The place where milk is broken down and examined piece by piece looks a lot like your high-school chemistry lab probably did, only more so - more pipes and cables swooping up past hanging fluorescent lights, more battered and mysterious machines crowding the faux-wood lab bench, more cool things that steam or blaze and could be induced to go boom, along with stern, though tattered, instructions forbidding blazing and booming pasted to the walls.
One in a red font that crams exclamation marks into every letter reads: "Danger invisible laser radiation Avoid eye contact or skin exposure to direct or scattered radiation." A freezer is marked, "Biohazard," and someone has taped two blue napkins to it with the words, "Do not open" inked fiercely in red on each. A digital display on the door shows the interior temperature to be -30 degrees Celsius. Above the lab bench hangs a professionally carved wooden sign, the sort that on country houses display the surname of the inhabitants, which some wit has designed to say, "Spectrometry for the masses."
There are two blackboards on the wall covered in acronyms I don't understand with arrows pointing from one to the next. There is another freezer without frightening signs, and this one contains hundreds of test tubes and beakers and vials with frozen milk scabbed to the glass.
On the benches slim patches of workspace are scattered: a pair of blue cryo gloves (like oven mits), several blue pipettes, a plastic purple honeycomb half full of disposable pipette tips, a toaster-sized machine called the Mini Vortexer with a dial that goes from one to ten--it is turned to ten, and another machine for enzymatic cleaving. On the floor at the far end of the bench is a torpedo-like tank of helium, painted maroon. Next to it are two silver tanks of liquid nitrogen. A graduate student, her hair pulled back in tight braids opens the valve one one of these and then rests her elbow on top of the tank and watches as hissing ice clouds form around the hose leading to the big white mass spec machine which dominates a quarter of the room and looks as if it might have been stolen from the engine room of a steamship. This is one of the machined designed by Carlito Lebrilla, the man German calls "a wizard." This machine is essentially a scale, a scale so precise that it can divine the atomic composition of milk molecules simply by weighing them. "It's like weighing a battleship to see if there is a fly on the deck," German says, shaking his head in wonder.