The timers they are a-changin’

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…

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
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18 Responses to The timers they are a-changin’

  1. Nina says:

    As someone who notoriously refuses to incorporate any mobile device that can also be used as a phone into her life, I could write a long, long, long rant about all things wonderful in the world that are becoming obsolete to my great regret with the evolution of smartphones. However I will keep it short: it is amazing how many people forget they have a brain as soon as they get their hands on a smartphone.
    Or maybe that’s a good thing?

  2. In favor of watches, whenever I travel abroad to a conference I find myself in desperate need of a watch. Hotel rooms seem to have given up on the idea of having a bedside clock, and bringing a phone to a country where I can’t use it or charge it hardly seems worth it. The same goes for long flights. I used to feel the same as you, but recently, I’ve found myself looking for a cheap watch.

  3. Elizabeth says:

    Most of the grad students and postdocs I know still use regular old lab timers and not their smart phones in the lab. But maybe that’s because we all work with bacterial pathogens or primary cell lines and the thought of spilling any of that on your fancy smartphone is gross.

  4. ^
    +1 for what Barefoot Doctoral said. I am going out of country soon and my Blackberry will be essentially useless, unless I feel like paying hundreds and hundreds of dollars in roaming fees (not!). I am considering taking it, as it works well as an alarm clock… but why not just take a clock instead (cheaper, and not capable of being switched on and roaming by mistake). I’m thinking a $10 discount store special watch will be handy.

    Lab timers are still very much in use around here… at least, so I’m told. 😉

  5. chall says:

    haha, I love my watch but have used it less and less when I now need to wear gloves pretty much all the time at work in the lab. but when I use it, LOVE it. It’s more of a fashion statement for me though 😉 (or it’s been pointed out to me that it is, since I favour a BIG chunky man watch…. or, as I thought when I bought it, it has a visible ‘dash’ etc so I can see it in those dark places … )

    We can’t use anything apart from approved! timers in the lab so, no phones only timers. As for other thoughts on the smart phones, I’m not against them per se – just not working for me as well as everyone thinks when they tell me “you have to get one instead of your obsolete phone that only works as a phone” ^^

  6. Alyssa says:

    DH has given up his watch for the smartphone, but I haven’t gone there yet. I just love the look of watches really – it has nothing to do with telling the time!

    Although, recently, I bought a cheap digital watch so I can wear it while bike riding — trying to take my iPhone out of my pocket to check the time wasn’t working for me. Especially since often I don’t have pockets…so had nowhere to put it, except in my bra, maybe. And then checking the time would be even more awkward.

  7. Steve Caplan says:

    The timer-trick is a “time-honored” way of extracting oneself from many unpleasant circumstances in the vicinity of the lab!

  8. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Nina, I fear you may be true.

    On the other hand, not having learned any new phone numbers for at least eight years frees up more space in my brain for important stuff… like the song lyrics that seem to take up approximately 84% of available data storage capacity…

    Barefoot and Richard, I take my phone with me on trips – I turn off all roaming options so I avoid those ridiculous charges, but I use it as an iPod, camera, alarm clock, for games etc and (when I have WiFi, which is most of the time now (except in Cuba)) for everything else, including phone calls over Skype. I also have a case that has its own battery, so long flights aren’t a problem (and the last few planes I’ve been on have all had USB ports at each seat for charging).

    There was a CBC news clip recently about a (very fancy) hotel in Vancouver that has an iPhone with a local phone number in every guest room, pre-programmed with local restaurant and attractions guides, transit apps etc. You can get the hotel to add other apps if you want them, and any calls you make from it are charged to your account. Apparently it’s been a massive hit, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become ubiquitous soon!

    Elizabeth, I hadn’t really thought about that aspect. I don’t remember my lab timers getting dirty, but I didn’t work with anything really dangerous.

    Chall, I do have a couple of OK-looking watches, but they both run on batteries so I stopped wearing them the last time they died. I think the last time I wore one was on a kayaking trip, but on that trip I also used my phone to get local tide times etc. so the watch wasn’t used all that much.

    You can only use approved timers?! That’s really strict!

    Alyssa, I’ve never had a really expensive watch – just cheap-ish ones that have more sentimental value than any other kind of worth (one was a present from some friends while I was a student, so I’ll never throw it away even if I don’t wear it and the battery’s been dead for years).

    I don’t really ever check the time while I’m riding my bike. When I’m in the gym or on the very rare occasions I go running, I use my phone as an iPod (I have an armband case with a transparent cover) so it’s always easily accessible if I need to know the time. Which I hardly ever do. And the local swimming pool has a wall-mounted clock at both ends 🙂

    Steve, I second that

  9. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    p.s. since I don’t smoke, I have downloaded this virtual lighter app to hold aloft at tonight’s Roxette concert.

    I am very proud of everything in the preceding statement.

    • I am very proud that I have never, at any of the many concerts I’ve gone to, waved a lighter. Not even once. 😉

      I love the comments under that app:

      It is really fun an cool for goofing off
      It’s ok
      It kinda is boring

      • Cath@VWXYNot? says:

        Neither have I, because the only time I’ve ever carried a lighter is on camping trips.

        I did wave my phone last night, though. The people on both sides of us were so impressed, they downloaded the app on the spot and joined in

  10. bean-mom says:

    Hmmm, everyone in my lab uses timers. Even though most people (yes, even the students) have smart phones. I’ve noticed that the studenst don’t wear watches, though; they seem to use their phones instead.

    I’m a watch person. I just got my first iPhone last week–surprise gift from my husband!–but I don’t see it replacing my watch. (and yes, I love the timer-trick you used to play, Cath!)

  11. I totally love having my watch on and it drives me nuts when I forget it at home. Its so much easier to turn my wrist than fumbling around in my pocket for my phone. I use lab timers for the same reason and I prefer a calculator to my iphone…..Really I’m not a huge fan of the touch screen (streaks drive me crazy) and I don’t have a good case (which one do you have?) plus I’m paranoid ruining the phone because its freaking expensive.

    While running or walking, I also perfer my watch for the reasons mentioned by Alyssa

    essentially I use my smartphone for: twitter, FB, email, ipod & camera. I’m such a luddite.

  12. John the Plumber says:

    You may have heard of the plumber getting married who went to the printers to order the invitation cards. The printer asked him the time of the ceremony. The plumber said, “Well If its not in the morning it’ll be in the afternoon.”

    Needless to say I don’t have a watch – but I do have a handy metal tag on my keyring stamped with the letters N O and W which I consult when occasion demands.

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