When you work in a lab, there’s significant down time in which one has no other purpose than to think. Honestly, there’s not much else to do when you have a thirty minute incubation and you’ve completed all the paperwork that your test requires. It’s not even time to surf the ‘net properly (although you’re not supposed to technically do so, per company policy, but everyone does it anyway). The only other option left is to play a game of Solitaire, but when it’s a Friday night and you’re a bit punchy because it’s been a long week, even Solitaire isn’t enough. However, I’ve been in the biotech industry for a number of years now and thus have learned to accept a life with many periods of “hurry-up and wait.”
So on this particular Friday night as I sat on my lab stool pondering the fact that it’s 6 o’clock and I’m still at work, I start to stare at the timer in my hand. At this moment, it’s the only thing that is remotely entertaining. It’s amazing, actually to realize just how long a minute can be. People don’t ever really remember just how long a full minute is and always get it wrong. It reminds me of when I realized that I could pipette a plate, cover it, and write down the time I finished pipetting in less than thirty seconds. I have a bit of pride at that, since, well, that’s a lot to do in thirty seconds (and I’m pretty sure I could still do it if I had to). So, while I’m waiting for this plate to come out of the incubator, my mind drifts and the timer becomes increasingly hypnotic. As each minute counts down, I find that my breath becomes slower and slower. I dwell on the time that passes between each second. A part of my mind was wondering how many seconds I’ve wasted in the lab. How many of those seconds could I have spent doing something totally different?
This then lead me to think about how much time there is in between each second. I remember from my physics class that there are infinite bits of time. What if, like atoms, there are smaller and smaller particles of time that go beyond nano- and Pico-seconds? Quark-like bits of time where I could look out from and wonder why the rest of the world is moving so slow? In the dorky corner of my brain I wonder if it would be just like that Star Trek episode where Kirk gets caught by people who got stuck moving faster than normal time. (Wow, I think, that is a really nerdy thought.)
Then I think that perhaps, if you got to that Quark-time place, you could see God, or Goddess, or whatever it is that moves the Universe. Would you be able to stay long enough to ask questions? You know, the really interesting questions like how the big bang started or how DNA works or why humans evolved at all. (Of course, that same part my brain that thought about the Star Trek stuff also realizes that the answers to these questions are probably only interesting to me, and intellectually, I know that these aren’t questions that most people would ask when suddenly confronting deity.) Would whatever-it-is in that space actually answer? That’s when the other part of my brain, the one that tends to send me ear-worms, chimes in with lyrics from a song that I can never remember the band’s name for: “This is ponderous, man. Reeeaaalll ponderous…”
You know, I think I ought to give these thoughts a moment of silence out of respect. They are the big thoughts, after all.
But that’s when I notice that there really is silence.
The machines have stopped humming, there are no lab doors banging, and even the smell of the 70% ethanol that I was wiping the counters with is gone. There is only a complete and utter silence.
I open my eyes (though I don’t quite remember closing them) because now I’m a kind of freaked out. I feel a little queasy. Right. I know it’s been awhile since I’ve eaten, so maybe I should check the timer to see if I have a few minutes to run out and eat some candy. I stand up and make my way to the door. My hand goes for the handle and, to my shock, goes right through it.
I turn around and my body is still sitting on the lab chair, staring at the timer.
Now, most people would panic at this point, seeing their body still in a chair, a vacant expression gracing their face with drool slowly pooling about their lips. Not me. Well, not completely. No, being the good scientist that I am, I begin to try and figure out how in the world I left my body. (It’s by no means a new concept, since I am a Wiccan.) Still, this is the first time I’ve gone fully out of body, nevermind the fact that I’m still at work, in a boring and empty lab waiting for an incubation to finish. Part of me is actually amused to realize that I’m getting paid for an out of body experience.
Suddenly my practical and logical self kicks in, that party pooper, and realizes that having an out of body experience at work is probably not a really good idea. There is also the matter of the assay in progress which needs to be completed before I go home. Sheepishly, my eyes fixate on the timer that my physical self is drooling at, and am shocked to see there is precisely one minute before I have to physically take my plate out of the incubator.
Before I completely panic, I notice two things:
1) My physical form can’t move, since I’m not “home” to control it.
2) The timer still says that there’s one minute left, but I’ve been staring at it for at least two minutes (maybe longer?).
Now the panic changes from freaking out about my assay (since I’ve concluded that time has indeed stopped) to freaking out about not knowing how to get back into my body. And I also realize that I really need to get back into my body as soon as possible, because who knows when this time-stoppage thing will end, and the thought of restarting the entire assay from scratch fills me with dread. It would really suck if I had to stay even longer on a Friday night because I got bored and stopped time!
Now that geeky part of my brain is thinking that this is like a Dr. Who episode and I’m wishing the Doctor would come and tell me how to figure this out. (Well, as long as it’s Peter Capaldi’s Doctor or Sylvester McCoy. I mean, if you’re going to have one of the Doctors with you while you’re stuck in time, you might as well have the most badass ones.) And to be honest, the silence is also getting a little creepy and I’d rather be back in my body, thank you. But, since I don’t have the Doctor, I might as well buckle down and figure out a way to get out of this predicament.
So, I say to myself:
“Self, how did I get us into this?”
“Well, first you were staring at the timer.”
“Then we started thinking about the time between seconds.”
I nod again, and then say “Oh, and don’t forget that we slowed down our breathing!”
I nod again.
“Right, then. So, maybe, if we start thinking of normal time and try and get our body to breathe faster, we’ll speed ourselves up!”
After this conversation with myself, I’m feeling rather clever and smart. Just in case my cleverness fails me, I rattle off a small prayer to whatever-is-out-there in the hopes that I really am correct about how to fix it. Mid-prayer, I remember that thought I had earlier of meeting whatever-it-is to ask some questions, and wonder Is It here? Do I have to call It? Or will It come to me? But when I look around, all I see is the same old boring lab with it’s beige and grey walls, and that’s not very interesting or mystical at all. In fact, I’m starting to get rather disappointed that I achieved this amazing out-of-body and out-of-time state and got no spiritual revelations for my trouble. Oh, well, maybe I’m not supposed to get a spiritual revelation at this time (positive thinking, you know).
I move over to my body, and when I touch it my hand starts to get sucked into my physical form. I start to think about how fast time can be and all the pleasures of being in my physical form (like food, and sex, and jumping in puddles), even though I’m getting older. I start to feel myself rushing forward and the seconds start to tick down on the timer again, slow at first, as if there was a full minute between each number, and then faster. And right before I fully enter my body, I see it! Out of the corner of my eye, there is a shining face; something there that is smiling at me and laughing at my notions of time and space. In that moment, awe and incredulous wonder washes over me and the world doesn’t feel quite real.
Like all interesting things, the moment comes to an end. Time suddenly rears up to slap me in the face in the form of a timer beeping at me to take out the plate from the incubator. My body is a bit numb from sitting in one place and being so still, but I do as the timer bids me, even though I’m still a bit disoriented. Sounds seem awfully loud now, considering the complete silence that I just came back from. While the next machine does it’s work, I ponder the presence I saw, trying to figure out what it means.
While I’m happily mulling the experience over as I’m pipetting the last reagents into my plate, one of my co-workers comes in, scaring the crap out of me. (Lucky for him I was between rows!) He asks me why I’m chuckling to myself. I think about it while I finish my plate. After all, how do you explain that you’ve been out of your body, stopped time, and saw what might be God (or Goddess, or whatever) in less than a second? There’s really no words for that kind of experience.
So, I smile and tell him that I’m laughing at a joke someone told me, which, really, is not too far from the truth.