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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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February 1, 2007

How Not To Do It: Ruining Stuff

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Posted by Derek

Here's a question for the readership that should generate some interesting answers: what's the most valuable item you've seen someone ruin in a lab? I'll leave it broad enough to include both equipment and materials, and I expect to cringe numerous times on reading the comments.

I can put one into the hopper to start things off. Back some years ago, the guys down the hall from me had bought one of the largest Chiracel columns that were then sold. (For the non-chemists in the audience, this is a large packed column used to separate mirror image compound isomers (enantiomers) by pumping a mixture through). This was one of the ones where the chiral packing wasn't really bonded on to anything, but just sort of layered on another powdered solid support. And as the literature included with the column made clear, this meant that you could wash the stuff right off if you weren't careful with your solvent selection.

Well, it made it clear if you, like, read the sheet and everything. Which didn't stop someone from taking up their compound in methylene chloride and pumping it right onto the barely-used $15,000 (late 1980s money) column. And in the fullness of time (say, ten or fifteen minutes), out came the solvent front from the other end: cloudy, milky, swirling with opalescent shimmers like shampoo. Which shimmery stuff was, of course, the fifteen long ones of chiral resolving agent, scoured off the packing material by the cleansing wave of chlorinated solvent.

There: clean, simple, direct, and easily avoidable by spending two minutes reading a sheet of paper. That's the kind of thing I have in mind. Some additional examples?

Comments (71) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: How Not to Do It


1. Brooks Moses on February 1, 2007 10:28 PM writes...

The one I remember is a $10,000 optical-grade glass window into a supersonic wind tunnel. Basically, an inch-and-a-half-thick chunk of glass in the shape of a two-pulley fan belt (a larger and a smaller circle joined by tangent lines) about 10" by 15" or so. We were testing a model of a jet engine inlet in the tunnel, and the inner part of the inlet -- a chunk of steel about ten inches long and an inch and a half in diameter at its thickest point, with a long narrow pointy cone on the end -- needed to be screwed out at the end of the run to examine the colored-oil streaks on it, and screwed back in place before the next run.

But, to give you an idea of this particular student's lab habits, I should mention the pitot tube incident. Another thing going on in this wind tunnel was a pitot tube measuring velocities and pressures inside the inlet. (A pitot tube is a sort of double-walled tube, bent in a right angle at the end, with holes a the end to measure pressures in different directions, and one can get a velocity measurement from them. They're the hooked things that stick out of the front of a jet plane.) It was a fairly low-tech rig, and had to be manually set to the top of its travel, and then a computer controller would move it down a centimeter or so, taking measurements. The controller had in LARGE RED LETTERS on screen above the "go" button a warning that said "Reset the pitot tube to the top of its travel before pressing 'go' or you will damage it." So he ignored the warning, clicked go, and was somewhat saddened to find that the servo motor pulled the pitot tube through the side of the inlet and straightened out the tip. But that was only a $50 or so part.

So you probably know what's coming with the glass window. It turns out that when you subject this particular inlet design to a sudden blast of air about about Mach 3, there's a shock wave that travels forward from the back of the inlet out the front, and if the central piece is not firmly screwed in place, it will pull the center of the inlet out with it. At which point you have this chunk of steel loose in a Mach 3 flow of air. It got a bit sideways, and the tip of it hit the glass.

This bent the tip completely into a tight little U at the end, about like a fishhook except it got up to 3mm in diameter at the end of the bent part. And it put a crack about a half inch deep and five inches long into the glass window. That's why the window is an inch and a half thick.

And I, as the lowest-ranking grad student in the lab, had the honor of taking the window out of the aluminum door (another inch-and-a-half-thick slab) so that it could be replaced. As best I could tell, the window had been set in with plaster of paris, with a gap of maybe a millimeter or so. And it wasn't a straight seam, either; the inner half-inch was beveled at 45 degrees, so we couldn't go all the way through and then use a saw. Oh, and we figured the crack could be ground out and the window then reused, since it was $10,000 and the crack wasn't that deep, so smashing it to get it out also wouldn't do.

And so that was a long week. And a fair quantity of worn-out dental picks....

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2. milkshake on February 1, 2007 11:06 PM writes...

