Last year the forgotten memories of my travels through the circles of Industrial Chemist Hell were roused from the deep recess of my mind. Soon after boarding the Air New Zealand 777-300 I was nestled into my seat and tapping the seatback touchscreen; cycling through the hundreds of hours of movies and TV shows, hoping to find something that would entertain me for the next 13 hours. I kept coming back to Wonder Woman. I read, and reread the plot summary until I had it memorised; she was raised on a sheltered island and trained to become a warrior, and then the Amazon Princess, Diana Prince, discovers the endless war going on in the outside world. She embarks on a journey to end the war of all wars whilst discovering her true power as well.
And then I became lost in thought; how closely did my life follow Wonder Woman’s. I was raised in an idyllic age of innocence in the sheltered city of Williamstown and trained to become an Industrial Chemist; a scientist who mixes chemicals to create new synthetic polymers and compounds. My white lab coat would be stained, and frayed with acid burns, after the second day on the job. I would be my own discovery team and wallow in complex research projects. I discovered the seventies, the world of change and uncertainty, and embark on a journey of discovery; searching for inspiration and idealism in the ordinary whilst uncovering my true self. The bumping of the approaching drink trolley distracted me from my ruminations.
My first job when I finished at Footscray Technical College was as an Industrial Chemist at Spartan Paint’s West Footscray factory. The laboratory I was in didn’t have beakers, Bunsen burners, test tubes or any of the apparatus usually associated with a chemistry lab. It was a Process Control lab in which scaled-down formulations of proposed automotive paints were mixed, and tested to assess if they met car makers’ specifications. The paints were tested for orange peeling, viscosity, flow, metallic solid suspension, natural and artificial weathering, and adhesion. To test for weathering a paint sample was sprayed onto small metal panels. Each day I took the small painted panels to the weather testing racks that were in a paddock over the road from the factory; I also collected the panels from the racks that were ready for lab testing.
As a Paint Scientist, I collected samples when a truckload of paint solvents was delivered to the factory and took the samples to the lab for quality control testing. I must have been a Paint Scientist for about nine months when I started thinking that there must be more to being a Paint Scientist than changing painted metal panels and carrying solvent samples to the lab; when will I mix chemicals to create new synthetic polymers and compounds, and invent new products. I started to find reasons to leave the lab and I would wander aimlessly through the different areas of the plant. I found myself stopping to talk to the lone worker in the solvent holding area. The air he breathed was thick with the smell of benzene derivatives, and organic ketones. There was no ventilation, and no one was required to wear protective clothing or use a respirator. Every conversation I had with my solvent caretaker confidant was always interrupted by his constant sniffing of a folded scrap of material. One day he shared that he soaked scraps of material in different solvents; spending his days at work, and at home sniffing solvents.
I left Spartan Paints within the year; I never did develop new and improve products, or invent new automotive paint formulas.
My second job as an Industrial Chemist was in Process Control at The Olympic Tyre and Rubber Company. Olympic Tyre was also in West Footscray; across the railway line from Spartan Paints. Process Control tested and analysed the raw and process materials, and the finished tyres to ensure everything met Olympic’s standards and quality. I still remember the first time I saw the laboratory; beakers, flasks, measuring cylinders, condensers, and other lab glassware glistened in the stark laboratory light. And I thought how I wouldn’t be shackled to the mundane, routine, day to day testing of melting point, moisture volume, dry mass volume, percentage of heavy metals, tensile strength, density and refractive index of raw materials and different rubber mixes. I would be my own discovery team, creating new synthetic polymeric compounds, and reinventing the world of automobile tyres.
I sat at a desk in a huge open area, upstairs from the lab. The desks were arranged in groups of four; a clerical worker sat facing me and another clerical worker sat alongside him, and my supervisor sat beside me. I was a Tyre Product Scientist. Twice a day I would go into the factory and collect samples of raw materials at the rubber mixing mills, and samples of batch rubber at the different mixing and extruder machines. The factory air was laden with the smell of sulphur and rubber, and the scent of polymers and monomers; it was dense with fine particles of suspended carbon and moist from the heat of the curing presses. It was the era before earplugs, safety glasses and helmets, protective clothing, and respirators and ventilation. I took the samples to the Process Control lab for quality control testing. I sat at my desk between the morning and afternoon sample collection walkabouts reading trade magazines about the tyre manufacturing process; it was an era before the Internet. The days were a duplicate of each other, and after several months I started thinking that a Tyre Product Scientist has to do more than collect samples of raw and process materials and carry samples to the lab; when will I create new synthetic polymeric compounds and reinvent the automobile tyre.
