The good old days of science

Sep 04 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

49 responses so far

  • It wasn't even pre-1990s. The transition to widespread electronic publishing took place in 1996-1997 if I recall. When I started grad school in 1992, journals were paper-only, you got requests from people in former Soviet republics asking you to (physically) mail reprints of your papers to them, which you had, because typically when you published a paper you got 25-50 copies of the paper printed on glossy paper.

  • AScientist says:

    Undergrads in lab meeting griping about difficulties downloading the pdfs to the latest papers. I started reminiscing about the card catalog.

  • Pascale says:

    I started out with manual searches in Index Medicus, a printed series of books. Computer searches were only available through librarians who understood the intricacies of MESH.

  • Dave says:

    It is an established fact that anything published before 1990 is utterly useless. Two figure Nature papers? Puuuuulllllleeeeeeeeeaze. Talk about having it easy.

  • Joe says:

    As a rotation student, I drew publishable figures with stencils and ink. However, by the time I was ready to actually publish my first paper, we could graph everything on a PC.

    Try doing molecular biology in the 80's and 90's. Oligos were too expensive for regular use. DNA sequencing was an involved process requiring radioactive labeling and giant polyacrylamide gels, and you were happy to get 300 bases from a read. We had no PCR until around 1990, so everything had to be cloned directly, and mutagenesis involved clever uses of endonucleases and exonucleases.

  • Actually I remember doing manual Sanger sequencing circa 1993 (where you actually had to read the bands off the gel yourself) and we rarely got above 100 bp -- and even then, that few bases were pretty dubious because the bands were so close together!

  • Beaker says:

    Back in the day, the photocopy room in the basement of the library was a beehive of activity. The place would be packed with faculty, postdocs, students, and hastily stacked journal volumes waiting to be re-shelved. The room was manned by at least two library employees: one to coordinate copy machine usage and charges and another re-shelving journal volumes full-time. The copy machine repair guy visited daily. The inky, musty smells, the blinding flashes of light. I hated it when you couldn't press the journal volume down hard enough to copy the text close to the binding.

  • meshugena313 says:


    But the thing I miss the most is serendipitous discovery of a cool paper by opening a bound set of journals to the wrong page, and then sitting in the stacks reading it going "wow!". Of course you'd then have to stand on line for 30 minutes for the single remaining functional copier, just after the repair guy had clocked out.

    I actually randomly open up journal volumes online now to mimic the serendipity of yesteryear.

  • AcademicLurker says:

    The transition from paper to online took place during my graduate school years. My first 2 papers were printed out and mailed and my last 2 were submitted through websites.

    The big outlier was the NIH grants system. My first RO1 application was the classic giant phone book sized stack of paper sent off via federal express. I think that was the last round before the online system took over. It was also the last of the pink sheets that actually were pink sheets of paper.

    So I got through 2 postdocs and a year as a junior faculty member before NIH caught up with everyone else.

  • @Beaker
    And when you did press down to get the edges of the pages and the librarians noticed you, they yelled at you for damaging the binding!

  • Dave says:

    I remember the days when journals didn't require 20 multi-panel figures before accepting a paper. I also remember the days before 16GB RAM laptops (and the mystical 'cloud') that allowed one to do whole genome sequencing analyses while sitting at the airport. Horrible days. Don't know how we ever did anything at all.

  • odyssey says:

    Who knew so many other old farts frequented this joint!

  • AScientist says:

    I also remember preparing actual photographs for the paper submission to journals, which you annotated by using the scratch-on arrows and arrowheads. The photos were produced by the full-time departmental photo guy in the dark room. And the feeling of picking up the slides from the photo shop of my thesis defense, arranging them in the slide carousel and hoping they didn't get stuck. And people flying to DC to hand-deliver paper grant application (in a box, with stacks of collated application materials + 10 reprints) to meet the deadline.

