A friend of mine watching videos (like the one below) at Know Your Meme was entranced not so much by the pseudo-scientific approach to pop culture, but by the fact that all the "Internet Scientists" in the videos had lab coats with their names on. "Oh!" he said, with a longing normally reserved for Lamborghinis and private islands full of bikini-clad bodyguards, "I wish I could have a lab coat with my name on it."
How could one not indulge someone on such a simple desire? Lab coats, I knew, are cheap and how hard is it to get anything customized these days? "I am going to get you a belated Christmas present." In minutes I had selected a website selling lab coats. "What colour would you like your name to be in? What font? Any other text?" He was bug eyed with joy at the prospect of having his very own lab coat. Bizarre. I thought we'd all come to terms with the fact that if it exists, you can buy it on the Internet. And lab coats are fully legal without a licence in Canada.
So of course I was doubly amused when the extremely Internet-savvy comic artist Randall Munroe through his comic xkcd expressed the same glee at the availability of lab coats for purchase. It's true that the lab coat is a universal badge of geeky authority, but hey, you can buy laminating badge-making machines on the Internet, too.
The Canadian shipping charges were insane, so I specified that the order be shipped to a receiver in a US border town. They e-mail you when the package has arrived and then charge your $3 to collect it. I know someone who lives near the border on the Canadian side, so arranged a trip to visit her, and then on my way home drove across the border to collect the goods.
At the border the US Customs official closed his booth just before I got to it, in order to go and talk to someone in another booth. I had become distracted reading my passport or something and didn't notice immediately when he returned to wave me forward, so I started off the conversation on a bad note. But this should be routine.
"Where are you going?"
"Just to <border town>."
"Purpose of your visit?"
"Just picking up a package."
'What sort of package?"
"I think it's a lab coat."
"A lab coat?" Suspicion hackles raised on his neck. "What is it for?"
I should have just said, "It's a gift for my friend, who is a scientist." True, and the customs guy didn't have to know he works in a branch of science that doesn't use labcoats. But I'm stunned by his need to know what a lab coat is for, cursed with the need to answer the question that I know he is asking, "To wear," I manage. I mean what else would you do with it? "It keeps stuff off your clothes."
He offered me an out, "For your job?" I could have said yes, but there's a really good chance that the screen of information my passport has pulled up on my identifies me as a pilot, so I continue trying to explain why my friend wants a lab coat.
"Because it's a ... lab coat. It's cool and science-y. Like on TV." Is he contemplating the possibility that he's about to bust up an international methamphetamine ring? Do terrorists wear personalized lab coats while building bombs in cheap hotel rooms?
He looks at the computer screen again to see if I'm a known threat, and I guess I'm not, as he finally waves me on with "Have a nice day."
I pick up the package and open it to get the invoice and to make sure the order is correct. As I cross back into Canada, I prepare to again justify my purchase.
"Where do you live?"
"Purpose of your visit?"
"Picking up a parcel." The wrapping is evident on the passenger seat.
"What did you get?"
"A lab coat. It cost twenty-four bucks."
I brandish the receipt but he doesn't look at it. Lab coats are not suspicious objects in Canada. He was waving me through to Canada and looking at the next driver in line before I'd even finished speaking. I wasn't even asked to go inside to pay duty on my purchase. I guess it isn't worth it for them for three dollars.
So I conclude that there are three types of people with respect to lab coats: those who consider them a useful but mundane piece of apparel, those who consider them to be a cool badge of scientific authority, and those who are suspicious of anyone who would want one.
Looks like this has become the unofficial blog week for exterior markings of authority and worth.