Net zero rubber duck debugging
Despite a total lack of green fingers, Dr Matthew Partridge argues that a plant is an essential research tool… far better than a rubber duck in fact
I wish I’d discovered the power of a small potted plant back when I started out in research
Of all the subjects my degree in Biochemistry covered, botany hardly featured. At the time I took my degree, the university I went to had discovered the lucrative world of Ecology. Sadly, the lucrative part (and the part that was paying for a shiny new Ecology building) was more about commercial land management and less about the wonders of plants.
So, while a Biochemistry degree certainly gave me a very good understanding of Biology and Chemistry, it left me very lacking when it came to plants. This first became evident when I managed to kill a pot of mint I was trying to grow in my first house and has since been compounded by all the failed attempts I made at gardening in my late 20s and early 30s. Let’s just say that a pot of mint is not the only plant I’ve managed to kill. I think the dead mint count alone may be as high as five by this point. But things changed as I began to understand the importance of a plant in research...
Be it on your desk, windowsill, or lab, plants are a tidy addition. So, I now have several complex criteria when choosing plants, all of which are ultimately ignored in favour of easy to look after specimens. If a plant can grow in tarmac 12 months of the year, then I’ll give it a chance on my desk.
In these times of extended home working it has never been more important to have a workspace that feels comfortable and calm and having a plant really helps with that. But, past oxygen production and simple aesthetics, plants have another important benefit that you may not know… plants are better than a rubber duck.
In programming there is a technique called Rubber Duck Debugging. This is the practice of debugging your code by patiently explaining it line by line to a Rubber Duck. Now this may sound completely made up but it’s a real thing (Google it).
Next time you’re working on a presentation, data analysis, or even a paper, just try it. Explain the whole thing bit by bit to your plant. Plants are famously non-judgemental listeners and despite not understanding most complex science are more than happy to sit and soak it all in. In the process you may realise that you missed a slide out, forgot a data analysis step, or didn’t justify an argument properly. And thanks to your plant you can correct it before someone more judgmental finds it and points it out in a group email.
I wish I’d discovered the power of a small potted plant back when I started out in research. When entering 300 patients’ worth of test data I could have been staring aimlessly at a nice plant while procrastinating, rather than a wheelie bin in a small ally outside my window. Think of all the times that I screwed up an experiment which could have been avoided, if only I’d spoken to my Pilea about it first!
Author: Dr Matthew Partridge is a researcher, cartoonist and writer who runs the outreach blog errantscience.com