How to Tell a True Lab Story

This is true.

A guy I knew in graduate school, he had a buddy who was working late in the lab one night. He was all alone, and he got a little bored, so he took a two-liter soda bottle, and he filled it halfway up with liquid nitrogen. Then he screwed the cap on tight.

Now, liquid nitrogen, when it boils, it takes up something like 700 times the volume of the liquid. So this guy, he’s got this bottle, and he’s kicking it around in the hall. But the bottle starts to swell up, so he tries to open the cap, and it’s stuck. So he runs into the bathroom, and he dumps it in a sink, and runs back out in the hall.

A few minutes later, there’s an earth-shattering KABOOM!, and he goes back into the bathroom. The bottle blew up, and reduced the sink to rubble. At this point, the guy telling me the story pulls out a Polaroid of the busted-up sink. There are little chunks of porcelain, twisted copper pipes, little daggers of two-liter bottle plastic sticking into the walls and ceiling. The bathroom in the picture is trashed.

The explosion, it wakes up all sorts of people, and sets off an alarm. Pretty soon the campus police are there, asking questions about what happened. They get the story from the kid with the bottle, then they call his thesis advisor. It’s two o’clock in the morning, and his advisor is home in bed. The police tell his advisor that one of the students just blew up the lab with nitroglycerin.

Well, his advisor comes screaming in at two o’clock in the morning. He gets to campus, and the lab is fine. One of his students blew up the bathroom with liquid nitrogen.

“Oh,” he says. “That’s part of the experiment.” And he goes home and goes back to bed.


A true lab story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper scientific practice, nor restrain graduate students from doing the things that graduate students have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a lab story, you feel uplifted, or if you feel that you have learned some useful fact about science, you have been made the victim of an old and terrible lie. As an order-of-magnitude approximation, you can tell a true lab story by its absolute and utter lack of any real scientific content whatsoever. Listen to the post-doc. “Earth-shattering KABOOM!” he says. Then he laughs. He’s twenty-eight years old– it’s too much for him– so he looks at you and says “Earth-shattering KABOOM!”, because it’s so incredibly funny and true: the advisor went home and went back to bed.

You can tell a true lab story by the questions you ask. Somebody tells a tstory, and afterwards you ask “Can you really destroy a bathroom with liquid nitrogen in a soda bottle?” and if the answer matters, you’ve got your answer.

For example, you may have heard this one. Three physicists are sitting around the break room, and they take a light bulb, and put it in the microwave. Now, if you put a light bulb into a microwave oven, and turn it on, the microwaves build up a large electric field at the point ends of the metal bits inside the bulb, and the resulting plasma discharge makes the bulb light up.

Is it true?

The answer matters.

You’d feel cheated if it didn’t work that way. Without the grounding reality, it’s not an interesting physics trick, it’s just Hollywood nonsense. Yet even if it did happen– and you could stick a light bulb in your own microwave to find out– even then, you know it can’t be true, because a lab story that lame wouldn’t be worth telling. A thing may depend on actual physical principles, and be totally dull; another thing may leave out the physics explanation, and be truer than the truth. For example: three physicists are sitting around the break room, and a post-doc comes in with a bulb from an overhead projector. “How do you tell if one of these is burnt out?” she asks. One of the guys in the break room grabs it from her, and throws it in the microwave, where it lights up. He hands it back, and says “It’s fine.” The other two fall out of their chairs laughing.

That’s a true lab story. It may even have happened.

(With apologies to Tim O’Brien, and in honor of Seed soliciting lab lit for their fiction supplement issue….)

Comments

  1. #1 Mark LaFlamme
    January 27, 2006

    Speaking of Hollywood nonsense… The world’s leading physicist attempts to use the science of string theory to bring his daughter back from the dead. Government agents and a bestselling novelist race to find out if he was succesful. No, really.

  2. #2 Anonymous
    January 27, 2006

    So where are these polaroids?

  3. #3 Rob Anderson
    January 27, 2006

    My high school physics teacher was holding such a bottle when it went off. He now has a persistent ringing in his ears.

