Stupid Science

safety-specsHere are a few worrying science confessions from the lab bench:

Incidents and accidents happen, like dropping caustic sodium hydroxide pellets down your trousers, leaning over roaring Bunsen burners, or pouring one wrong liquid into another to produce a nice cloud of noxious vapour that leads to the evacuation of the whole chemistry building. It wasn’t me, honest guv, I was in the physics department that day…

Anyway, I asked a few contacts to reveal the stupidest thing they did or saw in a science lab. Make sure you don’t follow in their footsteps.

Fundamental among stupid things to do in almost any lab (probably with the exception of a computer science lab) is to not wear goggles, or gloves when handling anything hazardous or using heating apparatus, which Alice de Sturler has certainly observed.

Peter Lapinskas recalled a chemistry lab where we the class were introduced to “aromatic” compounds and, to illustrate the point, the teacher passed a bottle of benzene around for the students to sniff. I too recall a similar lesson with a bottle of pyridine, needless to say the males in the class who had done some pre-lecture background reading passed on that one. Nevertheless, not 25 years ago we were washing our hands in acetone after lab, and lecturers often regaled us with tales of getting rid of nitric stains from fingers with benzene instead of soapy water.

Bunsen burners are always a favourite for a scientific anecdote and I still have a tiny scar on the back of my hand where a fellow student enthusiastically overheated a glass slide over a Bunsen that shattered and spat scalding fragments around the lab. Karen Lund echoes a Bunsen tale I’ve heard many times: “A classmate in high school accidentally unscrewed the tube part off a Bunsen burner. Flames in all directions! I was across the lab table from her and thought to turn off the gas. No big deal,” she told me, “Maybe it wasn’t stupid, just a mistake. But it was the most dramatic mistake I’ve seen in a lab.”

She adds that her own personal worst mistake was pipetting hydrochloric acid by mouth. “Mmmmm…not tasty,” she said. Dina Solimini Rufo remembers a co-worker drinking a mug of coffee while mouth pipetting a bacterial sample. Although Rocio Merino Fernandez-Galiano tops even that with a tale of his aunt (a nurse) working in a poverty-stricken hospital using mouth-geared pipetting for far worse, bodily fluids and biosamples for instance, “She has tasted excrement more than once,” he revealed.

Martin Blundell emphasises how rules are there for a reason, like no running in the lab, no eating, and no pipetting by mouth. However, there wasn’t a rule to forbid storing 2 kg of uranium hexachloride on a shelf. “Boy, that Geiger counter really freaked out!” he recalls. But, even that didn’t beat burning down the lab. “My colleagues and I used a toluene-based solution for scintillometry. A technician made about 10 litres at a time and stored it in a glass vessel. Someone left the faucet dripping and there were several ignition sources. I had an alibi. We all had to work for a year in Francis Crick’s lab,” Blundell recalls.

laboratoryBack in 1987, year before I graduated in fact, Jason Atwood recalls some prankster turning on the gas taps for all the Bunsen burners prior to going home for the night. “The next morning, in the first class someone said I smell something really weird and sparked a starter and blew up the entire lab,” he says. Apparently, there were only a few minor burns and some lost eyebrows.

David Mark has a whole list of stupidities he’s witnessed: Tipping over a small beaker of alcohol in side a hood next to an open flame, and then trying to blow out the fire. The idiot blew the alcohol to the back wall of the fibreglass benchtop hood, which started to burn; Mouth-pipetting stinky 2-mercaptoethanol (that person got a seat all to themselves on the bus home that evening; Casual handling of carcinogenic chemicals; Mouth-pipetting chromium 51.

Less hazardous but equally silly incidents are top of the stupid list of Miriam Cortes-Caminero: “I have plenty of fun stories in the lab but my top three are: This gal was blowing really hard into an Eppendorf tube (like it was a balloon) since the protocol was to air dry a DNA pellet; This guy needed to thaw out a live bio sample, so he was putting it into the microwave to speed it up; This gal confused an incubator for an autoclave, overnight incubation takes a complete new meaning.

Kirill Shingel warns of just how readily hot glass apparatus can shatter when plunged into cold water: “I put a just-sterilized 400 ml sample bottle, the contents of which were at about 120 Celsius, into cold water to cool. What an explosion! The whole stainless steel sink turned into a sieve as pieces of glass bottle pierced the metal. Thankfully, I didn’t get even a scratch.”

Gerald Lo warns of how opening flammable liquid cabinets is like playing laboratory Russian Roulette. “I often find old diethyl ether containers that someone has labelled with the date they opened it.” Presumably, this was to inspect for invisible highly explosive peroxides that form when this substance is exposed to air! he adds.

Lo has many tales to tell but also points out just how hardy chemists can be in their quest for discovery. “By synthesizing compounds with powerful bioactivity at six or eight orders of magnitude above their commercialized dosage concentration, one scientist discovered the, ahem, transdermal absorption route of a new compound, plus its literally heart-stopping properties,” he says. “I try to stay out of the lab as much as I possibly can,” he adds.

Joe Turner once misread instructions and added 100 grams per litre rather than 100 milligrams per litre. Not hugely dumb in the scheme of things, but I still felt pretty stupid. That kind of thing must happen a lot, and is far worse when it’s in a hospital rather than a lab. However, Turner points out that, “It’s not too clever if the data ends up justifying a theory in a scientific journal.”

