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FROZEN, FLYING LIMBS? SCIENCE TALES CAN BE A STRANGE CONCOCTION INDEED

A reader clipped these two opening sentences from a recent article in the Chicago Sun-Times:

"If all the stories of mothers, aunts, grandmothers and friends who had pressure cookers explode were true, there wouldn't be a ceiling left in America."The pressure cooker is prey to more apocryphal tales than those poor alligators said to roam New York's sewer system."

Thus began Sun-Times food editor Bev Bennett's interview with Lorna Sass, author of "Cooking Under Pressure."

My own mother, aunts, grandmothers, etc., never used pressure cookers, so I'm not familiar with this genre of stories. But my mother-in-law does cook under pressure, and she assures me that her cooker blew up once.

Frankly, I can't see much potential for interesting legends here. What's there to say, besides who was there and what was inside when the pot exploded?

I prefer more detailed disaster legends, like this one that a reader heard from her eighth-grade general science teacher when he was demonstrating the effects of liquid nitrogen:

"You must be very careful with this stuff, because terrible things have happened to careless students and teachers. For example, one teacher was holding an object in his left hand while pouring liquid nitrogen onto it with his right.

"Some of the liquid splashed onto his left thumb, freezing it instantly.

"Instinctively, he shook his hand in pain, and his thumb flew off and slid across the table like an ice cube."

When I repeated that story to students in one of my folklore classes, three of them recited variations: The thumb had shattered. The teacher lost a whole hand. The flying frozen digit struck a student, causing frostbite.

Steve Seidman of Ithaca, N.Y., sent me some chemistry class "sodium stories" that fit in nicely here. Pure metallic sodium is highly active chemically, and it must be handled with extreme care.

In high school, Seidman heard of a student who, despite the teacher's warning, cut a small chunk from the sodium block in the chemistry lab and stuck it in his pocket.

Later, moisture from the student's perspiration ignited the sodium and set his pants on fire.

Another story claimed that a janitor disposed of some sodium by putting it down a drain. When it hit the water in the pipes, sparks flew from the drain in another classroom, temporarily blinding several students.

Most such disaster stories, though grounded in fact, seem to drift slightly beyond the plausible. The following tale, sent by Nick Wolf of Columbus, Ohio, drifts further than most:

"A co-worker was told by a friend that employees of a chemical plant in Charleston, W.Va., are equipped with long knives.

"The reason is that in the event another worker exposes an arm or a leg to the nerve gas manufactured there, a fellow employee can chop off the exposed limb before death occurs."

What a lot to expect from a factory worker - to perform neat surgery under pressure, while risking contact with the same gas.

Here's another story about reacting to pressure, but with a happier result. I got this one in a letter from Robert M. Ryan, who said the story was going around among undergraduates at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1950s.

It concerns final examinations at MIT, which Ryan described as being "three-hour red-hot hellers." The fourth-floor room in which an exam was being held on a June afternoon was also super hot.

As the monitor went down the rows passing out exam papers, there was much muttering, moaning and groaning from the students. One student walked to a window and started to open it to let more air into the room.

Misunderstanding the student's intent, or perhaps sensing the need for a bit of levity, the monitor ran toward him shouting, "Don't jump! Don't jump!" With that the whole class collapsed in laughter, and the tension was relieved.

That's something like the top blowing off a pressure cooker, or like steam escaping from a safety valve.

And, as Robert Ryan concluded his story, "If this didn't happen, it should have."

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(C) 1990 United Feature Syndicate Inc.