  4. #4 Dr. Free-Ride
    January 27, 2006

    A true lab story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper scientific practice, nor restrain graduate students from doing the things that graduate students have always done.

    At least, not until I get my hands on it!

    But I know the genre of true lab stories of which you speak, and I, too, find it enjoyable.

  5. #5 Jacques Distler
    January 27, 2006

    As to the lightbulb story, why would the plasma discharge depend on whether the filament is intact or broken?

    Having exploded more than one glass object in a microwave oven, I don’t intend trying this one. But as a test of whether the filament is intact, it doesn’t have the air of plausibility.

  6. #6 Roman Werpachowski
    January 28, 2006

    A true lab story: a young, bright chemist was working with ether, which has a boiling temperature between 30 and 40 degrees Celsius. Outside, it was about 35 degrees (it was summer) and he had ether containers next to a working Bunsen burner. Guess what happened? The whole damn thing blew up and the guy caught himself on fire. People came to err… put the fire down on him, taking fire extinguishers from the corridor. First one – empty. Second one – empty. Later, it turned out that this unfortunate chemist had such fires in his lab before, and quenched them with the extinguishers – but did not report them, because he knew it would not be looked lightly upon. So they had to run to the other corridor to bring the extinguishers. Unfortunately for him, in the time it happened, plastic surgery in Poland was not as advanced as it is now…

    Another one: in the physics institute my wife does her PhD now, there was a technician who’s task was fixing power supply units. So he had this PSU and for some reason it was under voltage. Accidentally, he had this voltage discharged across his body. Now he’s paralyzed.

    Take care, guys!

  7. #7 Chad Orzel
    January 28, 2006

    Anonymous: So where are these polaroids?

    If I had the Polaroids to show you, that would make it a different sort of lab story, wouldn’t it?

    Jacques Distler: As to the lightbulb story, why would the plasma discharge depend on whether the filament is intact or broken?

    It doesn’t. But if you don’t know the trick (and the post-doc with the bulb didn’t), it’s not immediately obvious.

    Roman Werpachowski: … Guess what happened? The whole damn thing blew up and the guy caught himself on fire.

    See, you’re not really getting the right spirit, here. That’s depressing, and far too close to being moral…

  8. #8 pevans
    January 28, 2006

    My best friend’s sister’s boyfriend’s brother’s girlfriend
    ….heard from this guy,
    ………who know this kid,
    ………….who’s going with this girl,
    who saw Ferris pass out at 31 Flavors last night.

    And the girl,
    …who saw Ferris pass out,
    ……is now the girlfriend of the grad student,
    ……….who is the buddy of the guy,
    …………who blew up the sink.

    And she has the pictures.

  9. #9 robopox
    January 28, 2006

    Thank you, Simone.

  10. #10 Barry
    January 28, 2006

    About the liquid nitrogen in the two-liter bottle. Would this immediately freeze the plastic, resulting in an *extremely* brittle bottle? It would also be boiling and building up pressure quickly…. I’d expect that the first kick would shatter it, even if there was no pressure built up.

  11. #11 Moshe
    January 28, 2006

    Ah! finally I see the charm in experimentalist life, I should have been told back in grad school.

  12. #12 Roman Werpachowski
    January 28, 2006

    See, you’re not really getting the right spirit, here. That’s depressing, and far too close to being moral…

    Well, call me a fun spoiler. I just thought that someone might get the false impression that you’ll always escape unharmed when fooling around in a lab.

  13. #13 Ron Avitzur
    January 28, 2006

    I was once told that an inch of liquid nitrogen at the bottom of a two-liter bottle will result in an explosion. Some students at CalTech were curious about the pressure reached in the bottle, re-inforced a two-liter Coke bottle with duct tape, attached a pressure gauge to the neck, and observed it with binoculars from a safe distance. I don’t recall the results, though.

  14. #14 been there, done that
    January 28, 2006

    About the liquid nitrogen in the two-liter bottle. Would this immediately freeze the plastic, resulting in an *extremely* brittle bottle? It would also be boiling and building up pressure quickly…. I’d expect that the first kick would shatter it, even if there was no pressure built up.