  • Oooh! And slides for presentations that were actual Kodak carrousel slides! Which you had to have made at least a week in advance of your presentation (No fiddling with Powerpoint 5 minutes before you go on stage)

  • meshugena313 says:

    when I was in grad school we got a sweet slide printer - load the film and "print" your document. the machine would expose the slide film, and then we'd run downtown to a place that would develop reversal film in an hour or so. And then you'd look at your slides on the lightbox and curse the stupid mistake you made. And then load them in the carousel upside down.

  • bob says:

    I remember having to read pdfs on an iPad 2 when I was in grad school. I don't know how I survived without the retina display!

  • eeke says:

    Yes, the slide carousels, upside down slides and all. And then the 20-30 minute wait when powerpoint first came out and half the people who tried it would invariably have their presentations fucked up because of software bugs, computer or projector failures, etc.

  • DJMH says:

    Oh, you fancy people with your slides. I think I only recently threw out some lingering overhead projector transparencies.

  • Dave says:

    I remember when you had to use restriction enzymes to clone. I remember it wasn't at all unusual to spend several months trying to get a single insert in to a damn pcDNA plasmid just for a simple over-expression experiment. Then came In-Fusion cloning and everything changed.

    Then came Addgene and everything changed........again.

  • Grumble says:

    You are not admitted into then old farts' club until you can document that you personally took a photograph of an oscilloscope screen and/or used a chart recorder to collect data. Or a plotter to print out your graphs. Remember those?

  • Mytchondra says:

    If you never had to develop and print your own microscope photos in a darkroom, you are not a real scientist. Same is true for being proud of owning your own carousel to carry your slides around.

  • Dr Becca says:

    "Next slide, please."

  • Pinko Punko says:

    I loved the gel camera that was a Polaroid. With the cassette holder and then you ripped your piece out of the thing, and then waited for it to develop. Changing the chemicals on the X-ray film developer. Lots of good ones. It is so pathetic that old Powerpoint files can't even be opened anymore. Real slides that were shot from a Powerpoint doc and a slide shooter are more accessible than the ppt documents from those versions of Powerpoint.

  • Pinko Punko says:

    Ooh, at least with presentation remotes we now make the same motion we used to mimic of the slide projector controller during joke presentations using actual old school slides.

  • ecologist says:

    Youngsters, all of you. Computer programs on punched cards. Huge cacophonous rooms full of desk-size card punch machines. Boxes of cards delivered to the computer center like an offering to the gods, output picked up the next day. Graphs drawn by hand from pages of numbers from the output. Photos of the graphs included with the typed pages of manuscript (whiteout! yes!) and sent to the journal by mail. Three copies.... Those were the days. Or something like that.

  • @DJMH
    Overhead projectors weren't just a matter of time but of culture. Being a rather bioinformatical person (once automated sequencers became available I knew bench work was for chumps) I did a postdoc in a computer science department circa 1999-2001. There overhead projectors rather than slides were the rule, but what was more, you weren't supposed to prepare your overheads ahead of time. Instead the tradition was that you were supposed to write out equations, diagrams, etc. on blank overheads as you talked. I was never that great at it myself, but I note my institute and others have established "chalk talks" which are basically a modern version of it.

  • mytchondria says:

    I remember the first time I idea hit me like a bolt of lightening. Inspired, I wrote it up on some stones THE BOSS I had handy and submitted our 10 point protocol to Nature on how to live life well. NOah G sent it back and said it was too descriptive.

  • qaz says:

    @JonathanBadger - In the early 1990s, each culture had a very different means of communicating at talks. Biologists had these premade slides which had to be prep'd up weeks or months in advance (I think because they had actual photographs of real things). Computer Scientists printed their "slides" on overhead transparencies (because they had these fancy new things called "printers"). Physicists hand-wrote their overhead transparencies (and would do animation by folding up to four overhead transparencies on top of each other). Mathematicians used chalkboards. The field I was in at the time was a newly emerging combination of all of these fields. Conferences could have four different presentation methods in a single session. Now, of course, everything is powerpoint, which, let's be honest, really is a lot easier.

