Have You Heard the One about the Chemical Engineer?

There’s really nothing funny about our image as technocrats.

By Mark Rosenzweig, editor in chief

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Designing or operating a chemical plant is serious business. After all, mistakes can lead to dire consequences. Maybe that explains why chemical engineers aren’t known for their sense of humor.

However, chemical engineers have gotten a bum rap, judging by the entries to our first online caption contest (www.ChemicalProcessing.com/articles/2009/comical_processing_caption_1.html).

Those, unfortunately, won’t do much to counteract the image of chemical engineers as humorless technocrats, as typified by some of the humor on the Web. While much of that is meant to be self-deprecating, it certainly can create an unflattering image of us to outsiders or reinforce the impression they already have.
Fortunately, there isn’t all that much humor about chemical engineers on the Web. One of the most extensive collections appears on the Web site of the Newcastle (U.K.) University School of Chemical Engineering and Advanced Materials (http://lorien.ncl.ac.uk/ming/Dept/fun/jokes/jokes.htm). Here’s an abridged and edited example:

You might be a chemical engineer if:
• You have a favorite pump manufacturer.
• You can quote scenes from any Monty Python movie.
• You can size distillation columns in your head but need a pencil and paper to figure the tip on a $45 restaurant bill... and think that spending $45 for dinner is exorbitant.
• You see a good design and still have to change it.
• You can remember seven computer passwords but not your anniversary.
• You know who invented Jell-O.
• The microphone or projector at a meeting doesn’t work and you rush up to the front to fix it.
• You’ve actually used every single function on your graphing calculator.
• You stare at an orange juice container because it says concentrate.
• You can name six Star Trek episodes.
• You’ve ever considered installing a scrubber on your chimney.
• The only jokes you receive are through e-mail.
• Your idea of good interpersonal communication means getting the decimal point in the right place.
• You automatically associate the words “sexy,” “beautiful” and “new butterfly valve.”
• You look forward to Christmas only to put together the kids’ toys.
• You’ve used coat hangers and duct tape for something other than hanging coats and taping ducts.
• Your ideal evening consists of fast-forwarding through the latest sci-fi movie looking for technical inaccuracies.
• You have any of the following personalized items: hardhat, safety goggles, calculator case or slide rule.
• You have “Dilbert” comics displayed anywhere in your work area.
• You carry on a one-hour debate over the expected results of a test that actually takes five minutes to run.
• You know the direction that water swirls when you flush.
• You’ve ever taken the back off your television just to see what’s inside.
• You thought the concoction ET used to phone home was stupid.
• You cannot write unless the paper has both horizontal and vertical lines.
• You think the value of a book is directly proportional to the amount of tables, charts and graphs it contains.
• You think you look rather snappy in a tie and short-sleeve shirt.
• You’d really like to have a tee shirt that says “Chemical Engineers Do It In Fluidized Beds.”
• You have a habit of destroying things to see how they work.
• You think that when people around you yawn, it’s because they didn’t get enough sleep.
• Your spouse hasn’t the foggiest idea what you do at work.
• Your three-year-old son asks why the sky is blue and you try to explain atmospheric absorption theory.
• You have no life — and you can prove it mathematically.
• You’ve explained your position in the company to a junior engineer as “I am a vast oasis of knowledge in a desert of ignorance.”
• You and a buddy spend two workdays customizing each engineer’s phone ring so that you can tell them apart from anywhere — using cut-up lids from snuff cans and scotch tape.
• Your work clothes are almost as old as you are… and so is your car.
• You explain how surface tension works when your 10-year-old asks why you are adding oil to boiling spaghetti.
• You have a clock with inverted numbers that runs counter-clockwise in your office and you prefer it that way.
• You have ever thought about how coffee changes color in the body.
• You read this page for the first time on a Saturday night.
• You try to explain entropy to strangers at your table during casual dinner conversation.

You know you are a chemical engineer if you’ve actually read this whole message beginning to end!

It’s funny that you’ve gotten this far in my column…


Mark Rosenzweig is Chemical Processing's editor in chief. You can e-mail him at mrosenzweig@putman.net.

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