Thursday, March 01, 2007

There Are None So Blind As Those With Easy Access To Industrial Strength Chemicals Under Minimal Supervision

Once again life hasn't been particularly treacherous with respect to my good self of late, so I am forcéd to dip into my past to sate your appetite for fiasco. This tale comes from my Lower Sixth Form year, when I was a callow yet strikingly handsome youth, with the idiotic desire to make a life in chemistry.

It was time for the summer open day at St John Backsides Comprehensive School, and I was of a mind to volunteer for the chemistry lab display team that year. Each department would be trotting out some sort of demonstration of what they were attempting to do with the children so that the visiting parents could check that All Was Well. The chemistry department always put on some scorching displays, and I had been itching to work the room-long Bunsen Burner that Mr Thomas, the head of the chemistry department, had devised to demonstrate why Bunsen Burners strike back1.

It was dead good. The machine consisted of about twenty feet of three inch diameter glass tubing, attached to a regular Bunsen Burner by means of a wet rag bung. The whole thing ran the width of the lab and it was spectacular to watch and hear.

That's right, I said hear.

One of the major attractions of this thing was that it made noise, a very disconcerting roar that lasted several seconds, at regular intervals when it went off.

When it was time to let the punters in, the operator would position a lit Bunsen Burner at the open mouth of the Giant Sideways Periodically Malfunctioning Bunsen Burner Of Great Spiffiness and turn on the gas for the other one, sealed into the other end of the tubing with a wet rag. The rest was a matter of time. When enough gas had been forced into the tube it would reach the burner at the end and ignite. At that point a burning ring of gas would move down the pipe towards the unlit burner, causing the pipe to roar mightily. What red-blooded chemistry-addled lad could resist this? Fire, noise and permission to mess about with both in the name of science. My conscience would not let me stand idly by while others gave their valuable time to man this noble experiment and so I volunteered to join the demonstration team.

I was given the "volcano" experiment to demonstrate.

This was not the insipid baking powder and vinegar volcano that so many grade school parents have secretly built while their kid played Nintendo. Nor was it the more exciting rocket-fuel job seen on one "CSI" episode. Such more worthwhile machines were in fact illegal at the time in the UK as they violated the Firearms and Explosives act of 18mumblemumble, first enacted as a reaction to The Dynamiters of Victorian times. No, this volcano experiment fell somewhere in between those two extremes, though more toward the vinegar and baking powder job than Mount Saturn V if the truth be told. It in no way compared to the Giant Sideways Periodically Malfunctioning Bunsen Burner Of Great Spiffiness in terms of desirability, and my disappointment was great.

My job on that hot Saturday would consist of taking a vaguely volcano-shaped rock with a caldera gouged out of it, and filling the cavity with orange Ammonium Dichromate powder. I would then heat the handle of a deflagrating spoon2 to red heat in a regular, upright Bunsen Burner, at which point I would thrust the hot rod into the powder, triggering a wondrous transformation. The orange powder would fizz and expand violently, forming a green chromium "ash". Not too shabby, as non-landmark chemical experiments go. There was a disturbing educational quality to it, since the reaction was demonstrating the oxidation of Chromium from the 2+ to the 3+ state with the characteristic change in colour associated with such reactions, but even so it was an experiment worth doing and worth seeing.


It didn't take a genius to figure out that a whole day of this would rapidly pale, and I gloomily cast about for some way to salvage something from the fiasco. A little self pride would be a start.

Of course, those of you who have been regular readers of these snippets will instantly recognise the initial conditions were ripe for the interference of Mr Brain in the scheme of things, and that is exactly what happened. Having been instructed in the requirements of the demo and having been made to do it, I had about a week of lessons to worry at the problem. It was while staring at the rows and rows of chemicals on the supply shelves that I hit upon a sure-fire way to 'pep-up' this dog of an experiment4.

I was Idly thinking about how one can add certain chemicals to fireworks5 to get special effects - copper sulphate will make a striking green flame for example and sodium salts make for a nice yellow effect - but fretting that there was no actual flame produced during the eruption of Mount Boring. There was plenty of heat in the reaction, but it was buried in the green ash in a fraction of a second. A little pinch of orange powder made a shirtload of green ash, which was the reason the chemical was chosen. It really did look sorta like an eruption when it was under way. But there was no exposed flame to colour. I briefly thought about adding iron filings to the inital charge. With luck it would make for little sparks shooting out along with the green ash. But that would also really work better with a fierce flame rather than the little hot nugget buried deep in the erupting ash.

Then my eyes lit on a jar of powdered magnesium and Mr Brain played some footage of Ye Olde Daguerrotypist with his Flashpan. Maybe adding some magnesium powder to the orange muck would persuade the central reaction to be a bit more spectacular? I hurriedly produced my ever-ready glass vial and swiped a small amount. About a boiling tube full.

The day of the demo dawned and it was all I had expected. The smug swines in charge of the Giant Sideways Periodically Malfunctioning Bunsen Burner Of Great Spiffiness were King's O' the Lab and Mr Green Ash Everywhere was very much off in a corner. Bah. But no matter. I kept my spirits up with thoughts of the small unauthorised experiment I planned to perform when everyone else took lunch. If all went well the afternoon session would ring to the amazed cries of parents and the envious gasps of fellow students as my transformed volcano experiment provided a visual feast of chemical excellence for all to see.

Lunchtime came to pass.

