Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Things Left Behind

We made the mistake of listening to the news on the way home yesterday.  Protip: don’t ever do that.  Nothing good will come of it.

Oh, I don’t mean the usual political nonsense.  That never changes.  “Right-wing extremists find new way to subvert Constitution and impoverish America’s future while liberals stand by and look butthurt.”  You can pretty much post that headline any day of the week these days and it would apply.

No, the top story of the day was the recent discovery of smallpox virus in an abandoned lab in Maryland.  Because what the world needs is another outbreak of the single most deadly pathogenic killer of humanity decades after we thought it had been eradicated.

But that’s how it is with old labs.  You never know what’s there.

This, of course, led to all sorts of stories.  Kim is a chemist, after all, and intriguing discoveries in the back of old labs are just part of the chemical life, yo.

My favorite such story was told to me years ago by my friend Chuck.  If you want the full version you need to hear it from him – he’s a marvelous storyteller – but this is the basic outline:

The town just to the north of us used to have a college.  It was founded in the mid-19th century and eventually went bankrupt around the time Reagan was first elected.  There were a number of buildings that survived, including a few of the old-timers – multi-story cream-city brick structures, all clustered around a grassy area.  They’re still there now, in fact.

Chuck eventually decided to buy one of them to use as a workshop.  He’s one of those handy people who’s always got some project going, often one too big to do in his basement – he does a lot of work for local theater groups, for example.  And the buildings were just sitting there.  They practically gave it to him, just to have someone in the building taking care of it.

Two things you should understand at this point:

First, this was the old science building, which naturally included the chemistry lab and its stockroom.

And second, nobody had any idea what was inside of it.  Some of the things in there had been forgotten since the First World War.

Realizing that the first order of business would be to take all of the old stuff out of the building, Chuck enlisted one of his friends to help him gather stuff up and take it away.  They slowly worked through the place until they got to the chemistry area.

They spent a good part of a morning picking up old bottles of unidentifiable substances and putting them in boxes.  They’d haul the boxes down the stairs from the third floor where the lab was, clinking all the way, and toss them into the truck to take over to the local hazmat disposal center.  And then Chuck picked up a gallon-sized jug of something, turned to his friend and said, “What do you think this is?”

As Chuck tells the story, his friend looked at the bottle and froze.

“Chuck,” he said carefully, “Put.  That.  Down.  Very.  VERY.  Slowly.”

He did so.

“Now,” said his friend with the kind of exaggeratedly precise diction one often finds among people who feel they might just be able to count their remaining lifespan in minutes on their fingers, “we are going to walk very quietly and very carefully out of this room and outside.”

It turned out that Chuck had picked up nearly a full gallon of dried picric acid.

For those of you not up on your chemistry, picric acid was used in the early 20th century as an antiseptic and burn medication, among other things, and Kim said that it was often used in chemical testing as well.  Its main use, however, was as an explosive.

When wet, picric acid is fairly stable.  But when it dries out it becomes extremely volatile – a word chemists use to mean “psychotic, and not in a good way” – and shock sensitive.  Like that one college buddy you used to have that you eventually learned not to invite to parties, it takes very little provocation to make this stuff go off with severe unpleasantness.

In other words, had Chuck dropped that bottle it is entirely possible that neither he nor the 3-story brick building he and his friend were standing in would be around today.

Eventually the bomb squad was called in from Madison.  They took the jar to a nearby quarry – a time-consuming and delicate trip, according to Chuck – and then had a sniper take it out from a quarter mile away.

It made quite the bang, so I was told.


Unknown said...

The best story like that I've heard is about a schoolroom where science was taught. When they renovated and took up the floor, they found a lake of mercury underneath.

David said...

See, nobody finds stuff like that in old history classrooms.

Dust mites. Doodles. Things like that.

Dr. Phil (Physics) said...

Mercury lakes are not uncommon. The old double layer hardwood subfloors tended to trap the stuff and in the old days it was handled carelessly and spilled all the time. It beads up into little spheres, easy to swipe off the lab tables. Cool looking, too.

Dr. Phil

John the Scientist said...

I once found a bottle of hydrazine in the back of an unused portable hood.


We used to have a 1 kg jar of KCN in an unsecured cabinet, too.

David said...

Picric acid, mercury, hydrazine, potassium cyanide - I think I had better stay on Kim's good side if this is the sort of thing that is commonly found laying about in chemistry labs.

Ewan said...

We've had picric acid dry up - not a full gallon, happily - and I regularly work with tetrodotoxin. The guy next door to me just cleared out his lab - biochemist, been there 30+ years - anf the faces of the hazmat disposal people as they plowed through the detritus were entertaining.

David said...

Yeah, there's a reason I never went out for the Hazmat Team when I was a firefighter. Flames just burn. The rest of it? Oy.