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.
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?”
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.
- In Defence of Chemists (Philosophically Disturbed)