You’re travelling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight but of mind…

Most days as a chemist are completely normal. You arrive at work, check email, go into the lab, get some writing done and go home. Perhaps there are some surprises, but mostly nothing you can’t handle. Yet on some days it all goes wrong: a series of small, seemingly insignificant events that combine into impenetrable mystery. Today is one such day. You’ve just crossed over into The Twilight Lab.

Last retort illustration - Jan 19

Source: © M-H Jeeves

You start the day by setting up a simple reaction you’ve done before. You know exactly what needs to be done and where everything is. Round bottom flask, check. Stir bar, present. Starting material… starting material? It’s not where it should be. You look everywhere, but it’s not in the lab. You check the inventory and it is not there. None of your lab mates have seen it or even know what you’re talking about. You used it yesterday, didn’t you?

Putting that reaction off for another time, you pick up some crude material you need to purify. You turn to your newly repaired purification system and see the same error you’ve been dealing with for weeks. Sighing, you call customer service, but there’s no record of anyone having come to your lab to service the instrument. ‘His name was Gary,’ you insist.

A pause. ‘There’s no Gary working here.’

You shake your head, moving past this strange statement, and describe the error.

‘I’ve never heard of that one before,’ says the rep. ‘We’ll have to send somebody out to look at it.’ You hang up, confused. You’re certain you talked to Gary. He told you about his kids.

Midmorning, a friend from another lab comes over to borrow some dry ice and stops by your hood. As they approach, their eyebrows crinkle and their mouth pinches into a frown. ‘What’s that smell?’ they ask.

You stare blankly. ‘I have no idea.’

‘I think it’s coming from your hood, they say. You check frantically but smell nothing. You realise later that you did not smell anything for the rest of the day.

After lunch, you need to do some thin-layer chromatography. You soon find you are running this TLC for hours, checking its progress every so often. The solvent is creeping up the plate, but so slowly you’d swear it had stopped altogether. You catch sight of your reflection in the glass of the hood – are those wrinkles? And is it just you, or is your hair greyer than it was when you started? This should have been done in five minutes. You are staring intensely now. You blink. It has overrun. You groan and begin to spot a new plate.

Making a mental note to buy some hair dye and maybe a new moisturiser later, you head to the NMR to take a spectrum of a product you have made before. As you look at the spectrum, you realise something has gone horribly wrong. The spectrum looks nothing like it should and, as you continue to stare, strange patterns begin to emerge. Where is the solvent peak? What have you made? What have you done? You show it to your lab mates to ask for a second opinion but all they do is complain of a sudden headache.

You end the day exhausted and confused, ready to quit chemistry. You take the long way home through a cold and misty night, intending to relax before returning to lab the next morning. Before you can do that, you are sidetracked by a strange light shining through the mist in the distance. Slowly you approach it.

You wake up the next morning with no recollection of the night before. You have a long, deep cut on one arm and dark circles under your eyes. You go into the lab and all of your experiments are working. Perhaps the day’s events were imagined or, perhaps, they are simply manifestations of that racemic mix of reality and the unexplained we know as The Twilight Lab.