Dirty Jobs

I’ve heard that smell is the sense that most easily evokes memory. Derek Lowe has an interesting post about smells in the lab. In my less charitable moments I am wont to say that Organikers become Organikers because they smelled too much Toluene in Sophomore Organic. But I, too was surrounded by smells in graduate school that I now miss once in a while. The smell of vacuum pump oil. The acrid smell of concentrated acids, especially the aqua regia we used for cleaning Ostwald Viscometers. The smell of burnt target paper as the laser fried it. The smell of burnt skin as the laser fried you. The smell of phosgene coming up the drains from the fume hoods on the roof . (Just kidding – when you smell cut grass in a chemlab, it’s time to grab your ankles and kiss your butt goodbye. But the drains did often carry unusual odors). One commenter reminded me of TEMED. I really do not miss coming home smelling like a fish market during the year I was using that stuff.

So, for all you non-techies out there, what are the smells of work and school that take you back?


[Update: not being an Organiker I managed to avoid thiols (mercaptans to you old fogies) after sophomore year. However, it was my misfortune to work in a lab two floors down from a lab that did use thiols. Derek’s commenter’s description that some of them smell like “burnt ass” is right on.]

X-posted at TPwithpagenumbers.

13 thoughts on “Dirty Jobs”

  1. I think that’s right about smell and memory. But most of the smells that are memorable for me are not associated with school or work. The few that are, are mostly associated with commuting — e.g., bus exhaust. When I was in college I worked for a while in a bakery. To this day, the smell of flour, particularly if it’s on clothing, reminds me strongly of that job.

  2. I lived right next to a Burger King in college at the U of I in Champaign. To this day I am accutely aware of that smell. I can’t count the number of times that my wife and I have been driving or walking and I just say to her “BK is near”, then we either drive past one or walk by one. She thinks it is pretty amazing but when you smell it every day you never forget it.

    It always takes me back to my college days though.

  3. I’m a pathologist (not forensic) so, you know, this is not a question I can answer comfortably. I have an addiction to scented candles, incense, scented lotions, soaps (but not perfume, too strong) and I’m sure that’s related to my pathology practice. Formalin is the smell that most takes me back to residency. I once spent an entire afternoon looking for lymph nodes in a couple of colectomy specimens. The entire Saturday. I was in tears by the end of that afternoon, from the formalin and wondering what the heck I was doing with my life. Found a lot of lymph nodes, though, I did my duty by the patient, that’s for sure. My attending was all, like, did you have to look so hard? How did you find so many nodes. Well, I’m, uh, anal, that way.


    *On a semi-related note, I watched a CSI:Miami for only the second time yesterday. Too clean. The morgue is bizarrely clean. Also, no one gowns up. Why is this show so popular?

  4. “Why is this show so popular?”

    It’s a symptom of our piss-poor science education in the gen pop.

    They had one episode where the perp was a drug researcher (of course). This chemist was caught becuase he had traces of a deadly compound that he was working with on his hands, meaning he moved it from the lab – because of course everyone always wears gloves in the lab. HAH! If I had a nickel for every time I violated OSHA codes in the lab, I’d be a very, very rich man. It’s the Sherlock Holmes fanatasy that re-appears throughout all of those shows. The writers of CSI would do well to read Pratchett’s comments on Conan Doyle:

    Samuel Vimes dreamed about Clues. He had a jaundiced view of Clues. He instinctively distrusted them. They got in the way.

    And he distrusted the kind of person who’d take one look at another man and say in a lordly voice to his companion, “Ah, my dear sir, I can tell you nothing except that he is a left-handed stonemason who has spent some years in the merchant navy and has recently fell on hard times,” and the unroll a lot of supercilious commentary about calluses and stance and the state of a man’s boots, when exactly the same comments could apply to a man who was wearing his old clothes because he’d been doing a spot of home bricklaying for a new barbecue pit, and had been tattooed once when he was drunk and seventeen* and in fact got seasick on a wet pavement. What arrogance! What an insult to the rich and chaotic variety of the human experience!

    It was the same with more static evidence. The footprints in the flowerbed were probably in the real world left by the window-cleaner. The scream in the night was quite likely a man getting out of bed and stepping sharply on an upturned hairbrush.

    The real world was far too real to leave neat little hints. It was full of too many things. It wasn’t by eliminating the impossible that you got at the truth, however improbable; it was by the much harder process of eliminating the possibilities.

    *The terms are often synonymous.

  5. -Formalin! High school! Fetal-pig dissection! Those were the days. Or not.

    -Good points about clues. It’s important not to confuse them with conclusions. The eighth deadly sin is overconfidence.

  6. I once worked in a plant located midway between an artificial flavorings plant and a rendering plant. The odor of butterscotch mixed with rancid fat will literally take your breath away and knock you down. The smell clung to the ground particularly on foggy mornings. We learned to take one last breath, open the car door and bolt for the workplace. I still get sick every time I smell butterscotch.

  7. Hot-glue gun: flower shop during pre-Xmas week. I was trusted with artificial trees for our higher-end contract customers.

    Vanilla essence: dead mice. My first rental apartment in America; every exterminator’s visit to the upper floors resulted in mice evacuating to my apartment. Triangular carton mousetraps flavored with vanilla to lure the greedy mice; they remained inside, dying slowly and squeeking all night. Gross.

    Adhesive spray: year of freelancing: material presentation boards.

    And, John, that diesel smell: Lvov’ plant autobuses; rides smooth like @tractor’s, cracked vinyl seats, metal railing at correct height to kick someone’s teeth out (see “smooth rides”)…oh sweet childhood.

  8. Makes sense, Tatyana. I always think the finished product on those home shows look incredibly sterile. And, yet, I watch. My favorite show is the one where people come to some incredibly filthy house and clean it up for the people living there. The one with “Neicy?”.I would die if someone saw my house like that. I am fascinated such a show exists…..

  9. You are incredibly old-fashioned, MD (thank god). Bad publicity is still a publicity!.

    Sorry, don’t know which show you’re talking about. I stopped watching them about 2 yrs ago.

  10. Tatyana – I forgot about the hot glue gun. We used to use it to secure lenses and other optical components when we wanted a temporary set-up for an unusual experiment.

    Scott – that sounds disgusting. The mingled smells of creosote and paper making takes me back here:

    The sewage plant, as well as a paper mill and a company that injects creosote into railroad ties, used to gag residents, she said.


  11. Having worked my highschool summers as a food service drivers helper I can honestly say the most revolting scent is that of a rotting potato. Many occasions I’d hefted a 50 lb. sack of spuds onto my shoulder only to squeeze the retched juice of such into my shirt. The rest of the day was spent in an aura of distant stench.

    To this day, every so often the odd bag of potatoes (5 or 10 pounders these days) contains a similar offender and I’m back in the day of lumping, sweating and looking forward to the school year.

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