Science is a dangerous game, don’t let the glasses and lab-coats fool you. They’re doing some crazy cool things in there, making the world a better place in ways you and I probably couldn’t even begin to understand.But with a bold frontier comes danger. Or sometimes someone’s just not using their head, that happens a lot too.
Here, scientists and engineers of all stripes share the time they avoided a complete meltdown in the lab. From explosions to lasers and crumbling buildings, enjoy! Make sure to check out the sources at the bottom for even more.
1. Going nuclear.
I am a Nuclear Engineer, and typically work in and around the control rooms. Avoiding catastrophes is our business, so thankfully nothing went fatally wrong, but the most hair-raising event went as follows.
Bad storms were playing havok with the network, and we had been warned we might lose our connection. We were making all the preparations we could, but some systems were out for maintenance, so we expected trouble.
In the early hours of the morning, the worst happened and a tree fell on the power line, cutting us off and tripping our main transformer. The system starts running down, and it looks like everything is safe.
Some of the most essential systems are supported by a no-break electrical system, using batteries to keep them propped up when we are in transitional situations. One of the transformers that supported this was out for work. Unfortunately, in the chaos the other transformer exploded.
The no-break supplies came to the rescue, but one of the motor-alternator sets didn’t start, so the board couldn’t power up properly. We had lost supplies to the seal oil system.
The seal oil system maintains the seals around the generator, which is filled with hydrogen for maximum heat conduction. We’ve lost the system, and the generator is spinning down, so we had just a few minutes until gas started leaking, and a fire or explosion started. If anyone hasn’t seen a turbine/generator explosion, imagine 500 tonnes of steel shrapnel flying for a couple of miles in every direction.
The control room was pretty much useless at that point. The reactor was safe, manages by automatic protection systems, and displays were clogged up with over 72,000 unique alarms. The only thing to do do was throw on a helmet and run towards the potential turbine death-trap.
Once we arrived, we had to purge the generator with CO2 as fast as we could to block the explosion. If we had been even a few minutes later, we could have easily been disintegrated in the fireball, and half the building levelled from the worlds largest shotgun. At the time it didn’t scare me, but once I got home it took the better part of a bottle of whiskey to get to sleep.
2. You’re so expelled.
A Masters student in our lab needed some 100% ethanol which is stored in 5 L glass bottles. He wanted it to be sterile so he took the near full bottle over to the bunsen burner area to open it by a flame. Luckily, our lab tech stopped him before he blew up the lab.
3. Fire hot.
During high school. We had a particularly intelligent guy in our lab that decided to light a beaker full of some sort of alcohol on fire. The genius decided that the best way of doing this would be to hold the beaker in one hand and then drop a match into the beaker. (Story continues…)
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Surprise surprise alcohol burns. The guy was amused, “Cool dude it burns haha”. Then he learned that fire is also hot and that a flaming beaker also gets hot. “Oh man its hot, whoops.” then the guy decided the best course of action to avoid burning his hand was to throw the beaker on the ground. The beaker exploded in a massive fireball and about half of the lab was on fire. People on the side of the lab that is now engulfed in flame are screaming as everyone on the other side is just staring in awe. Then from the front of the room desks being thrown out of the way and a rallying cry of “FIRE!” is heard as our teacher rushes into action and manages to put out the inferno before any real damage is done.
4. What’s that ringing…
I had a large washing machine sized centrifuge explode. Imagine it sounded like a bomb because I had tinnitus for a couple of days afterwards. That was two years ago and I am still wary of centrifuges.
5. Breaking bad.
My first science type job when I was a sophomore in college. I was sort of the undergrad chemistry TA for the small community college I went to. There was only one chemistry professor and he had just replaced the old professor a month before I started. The old chem professor left the chemical storage area in a horrible state of neglect and danger and I was tasked with helping clean it up.
Included in the mess was some random piece of glassware from decades ago that had at least 2 pounds of mercury in it, an old broken mercury barometer (I don’t know how nobody noticed a pool of mercury on the floor, don’t know how long it was there – quite a health hazard) and a shoebox full of vials labelled “A”, “B”, and “C” containing either white or bluish powder. I don’t know what he was thinking, but the new professor instructed me to empty all of vials into an empty glass container to have picked up when the chemical waste guys come. At the time I wasn’t the safety oriented scientist I am now, so I didn’t question it and started working. (Story continues..)
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After 5 or 6 vials I noticed some sort of reaction taking place so I call out the professor’s name and he walks in just as the mixture in the glass container starts to smoke. He grabs it and throws it in the fume hood and slams the door shut just as it bursts into flames and lets out plumes of dark brown smoke. I have been very careful with all of my work in labs since then.
6. Math kills.
One day a colleague of mine was currying a higher-order function. His hand jerked, and lambda expressions spilled all over the lab. He would’ve had third-degree formal burns if he wasn’t wearing a lab coat.
Computer Science is hard stuff man.
7. Leave it to geniuses to do dumb things.
Guy left a puddle in a liquid hydrogen container boiling off overnight, came back next day and switched on light. People 7 floors above thought there was a terrorist attack.
