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March 28, 2002
Not Like Law School
After swapping stories, which some of did again at work recently, you wonder how anyone physically survives their academic chemistry training. Chemists usually come out of their degree programs with a stockpile of good yarns, filed under headings like "Idiotic Lab Explosions" and "Maniacs I Have Worked Next To, And Their Life-Threatening Ideas." Your own explosion stories usually start "One time when I was up in the lab at three AM. . ."
I'll pass some of these along every so often, to give folks outside the field an idea. Before doing that, though, I should mention that the litany of explosions drops off dramatically when you get into industry - and no, I don't miss them. The responsible factors are experience, better facilities, not working all hours of the night, and a certain weeding-out of the real hard-core crazies.
I recall one party I went to back in grad school. Several of us from Chemistry were standing around telling ball-of-flame stories, to the great interest of some law students. One of the guys down the hall from me, though, piped up and said "I don't know what y'all are going on about - I've never had an explosion in my life."
Well, the Chemistry Gods listen to you when you say things like that, and they reach for their bottles of laxative. The next morning, my friend was cleaning out a solvent distillation pot. . .and here's where my organic chemistry readership all start to grin. Cleaning out solvent stills is the all-time leading method of starting lab fires in synthetic chemistry, because you tend to distill many solvents from mixtures involving metals like sodium or (God help you) potassium. Bits and chunks of these lively substances tend to hide under layers of sludge as you try to inactivate them, only to jump out and do their thing long after you're sure everything's been quenched.
Which is just what happened that morning. My friend was sure everything was fine, and rinsed the (theoretically) tamed mixture down the sink (which they won't let you do any more, for the most part, but this was back in the mid-80s.) A couple of seconds went by quietly, then there was a muffled "thoongh!" from deep in the pipes - followed at speed by a three-foot geyser of flaming gunk straight up from the sink drain. I heard the shouting, and came down to find him standing wide-eyed in a thin haze of smoke, still holding the flask. "I never should've said that, should I?" were his words. .
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