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September 11, 2007
Fresh Air, Or What Passes For It
For my scientifically employed readers, here’s something my labs don’t have, and I'll bet yours don't either: windows that open. I’ve only been in a couple of chemistry labs that did.
My undergraduate chemistry building (since renovated) had had its windows concreted over in the 1960s. That was bearable most of the time, but the summer I did undergraduate work there, the air conditioned kacked out on us a few times. This was troublesome. You don’t want to be on the fourth floor of a building with no windows in Arkansas in the summertime. Ether in that era was still sold in the round metal cans with the soft alloy caps that you sliced off, and then put a plastic snap-cap over. I remember the poonk-poonk sound of those ether caps blowing off as the temperature rose, which we took as a good substitute for a quitting-time whistle.
My graduate work was windowless as well. It was done in a building where all the lab space was on the inside, so you had to leave the bench and head down the hallway if you wanted to find one of the narrow little window slits at all. It was easy to lose track of time in there, which was probably a design feature (just as in a casino’s gambling floor).
But when I went to Germany to do my post-doc, I had several adjustments to make, among them a lab whose windows not only opened, but needed to be. Like many German buildings, this one wasn’t air-conditioned, so in the summertime you needed to get a breeze going. It was a real novelty to see the wind ruffling the pages of my lab notebook, that’s for sure. I always wondered about how this affected the air balance of the fume hoods, but since they didn’t work that well to start with, it may not have been a concern.
And since then, I’ve yet to see an industrial lab with operable windows, other than my very first one. And even those were almost never used. For one thing, the building had air conditioning, since New Jersey is definitely more tropical than Central Europe. But another reason was that our lab faced directly out onto a major highway, so the only thing you’d get by opening the windows would be exhaust fumes, traffic noise, and (in the summertime) the occasional curse and honk of a horn. I did see my labmate make use of his window at one point, though, after he’d spilled some ethanethiol on his shirt. He tried hanging it out the window to air out. This was unsuccessful, of course, but it says a lot about ethanethiol that it makes you consider hanging your laundry out over the Garden State Parkway to freshen it up.
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