Home Science CommunicationOutreach & engagement Pantographs and the magic of words

Pantographs and the magic of words

by Eva Amsen

“Drivers! Don’t forget to drop the pantograph!”

I don’t know what it means, but this sign at London’s Farringdon Station sounds important and magical. It’s a large white sign at the end of the platform, just before the train enters the tunnel towards City Thameslink station.

I don’t want to look up what a pantograph is or why it needs dropping. I love this sign because I don’t know what it means. It adds another layer of mystery to the already esoteric London train system, and it makes train drivers seem like wizards who need to cast one final spell before heading further south.

The sign also reminds me of a flyer I found when I was an undergraduate chemistry student. I’d somehow come across a single page brochure that excitedly advertised “vectors” that could “optimize your transfection”. It had a mysterious circular diagram and lots of abbreviations. Whatever it was selling, the company was clearly convinced that someone would be equally excited about the vectors. I held on to this flyer for several months. The language amused me in the same way the pantograph sign does today.

The year after I found the flyer, the spell was broken. I started a molecular pharmacology course, which included a stint working in a cell biology laboratory. I learned all the important basics of modern cell biology techniques, including what “vectors” meant in the context of “transfection”.

After I graduated, I found the transfection flyer among my papers. It was no longer magical. I had learned too much, and what was once greatly amusing to me was now just a boring advertisement.

So don’t tell me what a pantograph is. I don’t need to know, and I like it that way.

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