    You might expect that. But you’d be wrong.

  15. #15 Bob Oldendorf
    January 28, 2006

    “It’s only fun until somebody gets hurt.”

  16. #16 cyber_rigger
    January 28, 2006

    I always heard of using dry ice instead of liquid nitrogen
    (I have never tried it).

    I also heard that 2 liter bottle rupture at about 600-700 psi
    which could make for a violent bang.

  17. #17 togolosh
    January 29, 2006

    There was a tech at the lab I used to work at who was in the habit of charging the HV bank (it was a pulsed power experiment) to 50 kV and then seeing how far he could draw an arc with the chicken stick[*]. Remarkably, he is still alive, though no longer employed at the lab due to his decision to get a head start on knocking down a wall by coming in hammered in the wee hours of the morning and ramming it with the forklift.

    [*] a stick with a nonconductive handle and a copper tip grounded through a welding cable, used to ensure that things are discharged properly in the HV circuitry before working on them. Also called a bang stick due to the loud pants-crapping noise it makes when you touch it to something that’s charged up.

  18. #18 Chad Orzel
    January 29, 2006

    Bob Oldendorf: “It’s only fun until somebody gets hurt.”

    A football player in my freshman dorm used to say “It’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye. That’s when the real fun starts.”

    I’m not sure I’d want to suggest him as a role model, though…

    cyber_rigger: I always heard of using dry ice instead of liquid nitrogen (I have never tried it).

    Dry ice probably makes for a smaller bang.

    I can testify that a few tens of mililiters of liquid nitrogen in a plastic dropper bottle will make a pretty good bang. (It will also act like a little rocket for a while, as gas streams out of the nozzle. Eventually, they tend to develop little ice dams in the nozzle, and explode…)

    Having heard the bathroom story as a grad student (which is true, by the way– I have seen the Polaroids…), I’ve never tried a two-liter bottle. I have seen one source suggest that putting a one-liter bottle under a metal garbage can will loft the can a fair distance in the air (while containing the plastic shrapnel enough to be safe), but I haven’t tried that one, either.

  19. #19 Pete Harich
    January 29, 2006

    You don’t need anything except your eyes or ears – depending on whether the glass is transparent – to tell if a lightbulb is probably burnt out. Hold the bulb by the threads and rotate it gently, with the bulb end down. If you can see or hear loose pieces of the filiament inside the bulb, it’s no good.

    Learned this from an electrician, not a scientist.

  20. #20 Chad Orzel
    January 29, 2006

    The light bulb in the story was a bulb from an overhead projector– one of those very compact, very bright bulbs that might be halogen bulbs for all I know. It’s much harder to see whether things are intact in one of those.

    For conventional light bulbs, you’re absolutely right.

  21. #21 *poof* Magic mode
    January 29, 2006

    I also heard that 2 liter bottle rupture at about 600-700 psi which could make for a violent bang.

    I suspect it’s closer to 100-150 psi, at least according to the MythBusters.

  22. #22 Chad Orzel
    January 29, 2006

    The Wikipedia episode guide (episode 42) says 150 psi. I suspect there’s a good deal of variability, but that seems plausible.

    I haven’t seen that episode, so I can’t say anything more about it.

  23. #23 Dave S.
    January 29, 2006

    True story –

    Friend of mine, a biologist with a penchant for micro-heterotrophy, decides one day to measure uptake due to bacteria in a marine mesoscale system. Obviously he needs a control, and to control bacterial uptake means to use water soluble poisons to kill existing organisms and prevent new ones from establishing. The two most common bacteriocides for this purpose are sodium azide and mercury chloride. Both are effective, but neither are 100% effective. So he has a brilliant idea, one never before been conceived in the history of the science.

    Mix them together to make one bacterial super-poison.

    So he jauntilly puts some water in a beaker, adds a scoop of NaN3, another of Hg2Cl2, tosses the mix on a stirrer and gomes home to supper.

