Friday, January 19, 2007

Fire in the hole!

Many moons ago, when I was a young chemistry graduate student, I participated in an Outreach program that had university students (grad and undergrad) visiting local schools and performing chemistry demonstrations. Many of the experiments were of the explosive variety to elicit “oohs” and “ahhs” from the audience.

Typically, there were two or three of us doing the demos, as going it alone was frowned upon, but sometimes I would have perform solo, especially when the undergrads had gone home for the summer but the local schools were still in session. One such time was for a class of sixth graders at a local middle school.

I was performing one of our more popular experiments, the hydrogen balloon. We’d have two balloons, one filled with helium the other with hydrogen. Attaching a match to the end of a long metal stick, first we’d put the lit match to the helium balloon. It would pop, but nothing else. Next, we’d turn out the lights and give the hydrogen the same treatment, resulting in a pretty spectacular fireball (well for indoors at any rate), and the kids would clap and shout. My shtick was to have the kids say “Oh the humanity!” as I put the match to the balloon (then explain a bit about the Hindenburg disaster). Usually, I got a few laughs and the kids loved the explosion, but this time things didn’t go quite the way I planned.

I got through the helium balloon part just fine, but when I went to light the hydrogen balloon, there was a small pin-hole that caused the balloon to shoot a jet of flame instead of exploding in a fireball. Immediately, I pulled the stick away, but unbeknownst to me, the jet action had wrapped the balloon’s string around the stick. Instead of moving away from the balloon, I was actually pulling it toward me. Thankfully, I was wearing a short-sleeved t-shirt so the flames just singed the hair off my forearm and were extinguished quickly. After the flames were out, I heard the class cheering wildly and chants of “Do it again!”

Years later, when asked to participate in a stunt which called for me to be purposely set on fire by some fire-eating friends, this little event allowed me to truthfully reply, “That’s alright, I’ve been on fire in front of an audience before”.

(image via wikipedia)

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