Hi, I’m your neighbor, and I’m a chemist. Sorry.

I’ve noticed that the neighbors I’ve had over the years seem to have had professions that were disturbingly — useful. They’ve run the gamut of professions and trades — plumbers, carpenters, electricians, lawyers, accountants, teachers, nurses. These are the sorts of neighbors with skills one could conceivably want to tap into if the need arose, and you had a reasonably friendly relationship with them.

I can think of one specific example where a former neighbor, an electrician, gave me advice on how to drill a hole through my foundation, dig a trench, and run some cable out to our backyard pond to hook up a receptacle to power the pond pump. I followed his suggestions (all up to code, of course), and it still works great to this day. See? Neighbor = useful resource.

Yes, those are lab coats. Dont be afraid...

But, a chemist? Heck, the minute you tell your neighbor you’re a chemist, there’s usually an awkward pause, and if they follow up with anything at all, it’s “So, um, what do you do?” So you assess the expertise level of your audience and begin to explain what you do, the goal of your research, and how it possibly might fit in to something that could affect them at some point.

Three or four sentences in, however, it’s clear that they didn’t really want an explanation at all, on any level. Their eyes glaze over a bit, then they avoid eye contact and perhaps fidget. If you’re quick enough to pick up on these social cues, you can try to recover with something like, “Hey, how about that local sports team?”

Not my house, but it might as well be.

No chemistry experiments happening here, folks. Please move along.

Being a chemist means being met with suspicion. What am I up to, you ask? Do you suspect, say, that I’m doing experiments? Trust me, pal, without a fume hood, I’m not synthesizing anything, legal or otherwise, that involves the use of organic solvents. The catboxes smell bad enough.

And as far as being asked for my help with something, I’m not holding my breath (with or without a hood). I can’t recall one instance where a neighbor has come over and said, “Hey, you’re a chemist. Do you have a minute? I need some help with…this…um…thing.”

So, to all my past and current neighbors…I’m sorry. I apologize that my chosen field is one not ideally suited for home use. Please forgive me for my seeming inability to share your alarm in discovering that a food product you love contains chemicals. I am truly sorry.

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9 Responses to Hi, I’m your neighbor, and I’m a chemist. Sorry.

  1. Unstable Isotope says:

    The most common response I get is “I hated chemistry.” Gee, thanks.

    (Adore this post, BTW)

    • Glen Ernst says:

      Ooh, I’d forgotten that response — I’ve heard that, too. It’s a real icebreaker.

      (Thanks!!)

    • jc says:

      would it make you feel better if i told you i loved chemistry (and biology) in high school, but i just wasn’t good with it…yep, i was a solid ‘D’! well in biology i was as and bs , it was the chemistry part i couldn’t get for some reason. my brain, at the time, didn’t care for memorizing things for any length of time!

  2. Christine Herman says:

    this was hilarious. especially the last paragraph.
    @Unstable Isotope: I get that same response from people too

  3. Pingback: Shak and Jill » Useful Neighbors are Good

  4. Pingback: Reliable Information is Written Respectfully | I Can Has Science?

  5. well, I’ve gotten one “useful” skill out of my chemistry degree-I can get rid of hard water deposits cleaning up your dishwasher. Otherwise, yeah, lot’s of the “I had a hard time with chemistry”

  6. Chemystical says:

    I’ve been in love with chemistry for eight years and counting, and to helium-L-(2-subscript) with what anyone else thinks! I fell in love with dear old Chem the moment I first laid eyes on a periodic table. I once used chemistry at home to find out that a certain brand of slimming coffee contained… phenolphthalein, which is supposed to stay inside a chemistry lab only. (You need only chlorine bleach and rubbing alcohol to test it.)

    Chemistry and Chemical Engineering rules! Without either, we wouldn’t have our prescription drugs, our plastics, our soaps and detergents, and practically every synthetic item on the planet! And we also gave the world the materials for making things go BOOM!

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