Wednesday, May 1, 2013

My Scientific Misadventures

Did you hear about the Florida teen expelled from school for her unsupervised chemical forays?

Reading Ash and DNLee's posts over at SciAm made me furious, too. So, I thought I'd take a trip down memory lane, recounting all the stupid (but important!) things I tried in science labs, Kindergarten through College.

Disclaimer: Don't try these on school grounds. Given today's educational climate, you'd likely be in serious trouble for any of these activities.

1. I learned about acidic corrosion by testing small drops of concentrated HCl on coins, nails, paper clips, wood - basically anything that changed color or smoked.

2. Particle size controls reaction rate? I cut up a bunch of hand warmers to play with thermite.

3. I examined anything and everything under our high-powered class microscopes. Including pus, blood, urine, mucus, skin, hair, tears, and spit. All from me.

4. I figured out how to catch asbestos-lined 3-prong clamp sleeves on fire.

5. When I heard about the halogen flame-test, I didn't stop at the required substrates. Turns out, lots of things from your lunch-box will give a positive test.

6. I explored salt bridges and solution conductance using lantern batteries and light bulbs.

7. I cultivated fruit flies in an old pasta jar in my dorm room. Never did see a white-eyed one...

8. Many things will catch fire using a magnifying glass + sunshine.

9. Sometimes, heating something just a bit more will produce beautiful crystals. And sometimes multiple grams of bright blue copper complexes end up all over your smock, the bench, and the floor.

10. My "wilderness survival" kit contained a flint and steel. I did not use these exclusively for survival.

11. Best way to learn about peroxides? Drop some liver into them (or some blood).

12. The experiment to extract luciferin from fireflies did not go as planned.

13. Fun with food chemistry: Just start mixing things from the cupboard and see what happens!

14. You cannot remove urushiol (poison ivy oil) with rubbing alcohol. It just seeps deeper into your skin.

15. Iodine starch tests work on bread, paper, and clothes...

I'm sure there are many, many more. End result? Proud Ph.D. chemist.


  1. For the obvious reasons, I'm going to post anonymously...

    * I took strong magnets to a dozen compasses.
    * I also looked at everything under the sun under the microscope (incl. but not limited to blood and sperm).
    * I did the "Lightning Storm in a Test Tube" on a 5L scale.
    * I built many a dry ice bomb.
    * Pressurized air will not remove the top from a 200mL separation funnel - but it will pop the vessel.
    * Turns out - methanol fires are colorless.
    * Turns out ordering methanol on the internet will get you a trip to the fire department.

  2. Rubbing alcohol burns hot enough to make me worry about cracking the glass candle holder I was using to contain it. And I didn't want to blow out the flame for fear of splattering burning liquid out of the candle holder - didn't want to set my dorm room on fire.

  3. "End result? Proud Ph.D. chemist." So schools are clearly taking the prudent steps to reduce the current glut of unemployable, advanced degrees, no?

    All kidding aside, I seem to be an anomaly. I did nothing of the sort as a child. I really wasn't interested in science at all until I started getting very good grades in my college chemistry course. My experimenting skills did not develop until grad school (and neither did my accidental-fire-starting ability, coincidentally). I'm just a late bloomer I guess.

  4. Your liver and peroxides one reminded me of my grade 12 biology class when we were learning about the liver. Dropping little pieces in peroxide was the desired test for peroxidase activity, but I decided to take it further. I added a drop or two of dish soap to the peroxide before adding the liver. The result? flammable bubbles!

    In no way did I light the resulting train of bubbles on fire while grinning from ear to ear.

    It's sad that schools are essentially punishing kids for being curious. It will add up to a lot less good scientists.

  5. Sad to say I only did 5/15 of your things, SAO!

    If you're looking for the 6 year old child who bred mosquitoes and studied each of their stages in development, that would be me though... looking at my own blood and various bits of plants with the microscope I begged my parents to buy me for Christmas aged 7 or so... oh god, so many mixtures of various shampoos etc in the bathroom would have been my initial introduction to chemistry: that, and flame tests with bits of tinsel and various things from the Christmas tree (still not quite sure which ion(s) the beautiful light blue colour from the green tinsel came from).

    ^ Sam Ayem, that sounds hilarious/brilliant. And makes me want to try... someone get me a potato (vegan version of liver).

  6. Long before Mythbusters thought of it, I discovered that pushing natural gas through a diffuser in soapy water made long columns of suds that would float away into the evening sky—until you shot at them with a bottle rocket to ignite the foam! FOOM!

    (Note: don't shoot at the resulting foam if it get's in a tree. Think of it as high temperature landscaping…)