School Chemistry, then and now
    By Robert H Olley | May 6th 2013 10:30 AM | 1 comment | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    About Robert H

    Until recently, I worked in the Polymer Physics Group of the Physics Department at the University of Reading.

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    Alerted by a link on Real Clear Science, I turned to an article on, namely

    Felony Science

    Sixteen-year-old Kiera Wilmot’s curiosity was apparently piqued when a friend told her that if you mixed hydrochloric acid and aluminum, an exciting reaction happened. . . . . . She was expelled from school and now faces felony charges.

    This is well worth reading.  However, I would like to relate a not too dissimilar incident from the authorized biography of Margaret Thatcher.

     * * * * * * *

    There was something else that Margaret worked out scientifically, with alarming results.  In the spring of 1943, the post-exam celebrations resulted in ink being spilt on the “precious parquet floor of our form-room”.  For Lorna Smith, this was a second offence.

    “Knowing that soap and water was useless, what was to be done? Surely, this time we would be expelled.  Then someone thought of our star scientist – Margaret Roberts would know what would remove the now-spreading black stain.  Her remedy was that it should be sprinkled with bleaching-powder and then have hydrochloric acid poured on (stolen from the lab).  I scrubbed away furiously, and sure enough, the boards began to recover.

    “But the next moment I was almost overcome by the fumes and had to rush out of doors, quite blue in the face – no one knew that the lethal mixture would give off chlorine gas.  Our violent coughing and splutterings alerted the staff, who were too genuinely concerned about us to be angry at the mess.  Indeed, the next day, there was surprisingly little retribution; I suspect that Margaret had quietly been to Miss Gillies [the headmistress] and owned up to her near-fatal advice.  My lungs have not been the same since.”

    * * * * * * *

    I could say “there are lessons to be learned” from both incidents.  But because in Britain this has become a standard reply whenever something has gone wrong, maybe I’d better not.


    A very long time ago I needed to descale a very old semi-public gent's toilet.  No proprietary brand of cleaner could do the job so I used very dilute hydrochloric acid.  It was sufficient for me to post a simple paper sign - "danger, keep out." and to inform my boss of my actions.

    In today's Britain the nanny state would have me evacuate to a 10 mile radius and post "danger of death" notices at every road junction.

    Danger of death !