Friday, November 12, 2010

Most Bizarre [insert your field] Questions I've Been Asked By [friends/relatives especially mothers]

So inspired by Ben, let's all list the funniest questions we get from the people in our private lives about what we do professionally.  My mother cracks me up.  Maybe this happens more to chemists than other people, but I ask my friend the tree-guy (not a botanist, a blue-collar chop 'em down and make firewood guy) stupid questions about trees, so I think it must happen to everyone. 

Q represents the other person, A represents me:

Q:  Can I put vinegar in the laundry?
A:  What?
Q: Can I put vinegar in the laundry?
A: Why are you shouting?
Q: You couldn't hear me.
A:  I heard you.  I was being incredulous.
Q: Stop that, just tell me if I can put vinegar in the laundry.
A: If you want.  You can put fruitloops in there too.
Q: Why would I put fruit loops in the laundry?
A: Who's being incredulous now?
Q: Stop that.  Seriously, why would I put fruit loops in the laundry?
A: Why would you put vinegar in the laundry?
Q: What is the point of sending you to college if you can't answer a simple question?  Do you know how hot it was in August in 1974?  Do you know how uncomfortable it is to be 9 months pregnant in August?
A: You were never 9 months pregnant, I was early.
Q:  And that's the last time on record you did anything without 14 final warnings.  Do you know how uncomfortable it is to be 8 months pregnant in August?
A: No.  Why are you putting vinegar in the laundry?
Q: I'm not, I'm asking you if I can. 
A: Can I dance naked on Bourbon Street?
A: I'm not going to, I'm just asking you if I can.
Q's Husband:  WOMBAT!  Just answer her, I can't take this anymore.
A: I don't know.  I shoot things with lasers and I'm not sure I even understand the question. 

Q:  Does margarin cause cancer?
A:  You know "doctor" just means I have a PhD, right?

Q:  Do Solar Neutrinos cause cancer?
A:  What channel are you on?  I don't like this episode of Seinfeld anyway, I'll watch with you and e-mail you a summary.

Q:  What happened to Pluto?
A:  Last I saw him he was riding in the rumble seat of Mickey's car.
Q:  Stop that, what happened to it?
Q: Are you there?
A: What makes you think something happened to it?
Q: It's not a planet anymore.
A:  Oh.  Nothing happened to it.  It's just been reclassified.
Q:  They can do that?
A:  They don't need my permission. 


  1. Q: Can a computer virus spread to us people?
    A: Only if you are a cyborg.

  2. So...can you vinegar in the laundry or not?

  3. I'm a doctoral student in a foreign language. Whenever I tell anyone this, they first respond by telling me the one phrase they know in this language, in a bad touristy accent. All of my friends who do other languages tell me they get this as well. (My friends who do German get it the worst: they've actually had responses like, "Why would you want to study the language of Hitler?")

    I also get "So, are you [nationality that speaks this language]? Did you grow up in [country that speaks this language]?" Umm, no, I learned it school, the same way you learned the subject you are currently studying.

  4. Wombat, hilarious.

    The most common response that I get when I tell people that I'm a chemist is, "Oh, I hated chemistry." I haven't figured out a polite response for that one yet.

    I'm happy to field all the astronomy or quantum mechanics questions from my parents after they watch the Discovery channel but I dream of the day that chemistry gets its derserving exposure on cable TV (oil spills, rivers that light on fire and health scares excluded).

  5. I hate it when we get taught a language by a non-native speaker of that language. My university couldn't get even one native Latin speaker; all our Latin instructors learned Latin in school.

  6. Actually you CAN use vinegar in your laundry. It's something Ralph Lauren "label whores" know as a must. Use vinegar, about a tablespoon, with your darks and denims. It keeps your denim fresh and new looking and helps prevent fading, although to be completely effective they have to be washed inside out also.

  7. @Ben: Whenever I get "Oh, I hated physics," I reply:


    If politeness is advisable, I say this in lower-case letters.

    @Wombat: Astronomers did underestimate the public's emotional response to Pluto's demotion. I counter it with an emotional response of my own:

    WHY is it so difficult for some people to ADMIT we were WRONG?!? ONLY by doing this does science have ANY hope of progressing. WE WERE WRONG!! Don't you wish POLITICIANS could admit they were WRONG?!?

  8. Reclassifying Pluto was both good and great.

    It was a good opportunity to show how science works and how artificial our classification systems really are.

    It was a great opportunity to taunt astronomers. Us chemists keep track of 100+ elements while you can't keep track of just 9 planets?

  9. In addition to the uses pointed out by Artfully Academic, putting vinegar in your laundry can be useful for getting urine smell out of fabric, which might prove useful for the students No Cookies knows.

    Might prove useful for those of you who have small kids or bladder leakage too.

