Monday, 2 March 2015

A Chemistry Catastrophe

I still remember the look of incredulity on his face.

“You are a complete and utter moron!”

he said, staring at me as if I had just dropped a rare Ming Dynasty vase.

To be totally honest, I had a look of sheer disbelief at my own incompetence. I looked around the room and saw twenty other faces also staring at me, except their reaction was completely different; there were all struggling not to laugh out loud.

Five minutes earlier I was preparing to perform a titration to find the concentration of an acid for my A-Level chemistry course. I had done this quite a few times already and even the most gormless muppet usually managed to complete the task without pain.

The experiment requires a glass tube, called a burette, which has a tap at the end, to be clamped vertically to a stand above a conical flask, similar to this:

This guy is much better than I was
The burettes were all clamped to the wall of the lab in tight metal clips and had to be very carefully removed.

I managed that.

I walked back to my workplace and opened the clamp on the stand to grip the burette vertically. Stupidly (and I still don’t know how I did this), I let go of the burette before the clamp had locked its rubber jaws onto the glass.

The burette obeyed the law of gravity and dropped onto the bench, shattering into several hundred pieces.

The chemistry teacher shouted from across the room.

“What have I told you all about clamping burettes?” he snarled. And then to me: “Get a brush and clean that up and then get another tube!”

I did as I was told. I grabbed a dustpan and brush and gathered up the tiny fragments of glass before walking across to acquire my second burette. I carefully prised the glass tube from the wall as I had done many times before and walked back to my workplace.

On the way, one of my so-called mates, lifted up a plastic bottle filled with distilled water and aimed it at my face. He didn’t actually squirt me, but I protected myself anyway out of instinct.

Sadly, I forgot about the burette in my hand and my evasive manoeuvres, while protecting me, had a devastating effect on the glass tube. I smashed it against the workbench and it shattered into a couple of hundred pieces, rather like its predecessor.

I closed my eyes in shame and when I dared to look up I discovered the chemistry teacher marching towards me, his face evolving into that of an apoplectic demon.

“In all my days, I have never seen one student break TWO burettes in the space of two minutes. Clean that up and get another – and this time BE CAREFUL!!”

I thought he was actually going to hit me. Thankfully, at my old school, when we entered the sixth form, students were treated as adults (even though we weren’t really) and the teacher restrained himself from any form of punishment.

All I could do was squeak the words, “I’m sorry, sir.”

I was genuinely embarrassed.

I cleaned up my second lot of glass and shuffled over to the burette wall again, amidst sniggering.

I grabbed the middle of the third burette.

Something came over me. Perhaps it was panic. Perhaps I was just flustered. Maybe I was frustrated at my own clumsiness.

I'll never know.

Rather  than carefully extracting the tube from its haven, I simply pulled the tube.

Burette number three snapped in two places.

The top third was still clamped to the wall.

The bottom third fell to the floor and shattered.

The final third was in my hand.

I turned around slowly and stared into the eyes of the teacher who was speechless for around twenty seconds. His mouth fell open in utter disbelief before he uttered the words:

 “You are a complete and utter moron!”

I had no defence. I couldn’t think of anything to say other than:

“I’ll get the dustpan and brush.”

Those words were the catalyst and laughter erupted from the mouths of the rest of the class like tiny sonic tsunamis.

I cleaned up the mess for the third time and when I had finished, the teacher had extracted a fourth burette and set it up at my workplace. As I approached, he simply said:

“For God’s sake try not to break this one!”

I didn’t and managed to complete the experiment without any more burette casualties.

It didn’t stop the teacher from saying:

“Try not to shatter any more burettes, Mr Mancunian. They cost a lot of money you know.” 

repeatedly for every titration I had to do. On the occasion of my very last titration, he actually smiled at me as he spoke the words.

I have quite a few tales from the chemistry laboratory that I may regale you with in later posts, some of which are quite a lot more spectacular than a little breaking glass.

In many ways this, and many other examples of my prowess at practical chemistry, go to prove that while I was actually good at the subject, I was really rather clumsy and careless when it came down to handling dangerous substances.

At one point I honestly fancied a career based on chemistry.

Thinking about it, it’s probably a good idea that I didn't pursue that particular plan.


Elephant's Child said...

Those are the sort of memories which can still make me cringe decades later.
The teacher sounds to have been reasonable though - which is a plus. I can think of a couple of mine who would have made my life hell forever more.

DrB said...

Dear Mr PM,
Definitely a wise move for not pursuing a chemistry career path! Otherwise, you may have blown off a limb or half-a-face by now.

I, by contrast, stopped a few disasters in the lab.
Once, a bunch of students set the whole bench on fire. They accidentally lit some ethanol, panicked, dropped the beaker, spilled the lit ethanol over the whole bench, into a wastepaper basket and set that on fire as well. I grabbed a fire extinguisher and put out the fire before anyone could utter a word as I saw the whole thing in slow motion.
Another time, I saw someone knocked a litre of NaOH in blue cap bottle off the bench behind me in slow motion. So I stuck out my right foot and kicked the bottle upwards before it could hit the ground, bent over to grab the bottle by the neck, and saved the day!

You see, I am a born lab nerd.

River said...

In second year high school, our science lessons were heavily skewed towards physics, which I loved, and an occasional chemistry lesson which I really loved. our very first lesson, the teacher instructed us all to make hydrogen sulphide, when we had done so and the lab stank to high heaven, the lesson was over with instructions to never ever make it again, now that it was out of the way. this is because many of the boys had been tutored by older siblings and were looking forward to creating a stink.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi EC,

He was reasonable - but not all of the time. I had my moments with him.

He got me through my A-Level, though (grade A believe it or not) so I can't be too harsh on the guy.




Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi River,

I wasn't keen on Physics at all - probably because it was a weaker subject for me.

And of course, I remember Hydrogen Sulphide - though we weren't allowed to make it.

Just as well.




Plastic Mancunian said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi DrB,

I'm saving my most explosive exploits (and those of my schoolmates) for a later post.

The sodium hydroxide manoeuvre sounds fantastic. You're not Spiderwoman are you? :o)

I would have dropped kicked the bottle into a shelf full of other chemicals.

I could have done with you as a lab partner.




jeremy north said...

This post made me really laugh out loud Mr PM. Superbly honed writing as usual.

My most memorable chemistry lesson was when our teacher Mr Nichols lost the plot with our class and actually said that if we didn't improve, we'd end up shovelling shit for a living.

My first job on leaving school was working on a dairy farm doing exactly that among other things! I loved it.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Jeremy,

To be perfectly honest, working in a dairy farm sounds like a great thing to do.




Anji said...

The world doesn't realise what a great escape we all had when you decided not to persue a chemistry career.

Some one shattered a mercury thermometer in one of our science lessons. It was the first time in two years that there was absolute silence in that class.

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Anji,

I wish there'd been silence in my class. It was just pure laughter.




Jackie K said...

So you could handle chemistry but not physics :)

Plastic Mancunian said...

Hi Jackie,

It depends on what you mean by "handle".