Why I Can’t Smell, or Blowing Up the Science Lab

It often comes up in conversation that I cannot smell a thing. Not even strong chemical smells or gas. I only have four senses – my sense of smell is completely gone, and will be forever.

Nope – wasn’t born that way. Heck, I remember growing up, all the way from downstairs I could tell you if we were having cheese dogs or regular hot dogs for dinner. I was a sophomore in high school (10th grade) when I lost my sense of smell in a science lab experiment gone horrifically wrong. This was to be the first of two incidents directly involving me, and the high school science lab.

The first incident was the one in which I lost my sense of smell. The second one was just a very hands-on lesson in the surprising properties of certain molecular compounds.

Fall, 1986. By this time I was driving my parents’ Chevette to school every day, as I had to be at the Bus Barn by 5:30 each morning to run the airport school bus route.

My 6th period class that semester (right before I would return to the Bus Barn each day for the afternoon run) was Physics. We were boiling water and several mostly inert (non-reactive) ingredients in beakers, then we were supposed to identify the resulting compound by smell.  The winning answer was sulfur, but everyone kept guessing it was ammonia. Finally, in a subdued fit of bad judgment, our teacher retrieved a 5 gallon glass jug of commercial grade ammonia from a cabinet in the classroom, opened it, and carefully poured out a capful of it to pass around. In this way, he reasoned, we could smell what ammonia smells like, and differentiate that smell from the sulfur we were obtusely cooking up in our beakers.

Commercial grade ammonia is undiluted. The ammonia you buy in the store is 10% ammonia, 90% water. Commercial grade ammonia is 100% pure ammonia. Ten times stronger. Nothing could go wrong with this plan, just nothing at all.

So we are all passing around this capful of commercial grade ammonia, and as it gets to me and I lower my nose for a good whiff, Dan comes hurdling up behind me in a rubber band fight with another student, and crashes into the back of me.

The capful of ammonia went into may face, most of it up my nose. Very luckily, nothing but the fumes (which were horrible) got into my eyes. So I’ standing there yelling in pain, blood literally squirting out of my nose and onto the floor. The teacher got my face washed in the emergency washing station immediately, and gave me a towel to hold to my bleeding nose.

Well, the recovery from that was long and uncomfortable, but eventually the membranes inside my nose rejuvenated themselves, and I was okay, except that the nerve endings in my sinuses that lead to the olfactory center in my brain were burned off, not unlike taking a Bic lighter to the ends of a pair of shoestrings. From that day on, I have never been able to smell a thing. That luckily, was the only permanent damage.

My second accident in the science lab, later that semester, did not result in any injury or property damage. It did, however, come uncomfortably close to blowing the east wing of the school off.

For this experiment, we were back to boiling stuff in beakers, over Bunsen burners. This time it was just salt water though. The exercise was to boil salt water until there was nothing but salt left, then measure the purity of the salt.

Depending on how much water you put in your beaker, this could be rather time consuming. So we all got bored waiting for our beakers of salt water to boil – the boiling time was affected not only by the amount of water in the beaker, but also by the salinity of the water. So, high school students being what they are, we started amusing ourselves by sticking things in the flame of the Bunsen burners to watch them burn, melt, or glow, depending on the material.

And it caught on. Soon almost everyone was sticking something in their Bunsen Burner – a pencil, the end of a ruler, a Bic pen, a paper clip glowing red hot – hey, this last one gave me an idea. I was always fascinated by the way metal behaves in a hot flame – the way it glows and becomes more bendable always intrigued me for some reason. So here’s this little strip of metal I found on top of the counter – about 3 inches long and a quarter of an inch wide. This will be sorta cool.

What I didn’t know (nor would it have mattered if I did) was that I had found myself an improperly discarded little strip of pure magnesium just lying around.

Magnesium is an interesting metal. It has a very low flash point and a very high sustained burn temperature. For those of us who thought in high school that Physics was something that happened in the gym, that means that even though it’s metal, magnesium bursts into flame quite easily, and burns at white – hot temperatures of around 1200 degrees Fahrenheit.

You learn something every day.

So here I am – directly underneath the gas pipes leading to the Bunsen burners – holding this strip of metal in the flame of the burner, when a huge white star of fire erupts on the countertop, engulfing the burner and my beaker. It sounded like lighting 100 sparklers all at once. (Magnesium is actually used to make sparklers and other fireworks – the strip of metal I had contained enough magnesium to make 20 – 30 sparklers, easily.)  Of course, I instinctively dropped it, so that the white hot flame was now heating the gas pipes leading from the gas main to the burner heads. Our teacher calmly turned off the main gas valve to the burners, got a chemical fire extinguisher, and put the fire out.

My salt water experiment was toast. But the teacher didn’t mind, he just dealt with the problem, made sure I was okay, and told me he was glad that my hand and the east wing of the school were still both there. I had to stay a bit late, help clean up the mess, and answer a few questions about how I thought the saltwater experiment would have turned out if I hadn’t attempted to ignite a small sun under my experiment. I answered the questions correctly, still got an A, and was sent off just a few minutes behind schedule for my afternoon bus run.  

After that class I took a healthy interest instead in Biology (even throughout college) – there were a lot fewer explosions in that field of study. Though fascinated by Physics, I always struggled with the equations (high math has always been a bit of an Achilles’ Heel for me) and was obviously far too much of a klutz to be trusted with volatile compounds.  

That was pretty much the end of my short career as a student scientist, and a blackened beaker and permanently closed off olfactory nerves were all I had to show for it.

One comment on “Why I Can’t Smell, or Blowing Up the Science Lab

  1. Nowelle says:

    Hi Brent. I was checking out my blog today. I thought I would come by and read a post. I wanted to read how you lost your sense of smell before, but didn’t get to it. It’s an interesting story. I always enjoyed science class too. I have my own memory, which I remembered when reading your unfortunate loss of smell. I had the flu one day, and didn’t realize it. I remember barfing all over one of our black lab tables during a lecture. So gross. I don’t envy my table partner that day. 🙂 I think what you did with the strip of metal was kind of funny, but glad to hear that you didn’t blow off your hand! I bet the lights from it were pretty interesting.

    Hope all is well. Nowelle

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