Baby, it’s cold outside.
And inside too, as it happens.
Over the past month or two, London has been in the grip of some of the coldest weather I ever remember having experienced here. For most London workers, the chill is something you only notice on your commutes. But not so in the aged Victorian building that houses my lab, resplendent in the blonde-colored, ivy-sprawled, pointy-gabled brickwork of this provincial university satellite campus. Neither the lab nor my office has central heating of any kind, and the graceful, single-glazed windows suck out whatever animal heat scientists tend to give off.
All of which rather challenges the idea of doing an experiment at “room temperature”. (It is of little consolation that in the summer, as sun pours through those same beautiful windows, the temperatures will often exceed 40 – there isn’t any air-conditioning either, needless to say.) At the nadir of the big freeze, I measured the lab at 14 degrees Centigrade, and asked everyone to let their reactions run fifteen minutes longer than what the protocols called for, just in case. All the students soldiered onward in overcoats and wooley hats, bopping along to music and seemingly unconcerned. When our health and safety officer scolded them, I sent an email telling her to back off – if uropathogenic bacteria can’t penetrate a lab coat, they certainly won’t get through fur-lined polar fleece.
In my office, I’ve been working with my door shut with an electric space heater on full blast a few inches from my desk. It takes the edge off, but I find it scientifically curious how working in a cold room blunts the intellect. Unlike the music and chatter of the students drifting under the door, or the suspiciously pungent incense floating up from our ground-floor neighbors, the Asanté Academy of Chinese Medicine, the cold is something I cannot screen out. It prickles at the periphery of my senses, telling me that all is not well, that I should be shutting down all but essential functions. (Apparently writing a grant application is not one of them. Funny, that.)
But the cold is not all bad. For the first time in months we’ve been able to shut the windows in the room housing our mammoth, ancient minus-eighty freezers, which overheat at every other time of year. Which means that we don’t have to bribe the undergraduates to chase the pigeons out of the lab. And when the lovely man from BOC arrives with our liquid nitrogen refill, we don’t have to worry about our samples thawing out when we wheel our tank down to the pavement outside the main entrance.
And there are signs, too, that spring is coming at last:
I, for one, am ready.