We HAVE to Evacuate NOW!


  1. Last night before heading off to bed, I glanced at my Twitter feed to see what the other side of the world was chatting about when it came to science. After all, it was Valentine’s Day and a myriad of science news stories about the reproduction habits of animals other than humans were making headlines. I even found an economical analysis on the production of single stem roses.

    I found @Chemjobber, @SeeArrOh, and @DrRubidium chatting about the five most dangerous English words. Their examples were ones that I had heard while working as a scientist. Chaos ensued after five words were carelessly strung together.
  2. .@Chemjobber “what’s the worst that’ll happen?” #dangerous5
  3. I added my own tweet.
  4. Then things just grew…
  5. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had this exchange in the lab
  6. Then I made this innocent tweet.
  7. If you liked #overlyhonestmethods, check out #dangerous5. Five most dreaded words strung together in a lab.
  8. Scientists were chiming in from all over the place with their own #dangerous5 and I thought it would be great to commiserate. My #dangerous5 tweets were things that really did set off a chain of events. Some of them frightening.
  9. Unfortunately they didn’t know what they were doing. They were also winging it. Just 30 seconds after that declaration I experienced my first lab accident in my third year undergraduate lab session. It was serious. I copped a lungful of concentrated sulphuric acid fumes. It was awful.

    The person had placed a stopper on the end of his reflux column during a digest. You NEVER do this. Ever. Expanding gases need somewhere to go otherwise pressure builds up.
  10. If you have to ask this, you really shouldn’t be doing chemistry. Or cook.
  11. .@Chemjobber “Is this the right colour?” Especially worrying when there isn’t supposed to be a colour. #dangerous5
  12. I left a trainee to make up a standard solution of 0.05M hydrochloric acid. They had a degree in chemistry. Next thing I knew they were coming to me with a volumetric flask that was lurid yellow. I have no idea what happened. I do know that I ended up making the standard solution and put in a formal request that the trainee be sent to another department because their basics weren’t up to scratch.
  13. Never add a little more of anything especially to a superheated liquid. Ever. Hot liquid and gas goes everywhere and it burns. A lot. And that’s just water. When it’s a chemical, burns are much much worse.
  14. The bane of my existence. I label every beaker with permanent marker before use. Unfortunately not everyone labels glassware and some people think that while I’m focussed on my tasks, I know exactly what they’re doing as well. Well I don’t.

    Just as I was about to suggest using a bit of litmus paper to check, this bright spark decided to sniff their beakers. You don’t sniff in chemistry. You waft. Always waft. They got a noseful of acid fume and promptly dropped the beaker of acid onto the bench where some fairly expensive electronics were sitting.
  15. This introduction
  16. followed by this description of me
  17. has always negatively impacted my productivity and positively impacted on blood pressure, stress, and worst of all, levels of paperwork.
  18. This was said to me by someone who had taken it upon themselves to delete a method, (program to tell instruments what to do and when), from an analytical instrument without consulting anyone. Turn around time increased significantly and it was the first time I heard my then mild mannered supervisor swear.
  19. In a lab you get used to a certain level of smell. You live with it just so long as extraction hoods are working and there isn’t a catastrophe in progress. So when someone asks,
  20. Pay attention especially if they’ve been around longer than you in the lab because the next question could turn into,
  21. What had happened was that the hose carrying water in a distillation set up was touching the same spot providing heat. It had melted and water was being diverted to live electrical cables. It shorted. Spectacularly. The building was evacuated.
  22. There’s this thing about cyanide gas. It smells of almonds or at least that’s what I’ve been told. I’ve never been able to verify it even though I’ve worked extensively in gold analysis. Through a quirk of genetics, I can’t smell it. I need to rely on gas monitors, working fumehoods, and people not to pour acid waste into cyanide waste.

    I continued working in away until my supervisor who had forgotten his sunglasses came in. He swung into action and barked at me,
  23. Thankfully no damage done. I was made to sit outside in fresh air and given the rest of the day off after a medical check up. I was shaken for weeks after the incident because all the failsafes hadn’t triggered.
  24. “Did anyone else feel that?” (in reference to unexpected tremors & earthquakes) #dangerous5
  25. I worked in one lab that was literally down the road from the minesite. It remains as one of the favourite labs I’ve ever had the privilege to be part of. I didn’t believe that the working mine was just over there until I was knocked off my feet by a particularly large blast.

    Who would place a working laboratory with chemicals and expensive instrumentation so close? It doesn’t make sense, that is unless it’s decided to mine closer to the lab. The lab has since been moved.
  26. The person who said this received urgent first aid from me 5 minutes after. They got concentrated nitric acid in their eye. They cried like a baby. I got the task of filing paperwork.
  27. Wrong. There are a myriad of gloves made of different materials because they react and behave differently to various chemicals in the lab. That’s why there’s also often a glove safety chart to help out with choosing the right glove. Not everything is catered for sensitive skin and allergies.
  28. Said in the same lab to me. I became unemployed soon after. In retrospect, I should have taken the first statement as a warning. Lesson learned. I also promised to never work in academia again.
  29. Always, and I mean always ask to see what duct tape is being applied to. It could be to substitute glassware joins which is not a good idea. Some improvisations are never meant to be.
  30. Every experiment needs looking after. Every. Single. One.
  31. No other phrases can send chill the lab so efficiently. Think of your very worst rental inspection and then multiply it by a million. That comes close to the dread I felt every time I heard that there would be visitors.

    Every single one of them would expect an immaculate shiny lab with the latest gadgets as seen the previous night on CSI. I would have to be dressed in a lab coat even though uniform dictates that I wear other apparel in place of a lab coat. The problem was that I essentially worked with dirt. Ok, mineral samples for various metals but essentially they look like powdered dirt. The machines used for analysis don’t need to be the latest shiny instrument on the market so often they weren’t the top model.
    Total let down. Even worse was when they didn’t see an explosion. What am I? A magician?
  32. Unfortunately science has a lot of measuring. That in itself involves numbers. This is well before any statistical analysis needs doing.

    If you’ve never sat through the night and greeted dawn by the light of a monitor rectifying incorrect data analysis before a deadline that can’t be missed, consider yourself lucky. There is nothing more stressful and rage inducing.
  33. No. You’re in a lab. You do not head to Wikipedia. You know eight year olds can be editors right? You need to head to a science journal where scientists in your field are publishing their work. You know, the people who know stuff.
  34. This could lead to you spending hours (re)organising your reference library or it could mean you found a plagiarised journal article. The latter is less likely but it does happen resulting in headaches and embarrassing retractions.

1 Comment

Filed under Awesomeness, Life Observations, Science Communication in Action, The Weird World of the Web

One response to “We HAVE to Evacuate NOW!

  1. Pingback: Blogroll: Chemistry in crowds : The Sceptical Chymist

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