The Logogeneplex

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Zach Weiner's most recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal reveals an invention that may allow Big Science to complete the transition to assembly-line methods.

But for me, this strip raised an iconographic question: when did white lab coats become the comic-strip uniform of scientists? And when this convention arose, which scientists actually wore white lab coats? Because these days, it's not easy to find an actual scientist (as opposed to one in a comic or an advertisement) who wears (or even owns) one. [OK, I yield to the commenters who observe e.g. that "in … biomedical research, maybe a third of the researchers wear lab coats whenever they're at the bench". Let's just say that a fairly small minority of scientists (and engineers and other inventors) wear white lab coats, and leave it at that.]

The guy in this strip apparently designs or builds hand-held electronic devices that make electronic-y noises accompanied by actinic flashes. That's another piece of interestingly dated comic-strip iconography, since an invention that modifies wording would of course for the past half-century have been a computer program. It's easy to see why Zach likes the idea of a stand-alone device involving electrical dischanges, since some guy just showing PowerPoint slides about his new program might as well be reporting on sales figures for the last quarter, and is completely lacking in audio-visual oomph.

Zach could have used movie-based stuff like cascades of green lettering on a black background, as if the hackers of the future used futuristic Tektronix terminals, but that's harder to draw and has less of that mad-scientist vibe.

Even clockwork is more visually dynamic than modern computer hardware is. And Mary Shelley didn't invent the mad-scientist meme until after the age of clockwork was mostly over, so that electrical discharges were part of the mad-scientist story from the start, while clockwork wasn't — though comics like Girl Genius have done a wonderful job of re-imagining that history. With white lab coats, natch:

Girl Genius has plenty of electrical discharges along with the clockwork and the lab coats, of course:

For the rest of the Logogeneplex story, including the bonus picture of the hypocube (mouseover the red dot at the bottom to see it), you'll have to hit Zach's web site.

But seriously, white lab coats?

[Update — promoted from the comments, same sample pictures of scientists drawn before and after a seventh-grade class's visit to Fermilab. Nearly all of the "before" pictures involve white lab coats. None of the "after" pictures do. A typical example:

And another one:

Follow the link and see the other 29 pictures, along with the students' comments, like ". . . . anyone can be a scientist. I saw people walking around in sweatshirts and jeans. Who knows? Maybe I can be a scientist."

Another interesting comment:

The purpose of a lab coat, as many above have mentioned, is to protect you and your own clothes from the messy and unpleasant effects of whatever you're working with. So why after all this time do popular depictions of scientists (a) always wear lab coats but (b) never button them up?! Do they all fear acid attacks, but only from the rear? It's not even worth wearing if it's not done up properly.

The obvious answer: it's semiotics, not functionality, that drives the choices. Note that it's not just popular depictions — a white lab coat is basically a uniform for doctors in at least some hospitals, and memory (perhaps fallibly) tells me that they  leave them unbuttoned at least as often as not, as in many of these pictures (not that those are mostly real doctors at work, but still).]


  1. Leonardo Boiko said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 7:45 am

    Speaking of clockwork, Japanese pop media often has mad Edo-era scientists designin karakuri battle robots and trick dungeons.

  2. SeanH said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 7:48 am

    It took me a second to get "hypocube", but now I can't stop giggling.

  3. Bill Walderman said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 7:50 am

    Computer scientists may not wear them, but some scientists or technicians, at least in fields and in some parts of the world, do seem to still wear them:

    [(myl) Some of these seem to be advertisements and PR images. I sometimes see white lab coats on bench scientists, especially in hospital-associated labs — but often not. There are plenty of folks manipulating pipettes and beakers and such while wearing civvies.]

    "Next time: how well do speakers know themselves?" I'm still waiting for this. Hope you haven't forgotten about it.

    [(myl) It's on the to-blog list.]

  4. Janne said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 7:57 am

    "And when this convention arose, which scientists actually wore white lab coats? Because these days, it's not easy to find an actual scientist (as opposed to one in a comic or an advertisement) who wears (or even owns) one."

    I believe you're mistaken here. Many scientists do wear white lab coats; enough that the convenience store at the small research college I work at carries lab coats in all common sizes right next to the stationary and logo'ed t-shirts and hats.