Everyone filed out of the fug of the lab. Several of the demos had combustion byproducts that made for poor air quality over time, and a cloud of white ammonium chloride gas6 that had been hovering on the ceiling had descended about 15 minutes before and tear-gassed all but the most ardent parents from the laboratory, clutching their throats and wheezing theatrically. In the mad dash for fresh air and food, no-one made me leave! My plan was running like a Swiss watch!

I waited until I was sure that every parent, teacher or member of the headmaster's death squads was safely fighting each other at the buffet and then went into science mode. I carefully drew out my hidden vial of magnesium and contemplated it and the jar of orange powder. How much to use? The magnesium would burn extremely brightly, that much I knew, but I had no first-hand knowledge of what sort of quantities would be needed to inject the right amount of "oomph" into the already tired Volcano of Dullness. I decided on a 50/50 mix for the first attempt. The amounts involved were not great and I could scale it back for the next try if it proved too bright. I would seek to balance the increased brightness with the quantities of ash produced for the best aesthetic effect. I loaded the new mixture into the cavity in the rock and heated the brass rod with a sense of increasing excitement. This was science at its best!

It seemed to take forever but the rod was finally glowing bright red. Clutching the cool end in my right hand and holding it well away from my long, curly hair I positioned myself at eye level to the rock, about a foot from it. Taking a small breath I plunged the red-hot brass rod into the new experimental volcano powder.

A nova went off in front of my face.

I have no idea what the effect looked like because my optic nerves overloaded from the gazillion kilowatts of light that pounded up them at 186 000 miles a second, tripping the internal circuit breakers on the way. To this day it remains the brightest thing I ever nearly saw.

I sat up on my stool, careful not to move since I was totally blind. I say blind, but it was not the stygian black affair that people often report. No, this blindness was a field of actinic white, like a searchlight being shone into my eyes. "Well, that worked" I thought to myself.

I was in trouble, that much was obvious. I could not see anything. White white white was the colour of the universe. It didn't help to close my eyes either. It was white inside them too. How in hell was I going to bluff my way through the afternoon? I couldn't see to restock Mount Fiasco with orange powder. I couldn't see the Bunsen Burner. Someone could get injured if I tried to run the experiment in my current condition. It was most vexing. Not only that, my eyes felt as though the magnesium had gone off inside them. Action was called for.

I decided to wait a bit and see if my sight returned. If it didn't, that would be the time for confessions, learning Braille and getting a new dog. No sense in getting everyone excited if the blindness was only a temporary side effect of the scientific method. All great scientists go through such setbacks. Marie Curie ended up dead trying to invent glow-in-the-dark paint for her watch, and Lavoisier was guillotined over some debate with the masses of Paris concerning ideal gasses. This sort of thing has become less common as scientists spend most of their time arguing about things rather than doing real science these days, as I have said before.


Eventually the world began to intrude into my universe of whiteness. Little by little, solarised images corresponding to the laboratory began to form in the blankness, and they in turn became less cartoon-like and more mundane as the lunch hour wore on. By the time the first footsteps of the returning demonstration teams and their watchdog teachers were pounding up the stairs, my sight was back and any smoke from the detonation had dispersed. I looked about. There were no obvious new burns on the walls, ceiling or my clothing. Any ash was hidden amongst the acres of the stuff I made during the morning. I could see again. There didn't seem a pressing need to worry the teachers by reporting the events they had missed, so I didn't7.

The afternoon wore on with the lab filling with the smoke of other people's experiments and the periodic roar of the Giant Sideways Periodically Malfunctioning Bunsen Burner Of Great Spiffiness, although I noted with some wryness that the team looking after it were beginning to climb the walls since they actually didn't have anything to do. The machine would work whether they were there or not.

I performed the Volcano of Extreme Dullness several times with the orange powder, but I didn't repeat it with "oomph" since I had been unable to arrive at an aestheticly pleasing mixture due to lack of time. I felt that exposing the general public to untested special effects would only lead to censure by the teachers and earn me a damn good thrashing from the headmaster in the event anyone got inadvertently blinded in the pursuit of science. His speciality was French and he was ill-equipped mentally to understand some of the more obscure facets of the scientific method.

I never volunteered for the open day chemistry demonstration again.

  1. This is vital knowledge if you are ever put in the position of having to strike a Bunsen Burner
  2. A specially designed tool invented by some alchemist so that he could set fire to things at a safe distance. It consists of a small spoon with a long vertical handle and a brass disc-shaped guard that can be used as a lid if placed on a Gas Jar3
  3. A Gas Jar is a tall cylindrical jar used for all sorts of things in a chemistry lab, none of which spring to mind at the moment
  4. One must remember these were the early 70s and the school had been built and supplied with monies first calculated under a socialist government. The labs were full of the most desirable chemicals which were available (mostly) to a trusted science nerd like yours truly was reputed to be
  5. Home made fireworks were a thing of the past, since all the really interesting things that can be fabricated out of a "Smarties" (USA M&M) tube and various chemicals had been done by the time I turned fourteen. Indeed, every fourth year chemistry student was a firework veteran and had set fire to his or her house at least once in the previous three years
  6. Another oldie but goody. You put a flask of hydrochloic acid and a flask of ammonia side by side, run tubes from the flasks up to a glass "chimney" and warm the flasks. White smoke forms in the chimney and ascends to the heavens in a celebration of British Industrial Might. Don't inhale if you value your lungs
  7. Funnily enough, that Christmas I bought a copy of Samuel R. Delaney's "Nova", in which one of the protagonists suffers a similar blindness after copping a close look at an actual nova. Large world

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