Sunday, December 12, 2021

An Isotope Christmas Carol (2021)


Sloths and Gremlins can take over an isotope lab

**This is PURE Fiction. None of the characters are real people.**

It was December 23rd. Professor IsoPope strode into her stable isotope mass spectrometer laboratory at 9:37 am expecting to see a full crew of people working away. She heard only the sound of turbo pumps whining and fume hood fans exhausting.


Her mood soured even more than normal.


“Lazy good for nothings,” she muttered. Glancing at the computer screen on a Thermo Delta V mass spec, she noted the autosampler had skipped a sample, followed by a double drop.


“Harrumph!” she snorted. A quick look at the screen of the Thermo 253 mass spec showed possible poor chromatography and small peaks. She shook her head at the seeming incompetence of her group.


Geophysical Lab run by Sloths

At 10:07 am, there was a small commotion at the lab door, then in burst her lab manager, postdoc, two grad students, and an undergrad intern. They were laughing and carrying various types of drinks—fancy coffees and candy-cane flavored concoctions.


Professor IsoPope instantly recoiled. “I should report all of you to University Safety for bringing liquids into the lab!”


The lab crew grew silent, eyed their fancy drinks, then quickly reversed course and left them outside the lab. When they returned, they quietly went to their workstations, weighing, analyzing, and computing. Professor IsoPope reminded them sharply that their contracts stipulated that work began at 9:00 am sharp.


Seconds later, IsoPope’s senior technician, IsoHope, opened the door looking frazzled. She had gotten up early that day to head to Target to get a hard-to-find toy stuffed sloth for her 3-year old son. Stuffed sloths were “In” that year, and with shipping having been disrupted by COVID, they were at a premium to find in stores, much less affordable for her, a single mom. Her early shopping didn’t pan out, however, and she knew her son would be disappointed Christmas day.


Sloths trained to use complex instruments

“Sorry I’m late today. Stuffed sloths are the new “In” thing this year. I was waiting for them to go on sale, since they cost more than a full tank of liquid nitrogen,” IsoHope explained. “On my salary, I couldn’t afford one without a discount.”


IsoHope went straight to the microbalance, weighed out 50 samples in less than an hour, and had them running by noontime. Skipping lunch to make up for lost time, she then went to the freezer, pulled out a rack of autosampler vials, and started a 30-hour run on the gas chromatograph-stable isotope mass spec system.


Professor IsoPope had walked out without noticing her hard work. “Bah Humbug!” she was heard to say before the lab door snapped shut.


“Rhymes with Witch,” her postdoc announced when IsoPope was gone. The grad students brought their drinks back in and finished them. At less than $2,000 salary per month, they couldn't waste anything. The undergrad started Googling different intern opportunities. The lab manager searched on Isogeochem for new positions.


The 24th was a holiday, so the lab crew tidied up their benches, disposed of chemicals, and got the isotope mass specs ready for their holiday “sleep.” Isohope made a mental note to come in at 6:30 pm Christmas Eve to put her instrument in standby. At 5:00 pm, the crew left the lab, with their spirits starting to revive as they headed to the campus Brew Pub for a quick holiday pint.


Only IsoHope was staying in town for the holidays and was scheduled to carry out lab checks.


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IsoPope packed up her laptop at 6:30, walked through the deserted hallways of the Geology building out to her car, which sat alone in a normally crowded faculty parking lot. As she drove home, she thought about how her isotope heroes had died years earlier—Harold Urey (of course), Tom Hoering, Sam Epstein, and even John Hayes. Her house was cold when she arrived and she didn’t feel very hungry, so she microwaved a small vegetarian pizza and went to bed.


By 9:00 she was asleep and her dreams began. The ghost of Tom Hoering appeared first. He was dragging an electrical cord attached to an old rotary vacuum pump that left a trail of oil dribbling out of its heavy, grey frame. Around his neck he wore a collar made from an old-fashioned chromatography column. His tie had burn holes from glass blowing, and over his shoulder, he was draped with a chewed length of hose he had used for years to glass blow vacuum lines.


“Mend your ways now or you’ll measure your last isotope values alone!” Tom’s ghost moaned. IsoPope rolled over in her sleep. “Bother,” she thought.


The parade of ghosts continued.


