The 10 Dumbest Things I’ve Seen An Undergraduate Chemist Do

In no particular order, here are the 10 dumbest things I’ve seen an undergraduate chemist do in the last decade or so.

1. Derive a bond-length longer than the Humber bridge

This is a fairly common error that results from not keeping track of your orders of magnitude properly. If you’ve got a lot of 10-19 or 108 type things flying around, it’s easy to get lost. But, you should at least be able to sanity check your answer and figure out that a chemical bond is about an ångström  long, with comparatively little variation – it’s not going to be 8,000 metres.

There’s plenty of theoretical dumbness where this one came from, but they’re boring to non-specialists and would take a while to explain. The rest of this list is pretty much the horror-show that is the teaching laboratories.

2. Stab themselves with a pipette full of chloroform

It turns out that while we’re pretty careful about needle-stick injuries (one a week for postgraduates, none at all for undergraduates, remarkably) it turns out that a simple Pasteur pipette can be equally capable of breaking the skin and injecting a toxic compound into you. This is probably at the more sensible end of the “how the shimmering fuck did you do that?!?” scale.

3. Throw acid in someone’s face

Let’s just summarise this one thusly:

Student A: “Watch out! This is acid!!”

**throws a beaker of clear liquid in their friend’s face**

Student A: “Haha! Lol. It was just water… Joke’s on you! Wait… wait… why are you screaming?”

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Not pictured – the shouting… the glass breaking… the demonstrators head-desking after being asked “can’t you just tell us the answer?” for the fifteen time that day

4. Syphon an ice bath… filled with unknown crap

What’s the fastest way of emptying excess water from an ice bath? Easy – simply stick in some rubber tubing, suck it up, and and let the syphon action do the rest. Sounds great… unless you failed to spot someone spill some toxic crud in there earlier, and then sucked it into your f**king mouth. The end result of this one involved screaming across the lab to spit it out into the sink, right as the senior demonstrator turned up.

5. Spray hot oil into someone’s face

While we mostly work with metal heating blocks now (possibly for this very reason) it’s still common to use oil baths to warm things up. Even for a distillation. The trouble with a distillation is that you need to get everything else on the heated side of the condenser to get hot, and this takes a while. So you can speed it up by heating the still head yourself, and this often involves a heat gun (aka, a hair dryer).

This is fine, providing you don’t point it down into the oil bath, where a sudden blast of hot air hits the hot oil and sprays it everywhere.

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They’re queuing up outside. The cleanliness has mere seconds to live…

6. Getting capsaisin in their eye


The first rule of Extracting Capsaisin Club is: you do not touch your eyes while extracting capsaisin!

The second rule of Extracting Capsaisin Club is: YOU DO NOT TOUCH YOUR EYES WHILE EXTRACTING CAPSAISIN!

It’s a very effective method of getting closely acquainted with an emergency eye-wash station, though.

7. Pass out in the lab

Normally, this would be considered a sympathetic accident. Call first-aider, and get them checked out.

However, when the lab starts at 10 am, and it’s because they skipped breakfast, possibly sleeping in despite not going out the night before (they said) it’s their own damn fault and they’re a god-damned danger to others.

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*Shoves fuming and smoking bottle of soon-to-explode stuff into the demonstrator’s face* – “What do I do with this?!?!” – “What’s in it?” – “It’s the top layer from Part B.”

8. Turn up to the lab drunk

One student turned up to the labs still visibly drunk from a previous evening – explaining the lack of an apparent hangover that hadn’t yet kicked in. They then proceeded to wander around the lab doing Jack Sparrow impressions until their lab partner kicked them out and sent them home before the idiot broke something or tried to pick a fight with the senior demonstrator.

9. Fail to understand the purpose of a spreadsheet

You’ve got data. Lots of it, in fact. It all needs the same calculation performed on each point. So, obviously, you type it into Excel, do your formula on the next cell, and drag/copy down. Presto.

Of course, this wasn’t good enough for the geniuses who decided to write each one out on paper, type them into a calculator step by step, then manually type the answer into the spreadsheet. All 150 data points worth over the course of about an hour. The reason, apparently, was that they didn’t trust the computer to get it right.

10. Spill ethylenediamine down their arm and not notice… for half an hour

Ethane-1,2-diamine, ethylenediame, diaminoethane, en, whatever you like to call it, it’s a common ligand that appears everywhere in the theory component of an undergraduate chemistry course. Small wonder, then, that they forget that it’s a strong base, a derivative of ammonia, and will rip your skin off in short order if you don’t do something about it. But at least now I know what a proper ammonia burn looks like. And smells like, to be overly-honest.

