One Time Science Tried to Kill Me

When I looked down and saw that I was on fire, I finally admitted to myself that Science was trying to kill me.

Science’s always been a bit dangerous for me. When I was a kid I decided to apply the scientific method to the chemicals in our bathroom closet and see what burned the best. This involved mixing random stuff together in a can and lighting it on fire. After a while that got old, plus my can melted a bit, so I started pouring the chemicals in the open-ended pipe that ran along the top of our backyard swing set and setting that on fire to see if I could make a flamethrower.

I kept this fascination with fire and science for a good long time. In my senior physics class in high school, when we got to the end of the year and there wasn’t anything left that the teacher wanted to try to drum into our heads, he let us play around with the lab equipment. Some of my friends and I decided to explore the scientific question, “What happens if you hold coins over the Bunsen burner for a really long time?” Mostly the coins glowed a bit and then smoked when we dropped them in water. Then my friend Kevin pulled out a penny. We didn’t know pennies weren’t copper through and through, so we held it over the flame. Suddenly the penny turned into a tiny numismatic Terminator, all liquid metal dripping all over the Bunsen burner.

Mr. Smith didn’t let us play with the lab equipment after that.

In undergrad I was a chemistry major until I realized that I hated glassware and titration and that physics involved a lot less of either of those. I still got the chemistry degree, though. I’m no quitter, except for the part where I quit chemistry after being an undergrad. I got chemistry, physics, math, and theatre arts degrees. My major chemistry professor told me one time, “It’s okay that you’re in the major-of-the-month club, but you’re supposed to drop the old ones.”

Anyway, my chemistry classes taught me that Science was dangerous. On the first day of organic chemistry lab, our professor told us we couldn’t wear contacts because it would be very bad if some of those organic compounds bonded to the water in out contacts and made us blind. I dutifully wore my glasses, which was a big deal because I’ve got nearly -10 diopters of nearsightedness. If you’re not versed in optics speak, that means that I run into doors and slow-moving children when I’m not wearing contacts, and I occasionally accidentally set fire to things with my glasses. That organic chem lab was where we distilled the caffeine from a pound of coffee beans. As soon as we finished the professor scooped up the caffeine because we’d made somewhere in the neighborhood of the LD50 amount of caffeine, and also it was cut with toxic organic compounds. The most impressive, though, was when Billy and I let some chemicals we were working on bubble out of our Erlenmeyer flask and onto the Bunsen burner beneath it. Suddenly we were blackening the ceiling tiles above us.

When I went to physics graduate school, my chances to injure myself doing Science increased a thousandfold. Looking at a good physics lab is like staring at an explosion seconds before it happens. I did quantum optics, specifically laser cooling and trapping, so we had optics tables and lasers and power supplies. We had a dye laser, which used an organic dye that we shot with another laser to get the precise wavelength of light that we needed to trap our atoms. The dye in dye lasers is mixed in a solvent and then pumped through a jet nozzle. It goes whizzing through the air to be shot with that other laser. These lasers are maintained by grad students, so they’re always breaking down and spewing dye and solvent everywhere. I was helping our senior grad student Tom clean up one of those spills when he turned to me and said, “You know, the dye container says that the carcinogenic and teratogenic properties of this dye have yet to be determined.”

Then there was the time I was rummaging around our racks of equipment over the optics table when something shocked the shit out of me. I jerked back, carefully climbed up onto the frame above the optics table, and looked at the equipment. There, on the back of one of the power supplies, was a tiny sign that read: CAREFUL. THIS MOFO WILL SHOCK THE SHIT OUT OF YOU. There’s nothing like a warning sign you can’t read. Though I didn’t move the sign to the front. I’d learned the hard way, so everyone else could, too.

But nothing beat the homemade laser we built to trap atoms. I mentioned that we used a dye laser to trap atoms by using a precise wavelength of light. It turns out that if you change that wavelength by a lot, you can cool the atoms even more. But when you’re using a wavelength that’s far away from an atom’s natural frequency, you have to have a lot of light. So we built an incredibly powerful CO2 laser. This thing was like a mad scientist’s dream. Gas lasers like CO2 lasers are essentially one continuous lightning strike in a bottle. We had a big hand-blown glass tube that we put 12,000 volts across at a current that’s high enough to kill you dead. It was fed by gas in giant gas bottles that we bolted to the wall. The two power supplies had been built in the 1960s and leaked PCBs. To start the laser, we shocked it with a Tesla coil to get the lightning strike going. It was a 50 watt laser, which doesn’t sound that impressive until you realize that manufacturers use 50 W CO2 lasers to weld metal. Best of all, a CO2 laser beam is invisible. So you’ve got highly charged electrodes stuck in a glass tube and fed from carcinogenic power supplies, putting out an invisible beam that can cut metal. Oh, and this was a one-of-a-kind bespoke laser, so we had to be very gentle with the laser.

To make the whole thing safe — sorry, to make it kind of safe — we always had a graduate student holding a kill switch. If anything went wrong, he could flip a switch and turn off the laser. So our typical day started off with three of us graduate students working on the death laser. One graduate student would adjust the mirrors that directed the beam, one graduate student would find the laser beam using a special metal card that turned dark when the invisible CO2 laser beam hit it, and one graduate student manned the kill switch.

I was the guy holding the card one day to help align the beam. I told my friend and co-worker, “Mike, the beam’s not centered in the beam stop. It needs to go right.”

So, yeah, giving directions relative to yourself isn’t a great idea in these circumstances. Mike turned the mirror knob and the beam vanished. That’s when I looked down and saw that I was on fire.

I did what any normal person would do: I thought, huh, that’s weird. The beam’s creating circular wavefronts of fire across my shirt. That’s an interesting pattern. Then I yelled. Ming-Shien, my colleage on the kill switch, froze. I had to dodge around him and turn off the laser myself.

Thankfully this was the 1990s, so I was wearing a flannel shirt over another shirt and I wasn’t burnt. But I’d dropped the metal card in my panic. My adviser in the next room heard it and rushed in. “My God!” he said, taking in the scene. “Is the laser okay?”

These days I don’t do a lot of dangerous science. I write proposals and suggest cool ideas that other people get to implement and the most powerful laser I have these days is a wimpy red laser pointer. But occasionally, as part of our robotic helicopter work, I get to go under the whirring blades to check our equipment and I think, ah, yes, this is science, and I feel much better.

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One Comment

  1. katre
    on March 7, 2013 at 12:30 pm | Permalink

    Oh, man, this brings back my memories of undergrad and grad school.

    Woo another person who did a Chem undergrad and nothing-related-to-chem afterwards.

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