My sample looked like fairy dust. It was a deep scarlet with silver flakes that shimmered in the fluorescent lighting of the laboratory. I eyed it meticulously, thinking perhaps my lab partner had placed it in my mortar out of amusement (Kevin always got a kick out of teasing me). The mundane oil products I obtained in organic lab last semester left me feeling world-weary and hopeless; I even reconsidered my “adolescent” career goal as a photojournalist following my bout with a failed lidocaine experiment. Never in my two undergraduate years as a chemistry major, however, had I encountered something so exquisite and rare as this fairy dust of mine. This was promising.
I examined the ampoule in which I prepared my sample. It contained the reddish-silver residue of my “fairy dust,” antimony sulfoiodide glass. I reasoned that this was enough evidence to prove that this alluring product was indeed mine, and I packed up the sample and then went home.
Back at the dorm, I told my friends about my discovery. We were all participants in a TCNJ summer research program, so when we weren’t bonding over The Big Bang Theory or sharing Chemistry Cat Memes, we were discussing our projects. That evening, however, everyone was fixated on a “Quantum Tunnel” mural that had recently been erected by the college’s ACS student chapter in the chemistry building basement. Tired from the long day of glass-making, I let my friends revel in their quantum mechanics banter while I went off to bed.
The next morning, I had my usual Starbucks skinny iced caramel macchiato and everything bagel toasted with strawberry jelly. I tried to make my smalltalk with the barista (a fellow chemistry major) even smaller because my only desire at the moment was to see my fairy dust. There was just something so enchanting about the glass, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I paid and sprinted out the door to lab.
I found my sample in the wax paper envelope that I had placed it in the previous evening. The fairy dust was still there, in all its glistening glory. The job of the day was to determine the temperature at which the glass crystallizes, so I began to prep the sample for Differential Scanning Calorimetry (DSC) measurements. It was a struggle to load the sample-holder while wearing my extra-large latex gloves, so I removed them and attempted the task again. While using a piece of wax paper to shovel my fairy dust into the aluminum sample holder, my fingers jerked, which sent the powder flying onto my hands. I immediately felt a burning sensation. “Curse you, espresso, for giving me the jitters!”
I washed my hands with soap and water. While this alleviated the burning feeling, a red rash were the powder touched my skin remained. I made note of it, put on my gloves, and went back to work.
After I obtained the first thermogram, I realized that the sensitivity of the instrument was relatively low and showed little change in signal. While remaking a larger sample or increasing the heating rate would increase DSC sensitivity, I refused to pursue those options. I was enraged. “NO, DSC!” I snapped. “Why can’t you perform up to par with my standards?”
I froze. Did I just shout at an instrument? I shortly reminisced of the times in analytical chemistry where I learned that instruments are a chemist’s friend. Well, usually (when they produce the results we want). I heard the shuffle of Kevin’s Adidas Sambas as he sauntered into the instrumentation room. I could feel his glare on my back. “Helen, what are you doing?” he questioned.
I turned around. “I’m clearly using the DSC on my fa–, new glass sample, Kevin.”
“But why are you yelling at the instrument?”
“Because it won’t obey my commands.”
“What has gotten into you?”
“Nothing. I feel lightheaded.Here, give these results to Dr. S.” I handed Kevin the thermogram.
I darted out of the chemistry building and ran back to my dorm. When I got home, I passed out on my bed. While my dreams often consist of sugar plum benzene ring cartoons dancing the “Robot” and jumping over a fullerene moon, my dream this afternoon was much different.
A languid torpor engulfed my body as I felt my temperature rise. The room was melting; the Rosie the Riveter “We Can Do It” poster that adorned one of the cement walls of my room swirled into a disarray of colors that made Rosie’s face distort like the Joker’s. I felt an intense beam of light radiating my forehead. I glanced up at the ceiling and discovered a red laser shining down on me. A mechanical arm seized me by the legs and moved me about two meters. I tried to flee, but lethargy consumed my muscles like I was being injected with formaldehyde. Between my sweat-drenched bangs, I looked down and realized that I was no longer in bed; I was seated on what appeared to be a thermocouple! Ten centimeters away was a large hermetic aluminum pan, also on a thermocouple. “Oh my goodness,” I shrieked! “I’m being Crystallized! That’s my reference pan! I’m in a DSC! Help!!”
It was futile. The autolid arm enclosed me and my reference. I knew my fate. I would be ramped at 3°C/min from the current temperature all the way up to 330°C. The heat was unbearable. At this point, it was apparent that I would have to come to terms with my mortality. I closed my eyes and pondered the many samples I would never run for my experiment, the chocolate-toffee ice cream I would never have the opportunity to try, and that I would never explore Antarctica in search of an Emperor Penguin chick to bring home and domesticate (one of my many dreams). I wallowed in self pity as the heat engulfed me. Blisters formed on my back and sweat continued to gush from my pores. I became giddy from the lack of ventilation and spiraled into unconsciousness.