More Stupid Science

safety-specsMy previous post on stupid things people have done in the lab as a kind of Darwin Awards for scientists was described by Guy Kawasaki, of Alltop fame. It also seemed to be so popular a post with lots of people sending me their own anecdotes that I thought more stupid science would be a good idea, so I polled the scientwists and summarise their responses and stories below.

Jo Brodie was first to reply with a story of her lab friend Helen who misunderstood autoclave tape and set about it with a black marker pen to save time. Autoclave tape is heat sensitive and darkens when it’s been through the process. It’s not just a random way to mark that stuff has been done! She was also bemused by a colleague new to vortex mixers who launched a small Eppendorf tube across the lab when they failed to hold on to it at same time as mixing it.

Jo herself also revealed how her gel to nitrocellulose transfers improved no end when she learned that she needed to put them between the electrodes, not on top. “In my defense I was very new and had watched the plastic lid being taken off but failed to notice the top plate being lifted off too,” she says.

Research scientist Catherine Gale confesses to having started her illustrious career at age 11 when she mistook potassium for iron filings and chucked them into a Bunsen flame and temporarily blinding the whole class.

RSC press office Jon Edwards (@JonSatriani) points out that many of the original Stupid Science anecdotes I described are associated with wet chemistry. “I’ve observed that, for careless handling of dangerous chemicals, you can’t do better than your average physical chemist who, naming no names, will sling around bucketloads of methanol to clean equipment with no respect for toxicity,” he told me. Gloves are, apparently, for organic chemists. While malhandling of carbon tetrachloride for temporally-aligning two laser beams is equally as stupid. Jon has heard “Just whack some in the line, it’ll be OK,” on at least one occasion he told me. He also points out that trying to align a beam path while watching YouTube videos is not advisable.

A simple domestic confusion faced biochemist and cat lover Janet Strath. “I came back from holiday to find that new PhD students had helpfully washed all the laboratory plasticware, but unfortunately had then used a ‘drying’ oven to dry and needless to say produced a molten mass of plastic.”

Rob Aitken recalls the wonders of liquid metal. “Playing with mercury was a personal favourite,” he confesses, “see how it runs!”

Grad student Dan (DrFriction) didn’t provide a specific example but highlighted a sentiment that was echoed by other correspondents. “Personally, the disparity in safety between corporate and academic labs shocks,” he says. It would be interesting to hear about lab stupidity in the corporate world, but I suspect most fun examples would be under confidentiality agreements.

Jeff Greeson obtained a BSc in biology and worked for a decade in various research and production labs. He was stumped when the centrifuge did not turn on as it had every morning for the five years he’d worked with it. “Because of my experience with problems that the unit usually gave me the hundreds of times I had operated the unit, I figured there was no need to call Maintenance, I could figure it out myself before the sample deteriorated beyond recovery. I had about 2 hours to get it working or the 5 hours of work that went into the sample would be lost. I tore that thing apart from top to bottom before finally calling Maintenance. At 1:50 minutes into my frustration, the tech arrived at the window of the lab. I don’t know what initiated the highest emotional response, the fact that he was laughing at the fact the machine was disassembled all over the lab, or that fact that from the window he diagnosed the problem and mouthed to me, ‘Try plugging it in’; I did not lose the sample.”

Sophia Collins, of I’m a Scientist Get Me Out of Here fame, didn’t have any specific tale to tell but alluded to a lot of rodentious faeces in her tweets to me on the subject of lab safety. She also pointed out that she mused for a long while on whether to add to her resume skillset the fact that she could take a rat’s rectal temperature almost blindfold. The very thought puts a whole new perspective on the phrase “getting rat arsed”. And, Sophia offers that it’s not the nicest of tasks to carry out while nursing a hangover.

Meanwhile, Peter Halkjaer-Knudsen was a very young scientist, cleaning the ion source of my MS, when a friendly tech volunteered to clean the porcelain insulators. We normally did this in peroxoacetic acid – but he reasoned that if oxidation is good, then a lot of oxidation is very good, and prepared Aqua Regia for the job. To his utter disappointment nothing really happened, so he poured it into a beaker and put it on a Bunsen burner.

