Question: Have you ever had an experiment thats gone badly wrong?

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  1. Hi whatawow,
    If by ‘gone wrong’ you mean it didn’t work out the way I expected – yes. This does happen every so often. Sometimes you expect that exposing a certain chemical (your starting material) to a particular set of other chemicals and reaction conditions will give you a certain product, but it turns out that your starting material doesn’t actually react at all under these conditions (so you still have starting material and no product is formed), or you get a different product formed to the one that you expected.
    Sometimes this can be bad, like if your starting material has over-reacted to give you a product that you can’t actually use for your further experiments (‘over-react’ means it has reacted the way you thought it would, but then another part of the molecule that you didn’t want to change has actually reacted as well!). Sometimes it can be good, like if you were planning to carry out 2 different reactions (one followed by the other) on a chemical to make 2 different changes to the starting material before you get the product that you want, but you then find that the first set of reaction conditions have accomplished both reactions for you in one step. Sometimes it is annoying if nothing happens at all. In all these 3 cases, the unexpected outcomes of your experiment make you stop and think again about what it is that you are trying to do, and what other ways you might be able to get your desired outcome – so it becomes a good learning opportunity/experience.

    Back to your question again, I’m guessing you might actually be asking about a much worse kind of ‘gone wrong’! 🙂 The answer to this question is yes – I have had an experiment blow up accidentally! Blow up as in explode out of the flask, nothing to do with fire. The scary part was that I was standing near it at the time and that I did get a little bit of the chemicals on the lower part of my arms. I got some very minor chemical burns but they all healed up quickly. Thankfully I was wearing protective gear and I was carrying out this experiment inside a fumehood, so nothing worse than this happened. The chemicals did go all over my fumehood, so I spent quite a few hours the next day cleaning it off! This is why you should always listen to your teachers and wear protective gear and be extremely careful when you are working with chemicals. 🙂


  2. Yes, I suppose in high school chemistry when we unintentionally ended up with funny smelling, weird coloured concoctions. But in my line of work, the Universe is my experiment and all I can do is observe it. We can’t tinker with galaxies to see what happens when we squash them of remove half of the stars. So, there is not much I can do to mess things up.


  3. Hey there,

    Not so much badly wrong, but have had experiments not work out due to silly things like not preparing equipment properly


  4. I’ve had a lot of experiments go wrong because I didn’t set things up properly but the worst an experiment has gone wrong for me was when I got splashed with very hot, very concentrated acid. Part of this experiment required me to put some bacteria in concentrated sulphuric acid and boil for 10 mins. After doing that I was moving the tube of bacteria and hot acid into a special carrying box when the lid exploded splashing we with acid. I quickly stripped my labcoat and shirt off and watch as a hole melted in them both. I had to borrow a friends smelly running shirt to get home. It was very scary.



  1. So many experiments…
    Working with bacteria requires that you work in a sterile environment. To maintain a sterile environment we use very concentrated alcohol as that will kill bacteria very quickly. On more than one occasion I accidently spilled my alcohol container on my bench while the Bunsen burner was turned on resulting in a very large, very hot but very short lived flame. That can be quite scary.
    The experiment central to my work was called an isocratic elution. Exactly what that is is not important but what is important is that it takes Mon-Thurs to set up and all day Friday to do and if you make one mistake along the way you have to start again. I got good at doing the experiment but it just wouldn’t work properly with the proteins I was examining because they were unstable. After 18 months of doing that experiment essentially every week my boss told me to stop and not bother any more. In this case everything that could go wrong did go wrong and then I was told not to bother any more, very disheartening.


  2. Experiments that dont work out. I think you will find whatawow that every scientist has a story about this.
    Here is a quick one.
    Some of my research requires putting cameras out into the bush, like little spy cameras. After spending three days stumbling around in the bush, I got my 50 cameras out.

    These cameras were left out for a 40 day period, then i had to go back to collect all the cameas, another day of work, and then download all the images.

    About 10 of the cameras worked perfectly
    30 cameras stopped working after only 3 days due to various problems, memory card being full, batteries going flat, water getting into the camera (even though they are weather proof).
    5 cameras made it through to about the middle of the deployment (so 20 days) before something going wrong.
    5 other cameras, i didnt even turn on – that must have been a bad day.

    Needless to say that the entire experiment was a waste of time, but i did learn a few things about the equipment we use, and put in place some better procedures to make sure i turn them on.

    This is just a part of science that we have to deal with. Sometimes things do not go according to plan, equipment fails, human error, or in one case, one of my cameras appears to have been broken by a wombat.


    • how did the wombat break your camera? and did you get a photo of the mischievious little bugger?


  3. As an astronomer, I’m not in the lab much. The Universe is my experiment. But in high school chemistry I had the occasional spectacular “failure”, although a couple of these were intentional tweaks on the experimental method to see how big a bang, flame or smell we could make. So, maybe they were successes! Used to love chemistry.