Don’t try this at home!

You may have heard of the Darwin Awards – they are mock prizes given posthumously to people who have removed themselves from the overall gene pool and in doing so, improved the quality of the remainder: in other words, people who have killed themselves doing absolutely stupid things.

There are also honourable mentions for those who didn’t quite make the ultimate sacrifice, such as the one described here. You won’t catch any of the teachers here doing something so silly (or at least not that we are willing to admit to) – the paperwork associated with workplace accidents is far too much of a deterrent. If you think the following account was in the good old days before OH&S and risk assessments, think again: it was 2002.

I have removed the names of the actual substances involved, so that I can’t be accused of inciting irresponsible behaviour in our labs.

I am a high school science teacher in Birmingham (England). I usually teach physics, but due to teacher shortages, I ended up teaching chemistry a few years ago. As you all know, chemistry can be fun, especially when you get onto the subject of reactive metals.

I decided to liven up a particular chemistry lesson by demonstrating the awesome energy released when Chemical A, Metal B, and a drop of water are mixed. This particular reaction is very violent, exploding in a brilliant white flash when the water is added. It usually ends up shattering the crucible. On this particular occasion I decided to put the chemicals in a sturdy mortar dish to save on crockery. This was my first mistake.

I carefully mixed the powders in the bone-dry mortar, stepped back, and at arms length added a drop of water with a pipette. A small fizz preceded a violent flash, and a collective “ahhhh” from the impressed pupils. As always on these occasions, the pupils shouted, “Do it again, sir!” And as always I said, “OK!” But this time I didn’t require a new, bone-dry crucible because Mr. Clever had used a sturdy, reusable mortar dish. I proceeded to add the chemicals again to the mortar, and that was my second mistake.

I added the crystals of Chemical A and crushed them up a little. I then added a liberal spatula of the metal powder and began to mix the two, my head bent over the dish to see that they were mixed properly. Unfortunately for me, the mortar was damp and warm from the previous reaction. Fortunately for me, as well as having inherited a stupidity gene, I inherited a gene for very fast reflex actions.

At the first hint of a fizz, I threw my head back whilst simultaneously shielding the mortar from my face and body with my hands as the violence of nature was unleashed from the chemicals in the dish. Within a hundredth of a second the reactants spewed forth their energy in a blinding flash of pure white light and heat. You can guess what happened to my hands.

My third mistake occurred later at home, after my trip to the hospital for emergency treatment. Both my hands were heavily bandaged and my head was pretty fuzzy on account of the prescription painkillers I had taken for the excruciating pain of the second-degree burns. I decided to have a cigarette, since it had been a pretty rough day. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to light a cigarette lighter with fully bandaged hands. Anyway, let me just say I found it rather ironic that burn dressings are flammable.

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