  10. I'm not prepared to continue with this comment because I've neither calculated anything, nor tested anything, but I'm going to go on anyway. I'm going to have to steal a pH meter from the lab and buy a few different detergents. I'm hoping 1) to be surprised and 2) to be able to figure it out so I can turn it into a test question, but... Vinegar is a dilute solution of a weak acid. Adding a minute amount of it to a giant load of laundry to which you've already added a lot more of a buffered alkaline solution (the detergent, which still usually contains borax and lye) shouldn't really do... anything.

    Ben? Anyone else?

  11. Half a cup of vinegar will help with smells and it is a dye fixative, but it has to be half a cup, not a spoonful. A spoonful would be for like when you finish knitting your shawl and put it in the sink to wash just by itself. ASK ME HOW I KNOW, GO HON.

  12. I'm hoping you knit and that there are comparative photos coming. I'm addicted to scanning the internet for photographs of things people have knit/crocheted. I crochet, but I can't shape. And I lose steam. So I start a bunch of blankets that turn into scarves and scarves that turn into potholders (ok, and sometimes the potholders become coasters).

    I still want to know why. There is even an article on the internet under the heading "how stuff works" on TLC that tells you precise measurements for various aspects of laundering. But it never actually says how anything works.

  13. WotC, what little knowledge I've learned about laundry comes from talking with industrial chemists who actually do useful stuff, like make Tide 2% better annually while still blue colored. I, like you, am a physical chemist. Until I can get a straight line from a graph of ln(smells of dirty socks) vs. 1/(spoonfuls of vinegar), I see no use for this knowledge. Besides, my wife handles this chore so I don't worry about it too much.

    Vinegar helps to soften water. Much of the benefits of detergents and soaps are spent on removing the calcium and other ions in hard water. By adding vinegar to your wash, you soften the water and allow more of the detergent to be used for cleaning rather than softening.

    Add "launry tips" to the list of Things in My Life that Are Better because of College Misery.

  14. Beaker Ben:
    The most common response that I get when I tell people that I'm a chemist is, "Oh, I hated chemistry." I haven't figured out a polite response for that one yet.

    This may not be intended to be as insulting as it sounds. Many people who say things like that do are trying to convey their admiration for someone with the wherewithal to stick with a subject that they themselves couldn't hack.

    As an apprentice biologist (still working on getting the badge), I get asked questions all the time by family and friends. Sometimes they're ones I can answer, but many times they're questions along the lines of "I saw this bug. [Capsule description follows which is of no help in narrowing down the genus and species, and often not even the family or order.] What is it called?"

    Then I have to explain that my focus is in molecular biology and I am not a naturalist, and that even if I were a naturalist I'd be hard pressed to come up with an answer, because the determination of genus and species in insects is so often done by minute observation of the external anatomy, particularly the mouth parts and the sexual organs, which are invariably never the things that people notice about insects.

    Then they look at me suspiciously and say "I thought you were studying biology." Aaaaarrrrrrggggghhhhhh.

  15. Nullifidian, exactly the same here, except usually it is some sort of flower. They give me the stink eye and say "Huh. I thought you were a PhD."

    Yes, the request was for stories from relatives/friends, but I've got a couple involving students:
    Q: (freshman at end of class after everyone has left) How long will it be before computers are smart enough to rise up and take over?
    A: Probably much sooner than you think.
    [Yes, I did say this, I was quite new at the time and I thought, what the hell, I'll play it deadpan, how often will I get the opportunity to participate in a surreal conversation arising from a whacky student question? Sadly, turns out, a lot, when teaching a 1st year course.]

    Q: You said the Fraternal Birth Order Hypothesis means that boys with older brothers are more likely to be gay, and the study you cited was from Italy. My family's Italian, and my dad was the youngest of 7 brothers. IS MY DAD GAY?!?
    A: [I cannot recall exactly how I answered this question, but as I think back on this, I'm amazed I didn't start to laugh at that moment.]

  16. @Wombat OMG if you knit or crochet, go immediately to, join up and then join the group Ivory Tower Fiber Freaks. Ravelry is a massive trove of yarn and knitting porn, and you will lurv it.

    For photos of my knitting, check my flickr.

    The vinegar thing I learned from discussions about fixatives and dyes. I don't know why it works on cat pee (and other pee), but some chemist must. I know you can regularly use vinegar to clean pee out of stuff, and that it is better as a cleaner than ammonia if you have cats because vinegar changes the smell, whereas ammonia just smells like pee to them.

    And now everyone thinks I am some crazy old lady prof with a grey bun and 76 cats and a bunch of ugly-ass knitted shawls.

  17. Wow, I didn't know the Ph.D. worked so well for doing laundry. As an avid stain-fighter, I am grateful (anyone have a solution for cat barf stains?).

    This may be my fave set of comments ever.