    He comes back and the beaker with the solution is gone…so is the mixer…except for the power cord laying on the bench.

    Turns out when you mix these you get mercury azide, which just happens to be a high explosive. O.K., at least he found out why it hadn’t been done before.

    P.S.: The analytical chem prof came over during the cleanup and was ecstatic to see the mercury mist that had blown into the aluminum frames of the cabinets had formed beautiful aluminum ‘feathers’.

  24. #24 Jeff Bell
    January 30, 2006

    I’ve done the dry ice thing. Several chips of dry ice followed by some warm water.

    The bottle didn’t shatter. It just of turned itself inside out, and bounced of the ceiling and the floor and the ceiling again. Maybe the coolth makes a difference in the liquid nitrogen case.

  25. #25 Brian Postow
    January 30, 2006

    I was in a lab with a similar Liquid Nitrogen story. This was at the National Institutes for Health, so there was a whole bomb scare. When the advisor came to the culprit (a summer intern) he said “Give me something to tell the police. Not the truth.”

    I’m sure the intern made up something appropriate because he was fairly inventive.

    If I remember correctly, the bottle was left behind a drill press or something, so nothing was seriously damaged.

  26. #26 Dave S.
    January 30, 2006

    If I remember correctly, the bottle was left behind a drill press or something, so nothing was seriously damaged.

    It’s always the innocent drill presses that suffer the most….

  27. #27 secret milkshake
    January 30, 2006

    I do not know if this qualifies and it is disgusting: Some kids in Prague were throwing chunks of sodium into river from a bridge and a policeman saw them. They got away because the police was distracted by a mysterious seagul explosion.

  28. #28 Jim Hu
    January 30, 2006

    Liquid N2 is suspected as the cause of a serious explosion in the Chemistry Dept. here. Fortunately it happened in the dead of night and no one was hurt.

  29. #29 Emily
    January 31, 2006

    When I was a sophomore, I heard that the senior class was bored one day in the advanced lab class because the professor was writing a proposal that day and left a TA in charge, and the TA just told them to “do the experiment or whatever”. Well, they decided to do whatever. They took all the lasers and all the mirrors and lenses in the lab and arranged them in intricate patterns around the lab, then turned the lasers on. They adjusted the mirrors and lenses until the laser dots were where they wanted them to be, but it looked pretty boring, what with not being able to actually *see* the laser beams and all. So they decided to do something about it. They went around the building and erased all the blackboards in all the empty classrooms that they found. I heard they even went to nearby buildings and erased the blackboards in empty classrooms there. Then they came back with tons of dirty erasers and started clapping them together. Then they had a very pretty laser beam show on the lab floor for whatever amount of time the chalk dust remained suspended in the air. And immediately after that they had a very dirty lab floor… Not sure what happened after that, so maybe the lab floor remained covered in chalk for a while :-P

  30. #30 TJ
    January 31, 2006

    I’ve done the dry ice version with a 20oz bottle. The thing blew up to the size of a football before it popped… after being thrown out a third story window… and skidded 10 or so feet on a cement walk.

    The thing made a horrendous bang and the campus police came within about 5 minutes. Which was long enough for me to retrieve the plastic.

    The LN2 I had less luck with- it did crack the bottom of my bottle. :(

  31. #31 Ron Avitzur
    February 6, 2006

    A friend asked some old techers and was told:
    I did actual measurements on this question back in the early 80′s. The
    answer was 160 +-20 PSI. We used a room in Blacker, which was undergoing a
    convienient renovation and hence a bit more destruction wouldn’t be noticed,
    as our lab.

  32. #32 imtrying
    March 10, 2006

    im no physicist or lab tech or professional anything…. i stumbled into this blog from a ‘site of the day’ referrer.

    but, the lightbulb in the microwave trick….. i have some experience er….. direct experience to share.

    i have done this trick myself
    with a juice glass full of water
    floated the socket end in the water
    and turned on the microwave

    the lightbulb will light up
    and ive never let it go on more than twenty seconds tops
    but it has never hurt anyone or anything over here.

    meekly,

    imtrying

  33. #33 James
    March 10, 2006

    From a Friend Who Was There:

    Student is instructed to set up a system to liquify ozone, ozone generator plus cold trap. Instructor asks to be informed when he’s made a few grams. Instead he comes in with a liter Dewar full of liquid ozone. Instructor says calmly, “Please put it on my desk.” Student complies. Instructor says, “Now go out into the hall and pull the fire alarm please.”

