Monday, December 23, 2019

Merry Iso$$ope Christmas

Proof that Gremlins can and do infect isotope labs
            It was Christmas Eve December 24th. Around the world isotope geochemists, ecologists, and biochemists had put their isotope ratio mass spectrometers and peripheral devices on standby for the holidays. Helium tanks exhaled a collective “sigh,” happy to enjoy an extra few days in their tanks. Furnaces breathed fresh air as they cooled. Copper granules relaxed. Valves in the Isolink were communicating with the Isodat software, planning their annual Christmas bash where they both go wild, hookup, and blink on and off randomly. The turbo pumps were sending out whining calls to the direct drive pumps preparing to undergo their annual Christmas secret Santa giveaways exchanging oils.
            Meanwhile, Isohope, a young graduate student at a Midwestern University, snapped her laptop shut and boarded a bus to visit her family after a late afternoon meeting. Isohope had been trying to measure some traditionally difficult things on her lab’s IRMS facility this fall. She thought it would be easy to measure nitrogen isotopes in tree ring samples—that failed. Then she shifted to measuring nitrogen isotopes in Precambrian rocks 3.8 billion years old—she found only contamination. But Isohope didn’t give up! She tried clumped isotopes in archeological human bones—but they had been too weathered for any useful information. Finally, she selected carbon isotopes in soils. That worked. Sure enough, they all had values between -25.5‰ and -26.5‰. But, and this was a Big But—there wasn’t enough to write a PhD dissertation on soil carbon isotope values. She had one last big idea.
            Earlier that year her fellow grad student, Isodope, had published two papers on his work correcting isotope values of marine carbonates using eleven different equations developed by Isopopes over the past half century. His results apparently appeased the Isotope community’s penchant for small differences in isotope fractionations. But as far as Isohope could determine, Isodope hadn’t really discovered anything. He had just rehashed old science, put it into R Studio and drew an ellipse around it. Isohope wanted more.
            She had spoken to the lab manager, Isocope, a patient, long-suffering individual who listened to students’ complaints, fixed pumps, ordered gases, and in general kept the lab’s Isopope, Isohope, and Isodope happy and “in business”. Isocope looked forward with some trepidation to the holiday, because it seemed that every year the lab was put on standby, Laboratory Gremlins had an informal “takeover” of the instruments, such that come January, none of them wanted to return to work. At the end of the day, Isocope resorted to a stiff snort of Christmas eggnog laced with brandy and put her feet up in front of warm fire.
Valery Terwilliger made friends with them. It helped!
            Meanwhile, the lab’s Isopope wasn’t much happier. Recently NSF and DOE had turned down his proposal for a large format mass spectrometer. His colleagues were starting to call him Isomope instead. In fact at the recent AGU meeting, he’d bad-mouthed all of his colleagues calling them a bunch of Isonopes—out to get him and give him bad reviews. He basically Isomoped around the house, until his wife told him to get his ass in gear and figure out how to reclaim his Isopopedom before he drove everyone mad. Isopope’s wife, Isolope was used to running her own show—and often getting little credit for it.
            Isolope, racing between kids’ soccer schedules and making sure Isopope’s lunch was made, was the real brains behind the lab’s successful operation. Isolope met regularly with Isohope and Isocope to figure out new methods that would give the lab prominence. The three women met that December 24th briefly for a glass of Chardonnay. They hatched a plan for early January. Isohope had a brilliant idea to measure hydrogen isotopes in the metabolites of deep earth microbes that divided only once every 200 years. Isocope thought that she could re-jigger the Isolink to get the sensitivity, while Isolope would do the run around on her husband, Isopope, to make sure the instruments were available and not tied up with contract work.
            First, however, they needed the cooperation of their instrument’s engineers, Isosoap—a squeaky clean, button-downed shirt kind of guy—and Isorope—always figuring out fixes that nearly cost him his job with The Company, because he saved customers money. Isolope knew what to do. She’d sent Isosoap and Isorope each a bottle of Chevas Regal 25 year old Scotch the week before. Isolope had signed Isopope’s name to the gift, puffing up the egos of Isosoap, Isorope and their managers. When a purchase order came in for a specialized part, Isocope, Isohope, and Isolope received the magic bullet to construct the most sensitive, linear, standard-oriented component ever to grace an isotope ratio mass spectrometer.
Seth Newsome's lab uses them for tricky repairs.
            Isomopes and Isonopes had weighed in on Isogeochem voicing their learned opinions that this could “never work—Urey had tried.”  One Isonope cited Slater’s early work on the multi-cluster F---valves that just couldn’t be programmed to do what Isohope hoped. Another Isomope wrote that he’d tried it in the late 1990s with a mercury-adapted part and the results were “all over the place.” Another Isodope wrote and asked the List to send all the papers on how to use an elemental analyzer and a mass spec to measure carbon isotopes in soils—again.
            Isohope’s bus finally reached her hometown of Jefferson, Iowa. It had snowed a few inches, the roads were slick, but her parents met her at the bus station.
            As they drove home, her phone lit up with a text from Isotope Queen—
“Peace be with you and yours. May your mass spectrometers and devices have a happy holiday. Try leaving some raw data for the Gremlins to chew on. Good luck!”


  1. Wow I lost it at the R studio dig. Brutally funny 😄

  2. I loved to get isolated while going through this lovely isotopic story.

  3. Very good Marilyn! As an IsoCope I have a great respect for High School humour - used savagely it has obviated the need for a humane-killer in the lab. Hil


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