    So who wears them? Anyone that works in any kind of wet lab. Experimental chemists, chemical engineers, geologists and so on of course. Anyone doing experimental neuroscience, physiology or similar. Anyone working with animals, plants or human patients, like zoology, behavioral science, plant genetics, pharmacology and so on. Anyone working in a microbial lab, and in many kind of physics labs.

    Why wear them? Because they're hard-wearing and cheap, and stains and stuff show up easily. They protect you and your clothes from acids, oils, graduate students and anything else that will corrode, dissolve, burn, stain, stink up, infect, rip, tear, abrade or otherwise ruin your day. And since they show stains and since they stay at the lab they make sure you're not dragging anything into your office or your home that you don't want to.

    [(myl) Some people who work in wet labs wear them, but lots don't. That's certainly what the (PR-heavy) images in Bill Walderman's collection show. And I think it's been that way for a long time. I worked in a molecular biology lab 40-odd years ago, and can't remember anybody there wearing a lab coat; and as I think about labs I've visited since then, some have been full of lab coats, some lacked them entirely; and some were mixed.

    The one thing I've never seen is a white lab coat in a place where people design and build electronic circuits, or at least devices like the Logogeneplex.]

  5. Martin said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 8:05 am

    Janne is spot on here. In addition, lab coats are obligatory in many undergraduate classes (chemistry, for me) and so many more scientists will own one that they no longer wear.

  6. Jonathan Badger said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 8:23 am

    I work at a biological research institute, and although I'm a computational biologist myself, all people working in the lab here are issued white lab coats. Yes, people don't wear them 100% of the time (and certainly not while giving seminars, as per the cartoon), but working with anything caustic or staining one would have to be an idiot *not* to wear one.

  7. J.W. Brewer said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 8:27 am

    The white-coat image is currently being imprinted on a new generation via the wardrobe of Dr. Doofenshmirtz, the comical evil-scientist character on the kid's tv show Phineas & Ferb. His nefarious schemes also typically involve what wikipedia calls "obscure contraptions and inventions that tend to have '-inator' as the suffix," often somewhat reminiscent of the handheld logogeneplex shown above.

  8. Dan Lufkin said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 8:30 am

    If you design or build modern electronic circuits, you'll probably wear a white boiler suit and a white hair and beard snood. Then you'll enter the lab through an air shower that will blow most of the dust off. A tiny fleck of dandruff will ruin a photolith layout or a silicon chip etching. The purpose of lab clothing nowadays is often to protect the lab against you, rather than vice versa.

    If you're typing on a black keyboard, look down at it. That's the stuff I'm talking about.

  9. Nick Lamb said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 8:41 am

    Back when I was an academic computer scientist we had whole floors filled with laboratories. Visually these laboratories were indistinguishable from offices (people sat at desks using computers) but being laboratories they were exempt from an institutional rule forbidding air conditioning for offices.

    Evidently this official designation didn't fool the BBC – – the building I'm talking about is described as a "nearby office building" in the story.

    The Mountbatten building did have real laboratories, and some of the people who worked in them wore (wear, the building was destroyed but no-one was hurt) lab coats. As far as I can tell the rule of thumb is "If your science is messy, but takes place indoors you get a lab coat".

  10. Nijma said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 8:47 am

    White lab coats are used in hospitals for infection control, generally to cover street clothes or "dirty" scrubs that are in contact with patients. The hospital policy and procedure manual will specify what areas they are required in. For instance, in one hospital, when making rounds, medical and nursing instructors would wear long lab coats and medical students would wear short ones.

    I have worked in several electronic R&D and manufacturing areas and have never worn a lab coat there, but apparently they are used for the manufacture of semiconductors.

  11. Tamara said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    Yup, sorry Mark, you're definitely wrong. In my field, biomedical research, maybe a third of the researchers wear lab coats whenever they're at the bench, and nearly everyone wears them when they're working with acid, bleach etc. It's funny you say, "these days", since my guess would be that people are *more* likely to wear them today than they used to. At least at the 4 or 5 places I've worked in my career, people complain that the EH&S has gotten more strict over the years, not less.

    EH&S: environmental health and safety, i.e., the people who come by regularly and scold us for unsafe lab habits.

  12. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 9:52 am

    Nick Lamb's rule of thumb: "If your science is messy, but takes place indoors you get a lab coat" seems to be the best discriminator. I routinely wore a lab apron in my first job out of college, working in a lab with substances that were almost exclusively liquids. Increased emphasis on safety, whether government or employer nurtured, should have increased lab coat use over time.