Any magnet quench will set you back 20k+ and over 3 weeks of down time. If the person who was taking care of the instrument was sloppy throughout, there is likely to be also chunks of ice inside the dewars build up from condensed moisture - in which case the ice blockage combined with quench overpressure can blow the top of the magnet off...

As for silly mishaps, there was a peptide custom synthesis lab in Prague. To cut on costs, they were buying only more elabodate side-chain protected blocks, the simplier alpha amino protected aminoacids they were making themselves. They had a big shelf of 30+ bottles in cold room and if they started running low they asked a RA to make some more and re-fill the bottle.

A simple case of mistaken bottle (leucine mixed with isoleucine) ruined their 6 week output...

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3. anon on February 2, 2007 12:52 AM writes...

Nothing destroyed, per se, but a memorable experience:

We have an NMR room with a machine in one corner and a computer for processing in another corner. I was printing a spectrum when a Korean postdoc came in to use the NMR. I glanced up to see him striding purposefully over to the machine with his sample in hand. And with the spinner not ejected. I looked back at my computer for a moment before realizing what I had seen. When I looked back he already had his hands in his pockets and was backing away from the machine. He produced the most plaintive sound I've ever heard: "Uh-oh!"

I had heard of dropping sample tubes straight down the hatch, but I never expected it to happen in front of my eyes. The machine got fixed, but you better believe I chuckled every time I saw the poor guy until he left.

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4. Reluctant Chemist on February 2, 2007 1:34 AM writes...

In the same vein as #3...

I worked for a company where one of my responsibilities was to assist with NMR maintenance and troubleshooting. I happened to be in the lab one day when one of the chemists dropped her sample into the magnet, while the chemist at the console was still analyzing her sample. In the end, since the air was still flowing, I had to direct the system to eject the sample, while another scientist stood at the top of the ladder to catch the two samples as they flew out. LOL

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5. Yttrai on February 2, 2007 9:55 AM writes...

I had a suspicion these would all be NMR related. But other than chiral columns, we really don't work with wildly expensive items on a daily basis, and when we do we are ridiculously careful. Mostly. :D

I did once watch a coworker accidentally drop a solution of many hundreds of grams of rapamycin on the floor. Given that rapamycin was $1000/gram from reputable vendors back then, that was tragic.

The most spectacular machine related incident was, of course, on an NMR. A post doc with a well-known lack of empathy was training a new grad student on NMR use, and told him the order of events: Tube in spinner, spinner in depth finder, then into the magnet. Then he left the room. The grad student thought he meant the depth finder also went into the magnet.

The machine was down for 3 months. The grad student took the majority of the blame, expect among those of us who knew the post doc.

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6. eugene on February 2, 2007 11:45 AM writes...

Okay, here is one not NMR related. Several times people forgot to turn off the water in the sink and it overflowed, flooding the entire floor. Sometimes an undergrad would turn on the water flow too high in a condenser until the tube snapped off and sprayed water everywhere, flooding the floor eventually overnight. One time, it was a particularly bad flood and it leaked onto the floor below like it usually does. Only this time, the leak decided to develop over two new HPLCs. A couple of hours and a lot of shorted circuits plus a small electrical fire later, the group that was below had a new HPLC charged on their grant.

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7. eugene on February 2, 2007 12:01 PM writes...

I personally like this story though.

In a lab that had some 20 odd people working in it, one student that was working late in the lab, decided to go home. Despite having so many people, and it being grad school, he was the only one there that evening. He turned everything off, including the oil bath in his fume cluttered fume-hood, and went home to relax from another tough day in a busy synthetic lab.

Only, by some freak accident, that some called stupidity and others forgetfulness due to hard and diligent work, instead of turning the knob on the hot plate below the oil bath off, he turned it the other way. All the way to maximum.

Sometime in the middle of the night, the hot oil started splashing out of oil bath and some of it landed on the really, really hot plate. And it started burning because it was past its flash point. As soon as the oil started burning, other things in the fume hood also started burning, and a small fume hood fire was born. It was small, but it grew predictably, and it led its own little fiery life overnight.

The fire was happy to learn that the outside of the old fume-hoods was woody and flammable, and that it could surreptitiously find its way to neighbouring fume-hoods as well. But by the time it did, it was already morning, and chemists began arriving in the department.