Insanely smart PhD student fired a vacuum gun the wrong way. 5kg maraging steel projectile embedded itself in wall.
8. She won’t hold much longer cap’n.
Late one night when I was in gradschool, my friend from highschool is visiting me. Its about 10:30PM and I wanted to drop by lab to pick up my laptop so we could use it while kicking back a few drinks. I also wanted to show him the lab since we had some really awesome equipment that I knew he would appreciate.
On the way (on the first floor; my lab is on the second) in I see the department head and another professor on the first floor. Its not unusual to see professors around that late but the department head is usually out much earlier. As I get closer I wave hello but he stops, looks at me with a stern face and shouts down the hall, Sir, there is a problem in your lab.” (Story continues…)
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That’s the moment I look down and notice he is wearing waders and hes standing in several inches of water. Instantly my face goes white as I remember I had just changed water lines on a diffusion pump earlier that afternoon and thought they failed to hold (they dump a total for 4gallons/min through all the pumps).
I rush up stairs to find everything submerged under 6-8 inches of water including a $100K laser power supply and many high voltage boxes. As it turns out it wasn’t my fault and a water line on the top floor broke and dumped thousands of gallons down through the building. In total it flooded our lab frying all the power supplies, missed dumping on an $80k amplifier by ~1foot, filled several laser tables with water (ruining them with rust), and completely flooded a clean room below us.
It could have been worse but it set back research for us by months and others by years (and probably over half a million in damages). Thank god for insurance.
9. This is bananas.
I had a friend who washed a large chunk of pure potassium down the sink. That went bad quickly. For those who dont know potassium catches fire in water.
10. Frying yourself.
This could have ended badly but just ended up being more funny. When I was a sophomore at my university, I was working in the nuclear labs with my fellow nuclear engineers. We were doing a fairly simple experiment to show radiation drops off at a rate of 1/r2 where r is the distance from the source.
For this lab we were using a hot source about 50Ci Cs-137 source (note 50Ci is a pretty hot source) and some hand held geiger counters. The source was kept in a lead pig with a door that slid open and closed to create a beam of radiation. While we were preparing for the experiment and taking readings the first student was standing about 1 meter (3 feet) from the source holding the counter in front of his testicles which were level with the beam. Here he was completely unaware that he would become sterile when the door opened. Luckily as my prof. went to open the door he looked over started to laugh and said “Hey, if you want to have kids students. Don’t measure radiation with your Gonads.”
11. High pressure job.
I worked at a cement plant as a Process Engineer. One of my jobs was to work with the lab chemist to ensure quality control on our cement chemistry.
One day, we were sitting in his office discussing which section of quarry to work from next to gain the most efficient run for the year based on availability of other reagents. Suddenly, we hear a loud bang, and a hole about the size of a quarter appears in the wall between his office and the lab, and another on the opposite wall to the outside. (Story continues…)
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At first, we thought it was from the explosives used to blast away a section of the quarry and it was a piece of rock that managed to make it up to the plant (not unheard of, but rarely something that dangerous).
Turns out, the pressure tester (which applies pressure to a block of set concrete to test the yield strength) had been left on while on of the techs went on break. Although the cement gave way at around 3000 psi, the tester caught on a bit of rock in the concrete mix, hitting around 10k psi before it ejected the rock like a bullet. Broke the pressure tester too.
12. No laughing matter.
Basically my lab group once accidentally created a toxic laughing gas during a chemistry experiment.
13. Bring in the beavers.
I worked in flood defence as a civil engineering technician for a while (drawing up dams, correcting things as engineers altered specs) and while it was an office not a lab, our work directly affects the general public. We maintain and build nearly all of the UK’s sluices, flood gates, dams and weirs, rurally and urban.
Anyway, one time there was this guy on his first project that he was managing (a prestigious but nerve wracking experience for any civil engineer) and as usual site surveying is done, and they concluded that the bottom of the river at that point was concrete from a previous weir. This is obviously a really important part as this is where the new dam’s nape and reinforced concrete will be seated.
Turns out it wasn’t concrete, it was decades-old twigs and mud compacted by the river and the installment over time to a consistency of concrete. For all intents and purposes, that bar was concrete by our readings.
So the dam finally gets built and the guy is ready to go over his work and finalize and earn the company a buttload of money. Then, it dislodges from the crumbling ancient mud at the bottom and washes downstream, leaving debris and floodwater for miles.
Apparently he needed about 6 months of counseling before he could even return to work. Infrastructure has its risks.
14. The legend of Dr. X.
This didn’t happen to me, it’s a really old story that’s been passed around the science community for a while now as an example of how your lab can kill you. It goes like this:
“In a lab like this, you have to always be aware of stray reflections,” Dr. X said. It was hard to understand him over the whine of the laser. “I never wear my wedding ring when I enter the lab. Always use blackened tools when working near the beam.” I glanced at the screwdrivers laid out on the optical table. Their shiny surfaces were pulsing a brilliant orange in time with the laser.