I found other reasons to leave my desk and the trade magazines, and I wandered aimlessly through the different areas of the factory. The operators of the milling and extruding machines were dwarfed by their mechanical masters. It started with a slight wave and nod of the head as I was passing, and soon I was stopping for a short time; I watched in silence, spellbound as he became master of his tyre building machine. In perfect synchronisation with the moving drums, and levers and foot pedals, he reached for the different sheets of rubber; he layered the inner rubber, bead, sidewall, and tread. I watched him build Olympic tyres. My brief stops grew into long delays, but we only exchanged nods and an occasional thumbs-up; he didn’t speak English. We shared the smell of sulphur, antioxidants, and rubber, and breathed the damp, powdery carcinogenic air. I don’t remember his name. The days turned into weeks, and the weeks into months; I wandered the factory floor, stopping to watch in silence, the tyre builder. That afternoon was no different than any other; I left my desk tidy, hung my white lab coat in my locker, clocked out, and walked out of the Olympic building.
And for the next forty-plus years, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking back to when I wanted to be a scientist who mixed chemicals to create new synthetic polymers and compounds; a scientist whose white lab coat would be stained, and frayed with acid burns after the second day on the job, and who would be his own discovery team and wallow in complex research projects.
I was so immersed in Wonder Woman that the bumping of the approaching meal trolley didn’t even distract me from the colour and movement on the seatback touchscreen. We had just arrived at Dr Poison’s lab. The disfigured, diabolical chemist was pioneering a deadly new form of toxic mustard gas; it couldn’t be stopped by protective masks. And my forgotten memories came flooding back. I was the scientist who was going to mix chemicals to create new synthetic polymers and compounds; my lab coat was going to be stained and frayed with acid burns. I had inhaled air laden with biohazardous pollutants and powdery granular particles of synthetic compounds. I had breathed air dank with the heavy mist of evaporated ketones, aldehydes, and benzene derivatives. I pushed pause, and was soon in deep thoughts about Dr Poison’s facial prosthetics; had she suffered a severe injury from inhaling toxic, radioactive chemicals, or had she just made a dreadful mistake when mixing chemicals in her lab.
I wondered if two years of continuously breathing toxic air could cause tissue or cell damage and if your body heat, and the natural pressures inside your brain, could cause a catalytic polymerisation reaction of contaminants transferred to the blood in your lungs, causing them to become bio cellular regenerative reactant. If that was the case then the lungs would be able to hold incredible amounts of air; was I able to hold my breath for hours, able to breathe out massive gusts of air to create gale-force winds, and suck in air to generate vortexes. On the seatback touchscreen, the mind-boggling, computer-generated, green screen digital finale of Wonder Woman was unfolding.
The one thing I took with me from the years studying chemistry at Footscray Tech was to live life according to the scientific principle; observe, create a hypothesis, and experiment to test your theory. I had to test my bio cellular regenerative reactant hypothesis. I needed a controlled environment with calibrated instruments to measure my breath flow and lung capacity. Sometimes fact is stranger than fiction. Two weeks later we were confronted by bright flashing lights and arrows, and a line of waving torches escorting cars into a corridor of cones; a booze bus stop. The policewoman politely explained that I was about to undergo a random alcohol breath test; she was going to request a sample of the air in my lungs to determine the concentration of alcohol in my body.
Police Woman: Sir, please take a deep breath and blow into the mouthpiece.
As I drove out through the cones and onto Westgate Bridge’s Williamstown Road Yarraville on-ramp I smiled, and repeated several times; observe, create a hypothesis, and experiment to test your theory.
I think I’ll start blowing up a balloon with my nose. Sureshgaur from Gwalior, Madhya Pradesh, India claimed the record of 10.62 seconds in 2014 for the fastest time of blowing up a balloon with your nose before it bursts; it shouldn’t be a problem to crush Sureshgaur’s record.