may be a sign that one must ask before using, with the logic that there is underlying structure to its operation that is not obvious.

Also, in proposals, we consider it better to have some arcane facilities at our disposal than not, so it may not be a consideration whether the name is the best conceivable way to refer to the facility.

After pondering this, it's time to start naming more space around here, and not just for FourSquare.

EliRabett said...

Eli, about a year ago, gave a talk to a bunch of people who were involved in an NSF project for research and training at not so much research places.

The first slide was

PUT UP A SIGN STUPID

said in a nice way of course.

No one knows if you are there without a sign, that means colleagues (you would be surprised) students and visitors. It's the first rule of advertising, why do you think all businesses have signs?

And yes, it impresses moms, dads and kids.

Pagan Topologist said...

And scientists think magic spells don't work? You cast a spell by the naming process, and the results were then beyond your control. :-)

Doug Natelson said...

When I worked at Westinghouse Research, there was a guy with a sign outside his office that said "Dept. of Phlogiston Studies". Few people got that one.

While I was a grad student, my groupmates and I were joking that everyone around us seemed to have a Center or an Institute. One day we declared our lab to be the Stanford University Low Temperature Research Institute, or SULTRI. Good for a laugh, but it didn't last.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

There is a serious lesson here. People are much less able to detect empty pompous blowhardism than you think, and if you talk about simple mundane shitte like it is some kind of magnificant awesome world-changing epicsauce, the vast majority of people will buy it.

MamaRox said...

Funny story! I do this, but have yet to put up a sign...

I know someone refers to himself the [Science] Department, although he is the only member... and he's actually of our more generically named department. And, actually, [Science] is not even a department here. It's a very common name for a department and thus sounds totally plausible to anyone who doesn't know the institution. He does it as a joke, and at first the reference only showed up in internal documents. But now this "department" is showing up in official publications and he seems a little embarrassed (and I find it hysterical).

marye said...

This is only slightly relevant, but I work in a lab where we have an equipment room with an official looking sign with an acronym on it - and know one knows what this acronym stands for. And it's not even pronounceable. There have been ongoing lists inside the room of possible (and silly) explanations for the acronym. But the real history of the sign seems to be beyond institutional memory. It kind of drives me crazy. Maybe I should ask my PI if he put the name on the sign years ago as a joke, or to mess with his students.

Arts and Sciences Student said...

In my field, at least, it seems like anything with nano in the title catches everyone's attention. Some people here ought to add nano- in front of one of the words in the lab title, even if it would make no sense, and report to us if the lab gets extra attention.

Anonymous said...

I'm a grad student, who has a semi-private lab to myself because my instrument is just the only one in there.

I think I'm going to give my lab an obnoxiously grand name tomorrow and see what happens.

Ever since we labeled the door with "[My Technique] Lab" I've been getting occasional inquiries about doing some measurements for other people in the department (sure!) or training people how to use my instrument ("Is this a shared facility? This looks really easy and effortless, can you teach me how to use your extremely expensive instrument in your absence?" "Absolutely not!")

So then again, maybe I'll change the name to something less obtrusive like "Stuff Happens Here."

Anonymous said...

I vote keep the sign up.

A few years back, during a discussion with facilities management, I produced an expletive filled "vent" about the proposed re-arrangement of our office space and the proposed use of a new (tiny) room.

After the dust settled on the new room, a few people with a wicked sense of humour started to informally refer to the (initial unnamed) new room as the room. After a little while, everyone was using this name (even the dean, etc) and the name started appearing in phone directories, and booking sheets.

I accept the running joke as mild punishment and reminder of my temper.

Anonymous said...

Isn't this the same marketing technique employed by the Ivy leagues?

Anonymous said...

To be honest that's how names for towns and cities came to be in the first place, so it's pretty much just evolution at work again.

Anonymous said...

There exists a high-security government computer network named HAL. I've been told that the name came from a suggestion box, and the bureaucrat who approved it had no idea what it referred to. Delish, if true.

OnlyOneBrain said...

Sadly, I'm not in the least surprised. About ten years ago in my field, it became expected that anyone with a PhD and a corner of lab space would style themselves the "Director" of the "Pretentious Buzzword Laboratory." I've caved in and given my lab a name, but I refuse to call myself the Director.