  18. Vinegar for the cat barf stains too.

  19. I once had a student who asked what the number three is... I tried to not be too academic in my response, but I sent him to the local philosophy club... I hope he returns to take his final exam since I haven't seen him since then... I hope I didn't send him to the local cannibal club by mistake...

    Mathsquatch out.

  20. Stupidest question I frequently get from the general public:
    Them: What do you do?
    Me: I teach college.
    Them: Oh. What grade do you teach?

    Marcia, diluted vinegar is great for getting rid of cat barf stains and other cat "accidents." My carpet looks new after seven years of cat accidents.

  21. P.S. I learned the vinegar on cat barf trick from a carpet cleaner, not a chemist.

  22. I buy the vinegar in otherwise plain water as a dye fixative. I buy the vinegar on cat related disasters. I'm still struggling with vinegar in a normal load of laundry WITH detergent doing anything. Detergents are ALREADY loaded with softeners in the first place. I think vinegar along with detergent will have a negligible effect. But I haven't been able to get my hands on a pH meter. (Like Ben who wants to plot everything, my answer to anything that doesn't take place one molecule at a time in a vacuum is... pH meter. But I have to think of better experiments to go with this. I'm teaching a non-majors class next semester, so this is going to be something when we're done.)

  23. Diluted vinegar on cat barf? Will that work on dyed leather, or is it just for carpet and fibers?

    OTOH, it's worth a try because it really couldn't make my formerly-gorgeous handbag look much worse than it does at this moment. Sigh.

  24. My all-time favorite..."Do you ever think that you have depression because you live in Starvistan?"

    Uuuuuuh, no. It's possible that because my brain is deficient in dopamine receptors, I crave the big hits of dopamine that come from life-threatening situations that one can get in Starvistan...and therefore...BECAUSE I am depressed, I work in Starvistan.

    Oddly, I tend to be pretty symptom-free over there. It's this place that gets to me.

    On the laundry...Borax is barf, weird pee smells, strange set-in's great. And cheap.

  25. We have just answered old what's-his-face's question about what CM means to us and how we might expand its outreach. To the Wash-O-Mat armed with our URL, everyone!

  26. His name was Aaron; for all I know he once turned a staff into a serpent.

  27. I get "Isn't what you teach all common sense?" A LOT. I mean, A LOT. It used to piss me off, but the honest answer is, yes, a lot of it is common sense. Unfortunately, common sense isn't actually that common. Isn't it common sense not to wear your pajamas to a job interview? Yes, but I still have to cover it in my professional communication class. Isn't it obvious that men and women communicate differently? Yup, anyone could tell you that, but most people still get frustrated beyond belief because they don't understand why and how to deal with it (major course topic in Gendered Communication). And everyone, really most everyone, can use a Public Speaking class.

  28. It's ironic that people who lack the manners to discuss your job with you without insulting it think projecting a strong message/positive image is "common sense".

    About two years ago on RYS there was about a month where there was at least one "job seeking" or "position filling" submission per day (usually one of each). I think we got a pretty good view of the process from both sides. Read over some of those interview stories if you can find them. The jerks who dump on your class are probably the same people who eat sandwiches during an interview. **** them!!

    And I agree with you. Everyone could use Public Speaking. I never took a Public Speaking class and every semester I have to learn something by mistake on the job. More schools should make it manditory. I ignored the urgings because I wanted to be an anonymous civil servant lab rat hidden in a basement and never see people. I came out of my shell in college and in grad school decided to teach. But I still have weirdo lab rat antisocial quirks that I am trying to polish away.

  29. Important issues first: I've been using a cup of white vinegar in my laundry for years, first to get the ammonia smell out of cloth diapers, and now to reduce the grayness effect of our hard water. It goes in the final rinse cycle (intead of fabric softener), so WotC, presumably the detergent is gone. Also, we use a front-loader, which uses relatively little water. A washing-machine repairman was amazed recently at how little scum build-up and odor were in the innards of the machine. We'll continue buying white vinegar by the gallon!

    And now to the bizarre questions.

    1. As an archaeologist, I get lots of questions about dinosaurs. One COLLEAGUE kept giving me cartoons and news clippings about the latest dinosaur findings. I'd reply, "Thanks! It sure it hard to keep up with things like this that are outside of my field. It's hard enough to keep up with archaeology, the Egyptians, the Mayans, etc." But the clips keep coming.

    2. Every semester, when I get out the casts of artifacts and skulls, at least one student asks, "Are those real?" What I say: "Actually, they're casts. Copies." What I think: "Yes, your perceptions and mine, faulty as they are, do appear to be about a particular object that exists apart from our consciousness." (This thought process explains my enigmatic grins from time to time.)

    3. A frequent conversation at parties and PTA events:

    Q: You're an archaeologist? Cool! I always wanted to be an archaeologist!

    A: Me too!

    Q: So why did you become an archaeologist?


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