Are You OK, Boomer?

, , , , , , | Learning | November 3, 2020

In the late 1970s, I am a junior taking chemistry in high school. This is basic chemistry, essentially giving students the opportunity to get familiar with the methods and procedures they’ll need to use when taking chemistry in college. Because the school is located in a small town, it is on the small side, as well. This means that chemistry, biology, and other science classes share the same modest lab space.

We are using Bunsen burners to heat up small coils of magnesium which are placed in the bottom of little ceramic crucibles. The experiment is supposed to be demonstrating how heating the coiled metal will change the metal’s shape as it expands. Really basic stuff.

Before we get started, my lab partner and I notice some sort of off-white gunk baked into the bottom of the crucible. The gunk won’t rinse out, so I ask the teacher for a new crucible. The teacher takes a look at it and tells us to just use the crucible as-is.

Teacher: “It’s not going to affect the experiment.”

Me: “Are you sure? We don’t even know what this stuff is.”

Teacher: “I’m sure. Get started. You guys are way behind everyone else.”

So, we drop the coiled strip of magnesium into the bottom of the crucible and place it in the stand over the burner. We light it up and take turns observing the metal as it heats. We both speculate about the nature of the baked-on gunk while we wait for the coil to start changing shape from the heat.

I have just slid safety goggles over my eyes and leaned forward to look into the crucible when there is a loud BANG, followed by a streak of red flying past my ear and bits of shattered crucible flying all over the lab bench, floor, and me. My lab partner shuts off the burner while I make sure I’m not hurt, and then we turn to see what flew past me.

The chemistry teacher is about six feet away, using tongs to pick up something which seems to be melting its way through one of the plastic mats on the floor by another lab bench. There is quite a bit of smoke which reeks of burning plastic, and other students are scrambling to open windows to get rid of the stench.

The teacher drops the burning magnesium into a bucket full of sand kept handy for just that purpose and then comes over to make sure my lab partner and I are okay. Neither of us are hurt, fortunately, although we are both scared and excited the way people get when the danger has passed. The teacher is pretty pale, too.

He checks the lab record book and figures out that the gunk left in the crucible was potassium carbonate from a Chemistry 2 class the previous month.

Teacher: “Okay! Let’s never do that again. What just happened is called a ‘violent exothermic reaction.’ This was not what we were supposed to be learning about today, but everyone now has a better understanding of why lab safety is so important. It also emphasizes the importance of cleaning your lab equipment after each use. Any questions?”

I raise my hand.

Teacher: “Yes, [My Name]?”

Me: “Didn’t you say it wouldn’t affect the experiment?”

Teacher: *Looking pained* “That’s another important lesson: be careful of your assumptions. I assumed no one would have been stupid enough to leave a crucible coated with a known catalyst in the lab supply cage.”

My lab partner and I weren’t penalized for not completing the experiment, and the chemistry teacher called me “Boomer” for the rest of my time at school.

I did not sign up for Chemistry 2 class in my senior year.

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