Design permeates all aspects of our daily lives, and while most concentrate on high design — that which makes things pretty, work well, and look awesome — some design is purely functional, even if it looks sleek and sexy on the surface. Design in science is just like that.
Scientists work day in, day out with truly exquisitely designed things and never give them a second thought. Most of the equipment — be it medical, lab-based or even in the field — has been honed to perfection by years of optimisation and redesign.
Take the average lab for instance. If you’ve ever stepped foot into one, or just seen one on the goggle box, you’ll know that they’re white or grey, minimalist and full of shiny stuff. But have you ever asked yourself why? Why do scientists surround themselves with sleek-looking glass, clean-brushed metals, and white or grey desks? It’s all about sterilisation, because keeping a lab sterile and germ-free is absolutely essential to good biology, be it medical research, genetic engineering or even creating new life; a sterile environment in which to work is the key to avoiding contamination and therefore making revolutionary breakthroughs possible*.
If you think about your kitchen, it’s a similar environment; flat worktops that you can blast with hateful chemicals to keep them germ free. A biologist’s workbench is a wonderful breeding ground for all sorts of potentially nasty and definitely annoying bugs — hardwearing Formica worktops, without notches, crevices or cracks of any kind, allow thorough decontamination, which helps prevent contamination cock-ups that could ruin literally months, or even years, of work in one hit.
Then we come to the metal and glass that constantly surrounds the lab coat-equipped researcher. It all looks so minimalist, shiny and awesome — rows upon rows of pretty-looking glass bottles filled with exotic and colourful liquids, backed up by a whole host of shiny tools — but, again, it’s all about sterilisation.
The main method of killing any potential contamination in a working lab, on tools and in bottles, flasks and beakers, is a process called autoclaving. Essentially, you stick your object of choice, with its top covered but not sealed (you don’t want an explosion on your hands do you?), into the autoclave and heat it to above 121 degrees Celsius, under pressure, for 20 minutes. Super-hot steam from a water reservoir permeates the object, eradicating practically everything from its surface, making it so clean you could eat off it. There aren’t many materials that can withstand that kind of punishing heating and cooling day in, day out, without being warped, degraded or just plain melted. That’s why scientists are surrounded by beautifully-shaped glass bottles, beakers and conical flasks, filled with all sorts of colourful liquids, along with a whole host of shiny metal tweezers, spatulas, scalpels, scissors, and tongs.
Functional, minimalist design for decontamination’s sake doesn’t stop in the lab though. When you look around the hospital, at the MRI or CT scanner you once had a trip through, it’s all big, rounded and curvy, with smooth lines, and, most importantly, made of a wipe-clean coated metal and plastic — after all, you wouldn’t want to catch the black death off the last diseased person that took a trip through the machine, would you? The materials help prevent germs getting a hold and breeding, while being easy to clean with powerful antiseptics.
We might all be used to minimalist lines, and shiny white materials as an indicator of good aesthetic design these days, what with the kinds of glass-slab phones and aluminium clad computers we use today. But all that style of design started with the need to eradicate germs — function well and truly before aesthetics. Remember that, next time you ogle the latest Apple product or sliver-of-an-aluminium-ultrabook.
*Well, apart from the discovery of penicillin, because the story goes that it was by chance contamination with fungi that Sir Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic, penicillin.