Unfortunately, the first ones to notice the fire, from a window on the outside, were not people from that lab. Not caring about the lab like it was their little child, meant that they called the fire department. When the fire department came, they couldn't knock the door to the lab down, so the window had to go. Unfortunately, the chemical fridge were next to the windows, and it was predictably knocked over and the contents spilled as the firefighters climbed through the window. As they began dousing the room in water, a butyl lithium bottle went off here, a sodium chunk exploded there... Needless to say, the fire got bigger but in a different way. The firefighters won at the end of the morning, but the lab was dead. And the smell of festering and decomposing mercaptans all over the floor and hallway made that small part of the building inaccessible without a gas mask for the next month as it was slowly decontaminated.

Someone told me that the PI was in shock for the next few days. I don't know what happened to the offending student, but I'm guessing nothing good. The gigantic group was scattered in the rest of the chemistry department and their prolific publications output dropped precipitously. All that I know, is that I was visiting a month after the whole affair, and it was difficult to stand in the hallway outside the lab for longer than ten seconds due to the horrible stench of some thiol.

This happened about a year and a few months ago. It took about a year for them to build a new lab with modern hoods and it's in business now.

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8. Chemgeek on February 2, 2007 12:23 PM writes...

Not an expensive accident, but an incredibly annoying one. A fellow student in organic lab was taking melting points using a Mel-temp. She got sick of waiting for the thing to cool down between measurements, so she pulled the hot (200°C) Hg thermometer out and cool it off under a stream of water in the sink. As predicted (by everyone but the student) the thermometer shattered and a nice stream of Hg went flowing on its way down the drain. My teacher (who was one of the calmest people I know) went into a rage and almost killed her. Only a small amount of Hg was recovered from the trap.

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9. HDP on February 2, 2007 1:38 PM writes...

Here's an admission of an incident that left me red-faced. Fortunately, it didn't cost me my job.

A number of years ago I worked for a major chemical company. My group of chemists and engineers were using a full-size operating plant as our laboratory for conducting a series of experiments. The process involved an expensive platinum catalyst.

We didn't realize how drastic an effect a small change in one operating parameter could have on the stability of the heterogenous catalyst. After conducting our experiment for a period of four hours the unit was behaving very poorly. A shutdown and inspection showed that during that time we had managed to vaporize over $250,000 worth of platinum.

Fortunately, the catalyst was recoverable, and the information learned from the experiment ultimately proved to be far more valuable than the catalyst involved.

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10. Bubba Zinetti on February 2, 2007 1:43 PM writes...

2 incidents. One, a coffee pot left on overnight burned a few labs and smoked out an entire building at Duke when I worked there. I think it was the Sands building, but it could have been Naniline. 2 labs destroyed, and the entire building without power for 2 days. Not every freezer was saved. Many people lost a substantial amount of work.

Two: this was related to me by a friend at a large and successful biotech. They were moving thier dept, and had a large amount of Phenyl sepharose column media stored in the cold room. My friend said that it was "at least a 100L". Well they moved and left the media behind b/c it was too heavy to move. A few weeks later someone finally went back to get it and it was gone. Turns out shortly after they moved cleaning crews came in with the instruction to throw out everything in the cold room. So they did!

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11. Jose on February 2, 2007 2:10 PM writes...

I temped for a few months in the Analytical lab of an epoxy plant. Guys in coveralls would bring in steaming crucibles of in-process polymers for visocity, pH and the like. Standing out in the back lot amongst the weeds, there was a very large, 2000 gal SS reactor, with the all connections blowtorched off, getting rained on. I asked my boss about it, "Well, you see, when you polymerize a batch *inside* a reactor...."

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12. bink on February 2, 2007 2:35 PM writes...

Well, this one happened while I was an intern a number of years back. Of course everyone has a story about how a hose popped off of a reflux condensor overnight and flooded the lab. Well, this is similar except this person was heating their reaction at reflux overnight at waaaay over 100 °C. A hose popped off in the middle of the night and water started pouring into the super-heated oil bath... I'm sure you realize what happened next.

In the morning, the lab was flooded, but to make matters worse there was oil EVERYWHERE. The hood was a complete mess as well as a good portion of the floor in front of the hood.

In this case, the most valuable thing wasted was time... time and sanity.

