Monday, November 21, 2005


There was a time when I considered studying aerospace engineering, but my natural inclination to Play With Dangerous Substances won out, and I ended up as a chemical engineer instead.

People who meet me are sometimes surprised to discover my engineering background. My twisted personality doesn’t mesh well with the popular conception of Engineering People. Seems like I better fit the mold of Drooling Psychopath, or Failed Comedian. There’s no question that, compared to the others of my “Dirty Dozen” chemical engineering section, I was a little…different. I hung out with the stoner History and Political Science majors, for the most part – not so much with my fellow E-Quad Nerd Squad colleagues.

But this is not to say that the Engineering Types were not a Fun Group. Witnesseth:

Previously, in these pages, I have related the Tale of the Sixteen Gallons of Absolute Ethanol: how we glommed on to a huge stash of pure, reagent-grade ethyl alcohol only to find that it made us act extraordinarily silly, bumping into walls and such.

Along these lines, we discovered early on that it was relatively easy to score miscellaneous Odd Supplies from the chemical stores. Some of the stuff I ended up with (and kept in my dorm room!) was odd, indeed:
  • A liter of 70% nitric acid, strong enough to eat holes in pretty much anything it touched. I used to dissolve coins in it to watch ’em fizz.

  • A plastic bottle of 30% hydrogen peroxide. The crap you get in the drugstore is 3%. This, on the other hand, is used in rocket engines. Eats holes in stuff almost as effectively as the nitric acid. I’m not sure why I wanted it, but I’m sure there was some inane stunt I had in mind. Besides, anything that can be used to set fires with is fun, innit?

  • Pure iodine crystals. Iodine is Kewl Shit. Shiny, purple-black crystals. It doesn’t melt – when you heat it, it sublimes, turning directly into a purple gas. And if you mix it with concentrated ammonium hydroxide – like household ammonia water, but far stronger – and let it dry, it forms nitrogen tri-iodide, an amazingly sensitive contact explosive. We used to scatter chunks of that crap around the lab, where the vibration of someone walking ten feet away would set it off, producing a loud BANG! and a cloud of purple smoke. [Learned that trick from an old Robert Heinlein novel.]
And then there was our Ballistics Lab.

From the chemical supply room, we got hold of about thirty feet of stout rubber tubing and an oversized funnel. We then repaired to that part of the campus known as the “New-New Quad” – so named because it had supplanted what had previously been called the “New Quad” as the most recently-built set of dormitories. (That quad, of course, was now called the “Old-New Quad.”)

The New-New Quad consisted of a series of three-story dormitory buildings, sheathed in dark brown brick and beige concrete, with wrought-iron decorative railings at the roofline. It was to that roofline we repaired, because those decorative railings now had a sinister purpose. They were to serve as the anchors for our Infernal Ballistic Device.

By attaching the rubber tubing to the funnel and thence to the railings, we were able to construct a Gigantic Slingshot, a slingshot whose enormous draw, coupled with our four-story height advantage, allowed us to project force (in the form of huge water balloons) to great distances.

The tricky part was filling the balloons up just the right amount. They needed to be slack enough to withstand the incredible G-forces of the launch, yet full enough to disintegrate on impact to deliver a Thoroughly Moistening Payload.

One sunny May morning in 1971, we inaugurated our Ballistics Lab by firing a water balloon 150 yards, drenching an unsuspecting gaggle of Chemistry Nerds. So unexpected was the arrival of the Moist Payload in their midst that they never thought to look up at the top of that distant dormitory building, where a handful of mischief-makers was hooting and high-fiving one another.

We were able to launch about ten of those damn things before the imminent arrival of the University proctors caused us to scatter like roaches in a suddenly-lit kitchen. Barely had time to disassemble the Infernal Device and ditch the evidence.

That warm spring afternoon’s activity was as close as I ever came to being an aerospace engineer.

What fun we could have had in ROTC. I understand they actually studied ballistics there...

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