Meanwhile, David Jacobs was a microbiologist spending some time in the company’s chemistry lab. The tests he was doing used sintered glass filters, which were getting somewhat blocked. He was told that the best way to clean these filters was to use nitric acid and ethanol. So he poured 100 ml of ethanol into 100 ml of nitric acid in a beaker – in a fume cupboard thankfully. “Within seconds the beaker was rocking with puffs of brown fumes coming out! Within a minute there was a mass of brown fumes and a gloopy brown goo pouring out of the beaker and running out onto the floor. I dumped a load of paper towels onto the brown mess on the floor. Of course, the nitric acid mess ‘ate’ the paper towels. We just stood back and let it finish it self off. It looked like something out of a science fiction B-movie!”

Jacobs confesses to feeling really stupid as he should have known better. The company marked it down as a Health & Safety near miss incident. “Thankfully, my manager admitted that the company did not have a procedure for cleaning sintered glass filters and that I should have been better advised by my chemistry lab colleagues,” he adds, “Needlessly to say when I repeated the procedure, I was dripping nitric acid on to the filter with a pipette, and certainly not by mouth.”

Krutarth Engineer tells a tale of a classic school lab error. “We had to identify substances by performing various chemical procedures,” he explains, “A fellow student accidentally dropped some sodium into a sink and a mild conflagration ensued. Unfortunately, as girls in the class started screaming, the teacher panicked and ran to put on the water tap. BANG. We had always believed that our teacher was no good at chemistry and it was proved at that day. Stupid & dangerous.”

With thanks to everyone brave enough to reveal their lab stupidity or the stupidity of others in their lab!

18 thoughts on “Stupid Science”

  1. Best one I know of.

    Science teacher showed students the reaction between sodium metal and water. The teacher did the experiment carefully, only slicing off a small piece of sodium and adding it carefully to a earlenmeyer flask.

    Unfortunately, some of the students thought it was cool and wondered what would happen if they scaled up the experiment. One pound of sodium metal was taken from the science teacher and thrown in the toilet. The explosion shut down the school for a couple of days.

    Actually, it could have been much worse. The sodium reacted with all the water in the toilet. The students were reaching to flush when the explosion hit. If they had flushed, the explosion would have been much worse.

  2. Given the popularity of this blog post, I’m now writing a follow-up and getting lots of great new examples of stupity in the science lab from my scientwist friends. Particularly on the look out for anecdotes that don’t mention solvents, mercury or Bunsen burners, thanks!

  3. A frians of mine while at UNO wondered what ether smelt like while carrying a large glass bottle of it across the lab and decided to pause for a sniff. I didn’t witness this, but they said they were careful to waft, but when they almost instantly almost blacked out, they nearly knocked out the whole lab if they had and dropped the bottle. Thankfully they regained their sensibilities, managed to reseal the bottle and no disaster. The lesson being that ‘science is about curiosity, but not THAT much curiosity’

    Another friend ended up with boiling acid landing in their mouth when overheated an experiment – so another lesson is ‘keep your mouth shut in the lab’

  4. Great stories David, I should have asked Sciencebase readers to chip in from the start! Anyone else reading want to email me their lab stupidity stories for a follow up?

  5. Great topic, David, and brave and honest contributors!

    Takes me back to the good old days (they really weren’t that good!) watching a premed student put a beaker of benzene on a Bunsen burner to heat. The elapsed time between the sighting and the fire was too short to intervene. And there’s the vision of the grad student who endeavored to return an unused, rather large, chunk of sodium to the jar from which it came. Unfortunately, the jar was on his desk about 20 feet from the hood where he had used the sodium, and there was a very wet sink in between. His attempt to carry the chunk to the jar balanced on a narrow, flat spatula was, alas, unsuccessful. Fortunately (in terms of the glorious ensuing pyrotechnics, that is) it was caught by the sink. Also, even more fortunately, no one was hurt, but that was one fast lab evacuation! I needn’t go into the consequences of overpipetting fuming nitric acid by mouth.

    In retrospect, there is some humor in these incidents but I’m glad lab safety is taken more seriously now.

  6. We all know that wafting a chemical is important, as is labeling. I was cleaning copper grids for scanning electron microscopy through a dip in acetone followed by a dip in each of three beakers of diWater. The phone rang, I answered it, returned to my task, and, having not labeled the beakers, I couldn’t remember which direction I was working. I picked up a beaker at one end, wafted over the beaker carefully and thought I detected acetone. Certain that this was the acetone beaker, I picked up the one on the other side, assuming it was water and put my nose right up to the contents and took a big inhale. Imagine my shock as my nose immediately began bleeding and didn’t stop for 20 minutes! Oh, THAT was the acetone beaker! ALWAYS WAFT!!

  7. Laughed all the way to the bottom of the page & then realized that I had been an one man army at “chemical accidents” in college! I’ve either witnessed or executed all of the incidents listed by David & some more. I once produced enough hydrogen sulfide from a Kipp’s apparatus to make the female standing beside me lose consciousness. I was not satisfied after throwing a small piece of sodium in the sink & watch the fumes & a small blast (I didnt need to open the tap), so I smuggled out a larger cube of sodium & hurled it into a canal. Considering the force of the blast, I was surprised to be let away without a suspension :)

  8. Great blog David.

    I recall starting my PhD in Cambridge in 1989 and having to attend a 2-day safety course – it was around the time UK universities were really beginning to clamp down on lab safety, much to the chagrin of many researchers. Should have been billed as an “un-safe” course: it included an illustration of what happens when you coil high current cables under flammable toxic materials (a smoke-filled lecture hall full of students at the point of lung-collapse) and a practical demonstration of why you should never store ether in a conventional fridge – I think the flying fridge panels from the resulting explosion almost took out a couple of bystanders!

    I couldn’t help thinking that with more stringent lab safety rules, the staff were looking elsewhere to get their thrills. Needless to say, the course was toned down in subsequent years!

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