Stuff really started to happen then – rather fast. When I was called to his lab, there was only about 2 foot of clear air along the floor, the rest of the room was covered in brown haze, the beaker had ruptured and the hot acid had ignited a roll of tissue paper. Of course the whole procedure was done on the bench – it was only an acid! “We had a long ‘vent & clean-up’ session and I learned a lot about supervision and communication,” he says.

One final story for this more stupid science post comes from pharma consultant Nathan Bryson. He asks, “Have you ever heard of someone opening a can of reagent from Aldrich (or similar vendor) to find vermiculite on the top and taking that for the actual reagent without thinking, especially if they’re intending to use iodine?” Bryson has heard of that happening more than once and assumes many a young grad student has learned the lesson to their shame. As one story goes, the student took it for iodine.

17 thoughts on “More Stupid Science”

  1. Yes the potassium chloride ones were the standard ones I think, with the sodium chloride ones only used for particular jobs. Something to do with refractive indexes I think. He ate the potassium ones as well.

  2. Not exactly stupid, or even particularly funny, but just odd. When I first started working in a lab the Infra Red spectrometer, cutting edge technology in those days, used solid sodium chloride cells. These lasted a couple of months before becoming cloudy and useless. At which point the crusty old chemist who operated the machine would grind them up in a mortar and pestle and use the salt on his chips.

  3. Incredible…

    My father, who was in civil engineering could tell similar tales of early incompetence of people who moved upward into management and out of harm’s way. Some of them actually very scary as they involved risk to life…

  4. Several years ago, a mass spectrometer (MS) system user decided to ‘assist’ a turbo-molecular vaccuum pump to start up (these are typically under firwmare control with sensor). Since the pump was not starting and therefore the MS system would remain off, he decided to use a hammer and hit the turbo-pump in order to jump start it. His rational was that this his how he wold sometime get his car engine to fire up, by hitting the starter. After a service call, 30K$ in repairs and a couple of weeks of downtime, this Sr Technician was promotted to lab-director. No additional report on the use of hammer to jump start his lab-staff were ever reported (at least not officially). Hope he figured out by then that coffee would be a cheaper and less painfull alternative.

  5. I was an histology tech at Yale 20 yrs ago. We stored isopentane in the regular refrigerator. One night the can sprung a leak, seeped into the bottom of the fridge, and when the thermostat clicked on the whole thing exploded. It blew fire doors off the hinges, blew out a window, and took a branch off of a tree outside the lab. Needless to say I bagged my science career and went to nursing school hoping for less danger.

  6. In grad school the new post-doc in the neighboring chemical physics lab was so irritated that the plug on a vacuum pump he wanted to use had a prong out of whack (single prong perpindicular to the other) – so he took a pair of pliers and rotated it 90 degrees so it would fit into a standard wall outlet.

  7. True story: an undergraduate lab assistant was found blotting a small pile crushed ice with paper towels. When asked why they were doing it, the reply was that the experiment called for “dry ice”.

  8. I was once helping a very new undergraduate make some buffers for lab stock. We were out of concentrated sodium hydroxide solution, so, after making sure he was aware of safety issues, I went out of the room to get something. When I came back I found him adding liquid to the NaOH solution on the magnetic stirrer. When I asked him what he was adding, he said sodium bicarbonate. He was trying to buffer the 10M NaOH solution!

  9. Whilst working as a summer student over the course of 12 weeks there were a number of mishaps.

    1) Fire in the cell-culture hood when a tissue used to wipe down after an ethanol spray got a little too close to the bunsen which was lit to flame the necks of cell culture media bottle

    2) Almost flooded a radiation suite by using hot water to defrost a freezer more rapdily.

    3) Balancing error on an ultracentrifuge that resulted it being out of commission for a month.

    4) Ripping the handle off a -80 freezer. (We used duct-tape in the interim)

    Amazingly they still offered my a doctoral position.

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