    [(myl) But a "lab apron" isn't a lab coat. Put a lab apron on someone in the comics and it turns them into a butcher or a blacksmith or something.]

  13. Mark P said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 10:08 am

    When my brother was in graduate school in the '70s doing metallurgy, he worked in a very dirty environment, so he wore a lab coat. In fact, one night when a late-night movie was a big deal on the networks, he called me to tell me that his lab coat was on TV. Someone had made a cheap science fiction movie at Georgia Tech and they needed a lab coat to show that someone was a scientist.

  14. blastaar said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 10:17 am

    A quick skim suggests that the white coat was well-established in comics by the early '30s, almost always in the double-breasted tunic style also favored by physicians, chefs, and barbers.

    It was hardly universal, though–your mad scientist seems to have been just as likely to wear a suit and tie as a lab coat.

  15. Adam said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 10:44 am

    In computer science departments you can get away with wearing shorts in the summer. If we wore lab coats, we might look like flashers.

  16. Ken Brown said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 11:32 am

    There is an old joke that you cold tell biologists because they wore dirty lab coats, chemists because theirs had holes in, and physicists because theirs were clean. It was true for the teachers at the school I went to. You used to see them in the corridors, wearing the lab coats like a badge of office.

    At the university I work at now I suspect almost no-one wears a lab coat *except* people working in microbiology labs or certain kinds of molecular biology wet lab who really do. But not in the corridor because you aren't supposed to take them out of the lab. They are kept there. So people who don't go into the lab won't see them.

  17. Urban Garlic said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    I believe (on scant evidence, alas) that a lot of scientific iconography comes from early twentieth century movies, especially German expressionists celebrating or warning about technology. Rotwang, the mad scientists in Fritz Lang's "Metropolis", is more or less the archetype here, along with the bench full of sparking electrical devices.

    Almost this exact image, with the heavy coat and rubber gloves, survives in the cartoonish get-up of Doctor Steel, among others.

    I have also heard (urban legend alert!) that Fritz Lang invented the rocket-launch countdown, but have not been able to verify or falsify it.

  18. john riemann soong said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 12:16 pm

    I wear my LL bean jacket just because it is hydrophobic and it's more fashionable.. Though… don't wear dressy shirts to lab. I have sulfuric acid holes in one of them, damn it.

  19. Rodger C said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 12:24 pm

    When I took organic chemistry in 1965-66 I had to have a white lab coat. My grandmother made mine. I shudder to think of the stuff I got on it, much of which is now known to be carcinogenic or otherwise dangerous. Some of it was so known at the time, I'm pretty sure. But this was in West Virginia, where Coal was King and Chemistry was the Queen Consort, and science teaching didn't commit laesa majestas.

  20. Rosie Redfield said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 12:40 pm

    Researchers in biomedical industry typically wear lab coats, I think because they are forced to by their very strong safety programs. In academia we're both less regulated and more motivated to ignore inconvenient regulations (no open-toed shoes in the lab! no shorts!).

  21. Ginger Yellow said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 12:43 pm

    My favourite inappropriate lab coat of recent times was worn by George Takei in a Sharp TV ad. Not only was it unlikely that the engineer or physicist he was apparently pretending to be would wear one, but they seemed to be genuinely trying to pass him off as a Sharp employee, yet still George Takei ("Oh, my" and all). It was very disconcerting and not at all how celebrity ads are normally done.

  22. bfwebster said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 12:58 pm

    When I was part of a software startup some 20 years ago (agh! I'm old!), we — the engineers — seriously talked about getting ourselves lab coats with the engineering team motto ("Error, theft and copulation"). But we were too busy working 70+ hours/week for months on end. Pity; I think they would have been cool.

    OK, OK, about the motto: Gerry Weinberg says that the three principal sources of ideas are error, theft, and copulation [recombination]. He says that we're also raised as kids to avoid all three, hence the difficulty we often have in coming up with new ideas. ..bruce..

