Saturday, 25 October 2008

Wake up and Smell the Ozone

Here is a sad tale of disillusion, misunderstanding, and downright disinformation.

I found Chemistry to be one of the more mystifying and terrifying subjects at school, second only to Woodwork. Mystifying because, simply, I failed to understand it (I think I must have been absent on the day it was explained why anyone cared about titration). Terrifying because there was constant dog-eat-dog harassment between bench-mates, ranging from a blazer pocket surreptitiously filled with water from a squeeze bottle to a satchel set ablaze by a piece of magnesium. Happy days!

Seeking some meaning among all this hocus pocus, a friend and I pored over our text book looking for innuendo, surreal ambiguity, or ideally, a previously-overlooked illustration of "a girl in a tattered lab-bikini." (I can't now recall why "a tattered lab-bikini" particularly, but you try existing in the hormonal fug of an all-boys school without developing such obsessions). One day, however, I surprised myself by discovering, instead, a found poem.

In the section on Oxygen, the chemical fog of words lifted, and I read:

"There is no ozone by the sea, only the smell of rotting seaweed"

Angels sang. It was Truth. It was Beauty. It (almost) scanned. It was the perfect expression of a poised, materialist disillusion in the face of phlogistic old wive's tales. I had found my mantra, and my life changed from that of a standard-issue sixties schoolboy to that of an ironist, a text miner, and all-round Smart Mouth (although this latter would cost me my front teeth). As a career path, it couldn't really have been worse.

Naturally, in years to come, I would share my discovery with friends, in intimate or profoundly intoxicated moments. Or would try to; most people thought I was mad or making it up. Most people didn't get it. They didn't care that some people thought there was ozone by the sea (or that carrots helped you see in the dark, or that if you ate your bread crusts you'd get curly hair). One friend that did get it, however, was Phil, now a GP in Glasgow. I think it helped that he was and is both a scientist and an enthusiast for Old Norse. That tone of poised resignation in my ozone mantra has a distinct smell of the North Sea. The Anglo-Saxon poets of The Seafarer and The Wanderer would have embraced it.

Some years later, when he stumbled across a copy of Clynes & Williams' General School Chemistry, Phil realised it was the "fat green textbook" of my ravings, found the right page, confirmed my discovery, then tore it out and mailed it to me. I still have it: kept like a winning lottery ticket.

But then, quite recently, I received an email from Phil's brother John (proprietor of Walton Street Cycles), directing me to this:
"If you do like to be beside the seaside, it might be best to avoid beaches near major ports. The mix of sea salt, ship fumes and city smoke leads to a chemical reaction that encourages the formation of ozone smog, adding to the pollution that forms in cities"
New Scientist 12/04/08
John added that "Phil thought that we might all have been living a lie."

Like Phil, I was heartbroken, confused, angry. I mean, science has to move on, obviously, but this...  It was like waking up to the Today programme and hearing Jim Naughtie intone, "Scientists have determined -- contrary to the smart-arse belief that there is no ozone by the sea, only the smell of rotting seaweed -- that idiots who choose to live near the sea, and especially in major ports such as Southampton are, in fact, in mortal danger simply by breathing. Sorry about that."

As I say: disillusion, misundestanding, and downright disinformation. The thing about the carrots is still wrong, though.

But here's a possible successor that I found in a photographic journal:
"There is no colour in nature, only various energies of electro-magnetic radiation which the brain differentiates as colour sensations to help object recognition and so avert danger."
Nah... Too depressing, and it doesn't even remotely scan.

Another Perfect Day on Southampton Water
(fetch me a respirator)

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