There’s an excellent forum to share details of successful lab endeavors: scientific journals. But what about when things go wrong? As with these stories of fire, saline solution run amok, and, yes, accidental dynamite creation that readers shared with us — things in the lab don’t always go according to plan.
Back in college, our advanced organic chemistry class shared lab time with the required Freshman Chem 101 class. There were maybe 10 of us and 100 of them. The prof once had to do some stuff on a day when all the TA’s were absent for some reason so he put us in charge. 20 year olds in charge of 18 year olds. Not a great idea, but he mistakenly trusted us for some reason. So we got the Freshman pointed in the right direction on whatever (to us) was a very easy assignment, got our own stuff done while answering a few questions and then it was fun time. I don’t remember what I did, but one of my friends decided to make high explosives. The prof came back and checked on the freshman, then on us. Everybody was doing something different which he was really quite pleased about since it showed initiative and that we enjoyed our class. He went down the line asking what we were doing to amuse ourselves. He got to my friend who was smirking and had a beaker full of clear liquid. Prof looks at the reagents and smiles, having some idea of what’s going on.
“Watcha got there?” he asks in his Arkansas drawl.
“Nitrated toluene ring.”
“How many nitrates?”
During this exchange, one of the freshman had come up to ask him a question. Prof looks at the freshman, points at the beaker, and says “TNT.” Freshman gets wide eyes and backs away slowly. Nothing to worry about. It’s perfectly stable in solution. It isn;t dangerous till you evaporate off the solvent.
This was also the day I used a fire extinguisher for it’s intended purpose for the first and only time in my life.
My first lab session of my Chem degree. We were split up into groups of four and had to make this polymer which looked basically like Blue tac.
Unfortunately the process of making said polymer involved stirring a noxious concoction being heated in a fume cupboard for three hours by hand.
We each took 15 minute shifts and I can’t begin to describe how hot amd boring the process was.
We finally finished making the polymer and we then had to drop the ball of goo next to a meter rule and see how high it bounced back up. This would give us it’s coefficient of restitution and hence how pure the polymer was. Having done this we finished up and handed our sample in to the Prof. leading the class.
As we sat around chatting, the group behind us finally finished making their polymer. Looking weary and hacked off, one held the meter rule whilst another dropped their ball beside it.
They then watched in horror as the ball bounced up, landed in the chemical sink and rolled straight down the plughole.
I’ve spent the last 5 years at a London based research institute. While no one knows exactly why or what was going on, we believe a new-ish grad student mixed up two waste containers and put a volume of bleach into an acid containing waste bottle. When it started producing a visible gas the student panicked, capping the glass bottle tightly with a screw-top and left the room.
When the glass bottle exploded from the pressure buildup, it broke several other bottles on the bench, a sixth floor window (sending glass raining onto the street below) and put the cap of the bottle through the false ceiling, through a protective plastic coating and through the 1960’s asbestos in the ceiling. One glass fragment from our window broke the window of a corporate office building across the street. They were less than pleased.
When the fire department arrived, they sealed off the door are refused to enter until someone could come up with a reasonable guess as to what chemicals and gasses were likely to be floating around along with the glass and asbestos.
I’ve shared a few of my stories over the years for these posts but I’ll change it up and tell a story about a former coworker.
Said coworker of mine worked for a large OTC eye drop manufacturer in the Quality Department. As for certain routine intervals in the pharmaceutical world you have to taking swabs of various parts of each instrument, analyze for TOC and bacterial growth et cetera. This person is very comical and goofy and if you knew them, it wouldn’t be hard to see this story playing out. One day he goes to do the swabs on giant storage vats, but didn’t reach the chart outside of the clean room in the hallway. Opens door, collects swabs. One swab calls for a bottom interior port swab. Opens valve, floods entire wing of the building with 1 million gallons of eye drop solution. Said person was transferred out of quality into ‘Special Projects’ where employees and pensioners go to die of boredom.
For some reason I always get a movie type gif playing in my head, of this person being gushed down the white halls of this pharma building by tons and tons of eye drop solution, arms flailing.
My first postdoc was in a molecular biology/single molecule lab in NYC. It was a new lab, so at the time it was just me and the boss, who was a crazy slave-driver with very little patience. One afternoon I was setting up a biochemical experiment that involved running radioactive RNA samples on a very, very large (I think about 2.5ft) electrophorectic gel. It took me forever to get the samples ready, and by the time I was ready to start the gel it was already something like 8pm. So we decided we had three options - run the gel at the usual voltage and come back around 4am to unpack it, lower the voltage and come back at a more reasonable time of morning, or raise the voltage and come back around 1. I wanted to go with option two, but I was overruled and we ended up pumping up the voltage considerably. I went home, ate dinner and took a nap. Came back around 1 am to find that the higher voltage had caused the glass the gel was encased in to crack.
We did not want to call the radioactivity safety people at 1 in the morning to tell them what we’d done, so we decided to try and clean it ourselves. Boss went to work cleaning the individual shards of glass and my job was to check them for residual radioactivity with the geiger counter. So I am standing by, waiting for another piece of glass and holding the geiger counter against my leg when it starts to go off. Somehow, during the cleanup, I had managed to get radioactive material on my pants. RADIOACTIVE PANTS. Not a good thing. Boss stepped out so I could remove said pants, because continuing to wear them wasn’t really safe. I ended up covering myself as best I could with a lab coat that went down to about mid-thigh and wrapped my hoodie around my waist.
We were going to check for further contamination but it was at that point that the geiger counter died. We finally accepted defeat and called the safety people who were not happy with us (it was after 2 at that point). They basically told us to go home, shower, and they’d take care of the mess in the morning. And also to never work with radioactive materials after 6pm again. I did not want to ride the subway home pantsless, so I ended up hailing a cab at 3 am or so, again, not wearing pants. No pants. Just a thin labcoat and a hoodie. Thank god this was NYC.
Always keep spare clothes in the lab, kids.
And, finally, we also have at least one lab success story, from Ellen-Rose:
I did my undergraduate work at MIT, where I met SPACEWAR, the famous and very early computer game. That was about 1962. Behold, when I went to the University of Minnesota for my graduate work, pretty soon they got a CDC 3100 computer with a display screen. I made a pair of joysticks (they weren’t available commercially), did some programming, and got SPACEWAR up and running on the 3100. Needless to say, it was popular. When you have a particle accelerator that runs 24/7 (except for Monday maintenance) there are a lot of grad students looking for a night-shift diversion.
I graduated. A few years later, I paid a visit back to the lab, where I found two students playing Spacewar. I stood behind them, looking over their shoulders, and after a while I said, “That looks like fun. Can I play the winner?” Of course I could play the winner — fresh innocent victim and all that. So I sat down, lost a couple games, then suddenly began wiping my opponent off the screen. Did maybe ten games, then said, “That was fun. Thanks!”
As I left, I could hear the players asking the console operator, “Who was that?” “Oh,” the operator replied, “The programmer who did the program.”
Everybody needs at least one “Who was that masked man?” moment in their life.
Image: Alexander Raths / shutterstock