Black Mirror from Least to Most Depressing – Let the Bleak-a-thon Commence!

The following is every episode of Black Mirror ranked from least to most depressing, horrifying and bleak. It’s not a ranking of quality or rating – despite the countless lists out there, I think that’s a fools errand to try.

Needless to say, this is full-on spoiler-ridden throughout and assumes you’ve watched all of it.


  1. San Junipero


An uplifting and heartwarming tale of a colour-blind, able-blind, even gender-blind love that crosses the boundaries of reality and even time itself? Come on, Brooker, it’s like you’re not even trying to make us feel bad!

  1. Nosedive


The idea of the entire population wrapped up in superficial niceties and their own rating and public perception – and unable to tell the truth or be honest because of it – is pretty frightening. Yet by the end , with the help of a straight-talking trucker and a bottle of booze, Lacie finally breaks free of that system (unlike Bing, see below) and finds some joy in shouting ‘fuck you’ at a stranger. Not a particular down-note to end on, as it tells us there is such a thing as an escape from the bullshit.

  1. Playtest


While played out as a survival horror with a Twilight-Zone-like twist, I don’t think this is particularly bleak, as such. While the twist plays with irony – death by cell phone – Playtest lacks the truly depressing undercurrent; the horror plays out as horror, but doesn’t at any point bleed into the real world or tell us anything frightening about ourselves as we are right now.

  1. Be Right Back


While the thought of Haley Atwell keeping a robot-clone of her dead fiancé in the loft, isolated from the world, for years on end is outright creepy, Be Right Back doesn’t really hit you over the head with the existential dread of the situation as hard as it could. It has its thought-provoking moments – how well do our online selves really reflect who we are? – none of it is likely to make you stare blankly at a wall for an hour.

  1. The Entire History of You


The bleak-fest truly begins now. With all of your life recorded forever, the ramifications are both huge and frightening.The Entire History of You confines this, thankfully, to just the exploration of how it would impact a blatantly dysfunctional and untrusting relationship. There’s more that could be explored in this world and the consequences of Grains, but it’s left in the background and merely hinted at rather than brought to the front.

  1. The Waldo Moment


While this tends to get a reputation as having a downer ending, I find the idea of an apocalyptic dystopia happening thanks to a blue cartoon character a little… just a little, mind… too far-fetched. So while it tries, I think it loses bleak points for just being a bit “wham” about it, rather than showing a slow descent into a believable nightmare. The real depressing aspects of this happen long before that end scene. How an artist’s creation can be ripped form them and abused for political ends, how your life can be torn apart even by something you didn’t ask for – and can’t stop.

Of course, some of the specifics couldn’t happen ever. If a popular figure who had been sucked out of right-field into the political sphere demanded that their audience physically assault a protester, they’d never do that. Right?

  1. The National Anthem


By a long shot so far, this is the most realistic Black Mirror episode. It doesn’t require a technology that we don’t, so far, possess. Nor does it require a mind-set that we don’t already have. So it really gains some bleakness points for being set merely five minutes into a painfully plausible future.

In addition to that, the bleak facts of the plot still stand; despite all the efforts, the PM still had to fuck a pig, the population were all complicit in it, public opinion forced it and… despite the brave face put on by the PM and his wife, the final scene says that the incident ruined them forever. And in a final twist of irony in the penultimate scene, it turns out he didn’t really have to do it, either. All the damage was for nothing.

  1. Fifteen Million Merits


This is a straight up satire – if heavy-handed at times – of today. The weird futuristic setting is just window dressing. People ride bikes and chase superficial ‘stuff’ that isn’t real.

Yet despite Bing’s passionate speech, his realisation of how the system eats people up, how he figures out that it’s all for nothing and just for digital ‘stuff’… he’s still, in the end, consumed by that very system. The Hot Shot judges twist him and roll with his punches expertly, and fold him back into the crowd. He becomes part of it, swapping his old cell and its screens for a new cell with bigger screens. Fifteen Million Merits tells us that there is no escape from The System.

  1. Men Against Fire


Like with Bing’s fate in Fifteen Million Merits, Stripe is eventually consumed by the System once his eyes have been opened to it. Yet, while Bing’s downfall is a reticent bargain, Stripe very much consents to having reality masked for him. Both initially through his potentially wilful ignorance, and once more under threat. He’s willingly eaten by the system and his reality replaced with a lie – and forced to by the more horrifying reasons that broke him. His reality is forever distorted and replaced, and the system marches on as before with no escape from it.

