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27 May 2006

How to die at the push of a button

The laboratory instrument pictured at left is a Beckman Coulter Ultracentrifuge. Basically it's a giant spinny thing, that makes proteins and DNA go round and round at speeds of 130 000 rpm to separate them. The molecules in your tube experience forces of over 1 million g's. That's over a million times the force the earth is excerting on your body right now. It is the sort of equipment that demands your respect. On Wednesday I was quietly busy in the lab, minding my own business designing primers (again), when a strange whining noise from the lab next door made me look up from my work. Weird. People started running and shouting and immediately I knew where the noise was coming from: some ignorant student had forgotten to tighten the rotor of the ultra to the spindle before switching it on. Chilling. Apparently Lieschen, who is the only capable person in the lab next door at that time, shot up like a bolt from her hidey-hole behind her laptop, ran to the unstable ultra (and the wide-eyed girl who stood in front of the machine, just staring at it), pushed the STOP button and kept right on running out of the lab. A very wise course of action.

Folks, when the rotor of an ultra comes off the spindle churning it around at 130 000 rpm, it turns into a massive titanium projectile. If you're lucky, the machine will start making noises like a top loader washing machine on spin cycle being thrown down the stairwell of a very tall building and the unstable rotor will cause about 500 grand's worth of damage to the machine. If you're not so lucky, the rotor will be thrown straight through the body of the ultracentrifuge, as well as any kind of construction/lab equipment/unwitting scientist in its trajectory.

Every once in a while, we'll have a chemical spill or fire in our building and it's quite a story to get everybody out, 'cause it just ain't that bad and nobody takes any notice of such trifles. But when the whining noise starts, everybody makes a run for it.

11 comments:

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Incidentally, I think the girl who broke the ultra was having a really bad day in the lab. Earlier that morning, she got some liquid nitrogen in her eye whilst grinding up plant tissue for a DNA extraction. That's when you should call it a day and go home, but no, she came back for more after her doctor's appointment. And endangered the whole sixth floor of the Agricultural Building in the process.

arcadia said...

wie't ooit gedink daar's soveel opwinding in jul departement?

en lieschen is so pragtige naam. geen wonder sy's die held van die situasie gewees nie.

arcadia said...

iets vreemds het pas gebeur - ek het 'n e-pos gekry wat se dat my vorige comment na jou yahoo e-pos toe gestuur is en dat die adres nie meer in werking is nie.

alle geval, tyd vir werk.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Ja, ek gebruik nie meer daardie yahoo adres nie - moet onthou om dit te sluit.

En Lieschen was die held want sy's al langer as enigiemand al daar!

Lexi said...

you work with the coolest equipment ever.......WoW sounds like soooo much fun, ok a bit dangerous, but fun none the less......i wonder if you could turn the concept of the machine into some form of a ride?....hmmmm

Wendy said...

It sounds like you guys need to get some danger pay...

Karen Little said...

That's crazy shit man... At least we know that if we accidentally leave the lid off one of our patients, their insides aren't gonna come flying out, decapitating us...

How is it that her vitreous and aqueous humors didn't freeze when she got liquid nitrogen in her eye? And that she didn't lose an arm when she stuffed up with the centrifuge? The girl must poo four-leaf clovers...

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

You can pour liquid nitrogen over your hand without any harm - just don't think you can dip your hand in it. A drop in the eye will evaporate instantly.

~d said...

(from my entry: I am not certain how friendly THEY were or if I just expect that of people and most deliver! I have a good time anywhere!)

arcadia said...

post tog iets asseblief!

(jy't nog 'n gedig of wat belowe ook)

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Ek weet ek het gedigte belowe - sal nog aan 'n manier dink om dit hier te plaas.