“You can’t make any mistakes. A ten nanosecond pulse to the eye is something that you will regret for the rest of your life.” (Story continues…)
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“If you drop something, either turn off the laser or leave it on the floor. Don’t ever bring yourself eye level to the laser.” He made a flat sweeping motion with his hand at the level of the beam path, a gesture which carried his wrist straight through the laser beam.
There was a spark of orange and a sound of fingers snapping. Dr. X calmly and smoothly withdrew his hand and causally let it rest on his hip. He continued his lecture without skipping a beat, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see the tension in his arm. When he thought I wasn’t looking, he gingerly rubbed his injured wrist with this other hand.
From experience, I knew the sensation was like having a lit match inside of your body. He would wake up with a nasty subcutaneous blister. I respected his dignity and pretended that I had noticed anything.
It was a good thing that Dr. X touched the beam where he did. The laser gets its orange hue by passing through a cell of organic dye. Before the beam passes through the dye, it’s a brilliant green color. This color changing process is only 10-20% efficient. The green beam carries about 3 joules per shot. That’s only about 1% of the energy contained in a good solid punch, but is spread out over about 1% of the surface area and only one billionth of the time interval. For a brief instant, whatever the beam touches is being heated at a rate of one hundred billion kelvins per second. Had Dr. X touched the green part of the beam, it would have cut his wrist open like a knife. This has happened to someone that I know.
In principle, all of these beams are invisible. The photons all travel in very straight lines, and none of those lines point to your eye. However, the beams are bright enough that they illuminate the dust in the air, tracing out a spotted, ghostly trail through the room. The rays are controlled with highly specialized mirrors and prisms. These optics are usually about 99% efficient. The remaining one percent is lost as random, incoherent scatter. This scattered light bursts outward in a spherical shell, and only a tiny portion of this shell will intersect your eye. Even so, this tiny percent of a tiny percent is several times brighter than the sun.
Each mirror is a miniature sun, pulsing at a rate of ten times a second. There is a brilliant green constellation near the pump laser, which fades into a series of starry orange flares. Further downstream, the optics are limned in ghostly purple splashes as the invisible ultraviolet beam glances from mirror to mirror.
You can change the colors by using different dyes. My favorite is the blue one. Sometimes, when working alone, I turn out the lights and admire my artificial sky.
A nanosecond resolved pulse might sound fast, but I sometimes need to study the internal dynamics of individual molecules. To observe these events, I need a shorter shutter speed. A million times shorter, in fact.
When you’re dealing with events on the scale of femtoseconds, you have to abandon common sense notions about time. At such tiny intervals, the very concepts of energy and time become entangled with each other. If the time is well determined, then the energy cannot be. If the energy of the photons is not known, than the wavelength, and therefore, the color, is also unknown. An ultrafast laser contains all possible colors. This is not because it contains photons of every different color. It is because each individual photon is every color at once.
If the wavelength distribution is centered on the visible spectrum, you get a white laser. We always use the IR and UV wavelengths, so I’ve never seen this before. I really want to. White is the only color I’ve never seen.
Another side effect of dealing with ultrafast pulses is that the impact is much more intense. The target system has only a millionth of a billionth of a second to deal with the incoming energy. A mirror that can handle this without scarring is about the size of a quarter and costs $800. We never align the laser without wearing safety goggles.
The ultrafast lab was never intended to contain as much equipment as it does. Walking through it means tripping over disassembled vacuum pumps, old notebooks and assorted tools. I once found a nondescript envelope sitting on the desk. I opened it, and out dropped a sapphire rod about the size of my finger. It had probably stopped lasing efficiently enough to suit some former grad student, and so it got discarded and forgotten. I put it on the spare parts shelf next to the abandoned ion source, which is a chunk of shaped gold about the size of my fist.
Because of the patchwork development of the lab, the laser and the laser targets ended up on the opposite side of a dividing wall. We had to drill holes in the wall to route the beams through. The wall is filled with wires and pipes, and the decision of where to put the holes was more a question of “Where can we put them?” rather than “Where do we want to put them?” This is why the beam path is just a few inches below the level of my face.
These experiments are very demanding. When I have ultrafast beam time, I typically work 12-16 hours a day, every day, for a week. About half of that time is spent fixing unexpected technical problems. No matter how well you think you’re prepared something always goes wrong. It can be very frustrating.
It doesn’t help that the lasers are routed through an area that I frequently need to walk through. We have a metal shield that I can use to block and unblock the beams as I pass through. It’s a monster pain in the ass, and it’s easy to forget when you’re focused on figuring out what the heck is wrong with the instrument today.
Two weeks ago, I made my first mistake.
After three hours of testing and retesting one of the vacuum pumps, I lowered my head into the cradle of my hands, a familiar gesture of tired frustration.
Suddenly, the only thing I could see was the color blue.
I snapped my head back. The laser beam, now doubly invisible, was scything through the air right where my face had been.
There really isn’t anything that you can do about a laser eye injury. Either your vision comes back, or it doesn’t. Accepting my fate, I felt my way to an unused corner and sat down. Behind closed eyes, I stared into the perfect, uninterrupted blue.