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13. chrispy on February 2, 2007 3:45 PM writes...

Here's an example of real stupidity:

You may recall that the Earth Liberation Front (ELF) set fire to the Center for Urban Horticulture at the University of Washington in 2001 because they thought (incorrectly, as it turned out) that a professor (Toby Bradshaw) was making transgenic poplars. They removed all the animals from the building and set a fire in this fellow's office which rapidly spread to adjacent labs doing research on conservation and wetlands biology. This included the lab of Sara Reichard, who had (among other things) 100 showy stickseed plants which she and her students had carefully cultivated; these plants are so rare that this collection represented a third of the total world population. The extent of the estimable damage was in the millions of dollars.

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14. 3rd year on February 2, 2007 6:10 PM writes...

Recently our postdoc caught his oil bath on fire because he turned it all the way up instead of all the way down. Upon returning to his hood and witnessing the fire, he attempted to extinguish it with liquid nitrogen. Now, some say it was because he thought he would have to report it if he used the extinguisher, others said it was because he was really tired. At any rate, the liquid nitrogen vaporized, atomizing the oil and creating and enormous fireball, which burnt him rather badly and sent shards of glass flying.

Luckily for him they were only second degree burns on his hands and face and the damage was only to his hood. Only a small (2 cm?) scar remains on his face - he wasn't wearing goggles.

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15. dearieme on February 2, 2007 7:01 PM writes...

Can't explain, since no-one owned up. But I gave a few-months old Laser Doppler Anenometer to another research group, (30,000 GBP in the early 80s) and they wrecked it within a week. What you don't pay for......

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16. Malfitano on February 2, 2007 7:07 PM writes...

OK. This one's a bit more biological, so I'll put some explanation in for the chemists.

I was supervising a student doing a vacation project. He was already well known as a complete cretin so I was watching him like a hawk. He was doing work that involved subcellular fractionation - smashing up cells then separating out the organelles, by centrifugation. A low speed spin of the smashed-up cells will bring down big stuff - nuclei, big chunks of membranes - into a pellet. A higher speed spin of the supernatant from this will bring down things like mitochondria, lysosomes etc. A higher speed still will bring down things like free ribosomes and leave the truly soluble cytoplasmic stuff in the supernanant from that. You can fine tune it to isolate the fractions you particularly want.

The later, high speed spins are done in an ultracentrifuge. These look something like a top-loading washing machine. For the final stages of a fractionation, they spin the samples at 50-60,000 rpm, and the samples, and the rotor that contains them, are subjected to around 350,000g.

So you can see it's important that the weight distribution in the rotor is symmetrical - otherwise a dangerous vibration can be set up. I watched this guy carefully as he weighed the sample tubes and transferred sample between them so as to get pairs with weights matching to within 0.0001g. I checked these weights carefully, explaining in detail why it was important to do this balancing of the sample tubes. He put the tubes in the rotor, and I then checked that they were properly capped and sealed, that the rotor lid was on and properly secured and that all the centrifuge settings were right.

Did I mention that the centrifuge bowl is evacuated, because at such high rotor speeds, air friction is enough to heat up the rotor substantially? So after starting the run, the rotor spins up to a certain speed then holds at that speed while the bowl is evacuated before it spins up to the maximum. This can take a while. Everything seemed OK, so we left it to it and went away.

A couple of minutes later there was a loud bang. When we got there, the ultracentrifuge was going for a walk round the room. In fact, if it hadn't been tethered to the wall by the three-phase supply, it would already have been out of the door and down the corridor.

When we eventually got to look inside, the rotor, which was made of titanium, had shattered into several large fragments. The shaft on which it fitted, which was a circular steel rod about an inch and a half in diameter, was bent through almost a right angle. The manufacturer guaranteed that in the case of a rotor breakage, all the pieces would remain contained within the centrifuge bowl, and they had, but the rotor fragments had gouged huge metal shavings out of the inside of the bowl - like the ones you get from planing wood, but much bigger.

I don't know how much ultracentrifuges cost, but it would have been at least several tens of thousands of pounds even then (this was in the UK over 20 years ago).

Technically this was my fault as I was supposed to be keeping an eye on him, but as I've said he was already notorious for being an idiot, and it never really came back to me.

