[Editor’s Note: Brian Murphy is currently being detained in a Turkish prison. He hopes to tunnel his way out by next Thursday, but until then we bring you a special guest column written by Tim Kelly.]
Out of all of the classes and activities in which young people participate in school, perhaps the most unique and exciting is science. I base this not on the knowledge that is gained or the subject matter, but simply on the sheer variety of ways a student can be injured or maimed during any given class period.
Schools start kids out slowly, with grade school science curriculum providing students with only rudimentary knowledge about infectious diseases, deadly poisons, the effects of blood loss, and the geographical location of dangerous wildlife. As the students move into their junior high and high school years, the science field branches out into more specialized classes like biology, chemistry, and physics, each class offering its own customized array of dangers to provide students with more well-rounded peril.
When entering a school’s science classroom, it should come as no surprise to find soot or scorch marks on the walls from a recent fire. Likewise, one should enter the science classroom fully expecting to find scraps of test subjects, shards of glass, and all manner of mangled debris resulting from explosions of varying severity that took place in the previous class period. Junior high and high school science classes are a sadistic funhouse; a veritable shop of unknown horrors.
Where else but eighth grade science class could my classmates and I convince Robert Harris (often called “Elvis”, due to his resemblance to Elvis Presley, not due to addiction to amphetamines and profuse sweating) to swallow a live goldfish? Which other class would provide us with the opportunity to prod a live scorpion with our pencils, hoping to see it attempt to strike at us? Certainly not algebra!
Yes, my own experiences in science classes left me with fond memories, most of them taking place during various “lab” exercises, as science labs are pretty much school-sponsored health hazards. Like the time my friend Ben and I placed a styrofoam cup over a lit Bunsen burner, laughing as it melted, only to find out later that burning styrofoam produces highly toxic gases, which are classified as human carcinogens. Or the time our class was using sugar cubes as a part of a lab experiment and I suggested to Ben that he taste one of the sugar cubes. What we did not know at the time, but were immediately informed of (post-lick) by our teacher, was that these sugar cubes were soaked in formaldehyde.
I pause a moment now to read from the website of the United States Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA): “Ingestion of as little as 30 ml (1 oz.) of a solution containing 37% formaldehyde has been reported to cause death in an adult. Ingestion may cause corrosive injury to the gastrointestinal mucosa, with nausea, vomiting, pain, bleeding and perforation. Systematic effects include metabolic acidosis, CNS depression and coma, respiratory distress, and renal failure.” Had this information been provided to Ben and I prior to my suggestion that he lick the carcinogen-marinated sugar cube, we may have reconsidered our actions.
It was during a study hall period in the science room that our science teacher collaborated with us to formulate higher levels of pain and danger, like the time we utilized a Van de Graaff generator. It was determined through systematic testing that by standing on insulated styrofoam panels and holding a metal rod with one hand on the generator, far more powerful electrical shocks could be administered.
In the years since my science class experiences, I have come to have a new admiration for life. I believe that I, along with my classmates, escaped death or dismemberment a minimum of twice a week. I look back on those carefree days, relieved that tragedy did not strike, particularly on the days when we would gather around a large beaker filled with a substantial volume of hydrochloric acid, dropping various objects in to see how quickly they would dissolve. I don’t know what school science classes are like now, whether things have been reined in significantly by the EPA and other federal organizations or have escalated to newer and more dangerous levels. But I do know this: I am fortunate to be alive …
… and I also know that styrofoam peanuts liquify in acid.
Tim Kelly is a mythical creature reportedly sighted numerous times in the wooded lands of North America. Actually, that’s Bigfoot. Tim Kelly’s bio and background will sound much more plausible once he puts thought into making it up. You can find more of his writing at his MySpace blog.