The last time I went into a lab, it was to dig out a DNA sample I was sending to a colleague. As I rummaged fruitlessly, I became aware I was being watched through the door by one of the research assistants. He was rubbing his eyes in affected astonishment at seeing me in a lab coat.

This is for a couple of reasons. One is that, like almost everyone, the further I get from my PhD the less I do labwork. And the other is that a considerable amount of my work is now theoretical. The difference between these can be roughly described as follows. In the lab, I would spend hours, days, weeks nurturing and tweaking exotic combinations of chemicals and cells through absurdly complex equipment, before getting a print out and swearing at it. Now, I spend hours, days, weeks nurturing and tweaking exotic combinations of parameters and data through absurdly complex models, before looking at the screen and swearing at it. OK, that’s not quite true. Most of the models I work with are simple – nothing wrong with that, the best ones all are. My point is that there are similarities.

On the other hand, one of the reasons I was enthusiastic to get out of the lab was that I am simply not a natural lab worker. Through long application I have learned to set up and troubleshoot various simple molecular biology protocols, but this is after a considerable rate of failure. Nay, sheer idiocy.

Yes, I have committed my fair share of stupidity. I once forgot to put a filter paper into a machine and proceeded to use a succession of pumps to take the cells I had been lovingly looking after for a week, having isolated them from my own blood, and dump them down the drain. They were meant to stick to the filter paper, but they couldn’t very well do that if there wasn’t any paper there, could they?

The other night I was having a drink with my friend Seb*, who is a much more accomplished and experienced lab scientist than I am or will ever be. This is all the more remarkable because Seb has an almost preternatural ability to home in on and make dumb mistakes. We were swopping tales of lab stupidity, and he told me one to trump all of mine. He had been growing some E. coli, when he received a telephone call. He sat down to take the call, holding the flask of bacteria in his left hand. When the person on the other end of the line asked him what the time was, he proceeded to look at his watch and pour the flask of bacteria into his lap.

Of course this is not stupid in the way that, say balancing your centrifuge tubes containing DNA preps from two different cultures by pouring back and forth between them is stupid. And no, neither I nor Seb have ever done anything like that. But we know people who have.

I think Lablit needs to give room to this sort of scientific experience as well as the noble pursuit of knowledge. Not to celebrate it exactly. Maybe we need a competition, for the most impressive instance of a scientist acting like a total doofus. Jenny, the ball is in your court

*names have been changed to protect the guilty