Question: What has been your biggest faliure in the lab? (explosions?!) Thanks- PandaKid :3

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  1. I’m a theorist nowadays. Back when I was a student, I did a summer project building a solid state laser. It had a fairly powerful laser firing at a little block of crystal – if you focused the light down enough it could cause the air to ionize (you got little cracks with every pulse). Anyway, so I think I focused it a big much and managed to burn one of the faces of a fairly expensive crystal. I haven’t spent much time in a lab since 🙂


  2. Both of these incidents were in the “lab”, but not the traditional lab you would think of…

    In the first we were in Torres Straits trawling for “by-catch” (species brought up by trawler nets that the fishermen are not interested in – coral, sponges, sea stars, sea cucumbers, etc.) to investigate the impacts of trawling on such species. During one of our trawls we got caught up on a coral bomby. These nets and rigging are quite tough and built to withstand small outcrops. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a small outcrop, it wasn’t recorded on the nautical maps and the sonar hadn’t picked it up either. As a consequence the gear was wrecked. We didn’t have a spare rig on board, so had to steam for a day in either direction to collect some new gear to finish the research trip. We were up there for about one week and lost two days due to this catastrophe.

    The second was on the Brisbane River – no where near as dramatic, but far more embarrassing. It was during my honours year and I was out looking for Brahminy Kites. We launched a canadian canoe, with a small outboard motor on the back, near a popular picnic area opposite the city. At this stage I hadn’t had much experience with the canoe, and we had not long left the shore when along should came one of the big Rivercat Ferries. I turned the canoe towards on coming waves with some concern, and held my nerve hoping for the best. Unfortunately the waves were bigger than the side of the canoe and we started taking on water. It quickly filled up, we over-balanced and into the river we went. We both emerged laugh and it wouldn’t been so bad if the park had been empty. Unfortunately it was full of people and we received a standing ovation as we dragged the canoe to shore and abandoned our trip for the day thanks to a drowned engine.


  3. I was using chemicals to extract heavy metals from fish meat when my “brew” boiled and overflowed and then caught fire… lucky I had the right equipment nearby to deal with it.

    Oh and like James, I have had many boating mishaps – flipped boats, broken motors, long paddles to shore … all embarrassing episodes.


  4. Astronomers don’t really work in labs, but that doesn’t mean we don’t have failures!

    My biggest failure was a situation where we thought we had detected magnetism in very old stars, which might have explained the shaping of the gas surrounding them (think of the way iron filings respond to a magnet). We were very confident in our results and had double and triple checked them and did all sorts of statistical checks. Unfortunately several years later someone discovered that the instrument we used had its own intrinsic magnetism that no one had known about before and this was what we had measured. Sure enough, we went back and re-analysed the data along with some new data and the earlier result went away. We ended up publishing a new paper which was effectively a retraction of the previous results. Such is life!


  5. I don’t do any lab work now, but I do remember breaking 3 thermometers in a science practical exam at school!