They’ve got smellier stuff than we do, too

We biologists think we’re all grody and cool with our dead mice, but then some smart-aleck chemist has to go trump us all with thermite explosions. That just isn’t fair.

Just wait. Now some physicist is going to come along and make us all envious with his homebuilt laser.

Hold it! I just had a brilliant thought! If we got a physicist, a chemist, and a biologist together, we could make a laser-triggered thermite mouse trap. That would be waaaaaay better than a glue trap.


  1. Nymphalidae says

    Whatever. As an entomlogist I will outlive all those “cool” guys with their thermite and lasers. Hurray for being the longest lived profession!

  2. Rocky says

    Braniac, love that show!
    They always blow up campers in different way, and have three babes blow stuff up at the end of the show for points.
    Fun stuff.

  3. Algerine says

    Whoop de doo. Chemists and physicists may have the violence, but we biologists have sex.

  4. says

    I think “some smart-aleck chemist” is acually going to be the sub-heading on my CV now, right under my name.

    I work with atmospheric pressure plasmas, so count me among those who gets to light stuff on fire and blow stuff up (albeit on a very small scale) every day. Hooray for chemistry!

  5. says

    “The irreversable thermite reation has begun!” should be a tagline for something. I’m not sure what, though.

  6. Frito says

    I remember making thermite in high school chemestry using nothing but a diagram showing the basics of what was needed. I think there is still bits of iron stuck to that lab table. Good thing we didn’t fill up a flower pot in the first experiment like the book showed being done… that would have been very, very bad. About an ounce was enough to melt through the evaporating dish we were using and shatter it.

    Good times.

  7. says

    What a great coincidence… last night’s CSI* mentioned the stuff and — being one of those fools that only took physics at school — I’d never heard of it. All those great experiments and videos that I missed out on at Standard Grade. :-(

    * Yeah yeah, so the science is balls. That doesn’t mean it isn’t funny to watch them “enhance” data from nowhere** and put things in the 5-minute DNA-o-matic.

    ** Now there’s an example of getting information from nowhere. Why aren’t the fundies boycotting CSI?

  8. Tom Ames says

    What was that thing underneath the explosion in the first “experiment”? It looked like a block of dry ice.

    Big deal: they melted a block of dry ice.

  9. says

    Big deal: they melted a block of dry ice.

    Actually, it was liquid nitrogen (temperature around -200 C). It’s not surprising that the molten iron boiled it quickly, but I can see someone with no science background wondering which would win out.

  10. iGollum says

    “5-minute DNA-o-matic”, such an apt description – Argh, I always get incredibly annoyed when I see these kinds of Quik-E-Science devices. Used to be a huge fan of Star Trek (ok, that was my nerd coming-out right there) but suspension of disbelief only goes so far, y’know? Anyone remember that one time on Voyager when the Doc realized the crew’s DNA sequences had been tampered with because there were little alien barcodes on the nucleotides? No, really. *sound of teeth gnashing*

  11. KeithB says

    Shucks, this was in Blade Runner, when Deckard puts the snake scale in his handy-dandy electron microscope/entertainment center to determine who engineered the snake. Though I got the feeling that the tag was a legal requirement.

    (I guess they did not go down to the DNA level, but pretty close)

  12. Grimgrin says

    iGollum: The worst science atrocity I ever saw on Voyager was actually pretty apt for this blog.

    Janeway is looking at a simulation of a hadrosaur on the holodeck. The simulation was coded from DNA (!!) they had on file. Janeway then asks the computer to “Show us what the hadrosaur would have looked like if it continued to evolve”. The hadrosaur obediently morphs into alien-du-jour obediently. Because evolution is a deterministic process that can be modelled on a computer independant of population or environmental data.

    I wanted to throw a brick at the T.V. at that point.

  13. Ersatz Evil says

    I had a great pyro friend, who made thermite from time to time. I was always impressed by using it to set the asphalt on the roadbed on fire (didn’t take much thermite).

  14. David says

    Thermite is really fun stuff. I used to make it as a kid, but when your source of aluminum powder is a block of aluminum and a file, you don’t make too much. As far as lasers go, that Floyd concert is one of the best displays I’ve ever seen. I have it on laserdisk, and I finally copied it to DVD since my lasrdisk player is dying. The commercial DVD release is supposed to be in September of this year.

  15. Barry says

    PZ: “Hold it! I just had a brilliant thought! If we got a physicist, a chemist, and a biologist together, we could make a laser-triggered thermite mouse trap. That would be waaaaaay better than a glue trap.”

    And then Dembski swoops in, takes one of the three scientists away, and voila! Useless parts :(

    Forcing the other two to go to his house, and demonstrate that, while they no longer have a mousetrap, they can still have a ‘reduce-Dembski-to-absolutely-irreducible-parts’ party. :)

  16. Realist says

    And then somebody from the humanities will hear of this amazing mouse-trap, and make a beaten path to your door.

  17. Vasha says

    When I was in college, I knew a guy who accidentally (luckily no one was hurt) discovered how to make nitrogen bombs: put about an inch of liquid nitrogen in a plastic one-liter soda bottle and close the top tightly. Wait about half an hour. At this point the bottle will be bulging due to evaporation; now stay well away from it. The bottle will burst, the remaining liquid nitrogen will be splattered into droplets, evaporate instantly, and expand with an amazing amount of force. For example, a metal garbage can will be twisted and mangled by a nitrogen bomb going off inside it.

