Comedy writers do actually get asked to say something funny at parties (not actually to write something funny, but say something funny – which isn’t that fair; I mean a racquet manufacturer isn’t expected to win Wimbledon!
Or at least I do; get asked to say funny stuff – not to win Wimbledon that is.
‘Come on what’s the best joke you’ve ever written?’
“Sorry, don’t really write jokes.”
‘I prefer commenting on the human condition obliquely using humour.’
‘Yeah, right. Can I hit you?’
Strangely, when I was a full-time scientist, I never got asked what the best science I ever did was. That would have been easy: coming up with the constitutive-like secretory pathway for the release from the human heart of Atrial Natriuretic Peptide.
It’s a belter, eh?
Part of the problem with finally admitting to what I consider to be my funniest joke ever, was that it was actually said in a laboratory! It’s a science gag!
It was while I was doing some work on Marfan Syndrome. This is an inherited genetic condition affecting connective tissue and sufferers are typically very tall with long fingers. Abraham Lincoln may have had the condition, as might Mary Queen of Scots and Sergei Rachmaninoff (as a pianist he had a tremendous ‘span’).
The compromised connective tissue protein is called Fibrillin and it first was isolated from a medium of human fibroblast cells, following electrophoresis after di-sulpide band reduction, which produced a nice distinct single band of 350 KD (not small). Because connective tissue occurs throughout the body there are many distressing and life- threatening problems associated with Marfan Syndrome including degeneration of the heart valves. I was assisting on a project investigating the ultrastructure of Fibrillin in Marfan patients and control subjects. Specifically I was training up two young technicians to ‘rotary shadow’ isolated ‘patient’ fibrillin. This technique involves making a high resolution heavy-metal ‘replica’ of rapidly frozen and freeze-dried macromolecule in a vacuum evaporator. It is not the very, very most demanding of electron microscopical techniques, but there is plenty or room for error.
It was not going well.
Or rather, we were obtaining images from the control fibrillin – which are particularly lovely with a bead-on-string arrangement of fibrillin along the long microfibril. However we were not having any joy with samples from the Marfan patients, which obviously were in rather shorter supply. We wanted some action! We all, after all, wanted to do out bit to help combat this rotten inherited disease!
Was it an isolation problem actually associated with the putative problem with the fibrillin microfibril itself? We didn’t know.
Every other day a new isolated sample would be rotary shadowed, and the delicate replicas teased up on a grid to be put in the electron microscope; the three of us huddling around in the dark looking at the screen for some sign of the elusive molecule.
And every other day disappointment.
And then one day it all came together – as it can do in science for no particular reason. There on the screen was a sample of the ‘Marfan’ fibrillin. The normally intact microfibril was ragged, flayed almost; the beads disrupted.
‘Look at the state of that,’ I said to the two young technicians: ‘it’s the parents I blame.’
All right then, please yourselves.
Continue reading My Funniest Joke Ever (as a scientist)