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The Art of Laboratory Feng Shui PART FOUR: What Is Feng Shui?!?

From Science's Next Wave, June 2000 (the online publication from Science Magazine)
By Vid Mohan-Ram

"Fing Shooey." "Fung Shoo." "Veng Sheee": No matter how you pronounce it, "fung shway" (the correct way to say feng shui) is fast becoming the ultimate in interior design. Those who practice the ancient Chinese art have enriched lives, enhanced health and well-being, and created better living and working conditions for thousands of people around the world, from Donald Trump to Tony Blair. And they have improved the layout of homes and offices to promote more harmonious environments and encourage success. Those two features are never more vital than in research laboratories--those archetypal chasms of chaos, clutter, and critters--where tidiness and organization often play second fiddle to science.

"It would be very exciting to see labs take on a more natural, human quality," says Pamela Laurence, a feng shui trainer and leading consultant based in New York. She has a point: How can you focus on writing grant applications or research manuscripts when you're surrounded by drab walls, dead fruit flies, vials of old chemicals, or dirty glassware? You need to establish an atmosphere that's conducive to success. The ultimate goal--whether you're redecorating your kitchen or designing your scientific palace--is to ensure that your environment maximizes your potential. And that is the main purpose of feng shui.

So What Is Feng Shui?
Basically, for most Western audiences, feng shui is a way to arrange a room--and your lifestyle--so that it is in sync with nature. Just as wind and water swirl freely around in their fluid environments, feng shui--which means "wind" and "water"--aims to create environments in which positive energy (Chi) can also flow freely without obstruction. There are many different "sects" to feng shui, each with their own way of achieving bliss. However, in general, by feng shui lore, obstruction of Chi leads to disorder, which in turn leads to turmoil; and, as many investigators can attest, turmoil is just one small step behind experimental disaster.

The Feng Shui Antiques Roadshow
Objects can be classified into three main categories, the journalist Russell Baker once said: "Those that don't work, those that break down, and those that get lost." Unfortunately for many investigators, all three types of objects usually exist in their labs, and turmoil usually follows. "It's the Antiques Roadshow phenomenon," explains Carol Olmstead, a communications and public health officer turned feng shui practitioner. "Scientists have a natural tendency to accumulate," and that is when the trouble usually starts. "Remember the '3Rs': Repair. Replace. Remove," she advises. Develop a method to store things and "put things back in their place," Olmstead says.

It's All Elementary...
To ensure that working in the lab isn't a drag and that your experiments don't fall to pieces because your Chi is backed up, feng shui experts advocate the use of five elements--Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, and Water--and commonsense placement of objects to create blissful surroundings, says Olmstead. Each element is associated with specific colors, shapes, icons, and characteristics. By mixing and matching a little here and there, you can bring tranquility to any room.

Metal's feng shui "shape," for example, is a circle; its associated colors are white or anything metallic-looking. "If you have too much Metal, add Fire," suggests Olmstead, because Fire (represented by a triangle and by reds, oranges, or bright yellows) "melts" metal and restores balance. To counter sterile white laboratory walls, for example, you might want to add a red or yellow object to your desk, or hang paintings around the room that include those colors. Similarly, Olmstead encourages lab heads to include more green, hang paintings of things that are growing, or bring in living plants, to stimulate the growth of new ideas, which are paramount for scientific success.

(Don't)"Rock the Ba-Gua"
When balancing these elements, it is important to make sure objects are placed in their "correct" places for feng shui to be most effective. Known as the "Ba-Gua " concept, an environment can be divided into specific areas--or "life stations"--that represent different aspects of life. By nurturing each part of these physical spaces, such as incorporating the correct "elements," for example, you enhance harmony.

Traditionally, the Ba-Gua--an octagonal "map" laid out over a room's floor plan--delineates areas such as power, creativity, and knowledge. Translate your lab into the Ba-Gua stations by creating a 3x3 grid. The Ba-Gua is often orientated so that the main door opens into one of the three bottom-most sections of the grid--"Wisdom," "Self," or "Compassion."

Don't Put That There!
How you are identified and recognized by the community at large is represented by the Self area of the Ba-Gua, explains Benjamin Huntington, a feng shui practitioner. "You might want to put your name and title in this area or a group photo of you and your best friends relaxing," he explains, which shows you are a person who enjoys friendship. "The Compassion area reflects your willingness and openness to help others," he continues. So, for example, you might want to put something "welcoming" in that site. In the Creativity area, put items that "reflect the lab's successes, papers you've published or news of your groundbreaking research," Huntington advises, to give people an idea of your "legacy."

"What is very important to a scientist," says Huntington, "are their Relationships. This is one of the most valuable spaces in the lab." He recommends putting a photo of those you are strongly involved with. In a lab, that might mean a picture of the research team.

"Put something that is healthy, joyous, and which portrays the sense of the laboratory" in the Future area, says Laurence. "Your lab should represent the person in charge, and in turn, the lab must support the people who work in it," she explains. The Future area gives guests an idea of your goals and ambitions.

Power "is not necessarily about money," explains Huntington, but an area that holds reign over the activities of the lab. The lab head's desk, for example, could go here, he says. "But," warns Lenore Weiss Baigelman, an architect who incorporates aspects of feng shui techniques into her work, "don't sit with your back to the room or the door. You want to be protected from behind. So sit with your back to the wall and face the lab." You don't want to be "surprised," she explains. If that's not possible, stick a small mirror to your computer monitor or somewhere else, so you can see what's behind you, Baigelman suggests.

The Community area reflects how you want to be seen by the scientific community. Icons in this spot would relate the kind of person you are, Huntington says. "Wisdom is where we gather all that we know about what's going on in the world outside of the lab," he clarifies. "Put relevant books or research papers in this area," he recommends. You must add new findings and remove redundant papers so that your knowledge stays "fresh."

And finally in the middle is your Health area. "If you have junk in the middle, it shows you're not taking care of yourself," Huntington reveals. Energy must flow easily in the middle area--so it must be clutter free. "Clutter outside, clutter inside," he says.

"It's not all smoke and mirrors," insists Olmstead. Indeed, there's a lot of common sense to feng shui. Some practice the art using numbers or astrology, others favor aroma therapy or placing objects in precise directions. Most of all, just like the science that you practice, feng shui is both an instinctual and logical art. Treat and organize your laboratory with the same attention and detail you pay to your research: You'll find that you--and those who work in your lab--will have a clear and open path to success.

Ask the Expert...
Carol Olmstead ( had a previous career in communications, including health communications for the National Institutes of Health. She is certified by the Feng Shui Institute of America, has been practicing for 3 years, and is based in Bethesda, Maryland.

© 2000, American Association for the Advancement of Science

© Copyright 2024, Carol Olmstead