Friday, March 12, 2010

Warning: loss of digits can be expected

A funny thing happened on the way to the physics demo. I thought I lost my finger. There was blood everywhere. I was in excruciating pain.

Before I get ahead of myself, let me assure you that in this instance my calamity had nothing to do with liquid nitrogen. Rather, the perpetrators were a busted fire extinguisher and inexperienced personnel. I won’t name names, but you can guess that the first letter of the first name of the staff member was “A”.

So from the top – it was a clear and beautiful day in sunny Tucson, AZ, and my colleague and I were preparing to do a series of physics demos for cherubic children on their way over from the local school. We weren’t presenting anything fancy, mind you, just the usual suspects – the Tesla coils/light sabers, Van de Graaff Generator, gyroscope seat, and of course, the fire extinguisher-propelled cart. Ah, the innocence of physics demos. What could possibly go wrong with a light bulb in a mouth, or for that matter, a seemingly angelic fire extinguisher?

In the morning, as we gathered our equipment and demos, my buddy realized that the extinguisher was low on the extinguishing material, which I believe was sodium bicarbonate. Having never used a fire extinguisher in my life, and eager as a young CERN tech to press the “on” button of the LHC, I volunteered to not only take the implement to the local supply house to have to refueled, but also to skip out back and try it out.

My colleague accompanied me and explained how the mechanism works. Ah, the purity of a person’s first fire extinguisher experience. We remember it forever. Mine was magical – I pulled out the pin, and, due to a malfunction, the nozzle spun around in light speed time and slammed into my hand. I howled in pain, my fingers throbbing, and I dropped the extinguisher on my foot. When I looked down, all I saw was red fluid gushing from somewhere on my hand. Additionally, I might have been dizzy because at first I didn’t see my fingers. Had I severed my digits? I wondered in a fog. Are they under my car which was parked nearby?

After blinking a few times and my comrade racing over to my side, I realized that my fingers were still with me. But why was I bleeding so much? Perhaps I had broken my hand. With the fire extinguisher lying somewhere helpless and empty in the loading dock, we jumped into my Honda and drove to the hospital. Turns out I just had a contusion. But I missed the physics demos anyway – those poor kids!

Because I worked for a university, I had to fill out a long form about my accident. Needless to say it would not be the last of these forms I would complete during my 12-year tenure. But fortunately, it was the last, that I can recall, in which I had to write: “contusion retained in the course of a physics demo mishap.”

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