    [(myl) Those three are a good start, but you've left out laziness and procrastination…]

  23. Steve Harris said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

    Lab coats are the Badge of Office in hospitals, judging from my experience: When I was a math grad student I took a part-time job at the university hospital, working for a physician to program a computer to translate various patient-input data into blood-analysis output according to his lengthy algorithm. At one point he invited me to go on rounds with him to observe how the patient data was obtained in situ. I was duly issued a white lab coat so as to appear "properly medical" in the patient rooms, I suppose so that patients seeing me would be reassured that they were in good hands.

  24. Faldone said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

    If you are wearing a lab coat (with a pocket screwdriver and two different colored pens in the breast pocket) and are carrying a clipboard with a pad of some forms on it you can get anywhere. The lab coat should have something like Institutional Registration Services over the breast pocket.

  25. Richard Gadsden said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 1:46 pm

    School chemistry teachers almost invariably wore lab coats back in the days when they were allowed to actually perform real chemistry. Schools (as opposed to universities / colleges) generally did old-fashioned wet chemistry because the machines to do anything modern were too expensive.

    Vastly more people have experience with school chemistry lessons than with real researchers.

  26. Rubrick said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

    White lab coats as "these are scientists" garb, and complaints about the inappropriateness thereof, surely go back a long way. Gary Larson routinely put mathematicians in lab coats, which is completely ludicrous — but nonetheless effective.

    It would of course be more realistic to depict scientists as wearing xkcd T-shirts, but that risks copyright infringement issues…

  27. naddy said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 2:55 pm

    Urban Garlic said:

    I have also heard (urban legend alert!) that Fritz Lang invented the rocket-launch countdown, but have not been able to verify or falsify it.

    The countdown to zero is indeed popularly attributed to Fritz Lang's 1929 movie Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon).

  28. Laura said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 3:14 pm

    When my daughter was in the 5th grade, (late 1990s) the teacher was trying to instill the idea that anybody could be a scientist, and to move away from stereotypes like white lab coats and glasses. At back to school night, he was explaining this, when one of the parents smiled. He is a scientist, he has glasses, and wears a white lab coat. Oh, well.

  29. Sili said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    I have enough acid-holed jeans to testify to the need to wear labcoats in the chemistry lab (and Health-and-Safety won't let you work without proper protection these days, that's for sure).

    I think linguists need to adopt a uniform, though. Labcoats would do.

    I don't know when the white labcoat meme originated (though, of course, I'm think 1950s cigarette ads with doctors in them), but I know that the stereotypical image of the chemist looking up at his Erlenmeyer flask or test tube goes all the way back to depictions of Renaissance physicians looking at the urine of their patients.

    The late, lamented Tenderbutton chemistry blogger experimented with making a black labcoat, as I recall it, in order to stand out. He also had it embroidered.

  30. ignoramus said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

    Everyone is forgetting the main issue – money –

    Very few lab rats could afford to replace or clean clothing on a regular basis in oldern times ;'twas why uniform simple clothing was issued, now people have a few cents and would like to have another uniform of there own choosing,.
    The uniform makes a statement, the tie, the hat, the ribbon, the red coat, white coat, blazer, these are adopted by the tribal organisations that one wishes to belong too , some give high stature, others low.
    Then a white coat in medical environment has hi stature, but the same coat in a factory with dirty greasy hands has low stature.

    The red coat was a prize then became a death trap, thus Kharki
    Same with a white lab coat , with a stethoscope scope ? status", with a screwdriver?
    Stick a general without his outfit on an Island could be very funny seeing his flabby belly, but with a chest full on a manicured background then the kowtowing begins, same man. Tis so with Lab coat, just an image that fits a preconceived idea.

  31. George said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 3:38 pm

    I have my doubts that Jobs, Gates, Packard or the like wore lab coats in the garage. Did any come out of the garage shouting, "I have done it, I have done it, I have invented a search engine!"

  32. john riemann soong said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 3:59 pm

    They probably boasted about it over facebook.

    oh wai

  33. George said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 4:03 pm

    I am confident that the first call was to a venture capitalist.

  34. Dougal Stanton said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 7:45 pm

    The purpose of a lab coat, as many above have mentioned, is to protect you and your own clothes from the messy and unpleasant effects of whatever you're working with. So why after all this time do popular depictions of scientists (a) always wear lab coats but (b) never button them up?! Do they all fear acid attacks, but only from the rear? It's not even worth wearing if it's not done up properly.