    PS. The "chalk talk" precedes the writing on overheads. The writing on overheads was an attempt by fields that weren't comfortable with preprinted text (since it sped you up and made unpracticedpeopletalktoofast) to continue to do "chalk talks" even in large conference rooms and rooms with no chalk board.

  • Beaker says:

    Right. I see where this is going. Back in the day, we used to synthesize our own primers from elemental carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, and phosphate. We trapped our rats from the neighborhood outside the building each morning for that day’s experiment. There was only one petri dish (which we shared) and we were happy to have it. There were 150 of us researchers working in a small shoebox in a back closet of the Dean’s office. Cardboard shoebox? You were lucky!

  • odyssey says:

    In my field, computational biology types used transparencies for some years after the experimental types had mostly adopted powerpoint. The standing joke was that they did this so they could alter their conclusions* at the last minute based on what experimentalists presented before them.

    The other standing joke way back then was that computational work was like mental masturbation. The more you did it, the more you began to think it was as good as the real thing. There was, and maybe still is, a grain of truth to that.

    * Some less charitable types would substitute "data" for "conclusions".

  • Davis Sharp says:

    In my day, pdf what was what you yelled at the dot matrix - "PRINT! Damned fucker!"

  • ecologist says:

    OK, someone has to leave this here. Enjoy...

  • drugmonkey says:

    We didn't catch them ourselves but I have used pigeons captured from a local farmer's barn in the day.

  • Ola says:

    I wrote my thesis on one of the very first Macs - 4MB of RAM, 40 MB hard disk, B/W display. Had to do the color figures separately and glue them into the printed document. I still have the WordPerfect files on 3.5" disks somewhere. The first paper I ever got asked to review (J. Neurochem.) was sent by mail and had to be annotated and sent back by mail. The sad thing is, reviews still take over a month even though it's all electronic now.

    My favorite reminiscence is the huge (2 ft cube) Grass paper strip chart recorders, for EKGs etc. Nothing like coming into the lab in the morning and wading around in 30 yards of chart paper on the lab floor because you forgot to stop the feed the night before. And of course the ink bottles would randomly explode and shit all over your nice looking traces. The paper was mucho $$$ too, so if we screwed up and wasted it the PI would make us put it back on the roll and use it again with a different ink color.

  • Grumble says:

    First neuroscience talk I ever attended. I was an undergrad. Small room, very crowded. Chuck Stevens ad libbed for ages, writing out equations on transparencies - not a single prepared slide. I had no idea what the fuck he was talking about, and I suspect that neither did most of the rest of the people in the room.

  • bacillus says:

    For photographing gels we used an old 4" x 5" camera previously used by the RAF to take aerial photos. It made Hasselblad's look like compact cameras. We loaded cassettes with individual negatives in complete darkness. To enhance any faint bands we would rub that part of the positive with our fingers whilst it was in the developer bath. The fumes used to give me stomach ache. On the way to the journal some of the Letraset arrows or letters would get damaged and the final printed version would look like crap. Same with graph axes made using letraset, they never looked straight, and some of the tick marks would become crooked on their way to the printers. To get the contrast right for photomicrographs we combined various coloured sheets of plastic film together and inserted them into the light path. I still think that this warts and all approach might cut down on the imaging abuse that seems to be the cause of so many retractions these days. Mind you, I do remember reviewing a paper from that era where the gold nanoparticles on the EMs had clearly been drawn on using a black biro.

  • Established PI says:

    Ah, memories...

    - For my first paper as a graduate student, my advisor hired an artist to hand-draw the schematics.

    - For my big (job-getting) paper as a postdoc, I photographed images from a computer graphics display.

    - For my first big paper as a PI, I sent paper manuscripts to the venerable Science editor, Eleanor Butz, whose manuscript edits were spidery penciled comments. She would then call me (at home!) to discuss the comments. She also took the time to give me advice on raising children.

    - In the 90's, we would watch the mailbox for that envelope that would let us know whether it was thumbs up or down for our papers.

    But do I miss those days? Not for a second, even though I confess that I enjoyed smearing that goopy stuff on Polaroid photos of gels....