    As the building is being evacuated, Instructor informs student of extremely explosive nature of ozone.

    Several hours pass until the ozone has evaporated. Classes then resume.

    Said friend is also good for story about what happens when a fluorine tank springs a leak in a wooden shed.

  34. #34 Terry Johnson
    March 15, 2006

    A fellow is performing some organic chemistry in several liters of a flammable organic compound that doesn’t give off a lot of heat when it burns (think stage fire). He’s boiling the stuff in the hood, working alone, and in a butterfingers moment he spills the container onto himself, which catches flame.

    Naturally, he panics, flailing blinding around the room until he runs headfirst into a wall and knocks himself unconscious.

    He wakes up several minutes later, completely hairless and looking a little sunburned, with a large and painful bump on his forehead.

  35. #35 Roman Werpachowski
    December 10, 2006

    I do not know if this qualifies and it is disgusting: Some kids in Prague were throwing chunks of sodium into river from a bridge and a policeman saw them. They got away because the police was distracted by a mysterious seagul explosion.

    Some workers at Institute of Chemistry in Warsaw had a large brick of sodium on a wheelbarrow. They decided to drop it for fun into a large water tank where water was kept in case of fire (think of a small pool). There is a large KABOOM and the water in the tank just *disappears*.

  36. #36 John
    January 23, 2007

    That was the best laugh I’ve had in a long while. Thank you.

    The Tim O’Brien reference was absolutely brilliant (as was the book it came from, one of my all-time faves).

  37. #37 purplephoton
    February 16, 2007

    I did the light bulb experiment at home back in my high school days (my mom was none-too-pleased). After a while (~1 min) the glass begins to bulge, and then the thing shatters. Good clean fun.

    As for LN2, I’ve heard that the best thing to do is to fill a big plastic garbage can (the large institutional kind) with water, weigh down the LN2 soda bottle so it sinks, and drop it in. Then get back. It makes a rather spectacular geyser. (Obviously this should be done outdoors, and far away from other people)

  38. #38 Thaitanium
    June 25, 2007

    People just don’t think too well at 2am. In my case, since there was no 2-liter bottle available, we simply opted for the good old fashioned “lets freeze things then break them” LN2 fun. Pooled funds and the nearest vending machine provided us with the freeze fodder. Well not thinkin too well, the first thing we froze, Doritos…break at room tempreture (duh). Oreos were only a little better. But it was the spectacular shattering of 4-5 boxes of super-cooled raisins thrown against the floor that really proves how much judgement is affected at 2am. There may not have been any earth-shattering KABOOM, but I bet it took a lot longer to clean the thousands of sticky raisin fragments from all over the lab floor then to fix that sink.

  39. #39 David Richfield
    October 24, 2009

    Sodium attached to lead makes a nice depth charge

    Liquid Nitrogen is a bit twitchy for bottle bombs, and does sometimes freeze the bottle too much.

  40. #40 luagha
    October 30, 2011

    A high school science teacher recalls that when he was a lad, his high school science teacher would cover a student’s hand in a light coating of alcohol and set it on fire to demonstrate that the heat of the alcohol flame was too low and too fast to hurt him. So he sets out to repeat the experiment.

    Because times have moved on, though, he can’t pour alcohol on a student’s hand and set it alight without lengthy permission from parents. He pours the alcohol on his own hand and sets it alight in front of the students. A moment later, he starts screaming.

    The hairs on the back of his hand caught fire from the alcohol fire, and hair burns at a noticeably higher temperature not to mention being directly connected deeper into the skin.

    Of course when he was a kid, his high school teacher used students who were either female or young enough not to have noticeable hair on the backs of their hands…