What is a Baratron?
A Baratron (R) is a piece of equipment used to torment students in physical chemistry laboratories. If you value your life and/or sanity, do not participate in Temperature Programmed Desorption of Ammonia. You have been warned.
Seriously - in my final year at university, I did a term of physical chem lab. One of the experiments I was required to do (had no choice about it) was called "Temperature-programmed desorption of ammonia". The basic idea was that we got a zeolite, which is like a molecular sieve (they use them in washing powders to get things clean, f'rex), put it in a vacuum chamber, and then added ammonia gas. Switched off the gas supply, put it under vacuum, to see how much came off. The basic idea was to measure the amount of adsorption the zeolite could handle at a variety of temperatures, and use this to estimate the surface area of it. I think (it was quite a few years ago, now).
It is probably obvious from this description that having a vacuum was kinda important, right? Somewhat fundamental to the whole measuring adsorption by watching the thing desorb? Well... we didn't have one. Oh yes, we had a vacuum pump, and vacuum glassware, but there were more leaks in the pipework than a garden hose that's run over a rake. To be an official vacuum, the pressure of air inside the glassware needed to be at something like 0.00001 atm - and the best we could get was like 0.03 atm. meeping and I did our best to fix things by tightening taps and adding silicone grease, but it was like trying to polish a turd... Plus, I had managed to dislocate my shoulder in my sleep (!) a few days earlier, had strained a load of muscles round my collar bone, and had my right arm (the useful one) in a sling.
And the lab demonstrators were useless. More interested in reading The Sun than in helping the
So we obtained an utterly appalling set of results, along with distressing readings on the Pirani gauge (which we nicknamed the "Piranha gauge") and the Baratron, which were measuring the strength of vacuum, or lack thereof. Hence we exploded in a fit of surreality and Fear that we would fail our degrees (this being not entirely unlikely at that point, btw). The time-honoured tradition of "Find out what the results should be and make it up" wasn't going to work, because the results were recorded on a data-logging pc, and thus unalterable.
So I... um... noticed the pc was a crappy 386 and that the software was on a floppy disc, and, er, took the disc home with me one night. Well, I wasn't depriving anyone - only one pair of students could use the equipment at a time! Thus I managed to forge a set of results which, whilst still dodgy, were at least dodgy within the realms of Experimental Error and Incomplete Vacuum, rather than demonstrating a complete lack of vacuum. And thus, we obtained crappy marks for that one experiment, but our marks for the rest of the lab were okay, and we did eventually obtain decent grades in our degrees.
But that whole term of chemistry lab was a truly horrendous experience, and working together to survive it guaranteed that meeping & I would either be friends for life or never speak to each other again. So far, it seems the former is applying :)
Why I use baratron as a login name when it is in no way, shape or form my name...
Try setting up an account on any busy website. Even assuming you want to use something based on your real name, you'll find most variants of your name and/or initials have long since been taken. Naming yourself after your favourite band, singer, author, book character, cartoon character, video game, video game character... is probably likewise impossible, unless you want to be known by a "humourous" misspelling of it, or are happy to insert random numbers, _s or Xs in to try to ensure your uniqueness. Even then, you'll probably go through 5 or 6 attempts at least before you find something unused.
The ideal thing is to pick something weird that no one else would think to use, and then you'll know that whatever new site you go to, the name is likely to be free. Right?
The fact is that being a fairly arcane piece of laboratory apparatus, no one else would ever think to use "baratron" as a login name. I mean, even a really dedicated surface scientist probably wouldn't name themselves after the meter they use to measure vacuum pressure, would they? Search for "baratron" on Google and you'll get links to MKS themselves and people who sell vacuum equipment, and then links to things by/about me. MKS are probably wondering who on earth this helen-louise person is, and what she has to do with them.
When I first went online, in 1994, I used astra as a login name. When I had a Scary Stalker incident (it was scary to me at the time, ok?), I changed it to alice - then later, for ease of differentiation, to astral alice. That was the nickname most people met me under - and it was a real-life nickname as well.
I started to phase out astra and alice through sheer lack-of-uniqueness - and by the time I set up my lj, I'd basically stopped using astral alice because I didn't feel much need to be anonymous on web forums anymore (and the name no longer felt appropriate). I thought about astralalice and astralice and astalice, but at least one of those sounded like an infestation, and I wanted something new. So I went for baratron as a joke, and it seems to have stuck.
But don't think I want people to shout "Baratron!" at me in the street. It's not my name. It's just a handy login name. I do occasionally wish I could change it. But the only logical thing to change it to would be "helen-louise". And I'm not sure I want to be quite that easy to find.