  35. stu said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 8:12 pm

    When children get to see an actual laboratory, the image changes. ". . . . anyone can be a scientist. I saw people walking around in sweatshirts and jeans. Who knows? Maybe I can be a scientist."

    [(myl) Interesting. These are pictures of scientists drawn by a class of 7th graders before and after a visit to Fermilab. Nearly all of the "before" pictures involve white lab coats. None of the "after" pictures do. A typical example:

    And another one:


  36. Mr Punch said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 9:29 pm

    When my father was an academic scientist in the 1950s, long before OSHA, everyone wore white lab coats in the labs, animal rooms, etc. (This was biomedical research.) The idea was partly to protect one's clothing, I believe, but also so that chemical spills or biohazards could be seen readily. The men generally wore bow ties, which didn't droop into the petri dishes and bunsen burners.

  37. Fluxor said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 10:09 pm

    Perhaps you can do a post of your typo of "dischange" vs. "discharge". An 'r' may look like a truncated 'n', but they are quite far away on the keyboard.

  38. susie said,

    August 2, 2010 @ 11:54 pm

    When I took my son into work with me one day, he was sorely disappointed at the fact that my chemistry lab didn't have the right look. I rarely use my lab coat, although I do have two. He was expecting the magical glassware with open flames, test tubes and erlenmeyer flasks colorfully bubbling away to produce exciting chemicals, instead of the rather boring salts I combine in a dull volumetric flask. Even the fun machines I get to play with were pretty much just black boxes to him.
    To this day, he says I'm not a "real" scientist. Ouch

  39. Sili said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 2:17 am



  40. john riemann soong said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 9:34 am

    susie: you need the micropipettes. you can hold it like the way that scientist holds his gun in the web comic and laugh maniacally as you make a 30X dilution of gold(III) chloride.

  41. Peter Corbett said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 2:21 pm

    I always found the scientist-in-white-coat-talking-to-the-public stereotype to be a bit silly on two counts; firstly, the more senior you are the less time you spend wearing one, and also, if you do wear one, you have to keep it in the bit of the lab where the chemicals (or whatever) are, and don't wear it for things like meeting people or talking to the public.

    Furthermore, if you do wear a lab coat, you probably don't like wearing it, and there's a chance that you get told off by the health and safety people for not wearing it when you should be.

  42. Sili said,

    August 3, 2010 @ 4:01 pm

    a 30X dilution of gold(III) chloride.

    If susie does make anything 30X (or 30C), then she is indeed not a real scientist. I think it's very rude of you to throw around baseless accusations of homoepathism like that, john.

    So why after all this time do popular depictions of scientists (a) always wear lab coats but (b) never button them up?!

    Simple: Arrogance. They just know that they can't possibly make any mistakes that blow up in their faces. But they don't trust the guy at the next bench.


  43. AlexB said,

    August 4, 2010 @ 1:23 am

    F.E. Warburton already commented on this phenomenon in the sixties in his satirical piece The Lab Coat as a Status Symbol (reprinted in The Stress Analysis of a Strapless Evening Gown (1963)) As 'the modern scientist rarely works in his lab coat' , yet ' we recognize a scientist by his lab coat' he suggested to develop it into something like a dress uniform.

  44. Licia said,

    August 4, 2010 @ 7:01 am

    In today's strip Dilbert is wearing a coat and it is buttoned up ;-)

  45. Daniel said,

    August 4, 2010 @ 1:23 pm

    In the kids' drawings Stu posted, also note how many of the "before" pictures are old and/or bald men.

  46. Alon Lischinsky said,

    August 12, 2010 @ 5:29 am

    I'm not proficient enough at zimmering to try to date the inception of the lab coat as the stereotypical scienti, but at least I can mention some empirical studies noting its prevalence.

    The Draw-a-Scientist test devised by Chambers (Chambers, D. W. [1983]. Stereotyped images of the scientist: The draw-a-scientist-test. Science Education, 67, 255-265) uses the coat as one of the reliable signs of a scientific identity. It became quite widely used (although its sensitivity has been questioned). The most recent published paper using it in my personal library is Thomas et al. (Thomas, M. D.; Henley, T. B.; & Snell, C. M. [2006] The draw a scientist test: a different population and a somewhat different story. College Student Journal, 40(1):140-148), which shows more than 50% of college science majors portraying scientists with lab coats.

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