When my parents were visiting earlier this year, my Mum asked me why I don’t wear a watch any more.
“I just use my iPhone”, I explained.
“But don’t you miss having a watch?”
“No. Strapping a device to your wrist just to know the time seems as obsolete as, I dunno, strapping a barometer to your leg just to get the weather forecast”
“Oh don’t be such a clever so-and-so”
Since that exchange, however, I have noticed one advantage of watches: if you’re in a seminar or meeting that’s, shall we say, dragging a little, it’s much easier to surreptitiously glance at your watch than to check your phone (unless you always have your phone on the desk, display upwards and switched on, which I rarely do. Even if I do, it would still be easier to glance at my wrist without drawing attention to my actions).
Luckily, you don’t need to wear your own watch – anyone else’s that’s close and clear enough to check accurately will do. So hooray for the remaining watch-wearing luddites!
This thought led me to think of all the other devices my phone has rendered obsolete. Calculators, for one – I ordered one as part of my standard desk set-up when I started my last job in 2007, but didn’t bother when I started my current job in June; I hadn’t used my old one for years. In fact, my former boss and I were once sitting in a grant budget planning meeting, both crunching numbers on our iPhones, and joked that we should include new phones as a line item because they’re just so useful for so many science-related things.
Have smartphones also replaced laboratory timers? I would assume so, but I haven’t worked in a lab since 2005 so I really don’t know. I’m pretty sure that if I was still in my postdoctoral lab, I’d be using my phone in place of the banks of colour-coded timers that used to adorn every bench.
However, the story would be very different if I was still in my Glasgow lab.
Visiting my PhD supervisor’s office, which was right next to the lab, was always instructive but often dangerous. You’d go in to ask a simple yes-or-no question, and emerge in a daze two hours later (this is NOT an exaggeration) after a comprehensive grilling about your grasp of experimental design and the recent literature, your plans for the next phase of your projects, and anything else that took his fancy.
I soon learned to enter my supervisor’s office only if I had a laboratory timer, set to 5-10 minutes but on pause, in my pocket. If he started to go off on an unexpected tangent, I’d surreptitiously press the button that restarted the countdown through the fabric of my pocket, and would then make my escape when the timer beeped, mumbling something about a crucial next step in my protocol.
I confessed my use of this tactic to the lab’s other trainees in the pub one night, and learned that a few of them were already doing the same thing. The others started carrying a pre-set timer the very next day.
It would be much harder to pull this off if, instead of activating a hardware button on a timer, you had to somehow use a smartphone touch screen from within your pocket to restart the countdown.
So, as with watches in slow seminars, perhaps old-fashioned timers still serve a limited but extremely valuable purpose in science…