Men Against Fire also serves as a warning far beyond just its satire of conflict and killology. It asks us what do we think of our fellow humans when we stop seeing them as human? History proves you don’t need an implant to do that, just a newspaper and the right media spin.

  1. Hated In the Nation


There are bigger body counts found in some Twilight Zone and Outer Limits twists, but this has the added curveball that the victims effectively and selectively sealed their own fate – by willingly partaking in a ‘game of consequences’ and failing to heed the message. They fail to realise that in inciting death and violence toward people, they were very much as culpable and guilty of hate as the people they wanted to condemn. They suffered for it. It’s a pretty grisly conclusion.

There’s the added bleak bonus that it seems like the next figure of hate will become the lead detective that, according to the story, did whatever she could to save people – so wrapped up in the need to hate someone, anyone, and to have a lightning rod for their anger, people failed to heed any message or moral from the events. They want to demand the truth of what happened, but even if they got it, would they be satisfied? Or would they move onto the next character they want to focus on?

  1. Shut Up and Dance


If Black Mirror has one recurring theme beside techno-paranoia, it’s vigilante justice. Shut Up and Dance is really the apex of people taking the law into their own hands that’s seen throughout a number of episodes. In the darkest way possible through outright blackmail, unnamed and unknown hackers can make people rob banks, steal, and fight to the death.

And make no mistake, there are people out there who will watch this and cheer on the villains of the piece, happy that the ends justify any amoral means or any innocents that get caught up along the way. Anything is possible so long as it satisfies peoples’ lust for a central hate-figure. That’s the depressing part.

  1. White Christmas


While there’s three interwoven stories in this to look at, they all have the unifying factor of “people are shitheads”. Do people really care for their fellow people, or are they happy enough to brush their morality aside on the faintest justification? White Christmas says, in very clear terms, the latter.

There are a lot of cues in this that suggest that people are very much aware that Cookies are sentient, effectively-real copies of people. They know, but they don’t care. They have no qualms in torturing them, abusing them, and mentally destroying them. They treat them as jokes to be used, no matter how malicious the tortures they’ll inflict.

After all, it’s just code, isn’t it? It’s just computer code executing self-aware patterns, rather than neurotransmitters executing self-aware patterns… can’t you see the difference?

  1. White Bear


This is hugely bleak for two reasons.

Firstly, you know that if a “Justice Park” where the sole inhabitant was tortured daily for the benefit of paying customers, it would be an overnight success. The baying mob and armchair vigilantes would leap at it. As always, people are shitheads and anything’s okay so long as it satisfies the need for a central figure of hate that can be suitably dehumanised. This isn’t even a case of ends justifying means – there is no end here, the justice park has no end game in sight, the means are the means, and the mob’s bloodlust is the only justification. You just know there is something seriously dysfunctional going on in the world of White Bear, one where the masses can be easily placated with a figure to literally hate at will, to throw eggs at and to chant at, and then to torture and beat day after day after day with no real chance of the basic tenets of criminal justice of retribution, reformation or prevention. It is revenge and distraction only.

Secondly, and for me more importantly, there’s the fact that the entire concept of the Justice Park is ultimately pointless and flies in the face of all our civilised notions of justice. The revenge is superficial at best. With her memory wiped every night, Victoria Skillane is – for all practical and philosophical purposes – not the same person as the one who filmed a horrific crime on video, as evidenced by her protective instinct displayed throughout the episode in the run-up to the twist. The public, ultimately, are getting their thrills from torturing an empty shell, the mere collection of atoms that just so happened to be around a crime as it was committed. No different to cutting off the hand that pulled a trigger, and putting that in prison to endure the punishment.

In a very real sense, Victoria Skillane the murderer died long before the episode begins – Victoria Skillane the unaware innocent is punished instead. People probably know this, and are more than capable of coming to this realisation, but they don’t care. Yet despite the nonsensical nature of the whole thing, people go along with it. And we all know that people in reality would happily go along with the scheme, too,  to satisfy superficial lust at the expense of justice, law and even basic logic.

White Bear’s treatment of how we would react to public punishment and its side-stepping of conventional justice makes it bleak, horrifying, and liable to cause some sleepless nights hoping it never comes true.