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1999 Personal Accounts
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Elemental Mistake 
1999 Personal Account

(13 July 1999) When I was in high school chemistry, the teacher did a neat demonstration of the interaction of elemental sodium with water. He placed a small piece of sodium in a tank of water, and the reaction was so violent that a small fire rapidly erupted. To prevent this sort of reaction from contact with water vapor in the air, elemental sodium is stored submerged in oil.

Apparently a student in another chemistry class that year also thought this demonstration was very cool, so he contrived to acquire a piece of elemental sodium for himself. Stealing a piece from the storage container, he wrapped it in a paper towel and hid it in his pants pocket. I suppose he intended to take it home and play with it later.

Of course, as soon as the oil drained off the sodium it began to react with all nearby sources of water. Human bodies being 98% water, the nearest source of water was the student's leg, which was badly burned by the ensuing fire.

I hear-by nominate this student, whose name has long since been lost to history.

Criticism by physicist Glen Robinson: I can point out a few mistakes with this story. I have seen the demonstration of dropping elemental sodium into water. Sodium (Na) plus water (H20) react to form flammable hydrogen gas (H2) and sodium hydroxide (NaOH) which is a powerful base. The sodium hydroxide which came into contact with the boy's skin would have caused severe burns, but not from fire. Another point: our bodies are not 98% water, but rather 60 to 70%

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