This is what a scientist does:
she* wears a lab coat and gloves and glasses; she works in a sterile white room with white benches and white fluorescent lights; she spends her time measuring dangerous substances from one small container and decanting it into another, even smaller container; she knows where the emergency eye-wash is, and the emergency acid burn kit; she rarely sees the light of day.
Except that in these last few weeks I’ve been that person. I’ve been that person in the lab coat, the gloves and the glasses, in the sterile white room.
And I must say, it’s pretty fun. I should explain:
I am trying to date rutiles (a titanium oxide mineral that has trace amounts of uranium and lead that you can measure and get an age from). To do this, we have to dissolve the rutiles in some frankly very nasty acids** in “bombs” – the pressure cooker of the science world.
Because we are trying to measure very tiny amounts of lead and uranium (we’re talking in the picogram*** level) we have to be careful about contamination. It’s a very precise and sensitive technique, hence the need for a “clean lab” (ie a lab that is clean and in which measures and procedures are in place to minimise potential for contamination). So I get to wear lab shoes and a lab coat and gloves – these protect me from harmful chemicals and protect the samples from contamination by me.
The next step is to extract the elements you want to measure using a magical process called “column chemistry”. But that’s another story for another time.
* do I need to raise an eyebrow at you?
** with warning labels that contain the words “toxic”, “corrosive”, “severe” and “burns”
*** 1 pg = 0.000000000001 g