When I was a graduate student in the mid-1990s, hot plates were, well, hot. You might even say they were fire hazards. Nowadays they can be intelligent, too. The Barnstead RT Elite Stirring Hot Plate (Fisher catalog #11-400-023, $924) can heat to 350° C in 0.1-degree increments; features separate LCD displays for temperature, speed, and time; alerts you if the temperature of the plate rises above some fixed value; and features a port that can output data to an attached computer.
In other words, things have changed since I was a grad student, I've learned, as I help my wife thumb her way through the Fisher catalog. (You'll recall from last month's column that she's setting up a new lab at Idaho State University.) She's using Fisher's 2,654-page 2006-2007 catalog as a source for many of the basics - pH meters, vortexers, and so on.
Here are some of my other finds: I can hardly imagine a situation in which I would have needed a hard copy of my hotplate's performance, but Barnstead isn't alone in creating über-stirrers. The IKAMAG RET Control-Visc safety control magnetic stirrer (ScienceLab.com Catalog No. 95-3364001, $1,298) also features an output port, as well as viscosity control to maintain stirring speed as viscosity changes. According to the ScienceLab.com product page, this particular product also features "infinitely adjustable heat and speed controls" as well as a 'fuzzy logic' microprocessor for self-optimizing temperature control." Much as I would appreciate safety in my lab equipment, I'm uneasy at the prospect of a hotplate that's smarter than I am.
Balances, too, have gone 21st century. Back when I was a grad student, balances just, you know, weighed stuff. Now, Mettler Toledo's XP Precision top-loading balances (e.g., Catalog No. 01-910-369, $3,957) can download software via the Internet, feature infrared sensors for hands-free operation, and can be outfitted with Bluetooth capability to wirelessly send data to a remote printer. My cell phone and PDA have Bluetooth capability, too; does this mean I can call my balance? Or control it with a wireless headset?
Barnstead's Lab-Line Compact Benchtop Incubated Shaker (Barnstead Catalog No. SHKE4450, $4,138) features the MaxQ 4450 Shaker Digital Operating System and an RS-232 port for outputting running parameters to a PC. Who knew shakers needed an operating system. But they aren't the only bits of lab equipment that do. Fisher's accumet Excel XL50 pH/mV/Temperature/ISE/Conductivity meter (Catalog No. 13-636-XL50, $2,535.90) comes complete with a Windows CE-based operating system, an Ethernet port for software updates, a USB port to connect a printer, and password protection. I'm hard-pressed to recall a time when I would have needed to password-protect a pH meter.
Finally, I was amused by Fisher's digital vortexer (Catalog No. 02-215-370, $363.21), which features variable speed control from 500 to 3,000 rpm and a microprocessor that "maintains set speed for consistent mixing." This vortexer is much slicker than the models I recall using, which were heavy, sort of orange, and featured an old-fashioned dial to control the mixing speed. As I recall, the dial went from zero (off) to 10 (say goodbye to your material). I don't think I ever ran the thing at a setting higher than 4, but I always thought it would be neat to modify the dial so that it actually went up to 11, a la the guitar amplifier in the movie This is Spinal Tap.
Every one of these devices, of course, serves some useful purpose, mostly for higher-end labs that must deal with GMP compliance or other regulatory standards. Academic labs rarely need to consider these things, and it's generally cheaper not to. But I'm reminded of my undergraduate research advisor, who used to deplore how easy we all had it, what with our fancy micropipettors - he claimed to prefer loading sequencing gels by mouth pipetting with hand-drawn glass capillaries - and prepackaged enzymes. We used to roll our eyes at such nonsense. Seeing some of the newfangled gadgetry that's out there, I think I finally understand him.