What? Oh, yes, sorry. He hadn't put the members of each carefully weight-matched pair of tubes opposite each other in the rotor.

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17. Derek Lowe on February 2, 2007 9:11 PM writes...

I've been waiting for a centrifuge story to show up! Thanks for providing an especially cringe-worthy one. . .

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18. milkshake on February 3, 2007 12:39 AM writes...

Here is my centrifuge story (equally moronic). In old times (90s) the best way to access binaphtyl compounds was to make a lot of binaphtyl diamine, resolve it cas camphersulphonate and do Sandmeyer to get opticaly pure 2,2'-diiodo binaphtyl in a crappy yield. We just did it on a small scale, brought through a large quantity of resolved diamine and were to scale up the Sandmeyer too. The diazotation had to be done in neat (96%) sulfuric acid and the bis-diazonium had to be isolated and thoroughly washed before decomposition - and that ment isolated as bis- tetraiodomercurate salt. (Without isolation there was a racemisation problem - with a more traditional Sandmeyer procedure)

Diazoniums are heat sensitive and diluting the mixture (before adding iodomercurate solution) was no fun - it was done by feeding the diazotation mix with chunks of overchilled ice while cooling the flask at -20C. This worked fine on small scale and we got the chocolate -brown heavy solid diazonium iodomercurate and converted it to opticaly pure diiodobinaphtyl.

On big scale we could not cool it down properly, we run of dry ice, it took us over 5 hours to dilute this reaction (but we had 30grams of opticaly pure diamine in it). When we finaly added iodomercurate to it, we got lots of fine mud (instead of coarse crystalline solid), mud that was plugging even the Buchner funnels we had. Worst of all we saw bubbles of nitrogen slowly evolving from the diazonium mud...We had to act quickly.

We went to the cell biology group - they had a huge centrifuge for 4 large buckets, half-liter each. We asked a biology guy if we could use it and he said: "But we have it for spiunning cells - you are not going to put in anything organic, corrosive, or containing heavy metals, right?" We assured him that not. We balanced the buckets on the scales very thoroughly, put it in, there was a nice whizz, we smiled and left for a well-deserved break. The break was suddenly cut short by loud thumping sounds as if large piano was falling down a staicase. The centrifuge was dancing polka across the lab, long cord extended. We shut it down, opened it and our diazonium-iodomercurate was everywhere -spilled in chocolate brown paint coating the walls, the rotor, the outside of the empty buckets.

What happened was that we forgot to turn the cooling on. Heat generated by spinning made the diazonium to decompose and bubble over, which unbalanced the buckets, which made the giant cow centrifuge run for her life across the lab.

The centrifuge survived, our product did not and we spent couple hours scooping the mercurate goo out and decontaminating the centrifuge with thiosulfate.

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19. Lou on February 3, 2007 5:26 AM writes...

And those centrifuge stories keep coming in!

I know of two accidents which wrecked the inside of the centrifuge, both because of the same reason - failure to screw tight the inner lid, and double checking to make sure it is tight and properly sealed. Consequently, the very heavy rotor inside the machine rotates and spins out towards the top of the centrifuge, wrecking not just the inner lid, but the drum, and the outer lid....basically anything in its wake. No one was hurt in either incident, as these ultracentrifuges tend to be housed in a separate room.
Both were caused by Ph.D. students. You would think they would have thougth about the consequences of something rotating at 100k rpm and with forces of 800k g, but, no.

The first time it happened ten years ago, I know the damage came to around 7000 pounds then (US$ 13000 at current exchange rate). Not cheap for any academic lab to fork out, and my supervisor was not best pleased about it. The student who later graduated with a Ph.D. went on to become a successful sales rep.

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20. molecularArchitect on February 3, 2007 3:30 PM writes...

How many times have you seen someone improperly secure a gas cylinder without the protective cap? When I was an undergrad, the graduate student teaching assistant was changing the gas cylinder on a GC. He removed the cap without strapping the cylinder in place. He then proceeded to drop his wrench and bent over to pick it up. He bumped the cylinder. As it fell, the valve hit the lab bench and broke off. The cylinder took off across the floor like a rocket and went through a cinder block wall into the instrument room (a narrow room between two labs with two long tables). There, it took out the legs of a table knocking two analytical balances, an IR, a GC and several large glass dessicators to the floor. The GC bounced into the other table, broke the legs and sent two more analytical balances to the ground. All this while two lab classes were in progress and students were in the instrument room. Amazingly, no one was injured but the balances and IR were destroyed and the GC damaged. This was at a smaller teaching school in the mid-70s so it was a very expensive accident.

