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A Little Learning can be Dangerous

Philip Noel

AS an aid to identification if things went wrong, my war-time naval service record noted that the third finger of my right hand had been 'amputated' at the first joint and this distinguishing mark is included in the personal details section of all my passports up to the present. You may well ask what on earth this has to do with LCGS and the answer is that but for the Chemistry Department of that establishment I would still have a full set of working digits.

In his amusing contribution our Skeptical Chymist describes the goings-on in what I think was known officially as the Advanced Chemistry Lab built over the gym as part of the school extension programme in 1937. My story goes back to the early 30's when there were only two science labs, chemistry and physics, at the east end of the building, each with a small prep-room and store adjoining.

The VI form chemistry syllabus had reached the subject of 'unstable compounds'. After mastering the art of making gunpowder, a skill shared by most of the Lewes population in those days, and learning the formula for the crystals (nitrogen tri-iodide ? Or was it copper acetylide ?) which gave such satisfying results when scattered on the floor of the lab, I found myself one of a small group determined to study the subject in greater depth.

By today's standards it seems incredible that the resources of the Science Department, including the contents of the Chemistry store, were available for unsupervised experiments by VI Formers, but independent study was in no way discouraged and seniors were expected to act responsibly. However accidents did sometimes happen as this account will show.

The root of my misfortune lay in the discovery that fulminate of mercury was quite easy to make and had some very interesting properties. A small quantity wrapped in silver paper and tossed through the lab window would explode on landing, blowing a small crater in the gravel path outside.

The temptation to demonstrate these properties to my younger sister at home was irresistible. The material for the demonstration was transferred in a suitably-protected test-tube in my blazer pocket from the school to my bedroom where I set about preparing a bomblet calculated to scare my sister out of her wits. The events which followed remain indelibly in my memory to this day. A square of silver paper on the surface of my desk waiting to receive its charge from the tilted test-tube in my right hand --- a violent explosion --- intense pain --- and the realisation that I had suffered serious injury .

My immediate anxieties were not lessened by the need to get an urgent message to one of my co-experimenters to dispose of about a quarter of a pound of gun-cotton which had been pushed down behind one of the radiators in the prep room to dry. Fortunately this was successfully retrieved without injury or, as far as I know, the knowledge of any of the masters.

I will pass over the very gory details and merely mention that it was some months, during which I had to learn to write with my left hand, before a somewhat deformed right hand, minus part of the third finger, was brought back into use. I suppose I should be thankful that the pieces of shattered test-tube had to be picked out of my hand and not my face and eyes but it was a pretty frightening experience nevertheless.

Strangely I have no recollection of any inquiry or investigation into the incident, nor of any punitive action, and there is no mention in the end-of-term report so perhaps it was thought that the experience itself was sufficient punishment.

In the Navy, some years later, the elderly Gunner instructing us on preparing and laying demolition charges used to conclude his sessions with the admonition "H'and remember, gentlemen, - h'explosives is not 'azardous - h'until you forgets they h'is.". Quiteso.