1995 was my last year of high school. I took AP Chemistry from a particularly interesting teacher, and served as a TA for the regular chemistry class at the same time. The end of the year gradually rolled around, and with it the standard two-hour final exam periods. I was looking forward to leaving early on the last day when the teacher delivered the bad news - due to some typical-but-annoying technicality, I had to be in the lab during the final period of the class for which I was TA. Doh! On the up side, I had an entire lab to myself, and an accomodating teacher who said I could do anything I wanted. I thought back to a report I'd done earlier in the year, which had included making a bunch of nitrocellulose, or gun cotton.

"Can I make more gun cotton?" I asked.

"Sure," she replied. "Just leave me some for my first day demo next year. Be careful," she said, and left. Woohoo!

I ruined one batch through impatience, but still had quite a bit when I was finished. I dried it as best I could in the lab, left some for the teacher, and wrapped the still-damp remainder in paper towel to take home. So much for high school!

When I got home, I laid the paper towels out on the middle rack of our oven, and spread the gun cotton on it. I turned the oven on to "warm," and went away to do something else. Then I forgot all about it.

Cue ominous music.

In the early evening, when the gun cotton was certainly nice and dry (and therefore highly flammable) my mother and sister - unaware of the day's chemistry adventures - entered the kitchen to prepare dinner.1 My mother turned the oven up to 350 degrees, not noticing that the dial had already been turned a tiny bit. Then, fortunately, the two of them retired to the other end of the kitchen to gather ingredients. A few minutes later, all hell broke loose.

With a WHOOSH and a tremendous, clattering bang, the door of the oven sprang open. A great tongue of yellow-orange flame sprang forth, blinding in its intensity, and then oven door - reaching the limits of its hinges - rebounded, and slammed shut again. A moment of unimaginable violence, and then sudden silence: the only movement in the room was the fluttering of a few fragments of grey ash.

After a short period of shocked inactivity, my mother and sister sprang into action. They moved around the oven, careful not to get too close to the door lest it belch forth another conflagration, trying to see what could have happened. The impassive appliance gave them no clues. They got a yardstick and prodded it. No response. After a brief conference, they concluded that the possibility of another detonation was remote, as the oven did in fact operate entirely on electricity. Gingerly - as the possibility of a first explosion had seemed remote, as well - they opened the door, to find only a few more wispy ashes. Then they came looking for me.

All that work in the lab, and I didn't even get to see anything. I bet it was an awfully cool explosion.

1 This sequence of events is reconstructed from the accounts of eyewitnesses (who, fortunately, weren't too angry about the whole thing.) To test your own family's tolerance for violently and inexplicably exploding appliances, see nitrocellulose.

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