Epic Physics Fails

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Epic Physics Fails

SPS members share their most epic physics fails

Life in physics doesnít always go smoothly. Mistakes can be mortifying, like the time you accidentally melted that expensive piece of equipment and set your lab bench on fire. They can be hilarious, like the time you accidentally emailed that video of you singing Justin Bieber songs to your professor.

We asked you, the SPS community: “What’s your most epic physics fail?” You wrote in via email and social media with your stories, serious and funny. We picked a selection of them to feature here. Enjoy!

When putting a banana in liquid nitrogen, be careful not to drop it. It might shatter and sort of explode into many smaller banana pieces, which after a few days may give the lab a fruity-tooty smell. Also, when dropping a basketball off the roof of the physics building, spinning the ball can lead to the ball hitting a car that you did not count on.

- Charles Bell, H47 Vicksburg (retired)

We use natural diamond as a calibration material for Raman spectroscopy in our laser lab. The gem we use is small but very high quality—optically speaking—so it can be entertaining to compare with other diamonds to see how they stand up. At the time, one of my lab mates had recently gotten married, and our advisor asked if she wanted to give her new shiny ring a test, just for kicks.

She agreed it would be fun, so we (carefully) mounted it into the sample stage. The lab was left in a bit of an awkward state when what should have been a very prominent (or at least noticeable) diamond Raman peak on the screen was nothing but flat noise. A few days later we learned there was an alignment issue which had caused the problem and successfully tested her ring again, but nonetheless, I think it was a rather stressful week for her husband.

- Anonymous

While doing demos for a fair at our school, we got bored with the conservation of momentum demo we were doing (rotating platform with an individual holding a spinning bike wheel to turn), so we inverted a bike and peddled it to get our hand-held wheel spinning quickly and have a bit of fun. A guy in a tank top came over and asked if he could try. We were reluctant about letting him but told him to turn the wheel slowly. He thought he was strong and didn't listen. He turned it too fast, lost control, and it tore some skin off of his forearm.

 - John Ferrier, University of Central Arkansas

Our department and SPS members were giving a demonstration of sunlight and solar energy to some grade school kids in the courtyard. The first demonstration was a 50-foot black thermal tube that heated up when in the sun and floated. We had it tied down so it wouldn't fly away. The other demonstration was a Fresnel lens that focused a square meter of sunlight to a single point that reached about 2800 F. We were roasting hotdogs and marshmallows with the Fresnel lens when the wind kicked up and snapped the line on the thermal tube. It flew right into the "danger zone" of the Fresnel lens. Thankfully it didn't catch fire, but our thermal tube is now a melted mess, beyond repair.

Michael Dowding, South Dakota School of Mines & Technology 

I once had a glass jar filled with near-boiling salt water, which I was using to do corrosion experiments, suddenly shatter. It got about a gallon of hot salt water everywhere and even horribly rusted the heating pad the jar was resting on.

Charles Bell, H47 Vicksburg (Retired)

My lab partner and I spent 30 minutes trying to debug our senior research presentation, until we finally realized that it wasn’t working because the equipment wasn't plugged in. Another time, when I was working in a team as a postdoc, we thought we had discovered supersymmetry. It turned out to be a reconstruction bug in the software.

- Lee Sawyer, Louisiana Tech University

One day in my vacuum lab, my setup wasn't working. After I tried to fix it for over 20 minutes, my professor and TA came over to help. After 45 minutes, we were all baffled by why it wasn't working like it had the previous week. We started going over our list of possible problems and realized we never checked if it was plugged in. It wasn't.

Charles Bell, H47 Vicksburg (retired)

When I was working for the Vitreous State Lab at Catholic University, we were trying to turn nuclear waste into glass. My portion of the experiment was to dissolve the vitrified waste samples in a solvent consisting of boiling hydrochloric, hydrofluoric, sulfuric, and nitric acid. While my solution was cooking in the microwave, it exploded for some unknown reason. I don't work there anymore. These days I make computer models.

- Michael Folks, Group W

I work in a particle physics lab. Once we stress tested our laser diode detection system by seeing how it functions at different temperatures. Unfortunately, instead of increasing the temperature of the diode at 1-degree intervals, a bug in our code decided to skip straight from 29 to 300 degrees Celsius. We thought this readout was spurious, but we soon realized that our laser had been reduced to a several-thousand-dollar paperweight. Obtaining another laser was a bureaucratic ordeal. We learned that lab supplies are replaceable, but our drive for creative inquiry is not.

Daniel Polin, New York University

I had a side project in my lab of trying to fix a misaligned laser. I wasn’t getting the output power we needed, so a professor told me to turn up the input power. It worked, but a little too well! The beam drifted off of the power sensor and onto the sensor’s plastic casing, 


where it started smoldering, smoking, and melting. Having to tell my advisor I accidentally built a death ray was a little bit awkward.

- Celeste Labedz, University of Nebraska–Lincoln

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