  18. says

    Vasha, I encountered a lesser version of that; a 600ml dry-ice hand grenade. Went off while in the guy’s hand at a picnic. He was VERY lucky to have it rupture away from him and his fingers, so nothing was broken or lacerated.

  19. says

    iGollum – yeah I saw that episode of Voyager, what worthless bunk. I thought for a second, though, that maybe other species might modify their DNA (like we do with methyl groups) in some recognizable way – alien epigenetics? But that’s nothing compared to the Hadrosaur evolving in a directed manner….? Sounds like some bull I’ve read over at uncommon descent – called “Front-loading” Definitely Sci-Fi uninformed by Sci-Facts.

  20. barney says

    As a semi-informed chemist and, more recently, a home-owner, let me state that the thermite will just make more holes in the house through which the mice might get in and, in appropriate seasons, the residual warmth might attract even more. It would probably work wonders on carpenter ants, though I’m sure the ladybugs (now apparently the carnivorous Asian variant) would adopt the technology to precook my flesh before they commenced their nibbling.

  21. vandalhooch says

    My students love the thermite demonstration in class. I’m trying to think of clever things to do with the resultant liquid iron. Maybe a ceramic mold of some sort? Any suggestions?

  22. iGollum says

    Grimgrin, Inoculated – I see I’m not alone… I’m all for fun futuristic and somewhat wacky science concepts, but Voyager went so far into the worthless side of uninformed science it wasn’t funny anymore. They obviously didn’t bother getting advice from anyone with even a basic understanding of molecular structure, genetics, or evolution. And it always seemed so easy and quick, a vague verbal command to the computer would readjust their models to hyper precise specifications that would reveal the exact property they were looking for. It would have been nice to represent the painstaking aspect of scientific research, from time to time…

  23. says

    Maybe I’m paranoid, but I can’t imagine doing even the smallest thermite demo without a huge amount of sand underneath to catch the liquid iron/aluminum oxide mess in, as well as fire extinguishers at the ready to put out anything else ignited by the main reaction.

  24. Louis says

    Thermite is fun and all, but I prefer nitroglycerine, some cotton wool, the plastic inside shells of “Kinder Surprise” eggs, and a set of old golf clubs. Combine several drunken PhD chemists, the roof of a chemistry department and 3 in the morning and let the good times roll! (We managed to thwack a few far enough to explode against the opposite building, most went off as soon as we hit them. Campus security were highly amused that we escaped). Synthetic chemistry PhDs are frustrating, catharsis and release of tension is mandatory.

    Vasha, and other fans of liquid nitrogen pressure explosions: the process can be rapidly speeded up by giving the container a good shake for about 2 seconds and throwing it far away. My prefered recepticle is an empty 500g magnesium sulfate container (Aldrich is good, Fischer is better, more thread on the cap = better seal = bigger bang) with roughly 200 mL of liquid nitrogen poured in. Shake, chuck and enjoy!

    Of course the old “piece of dry ice in the screw top glass vial” strategically placed in a friend’s laboratory is always amusing. As is the handful of dry ice in the rubber glove left in a friend’s desk drawer. Ahh the good old days.

    Yes we did do work too. Honest!

  25. Dunc says

    We had great fun the day our chem teacher did the thermite demo… We started off outside (for safety reasons), but due to wind he couldn’t get the fuse lit, so we moved back indoors. Unfortunately, our techer must’ve been a bit flustered by that point, as he forgot to put a heatproof mat under the crucible and set his desk on fire. ;)

  26. luna_the_cat says

    Oh, c’mon…you mean to tell me you didn’t see the one-page piece on the laser flyswatter in the 13 April issue of Nature?

    Ok, so it was fictional. Still…..

  27. dk says

    we got laser over here. what kind of laser you want?

    how about peak power exceeding the entire output of the us power grid? is that zappy enough for you?

  28. luna_the_cat says

    I want a laser flyswatter that has an automatic targetting system and costs less than $50 per fried mosquito, dammit!

  29. Ab_Normal says

    Jeremy, my family did the diet coke and mentos experiment last night in the driveway. Got a good 10-12 foot geyser… now we’re going to have to go back to the store and buy different varieties of soda, as well as different types of mentos, as last weekend we tried it with non-diet Mountain Dew analogue and it didn’t work well at all (maximum height of less than a foot). Go go gadget scientific method!

  30. says

    We used to do the thermit reaction as chemistry students in school when we were supposed to be studying. This was in 6th form (17 years old). We had full access to the labs. It was brilliant. We learnt loads. Today’s health and safety people would probably drop down dead on the spot with a seizure if they found today’s schools kids with the access we had. Our chemistry teachers were brilliant.

  31. Flex says


    For our thermite practice in middle school we had to steal our materials and set it off in an abandoned lot. This was in the mid-eighties. I wonder if the materials are even available for teenagers to steal from chemistry any more?

    Then in the service, filling film canisters with liquid nitrogen and throwing them under a co-workers desk was fun, and not too hazardous.

    Now about the most exiting thing I do is mix bleach and ammonia to get rid of insect infestations with the resulting clorine gas.

    Ah, to be young and carefree again.