A very scary thing to witness but I learned to respect the potential danger of a gas cylinder.

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21. Anonymous BMS Researcher on February 3, 2007 8:52 PM writes...

I didn't see this one myself -- a colleague from the UK was among the large crowd gathered to watch as his University's new mainframe computer was hoisted into the building by a large crane when the cable came loose and "half a million quid worth of computing hardware came crashing onto the parking lot, followed by stunned silence." I hope the folks operating that crane had good liability insurance!

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22. Greg Hlatky on February 3, 2007 9:09 PM writes...

This came from a former industrial life. We were testing a supported metallocene polymerization catalyst in a 4-inch continuous fluidized-bed gas-phase reactor. The product would be periodically discharged from the reactor through a valve into a stainless-steel vessel. A peculiarity of this catalyst family was that it generated hydrogen, which lowered the molecular weight.

Late one evening, a not-very-bright technician noticed that the hydrogen level was building up. About this time, the product needed to be discharged. Our NVB technician thought to combine the steps of letting down the product and venting off the hydrogen, so they loosely fitted the stainless-steel bomb to the discharge valve.

A little too loosely. The reactor pressure shot the stainless-steel bomb off the valve and sent it flying a considerable distance, narrowly missing a nearby hydrogen trailer. The entire reactor contents were also blown out and with it the catalyst that had taken blood to prepare.

The technician was later canned.

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23. Anonymous BMS Researcher on February 3, 2007 9:09 PM writes...

Another incident that I did not witness firsthand happened at the State University where my parents taught for decades. One Friday evening a Professor in my father's department called maintenance to report a trickle of water dripping from a fire-protection sprinkler on an upper floor of the building. After some discussion, the maintenance people decided it could wait till Monday (despite this Prof's strongly voiced suggestion that it ought to be fixed ASAP). Some time that night it cut loose and flooded several floors.

An incident that I DID witness happened in grad school, again on a Friday night. I noticed the compressor motor for a cold room near my office was cycling on and off as its overload protection tripped, then it cooled off and restarted, etc. I called maintenance, they came and said, "well it is at exactly the right temperature so it can wait till Monday." I strongly expressed my concern that an overheating compressor might not last that long, but they were pretty clearly not inclined to listen to a mere graduate student. Well, it failed over the weekend and by Monday morning many biological samples had become a smelly mess.

The result was a big placard by the alarm bell on each fridge, listing the home and office phone numbers (this was before cell phones and pagers were common) for about six responsible individuals: "If this bell rings, keep calling each of the following phone numbers in succession UNTIL SOMEBODY TELLS YOU HE OR SHE IS ON THE WAY HERE..."

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24. atompusher on February 5, 2007 1:15 AM writes...

We have a $300,000 waters LCMS that is collecting dust. The project manager who bought it has been claiming he'll look into fixing it for the last 18 months. In the meantime, we've lost the trade-in value on a new instrument.

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25. Wavefunction on February 5, 2007 10:29 AM writes...

Dropping an expensive Buchi rotavap on the floor.

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26. Devices R Us on February 5, 2007 3:03 PM writes...

Not an accident by a scientist but by one of the accounying types. We had a guy who tagged assets who put the tag right into the center of a surface coated frequency double crystal that cost 10K. We complained so they came by later to scratch it off with an Xaxto knife. Not very much fun.

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27. Ryan K. on February 7, 2007 4:41 AM writes...

That sounds like the girl who decided that it would be a good idea to wash all of our NaCl IR plates in the sink... with water.

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28. Rob on February 23, 2007 2:34 PM writes...

The worst thing I've ever done is catch fire to the fume hood, that was in undergrad. No damage, but it was a near thing (considering the idiots left the flammable reagents all close together in a CARDBOARD BOX. The box caught on fire. Like I said, it was a near thing. I imagine the explosion would have seriously damaged me and possibly caught the building on fire. Yeah, that lab was pretty dangerous, looking back.

