Field of Science

Bathroom tiles and acid trips

Paul's post on the Westinghouse science talent search contest alluded to strange and wondrous things one might do as a youngster, and reminded me of my bathroom lab.
Our house had a spare bathroom which nobody used often, and this lab became a fond retreat for me and my amateur chemical experiments. In this lab, I was sealed from the uncertainties of the human world, and surrounded by unexpected happenings from the world of Chemicia instead.

I worked in this "lab" from when I was about 11 years old till the end of high school (junior college). It began when my mother got me a chemistry set. This set contained things like copper sulfate (CuSO4) and potassium ferrocyanide (K4Fe(CN)6) which are considered "too dangerous" in chemistry sets today. But more importantly, I discovered a science store which supplied chemicals and equipment for laboratories. They would not sell caustic chemicals to me, so I used to take my dad along, who is a professor of economics. Somehow, the professorial title used to persuade them to sell me satanic elixirs. Later, I convinced them that I was a chemistry tutor for a lab; by that time, they trusted me more and did not mind slapping a kilogram of sodium on the table for me. Obviously, it was assumed that the responsibility for death or debilitating damage was mine alone.

From this store, I got the usual repository of the devil's dozen; sodium metal, magnesium metal, and the three standard "ic" acids, H2SO4, HNO3, and HCl; sufurIC, nitrIC, hydrochlorIC. Sodium, the feisty witch which burned violently and smoldered at the mere touch of water, magnesium the flaming spirit which burned bright, steady and long, and the triumvirate of the "ic" acids which, calm as they looked in their amber coloured bottles, could burn hell if hell dared to raise eyebrows at them. I experienced many acid trips (of the non-addictive kind) with these beasties.

My experiments were of the crude amateur type. I almost never documented what I did, and reveled simply in the sounds, smells, and colours of chemistry. Some of the "experiments" I did:

1. Making "soap", hydrogen sulfide, and hydrogen chloride gas (common salt + H2SO4)
2. Dying handkerchiefs various colours by mixing, say, K4Fe(CN)6 and CuSO4. Pretty sight for the eyes, but best not to wipe a nose with them.
3. Producing the quaint smell of Iodex by mixing salicylic acid with methanol

Then there were the proverbial spills and thrills. These included:

1. Spilling a whole bottle of concentrated HCl and prying loose a dozen bathroom tiles.
2. Obsessively doing the potassium permanganate (KMnO4) + glycerine reaction. Try it out if you haven't; some KMnO4 plus a few drops of glycerine, and the whole thing starts to smoke after a few seconds and then gloriously catches fire.

One time I almost blew up everything was when I did the infamous iodine + concentrated ammonia reaction. This forms a compound, nitrogen triiodide, (NI3.6NH3) which is so unbelievably shock-sensitive that a mere feather can set it off in a puff. Also, it gains potency as it become dry. Fortunately, the amount I used was small, only enough to make me jump out of my skin.

Probably the closest I came to being a chemical martyr was when I made large quantities of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) by dissolving copper hairpins and safety pins in concentrated nitric acid. I never felt a tinge of overexposure; no runny nose, no nausea, no feeling faint.
But that's exactly how it's supposed to be like. It was much much later when I came to graduate school that I read about the insidious, cruel villain that's NO2 from the Merck Index. The sinister gas can kill you without any warning symptoms, much later after you inhale it. From Wikipedia:
Nitrogen dioxide is toxic by inhalation. Symptoms of poisoning (lung edema) tend to appear several hours after one has inhaled a low but potentially fatal dose. Also, low concentrations (4 ppm) will anesthetize the nose, thus creating a potential for overexposure."
As John Clark says in his rollicking "Ignition! An informal history of liquid rocket propellants", a man who inhaled NO2 would cheerfully strut around, and then suddenly drop dead. Hallelujah.

The best account of amateur teenage chemistry ever by the way is Oliver Sacks's absolutely delightful "Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood". That age is past now, as almost every interesting reactive chemical has been banished from school and teenage chemistry kits under the pretext of "safety". These chemicals have now been replaced with increasing risks in their everyday lives; drugs, air pollution, insidious foods.
One more addition to the waning of scientific temper. I hope that at least that old chemical store survives, free of "regulation", to provide inquisitive kids like me with unending excitement. So that they can also have their very own bathroom lab which will forever live in their memory.

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