Occam’s Thermometer

Way back when I was an Occam’s Typewriter Irregular—that is to say, before Henry supplied me with his magic evolution-enhanced pellets—I wrote a blog about critical thinking and children.

Now as a Regular—thanks to the Gee pellets—I would like to add to the idea of critical thinking from a different angle. It’s science-related, but because science is founded on logic, it relates to everyday life as well as science.

As scientists, (and physicians—not me, but from discussions, it’s prevalent in medicine as well), we are often guilty of doing one of two things:

1) Ignoring the elephant in the room
2) Seeing zebras instead of horses

For today’s blog, I will also ignore the elephant in the room, and focus on zebras and horses.

As a certified hypochondriac, I am highly accomplished at seeing zebras instead of horses. Every itch is a stitch, every pang is a bang, every nerve is something to observe.

Fortunately for me, my perspective is much better in dealing with science that is unrelated to my own body and its functions (or lack thereof), in which cases I often spot the horses masquerading as zebras. But sometimes I am too busy or preoccupied, and we have a safari emerging in the lab.

Some weeks ago, I began to hear rumors that ligations were not working in the lab—for those of you who are not molecular biologists—I don’t mean tubal ligations. We didn’t have a sudden spurt of pregnancies in the lab (Cath, do I get on your honor roll for that one? Sudden spurt of pregnancies.).

In fact, even simple transformations (no monsters) were not working and the plates of bacteria were not growing.

What to do? It must be the bacteria. They were stored for too long in the freezer. New competent bacteria were ordered and used—but no luck said de duck.

Okay, bacteria are not growing on the plates—it must be the bacterial agar on the plates that’s not right. Can you non-molecular biologists think of a control? Well done—scrounge a few plates from the lab next door and try again. Scrounging is always an essential component of controls.


No luck said de duck.

Hmmm. This is a tough one. Let’s consult Dr. C., when he gets back from wherever on earth he is. Did you try our neighbor’s bacterial incubator? Perhaps the temperature in our incubator is fluctuating and getting too high—or too low?

Good idea—hey, the bacterial plates are growing nicely next door. Should we unplug our own incubator and just use the one next door that’s really at 37 degrees?

No and yes—as I fly out somewhere else for a meeting or seminar. Use the one next door for now, to get the work done, but we need to figure out what’s wrong with our own incubator.

It turns out that our bacterial incubator doesn’t have an actual temperature setting—it’s a cheapie—it just has a scale from 1-10, and one has to find the number that corresponds with the desired temperature, leaving a thermometer inside for the calibration.

Responsibility. We’ve called a technician to come and fix the incubator. He’s ordered a part that should keep the temperature stable, say the people in the lab.

Part ordered, labor done, incubator fixed. Guess what? The scientists forgot about one of the key principles that make science conceivable—that makes it testable: to always look for the simplest solution wherever possible. To look for the horses rather than the zebras. This principle, as my colleagues here on OT are well familiar, has been named—well—Occam’s uhhh, Occam’s Thermometer.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, all the labor was for naught. The simple thermometer placed inside the incubator was faulty. Another science lesson for the masses. Occam’s Thermometer.

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery. "Saving One" is my most recent novel set at the National Institutes of Health. Now IN PRESS: Today's Curiosity is Tomorrow's Cure: The Case for Basic Biomedical Research (CRC PRESS, 2021). https://www.amazon.com/kindle-dbs/entity/author/B006CSULBW? All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising.
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7 Responses to Occam’s Thermometer

  1. ricardipus says:

    How poetic this post is… “every itch is a stitch…”. Excellent.

    Great story Steve. Busted thermometer. But inquiring minds (ok, one, anyway) want to know: how much did the service call (and the new part) cost?

    Also, I like the concept of Occam’s Thermometer. Perhaps you could develop a barometer as well, or an anemometer (for determining the most likely explanation for sudden gusts of wind… oh wait, I think Henry’s pellets might be to blame).

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Admittedly, poetry is well outside my comfort zone!

      As we say in the US regarding service call and parts: don’t ask, don’t tell…

      Anemometer, eh? Note that the wind velocity doesn’t always tell the whole story. A gentle wind descending over an area can do just as much damage. For example, the person sitting next to me on my flight yesterday. I was thinking of offering some Gee-pellets as relief, but this was a large and formidable-looking person, and I value my nose…

    • Steve Caplan says:

      BTW, I did not mean Occam’s Rectal Thermometer…

  2. cromercrox says:

    Thanks for your testimonials about Gee’s Pellets. Most gratifying. As for seeing zebras when you should be seeing horses, I think you need to see a therapist. Your hypochondria can be put down to your heritage as a Red Sea Pedestrian.

    By way of a public service announcement I shall recycle the Tao of Jew, the Guide to Jewish Buddhist Wisdom, with apologies to those who have seen it before.

    – Let your mind be as a floating cloud. Let your stillness be as the wooded glen. And sit up straight. You’ll never meet the Buddha with posture like that.

    – There is no escaping karma. In a previous life you never called, you never wrote, you never visited. And whose fault was that?

    – Wherever you go, there you are. Your luggage is another story.

    – To practice Zen and the art of Jewish motorcycle maintenance, do the following: get rid of the motorcycle. What were you thinking?

    – Be aware of your body. Be aware of your perceptions. Keep in mind that not every physical sensation is a symptom of a terminal illness. If there is no self, whose arthritis is this?

    – Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out. Forget this and attaining Enlightenment will be the least of your problems.

    – Drink tea and nourish life. With the first sip, joy. With the second, satisfaction. With the third, Danish.

    – Be patient and achieve all things. Be impatient and achieve all things faster.

    – To find the Buddha, look within. Deep inside you are ten thousand flowers. Each flower blossoms ten thousand times. Each blossom has ten thousand petals. You might want to see a specialist.

    – Be here now. Be someplace else later. Is that so complicated?

    Zen is not easy. It takes effort to attain nothingness. And then what do you have? Bupkes!

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Maybe I can become N. American marketing manager for Gee’s Pellets–after all isn’t there a new trend for Ph.D.s to go on to “higher education” and get their MBAs?

      Correct me if I’m wrong (and I know I’ll take flak for this), but since when did “business administration” become an academic discipline?

      As for seeing a therapist–I did see one the other day, but he was driving in the opposite direction. I didn’t find it helped much. The other issue is that all Omaha therapists hang up the phone when I call for an appointment. They must all have “caller ID”…

      I like the Jewish perception of Zen. I myself started with nothing, and I still have most of it.

    • Frank says:

      Ha ha! Brilliant, Henry.

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