A colleague and I were trying to work out how to use an ancient but useful piece of equipment we’d recently unearthed in a pile of junk abandoned by the previous inhabitants of the lab – a semi-dry Western blotter. Of course the manual had been lost to the mists of time, but there was a helpful diagram inscribed on the side.

“This says we need to put it against the anode,” my colleague said.

“Is that positive or negative?” I asked. “I can’t remember.”

“Me neither.”

We took a poll of random people – the student using the ImageQuant machine in the corner; a post-doc taking a short-cut through our lab; even the mild-mannered guys who were currently camped out calibrating all of the institute’s pipettors. Not a single one could remember the difference between an anode and a cathode.

” ‘Anode’ sounds sort of negative,” my colleague mused. “You know, like asocial or asymmetric.”

“Why don’t you check Wikipedia?” asked one of the pipette guys.