by Bill Mullis
Now that everybody's back in school, it's time to cast our minds back into the depths of time to remember a quieter, gentler age....

It was a quiet day in the spring of my junior year of high school. I was, through no fault of my own, in a college prep program, along with a bunch of kids who were certifiable geniuses. Or, in some cases, simply certifiable.

Two of these guys (let's call them Mark and Ricky) were especially strong in the physical sciences, including, of course, chemistry. They were, in every way, completely respectable young citizens of the Republic, with nary a spot nor blemish to their names. They were, in a word, model students, beloved of parents, teachers, and school administrators.

Until the unfortunate extracurricular project.

Turns out one of them (which one has been lost to the mists of time) got his hands on an old chemistry textbook in the local library, and was astounded to find the formula and detailed instructions for the making of nitroglycerin.

As I understand it, the discoverer called his buddy over and said, "Look at this. Is this for real?"

"No way," said the buddy emphatically. "No way they'd actually put that in a book. It's gotta be fake. They must have left something out."

"No, I think it's real."

So when the compound changed color just the way the instructions said it should, the intrepid duo were suddenly very trepid indeed. They looked at each other over the flask of innocuously amber liquid and, surrounded by the contents of the chemistry lab storeroom they had entered without authorization and used without forethought, very quietly and softly decided to vacate the premises.

They went to the next lab down the hall, where the science teacher was using her lunch period to grade lab notebooks, and poured out their sorry tale. More probably, stammered would be the accurate verb, but I'll try to put the same brave face on it that Mark and Ricky did. The teacher, having spent a long career listening to cock-and-bull stories, listened with the proper amount of jaded skepticism, then asked the appropriate questions the appropriate number of times. She sighed, put down her sandwich and her red marker, and stood.

"Show me," she said.

The first indication the rest of us had that something was amiss was when the fire alarms went off and we evacuated the building. The buildings on either side of us were also cleared. I missed English and History, and didn't even get to see the bomb squad. I understand they were impressed by the purity and the potency of the compound Mark and Ricky produced, since it would have flattened half the school if things hadn't gone as well as they did.

The police detectives weren't nearly as impressed, but once they determined that no actual criminal intent was involved, just plain old-fashioned stupidity, the boys were released to their parents. No charges were filed, but these guys couldn't cough loudly without a police interview for the next hear and a half.

And that's why chemistry lab storerooms are locked up to this day.

Bill Mullis currently spends his days feeling sad because he never got to play with high explosives as a child. You can keep up with his latest antics via The Captain's Log at www.mindovermullis.com.

Image credit: usafa.af.mil


  1. Eep! The most adventurous thing I ever did in Chemistry was stir my stuff anti-clockwise.

    Great post, Bill! :)


  2. Ya know, I've been burning to read this post. It ignited my curiosity. Just sayin... :)

  3. So THAT'S the reason why schools don't allow real-live chemistry lab time any more. Great post!

  4. @Adam: luckily they followed instructions and stirred clockwise. The results of reverse stirring of a bucket of pre-nitro might been disastrous. Makes me shudder to think about it.

  5. @jcaddell: I could tell there was a smoldering interest out there. I'm just happy I was able to fuse the strands of the story together into a cohesive whole. Even though it's mine, all, mine, I was kinda afraid it would bomb.

  6. @Beth: Yep. The kids in South Carolina are just that smart....

  7. So glad I wasn't brave enough or nurse-inclined enough to take chem. I did my burning in home-ec, where my career as a jam and jelly expert died a painful death on my first attempt at orange marmalade.

    Thanks for the smiles, Bill!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.