Tall Technical Tales from LonCon3…

From the event programme: What kind of stories emerge from the lab when scientists gather round the campfire and have too much to drink? Will they involve exploding particle accelerators, the escape of dangerous diseases, or explain why you should never operate a centrifuge while drunk?

Having got in late (and after rather a few birthday drinks the day before) I thought I’d check out this humorous science panel, moderated by astrophysicist and observational astronomer David L Clements (Imperial College), PhD student of Molecular Biology Helen Pennington (Imperial also), Henry Spencer (astrophysicist and various other disciplines), and NASA’s Geoff Landis, a physicist and writer of SF.
Henry Spencer moves in swiftly after Landis establishes his sci-fi authorship claiming that he too has been known for such work: that his project proposals have certainly been of science in proposal though his budgets are similarly well known for being works of fiction; the result being something closer to the genre of horror.

David Clements kicks off the anecdotes, noting that observatories are at rather high altitudes which means there is less oxygen and a concurrent loss of points of IQ. On one occasion, having settled in to observatory and the tasks therein, he became aware there was something he’d forgotten. No, the data was coming in okay. Yes he’d checked the weather conditions. So what had he forgotten? Oh yes:

See it turns out the breathing reflex kicks in not because of a lack of oxygen but an excess of carbon dioxide. Humorous and informative.

He goes on to relate the time he was up the mountain cutting a part to size in order to fit it, and phoned down to sea level to have the following approximate exchange:

“Sea Level – I’ve cut this part three times and it’s still too short.”

“Come down now!”

We’re then treated to stories of up and coming scientists attempting to freeze dry a litre and a half of chloroform in a corridor (you can tell the science buffs in the room here and throughout by the collective intakes of breath and early laughter before it’s explained to the rest of us). But yes, this rather destroyed the freeze dryer and nearly filled the immediate environs with gaseous chloroform; this courtesy of Helen Pennington.
I did enjoy the image built by Geoff Landis when he’d bunged the wrong end of a tube with something particularly hazardous inside. He was found wandering around the lab sans labcoat and trousers with a load of tissues attempting to clear up. (His explanation anyway).

We’re back with Helen Pennington. Another student, she tells us, was repeatedly noticed (and thank goodness she was noticed) approaching the autoclave with something inappropriate. Are ethanol, chloroform or bleach inappropriate to put in an autoclave? (YES, according to the rest of the room!) Someone else was attempting to win the Darwin Awards on her own behalf and that of her colleagues besides by opening a centrifuge into which she’d put – and then heard break – a sample of Legionnaires Disease. Everyone in the lab required three months of heavy antibiotics. I wonder if they saw the funny side as we did. Regrettably, as Henry Spencer comes in with, Darwinian processes are statistical in nature. (You might imagine that her unwilling colleagues in the Award attempt might likewise feel such regrets.)

Oh there’s plenty more from the panel. Someone actually did manage to destroy an entire chemistry building though, I confess, the science passed me by. We hear of an explosives course in Semtin, a place which gives its name to a little substance ending with ‘ex’ rather than ‘in’, and the rather cavalier (if not inquisitive) attitude to safety of one of the instructors. (Think Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka’s attitude to being teleported by television). Also there was the Muslim lady on the course dressed in the traditional hijab attempting to re-enter the country covered in explosives residue. I got that one at least straight off.

I wasn’t quite so sure what the cause of the underground explosion was in the next story (something nuclear I think) but it blew a manhole cover straight up a considerable distance. How considerable? Well it wasn’t found – they’re pretty sure it reached escape velocity.

Then we’re on to fridges. People leaving food in fridges (next to the exciting chemicals). People leaving notes on containers in fridges saying ‘Whoever stole the sample of nitrous oxide this is not nitrous oxide.’

On a similar chilly subject we hear of a Group Safety Officer whose party trick was gargling liquid nitrogen; yes apparently it’s fine as long as you keep it moving. (It’s explained that the Group Safety Officer is usually the most dangerous person in the department because if they tell you not to do something…) But then someone else fancied trying the same but forgot that you are meant to ‘spit, not swallow’. Fortunately (!) it didn’t freeze-burn his insides. Instead, feeling the pressure building and thinking he was going to be sick, he made it to the stairwell which was essentially a twelve-storey echo chamber, whereupon he produced the loudest and longest belch anyone had ever heard.

And that’s according to scientist so they should know.

Great stuff – cheers to all who came along and contributed!