Since then i haven't worked much with really dangerous things. I once dropped a plate filled with 32P, i had to strip out of my clothes, change to scrubs, decontaminate the entire lab, and walk home in bare feet. 6 months later i got my shoes back. Humuliating, but not dangerous; and nothing was damaged (later i found out that 32P wasn't all that bad, despite some people's claims to the contrary).

Oh, okay, this almost takes the cake. I was assigned to refill the liquid nitrogen cell storage tank, along with another guy, for a few weeks. I forgot about it, he forgot about it, until someone noticed that all the liquid nitrogen was evaporated (well, mostly evaporated). I don't know what happened to the cells, they probably all died. Fortunately I left the lab soon after, and the cells weren't for our lab (another lab which occupied the same space, this lab is close to shutting down now, the PI is retiring)

The other liquid N2 story is more tragic, and happened to my current lab. Somebody was supposed to autoclave the racks that hold the boxes of cells of an EMPTY N2 tank. Instead, they autoclaved my PI's tank, destroying years of cells. That really hurt; we lost irreplacable cell lines and antibodies.

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29. Anthony on March 7, 2007 4:36 PM writes...

This didn't happen to me, it happened to a friend of mine. We'd taken the three semesters of lower-division physics together. She took the upper-division physics lab course without me, as I'd moved on to my engineering classes. The lab course is not well-connected to the lecture series.

The lab assignment was to build some sort of circuit, and analyse the waveforms which showed up on the oscilloscope. It involved an electrolytic capacitor. Nobody had ever told her, in a lecture class, or in the lab setup instructions, that electrolytic capacitors are polarized, and that it matters which way they're put in.

She built the circuit according to the lab handout diagram, except with the electrolytic capacitor in backwards, hooked up the oscilloscope, and energized the circuit.

It fried her $10k+ (in 1980s $) oscilloscope. The circiut set up a resonance, possibly through the power system, that fried someone else's oscilloscope. Two dead o-scopes, and a permanent ban on energizing circuits in the lab before a TA checked them.

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30. rocket-slave on March 17, 2007 1:27 PM writes...

I was running a small scale rocket experiment and placed a very expensive infrared imaging camera a bit too close to the supersonic exhaust. This was an outdoor setup and a stiff wind had dragged the subsonic portion of the flame over the camera. It caught fire and we aborted the test. Unfortunately, the abort sequence featured sending out a slug of gaseous hydrogen (this was needed to protect some of the rocket hardware). With the wind still coming on strong, the slug of hydrogen made a large fireball that perfectly engulfed the camera. The camera was worth over $60,000. We have a great photo of the fireball cooking the camera that my boss keeps to humble me occasionally. Sorry, can't share the photo.

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31. ChaoZ on March 19, 2007 7:32 AM writes...

Well nothing too expensive, i used to work in a government lab researching ceramic compounds. The procedure is to melt samples in a platinium + 5% gold crucible, and the samples kinda drops out of the crucible neatly when it is back to room temperature.

Anyway my supervisor was in a rush and ordered the wrong crucible, pure platinium instead of the pt/au alloy, the sample end up sticking to the crucible instead of popping off neatly because of the difference in the wetting properties. I think i ruined about 10 of the crucible which works out to be around $10,000.. but i suppose they can recycle some of the platinum.

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32. aramir on March 23, 2007 5:34 PM writes...

Well, this one is more something like a legend in our laboratory, but I'll share it anyway:

"the Night of the sapphire": In the early 70', one of our most outstanding laboratories had a big container (something like a cilinder) for reactions and measurements under very high pressures. You could put some special equipment in there, and reach industrial pressures without any problem. Naturally, such containers get dirty quite often. And naturally, it's always dirty when someone desperately needs to use it during the night.

So there was this post doc, desperate... When you wanted to clean the cilinder, you had to follow a very strict procedure, in which you fill the tube with water, and then put the whole thing under pressure. Sounds easy, but there was a catch: the cilinder had a small looking glass, an artificial sapphire. Before cleaning it, you had to attach a safety clamp to the glass, otherwise the high pressure combined with the tube being filled with water would cause the sapphire to shoot out of its socket.

