After all: glorious failures

Brave readers share their experience of experiments gone awry.

The story of my unfortunate experiment with pineapples and champagne - or cheap sparkling plonk, the closest thing to champagne to be found in godforsaken Soviet town of Blagoveshchensk - seems to have struck a chord with engineers.

Reader response to my 'Trial & Terror' column earlier this year exceeded all my expectations. Many have sent accounts of their own unfortunate ventures into the realms of the unknown. I've picked out several and will review them below. Most of the readers' true-life stories, however, were too lengthy (the longest amounted to 29 tightly typed pages!) to be reproduced in any form.

"Brevity is the sister of talent," according to Anton Chekhov, and it gives me enormous pleasure to acquaint you with some of the shorter tales of our talented readers' experiments.

"I will remember an occasion several years ago when I was supervising a laboratory class at the University of Birmingham," writes Professor David Parsons. "A student came along and complained that when he switched on the power supply after wiring up his experiment, two components had melted because (he said) the experiment had gone wrong. One of my assistants, a Brazilian PhD student, went along to investigate, helped him repair the damage and correct his wiring and then explained carefully and in a caring way that it was he, the student, who had 'gone wrong', not the experiment. 'The experiment is always right,' he said."

That wise Brazilian pronouncement echoes the words of Richard Buckminster Fuller, a prominent US engineer and architect: "There is no such thing as a failed experiment, only experiments with unexpected outcomes." This effectively means that even my own self-inflicted pineapple poisoning can be considered a resounding success. If nothing else, it taught me a colourful lesson of the dangers of overindulgence...

"Dear Vitali, I just read your piece and want to tell you how much I enjoyed it," writes Richard Peach. "My girlfriend was curious to know what was making me laugh so much, so I gave it to her to read and it had a similar effect on her… My favourite line is 'A civil war between utterly incompatible substances was under way inside my stomach."

Why is it that people are often ready to laugh at their fellow human's war-zone experiences? Even if, as in my case, the war zone was an intestinal one? As an old university friend liked to say, risk is a noble concept as long as it is someone else who is taking it…

The more magnesium the merrier

Mr Peach then describes his own memorable experiment going back to his high school days: "In chemistry lessons I was always impressed by the brilliant white light of burning magnesium ribbon. One day we stole a reel from the storeroom and decided to scrunch the entire length into a ball and set fire to it.

"So during the lunch break we covertly lit the ball of ribbon and tossed it into the laboratory fume cupboard. There was a blinding white light and the cupboard filled with thick smoke. Old films of atmospheric tests of nuclear bombs will give you an idea of the intensity of the light: those not completely blinded fled the room, while others took cover under benches.

"Eventually, someone noticed a smouldering hole in the wooden roof of the cupboard. Its roof was intact, so I guess the ball of burning magnesium, having jumped a good metre in its fury, became embedded in the wood while burning itself out. We all looked at the hole and then got the hell out of there before we were caught. Nothing was ever said about the incident, but I'd like to think that the burnt hole in the roof of the cupboard remains to this day to mystify generations of teachers and pupils. The truth is, my friends and I briefly created a second sun in that cupboard and we never even wrote up the experiment…"

As they say, don't try that at home. Or, for that matter, in a school laboratory…

"Dear Engineer Vitaliev" - so begins the letter from Madeira-based Chartered Electrical Engineer Guy Bellairs. Throughout the course of my life, I have been addressed as 'Mister', 'Professor' (ironically, by my school teachers), 'Sir', 'Citizen', 'Hey you!', even 'Comrade' but never as 'Engineer'. It made me feel extremely proud.

Mr Bellairs' story has an intriguing, almost James-Bond-style, start: "Some 50 years ago, I was sailing in a regatta on the Vaal Dam in South Africa. Our skipper mishandled a gybe, and we capsized in a remote part of the lake, out of sight of the race officer. The committee was incompetent and did not notice our non-arrival while the rescue launch was busy giving joy-rides to pretty girls."

By the time help finally arrived, Mr Bellairs had spent hours in ice-cold water. He was eventually cured by a bottle of Cape Brandy that he emptied on rescue almost single-handedly, or rather single-mouthedly. Amazingly, when he returned home shortly afterwards, no trace of alcohol could be found in his blood. "Due to my extreme exposure, the alcohol must have metabolised immediately in my stomach, producing warmth and restoring my blood sugar, never reaching my liver or my head, so I experienced none of the effects of inebriation," writes Mr Bellairs, whose letter ends on a rather unexpected note: "It is lucky that I did not do myself serious harm - anyway, I am still fairly lucid at 92."

As we used to say in Russia, many more long years to you, Mr Bellairs! And trebles all round!

Sober wisdom

I also much enjoyed the account of a 1960s experiment in a machine development laboratory sent by RB Bennet, and a graphic description of a rather scary try-out in electromagnetic induction "to verify Michael Faraday's findings" ("There was an almighty flash and bang… the reaction sent the square section motor weighing a tonne and a half rolling - bump, bump, bump - across the woodblock floor - fortunately away from me…") by Michael Twitchett. Undertaken in his youth, the experience had "a major influence" on the intrepid reader's "subsequent attitude to industrial safety".

Yet by far the best story, in my view, was supplied by Leonard Lawson. It combines sweet and lyrical memories of his youth with an account of a daring and foolhardy experiment in electrodynamics. We thought the story so good that it deserved to be published in full on our website. You can read the full story here.

It only remains for me to say that inviting the readers to share their experiences of experiments was a successful experiment in itself. It underlined what, to my mind, is the main quality of a true engineer: unending, almost childish, curiosity with the world.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once remarked, "All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better."

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