By CHADWICK CARTER – STAFF WRITER
It’s the standard, general-education science experience—the lab. Three long hours of careful manipulation of variables are all spent to try to produce the exact same results as the rest of the class. Occasionally, though, the monotony is broken by something more exciting—and accident.
Mistakes in the laboratory have the potential to be even more memorable than the effectively completed experiments. Many lab accidents are dangerous, harmful, and scary—generally not a laughing matter.
Some accidents, however, combine just the right amount of bad luck and poor foresight with non-harmful results to create truly entertaining stories.
Assistant Professor of Psychology Dr. Aaron Godlaski researched the relationship between alcohol and aggression in graduate school at the University of Kentucky.
This research was the subject of his thesis, dissertation, and several other studies in order to assess an individual’s personality with various tests, administering alcohol, and observing the individual under circumstances that generate aggression. His research experiences additionally produced some comedic stories.
“Basically what I did throughout graduate school was get people drunk and then shock them,” Dr. Godlaski said.
One 2006 study of his involved testing the concept that drinking different alcoholic beverages causes different effects, although the alcohol in them is chemically identical.
“We wanted to see if there actually was a difference between brewed alcohol and distilled alcohol. It’s a pretty common expectancy that when you drink hard liquor you’re gonna get crazier, so we wanted to see if people actually did,” Dr. Godlaski said.
The problem with previous studies on this subject was that participants knew which type of alcohol they were drinking, so the expectancy of different effects played a role in the results.
To combat expectancy effects, Dr. Godlaski came up with a novel idea: fortifying non-alcoholic beer with distilled alcohol to the alcohol content of normal beer. This way, people would think they were drinking beer, but really they’d be drinking distilled alcohol.
“In seven years of working there, the non-alcoholic beer condition in that study was the only time I ever saw anybody get sick from being dosed, and they weren’t even being dosed with alcohol. People got drunk, they said funny stuff, I got hit-on a couple times. But no one drinking alcohol ever threw up,” Dr. Godlaski said. “In theory it was a great idea, and I would have been able to publish it. But sometimes a good idea on paper doesn’t pragmatically pan out. Sometimes you’re asking a college student to drink six beers in 35 minutes, and that’s not necessarily a good idea. They might be totally into it, but it might not end well.”
Professor of Chemistry Dr. Ed Montgomery’s lab accident story took place during a tumultuous time in American history. It was 1970, shortly after the Kent State shootings, on the campus of the University of Kentucky.
“Students were marching from one side of campus to another. The National Guard was shooting tear gas,” Dr. Montgomery said.
An organic chemistry graduate student in the Chemistry-Physics building, nicknamed “Izzy,” was using a steam generator to heat up organic materials. Because these materials are generally flammable, using an open flame is unsafe.
“Izzy was a guy who, if something broke, he broke it. There were people who just did not let him in their lab,” Dr. Montgomery said.
The steam generator had two safety valves, and Izzy removed and replaced one with a bolt. As for the other valve, Izzy “screwed [it] down as tight as could be.”
“Suddenly the steam generator blew up. Izzy was standing right next to it. It broke every piece of glassware in the lab,” Dr. Montgomery said.
Izzy was, miraculously, unharmed from this generator explosion.
“One of the funniest things that I’ve ever seen in my life is Izzy standing in the middle of this demolished lab explaining to the fireman that they use steam instead of a flame to heat organic materials because the steam is safer—and this fireman is just looking around at these absolute shambles,” Dr. Montgomery said.
In the context of the violence and bomb threats of the time, the event made waves across the area.
All the hospitals in Lexington were placed on emergency status to receive the casualties that were expected to arrive from the university after the steam generator accident.
“All because Izzy screwed down the safety valve on the steam generator,” Dr. Montgomery said.
As for where Izzy is living these days, Dr. Montgomery can only guess.
“I have no idea what’s become of him,” Dr. Montgomery said. “For all I know he’s running a meth lab. He accepted the fact that disaster followed him.”
While the lab experiments can sometimes be dull, the occasional accident can always spice things up a little. Do not take the lab too seriously, because for all you know, a mistake here and a deviation from protocol there might make for a great story.