Many US readers are off today for President’s Day – I nearly did what I actually did do a few years ago, and forget about the holiday entirely. I came in to work that year, noted that there was no one around, and realized that you know, this was one of those holiday things, wasn’t it? Hmm. You can actually get quite a bit of work done under those circumstances – I did for the morning, until my wife and family joined me for lunch and I actually started taking the holiday as planned. But when I was on my post-doc in Germany, more than one German holiday caught me by surprise. Sometimes I would take the day off, and sometimes not.
Bench work in chemistry is not necessarily a good idea under those conditions, though. I don’t see much problem with (say) taking advantage of the NMR machine being totally open and so on, because you’re unlikely to be injured setting those up. But alone in the lab is no time to run that big diethyl zinc reaction (or most any big reaction, come to think of it). This rule is pretty well observed in industry, where chemists are actively discouraged from doing bench work in the off hours, and most especially so when alone. Academia, though, is a different matter.
I well recall being up in the labs at some pretty cruel hours, often (but not always!) alone. Sometimes there would be a Japanese post-doc around who’d never really gotten off JST, or some other night owl several labs down the hall, but if something bad had happened, it wouldn’t have been easy. I think the dumbest thing I did in that line was going in at 2:30 AM to cool and vent a high-pressure reaction. It was a thick-walled glass tube, rather large, and I ended up lassoing it out of a homemade vertical tube furnace with some copper wire, and dropping it after it was pulled up halfway out of the thing. Clang! For some reason, it didn’t actually crack and blow up. I had a safety shield up, but you don’t want to have to test those things, do you? That made it clear even to me that being up there at that hour, alone, messing around with something that could explode (especially if you were, ahem, enough of an idiot to drop it), was not such a wonderful idea.
So anyone out there working solo today, be careful. Save the big organoaluminum workup for when there’s a crowd around to watch it go all over the hood, and postpone opening up that cylinder of anhydrous HBr. A twenty-four hour delay is unlikely to hurt you, but something else might.