The Ghost of Isotope Christmas Past came first, pulling her out of bed and into a shadowy world. IsoPope saw herself as a postdoc, only in a dingy lab on Christmas Eve struggling to measure nitrogen isotopes in Precambrian rocks on a leaky vacuum system. The work never panned out. She spent a frustrating year trying to restart her career.   As time went out on, IsoPope met what should have been her life’s Soul Mate. He wasn’t an isotope guy, but he was a scientist who respected women and loved her—even without her having much success yet. They moved in together and for three years, things went swimmingly. Then, her first paper made the cover of Science, then PNAS, and offers came in from prestigious universities around the country.


She took an offer for herself, but didn’t negotiate for her Soul Mate, who remained behind. He drifted away. Her career consumed her. The name IsoPope was given to her when she reached an h-index of 80, at the age of 52.


                            *********                     ***********               ************

The Ghost of Isotope Christmas Present appeared next in the form of a see-through specter with a lab coat peppered with chemical stains. The ghost took IsoPope’s hand in her dream and led her to see Christmas in IsoHope’s house.


Data Processing Sloths

A small table sized tree with shabby ornaments adorned a kitchen table in a small 1-bedroom apartment in a student part of town. IsoHope’s son, little Delta, was excited to see a book “Goodnight Lab”, but looked disappointed that Santa left him a teddy bear instead of the hoped-for sloth. IsoHope had family across the country but couldn’t afford the flight home for the holidays, and anyway she had to work. After a quick breakfast, she buckled little Delta into his car seat, drove to campus, and did her daily mass spectrometer checks.


[“Merry Christmas!” she told the instruments. It was well known that when isotope mass spectrometers are ignored, Gremlins infiltrate mass spec labs causing havoc.  IsoHope knew from experience that if she ran an On-Off measurement and gave each machine a slug of carbon dioxide, they’d be satisfied.]


Gremlin infecting vacuum line

IsoPope was dragged by the Ghost past the campus Bell Tower and heard the words “Fame” and “Distinguished” and “Workaholic.” Then she saw her mass specs lose vacuum and grind to an eerie silence.


                     **************                       ***************                ******************


The Ghost of Isotope Christmas Yet to Come drifted to her next—a shadowy filmy ghost dressed in black. IsoPope was taken to a memorial service on Zoom where the attendees fiddled with their phones, told jokes, and logged off after only 20 minutes. She recognized her old Soul Mate, postdoc, grad students, and IsoHope in the Gallery. The ghost dragged her to IsoHope’s apartment where she sat alone without her son, now a teenager serving jail time in Juvenile Hall for stealing toys from Target.


Stricken suddenly with compassion, IsoPope was shown a simple cardboard box with ashes titled: “IsoPope: 1955-2025” sitting on a shelf, covered with dust, forgotten.


She awoke with a start.


                           ***************                ****************           ****************


Source Gremlin: Hard to get rid of them

 It was the morning of the 25th, her long strange dream had lasted a day and night. IsoPope hustled to get dressed and drove the 7 miles to the Target store that stayed open until noon for last minute shoppers like her. Rushing in, she saw a picked over display of stuffed sloths. But to her chagrin, it was mostly the sloth’s friends—parrots and monkeys. Deflated, she rummaged through the pile, and lo and behold found one remaining sloth! “Holy s*$^,” she hollered and sprinted through the store throwing snacks, new towels, a soccer ball, and some fancy Christmas decorations into her cart before checking out.


Now traveling fast, she stopped by the only grocery store open in town, found a roasting chicken, fresh salad greens, a good bottle of Chardonnay, and for good measure, a fruit cake. She arrived at IsoHope’s apartment building just before 9:00 am (sharp), knocked on the door, left the packages on the doorstep, then retreated behind a parked car and watched little Delta open the door. “Mommy, look! Santa left us some extra gifts.”


Satisfied, IsoPope drove home, savored a cup of strong coffee and opened her email. In her Inbox, a message from the 24th popped up: “Last minute Invitation” greeted her. Her neighbors were hosting a Friends Christmas Party—informal, bring something. Running into shower and getting dressed in an Ugly Christmas Sweater, she wrapped up one of her books, a bottle of botanical flavored gin, and a fruit cake.

Determined to change her life and treat everyone with kindness and compassion, IsoPope committed herself to generosity. The mass spectrometers felt the new energy and smiled, joining hands with the Gremlins for a peaceful vacation.


Just before leaving to celebrate , she hopped onto Isogeochem—her favorite listserve—and wrote “Happy Holidays to All!”


Non-fiction: Max Coleman, John Eiler, John Hayes, Ed Young, Marilyn, AGU 2016




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