  • halcyon says:

    My doctoral advisor - who has bottles of acetonitrile in the solvent closet older than me - used to measure the area under the curve by cutting the spectrum out of a chart recording with scissors and weighing it on a balance. I must have spent half my Ph.D. showing him how to do things in Excel.

  • Beaker says:

    I recall a time in the mid-1980s, when I worked with a visiting scientist in the lab to purify sufficient quantities of Unknown Protein X to allow tryptic digest and sequencing of the peptides. If we were successful, the plan was that the visiting scientist would take the sequences back to his lab and give them to a new graduate student, who would make degenerate primers and screen a library for his thesis work. Obtaining a cDNA was a full thesis project back then.

    After 9 months of effort, we obtained 3 peptide sequences: a 15-mer, a 12-mer, and a 6-mer. Later that same month, the latest issue of JBC arrived in the mail. In that issue, the PI in the lab found a cDNA cloning paper that was typical for that time. It had an amino acid translation, some Northern blots, and not much else. The PI visually scanned the printed sequence in the journal and found perfect matches to all 3 of our peptides! BLAST search? Meh.

  • When I was a grad student, I ran shittetonnes of radioactive sequencing gels. The Sanger reactions were run with Sequenase, and I definitely cracked my fair share of gel plates turning up the voltage too high in an effort to get the fucke out of the lab by midnight. I also have both chart recorder rolls and Polaroids of oscilloscope traces in my closet.

    A while back I asked one of my grad students who was trying to clone some shitte what restriction enzymes he was using and whether he treated his linearized vector with alkaline phosphatase. He looked at me like I was a lunatic on the street corner screaming at Bill Clinton to stop transmitting messages to his dental fillings.

  • Dave says:

    @CPP: next you will be asking him how he calculated pmol of ends.

  • bluefoot says:

    I still have a mug on which I put one of those sequencing gel liquid crystal thermometer strips - that way I could tell when my coffee was too cold. Hm...maybe I should bring it into work and see how many people recognize it.

    I also did my share of cutting out paper under curves and weighing them on a balance. And it was a big innovation when we could hook up our o-scope to a VCR and then run the tape through an A/D converter.

    I once had the dubious pleasure of running PCR with sand baths, a waterbath and a timer. Only once.

  • Datahound says:

    Yep to almost all of these things...oscilloscope pictures, digitizing spectra with a ruler, being sure not to upset the slide guy so that I could get favors done at "the last minute" (a few days before a talk), and an oldie but a goodie, purifying rare restriction enzymes. I also remembering ordering a thermocycler for my lab. The thermocycler was sold for restriction digests, etc. and not for PCR and Perkin-Elmer had a patent so that could not tell me if it would work for PCR or not (but they added that customers had found it satisfactory for most of their applications, even new ones). And, of course, there were the punch cards for computer programming...

  • Alex says:

    I can just remember the days when the worst photocopier on campus was the one in the library full of engineering grad students. The one in the social science library worked fine. Go figure.

  • Eli Rabett says:

    Xerox 914 and the original paper jam

  • Jonathan says:

    Grumble - I was using chart recorders during my PhD, so as recently as 1998. A few years earlier, during my undergraduate extramural year, I worked with one of those giant 8-channel Grass chart recorders. The power lead to that thing was about an inch thick!

  • Vosky says:

    Smoked drum recorder, anybody?

  • gingerest says:

    The art of gluing bits of paper to heavy cardboard stock, and scoring/taping joints with a box knife so you could make your poster fold to fit in your luggage.

    The blinding excitement of getting your subscription to NLM so you could search publications without having to wait for the Abstract Medicus updates to arrive.

    Transparencies, and matching the transparency type to the photocopier model so that you didn't melt it onto the printer drum. (Remember when laser printers needed their own special paper? Remember the endless delight of loading fanfold paper into a dot matrix printer? Worse than threading a sewing machine.)

    Glass petri dishes. Acid-washing glassware for histology.

  • Comradde PhysioProffe says:

    Remember silanizing sequencing gel plates?

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