Blowing the school off the map
In my first year of teaching I was confronted with a strange explosive situation.
I was teaching an Upper Sixth practical lesson. The students were all around the lab carrying out their investigations. I was engrossed producing a results table up on the blackboard so that they could all fill in their findings and gain a set of class results.
I looked back to discover the laboratory was empty apart from one lone student. He had a boiling tube of amber looking fluid that appearing to be boiling despite not being heated.
‘What are you doing, Brian?’ I asked looking suspiciously at the violently bubbling tube. ‘Where is everyone?’
‘Nothing, sir,’ Brian replied innocently. ‘I don’t know where they’ve gone.’
‘He’s making nitroglycerine,’ a voice from outside the door informed me.
I walked over to Brian. ‘What’s in there?’ I asked sternly a tad concerned, pointing to the tube.
Brian informed me that he had added equal parts of glycerin, concentrated nitric acid and concentrated sulphuric acid. Now I’m not a chemist. But I know that sulphuric acid has an affinity for water and can remove water from glycerin and enable nitrate groups to attach. It seemed feasible that you could make nitroglycerin.
Nitroglycerin is a powerful explosive. It is unstable and can be triggered by heat or contact and that tube was showing every sign of being extremely hot.
I’m not sure how big a crater a boiling tube of nitroglycerin might make. It certainly would play havoc with my laboratory decoration. Things are rarely improved by splattering them with body parts.
Whether it was feasible or not? I hadn’t a clue. I was taking no chances. I took the boiling liquid off Brian and flushed it down the sink with copious amounts of water. I washed the boiling tube out and called the class back in.
I then took Brian out into the corridor for a little head to head. I wondered what punishment might be appropriate for blowing a school off the map?