And ofcourse, the postdoc forgot to fasten the sapphire. And there the fun began. After filling the container with water, and applying the preasure, the sapphire shot out like a bullet... through the window (on the 3th floor). Still not a problem you think, but, next to our chemistry labs is a forrest, surrounding 9 student dorms, where there was a big party going on at the same moment.

Completely scared of losing the precious sapphire to some drunk student, our post doc called the entire labcrew, and they set out calculating an area where the sapphire could have landed, starting from the projectory angle and an estimated starting velocity. Out with the flashlights, and they went into the forrest. For the entire night.

They found it in an old oak, 22cm (9") in the bark, half a mile away from the chemistry lab.

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33. eugene on March 24, 2007 1:28 AM writes...

Ha ha! That's a good one. Although, if I was one of the people called up to look for the sapphire, I probably would have waited until I was alone, then wandered off to the party in the dorms and got some beer. Serves the post-doc right for cutting into my beauty sleep.

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34. Brad on March 28, 2007 4:18 PM writes...

I remember connecting a voltimeter the wrong way and thinking that it had a light beneath the display dial... until I smelled burning plastic!

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35. Miles Baska on March 28, 2007 5:50 PM writes...

This really doesn't qualify, but it's one of those lab stories I like to share anyway. Do what you will with it.

I was a student at the University of North Dakota back in the early 70s. I participated in accelerated chemistry classes until my organic chemistry class, which found me in with the general population. These were, to me, boneheads and morons, but they managed to completely intimidate the little Chinese TA, so he rarely was around to supervise. It was our first experiment -- a simple distillation: separate the alcohol from the paradichlorobenzene. You put the solution in a flask with a few boiling chips, hooked it all up and let it cook.

The moron across from me had everything set up, but he wasn't getting any distillate. A closer examination discovers he has no boiling chips, so he runs off, returning with a hand full of them. He opens the flask, leans over to look in, and dumps a hand full of boiling chips into the flask. You can guess what happens.

The super-heated alcohol-PDC solution goes straight into the air and into his face. The alcohol quickly vaporizes, and the PDC crystals are snowing over everything in the lab. The moron has scalded his face, and he's screaming "I'M BLIND! I'M BLIND!" -- his face and hair are completely white from the PDC. His neighbor reaches up while he's screaming and removes the moron's safety glasses (the one thing he had done right), and as the moron screams... "I'M BLIND! I'M BLIND! I'M... oh".

The second experiment involved vacuum distillation of di-nitrotoluene, but if you cooked it too long it formed TNT. I watched morons trying to cook their reaction vessels dry, thinking this would maximize the distillate. I walked out before anything bad happened.

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36. Rocket Geek on March 28, 2007 7:19 PM writes...

I once did an experimentwith a non-pyro ejection system, but I was tired and installed a 1.5 farad supercap backwards. The whole circuit exploded, and the capacitor's electrolyte was everywhere. Capacitor electrolyte does not take kindly to carpeting, mind you.

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37. Joe Loman on March 28, 2007 9:02 PM writes...

I had a buddy in engineering school with me who was in an undergrad physics lab that involved heating water in a steel container with a large thermometer in it. Unbeknownst to him, the tip of the thermometer broke off in the container and the mercury drained. Of course, since the temperature of his mixture didnt go up, he turned up the heat. After several other students threw up (one may have fainted) from mercury gas poisoning, the lab instructor figured it out and the local fire department evacuated the lab. My buddy was nearly dismissed from engineering school...

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38. michael edelman on March 28, 2007 9:14 PM writes...

My own screwups were modest, like the electrolytic capacitor that got connected to AC and ended up going off like a rocket and filling a lab with smoke, or the A/D board I inserted incorrectly into the backplane of our 11/34, which cost the lab around $500. At least I wasn't the guy in the lab down the hall who mistook one of our escaped crickets for a cockroach and shut down a major lab for a week while the exterminators did their work.

The best story I heard came from a colleague who'd worked in a lab in Maryland in the 60s. They had an advanced composite sample in a load cell being tested for compressive strength to destruction, and someone had been a bit sloppy about making sure the ends were perfectly parallel, and the sample was perfectly centered. At several thousands or hundred thousand psi, the sample left the load cell on a parallel path, taking out the wall of the cell, and several lab walls, amazingly missing all the staff.

The worst screwup I ever saw personally didn't cost any money... but you judge:

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