In 2020, the scientific community faced a peculiar challenge: they had to revamp their way of representing genes using alphanumeric symbols. Why, you ask? Because Microsoft’s Excel software had a peculiar habit of misinterpreting gene names as dates and zealously reformatting them without an invitation. It was like having a well-meaning but slightly overbearing friend who insists on fixing things that don’t need fixing.
Fast forward to yesterday, and there’s good news for all you Excel aficionados. A member of the Excel team at Microsoft has announced that a solution is finally on the horizon. An update is being rolled out for both Windows and macOS users, and it aims to fix this notorious issue.
Excel is a versatile tool designed to make our lives easier. It automatically converts certain data types, such as numbers and dates, to streamline data entry. But for scientists who often rely on quick shorthand to keep their work comprehensible, this feature turned into a nightmare, jeopardizing the accuracy and integrity of their research data. A study conducted in 2016 highlighted just how much of a scientific faux pas this could be.
The fix, explained in detail in a recent blog post by Microsoft, includes a nifty checkbox labeled “Convert continuous letters and numbers to a date.” Essentially, this checkbox puts the control back in your hands. You can now decide whether you want Excel to perform this auto-conversion magic or not. It builds on a feature introduced last year, where Excel could at least warn you before unleashing its helpful (or sometimes not-so-helpful) magic upon your data. You can even load your files without automatic conversion to ensure your data stays as pristine as you intended.
However, as with all things tech, there are some caveats to bear in mind. Excel’s way of sidestepping the conversion is by saving the data as text. While this might rescue your data from unwanted conversions, it might not play nice when you’re running calculations later on. Also, there’s a known issue that crops up when you’re running macros – you can’t disable the conversions in that scenario.
In a nutshell, Excel is becoming a bit more scientist-friendly with these updates, but it’s still a little finicky. The takeaway here is that you won’t have your gene names turned into dates against your will, and you can toggle this feature on and off as needed. So, science, fear not! Your precious data is now a little safer from Excel’s well-intentioned meddling.