Buckets of Steam. A year in the life of a research technician by Jim Cuthbert

Jim Cuthbert describes himself as a proud English Northerner from the 1970s. While details are slim, it is clear that Jim has given himself over to science and “voluntarily goes to work every day for which he earns a pittance”.  The book he has written describes a year in the life of a research technician who is by his own admittance “a bit lewd, juvenile and eccentric”. The author’s introduction to the book  talks about the noble ambitions of the great scientific age, its major achievements in cracking the DNA code, curing or treating illnesses that were previously hopeless; he notes that we can destroy worlds or send craft to deepest space and that who knows what tomorrow might bring. However, “Nowadays much of the mystique has gone. Scientists have become no more special than you or I and, instead of genius, laziness and incompetence now abounds. But why should this have happened and how would I know?  
Because a lot of them are idiots. I am one of them.”

Reading ‘Buckets of Steam’

I was immediately returned to my days in the lab and my days in the Universities of my education. Jim has quite crisply captured the essence of life in an academic laboratory. I could almost smell the ether and feel the politics. This is a fast moving book that is punctuated with interesting personalities and clever tales. It lets us in on the secret of how to get drunk but only ever buy one round and how the best laid plans are ruined because the cheapest equipment goes wrong and just the right time. It tells stories of the most eminent ingenuity. The book does, though, highlight the cruelties and stupidities of University life. It clearly shows how sheltered the average university inhabitant is, how shielded from the world of political correctness and event to some extent basic humanity. Jim Cuthbert does not hold back. It would be no fun to be in the spotlight of one of the author’s character assassinations but sadly human nature dictates that the anecdotes had me rolling around with laughter. As has been noted in one review on Amazon.co.uk there is a lot of space given over to mockery of an unfortunate individual and one wishes that this were not so, but that is still, most likely, a real reflection of what happens when a group of young, intelligent achievers are left alone with a little income and less supervision. It is often said of independent schools that they create the very best and the very worst people and to parallel this, Jim’s laboratory creates the very worst of human pettiness and the very best of human inventiveness. What fun to read events and spectacular stories of misadventure of eternal pseudo student. It is now a few weeks since I completed ‘Buckets of Steam’ but I still consider this one of the best written and most entertaining books that I have read. This is a book to be read by anyone who has resided in a University lab for any length of time. Certainly my view is that it should be recommended broadly. Perhaps it should be kept out of reach of the Deans of the University and perhaps portioned out to a select few Professors!

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