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Setting off bottle rockets to celebrate discoveries


Fireworks and explosions, age 10
John Wheeler Scientist
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The farm did not have a whole lot for a ten year old to do. I could turn the churn and separate the milk and the skimmed milk into cream, cream for making butter, to sell in the town ten miles away. But the skimmed milk we fed to the pigs. And the pigs, I found, were delighted when I poured this milk into their feeding trough. But I knew that the pig barn had also, upstairs, in it, dynamite and dynamite caps. And I had read with great fascination about explosives and how they work and what varieties there are, and about what TNT really is. This was being used, this dynamite, to make holes for a power line so that our farm and the neighboring farms could have an electric power service. But the dynamite cap itself, which you put over the end of the fuse, how did it work? Fulminate of mercury, something that goes off very easily. And I thought that would be fun to experiment with. So I took one of these out to the garden patch across the road, where I would not be so conspicuous, and I tried dropping it down onto a match. Well, my aim was not good, it was not a good way to light the cartridge, so I got down closer and closer, finally it went off. But it took off the end of my finger, and there were hundreds of bits of copper from the casing of the cartridge that embedded themselves in my chest. Fortunately, none hit me in the eye. And my parents heard the bang and saw me coming in, looking in trouble, and they drove me into the village where the doctor was. The doctor had had a very busy day, and he put my finger into a bowl of hot disinfecting solution while he finished his supper. Then he proceeded to snip off odd pieces and do his best to put together what remained into a decent finger. So I even have a bit of odd looking fingernail. But that was practical experience with explosions.

John Wheeler, one of the world's most influential physicists, is best known for coining the term 'black holes', for his seminal contributions to the theories of quantum gravity and nuclear fission, as well as for his mind-stretching theories and writings on time, space and gravity.

Listeners: Ken Ford

Ken Ford took his Ph.D. at Princeton in 1953 and worked with Wheeler on a number of research projects, including research for the Hydrogen bomb. He was Professor of Physics at the University of California and Director of the American Institute of Physicists. He collaborated with John Wheeler in the writing of Wheeler's autobiography, 'Geons, Black Holes and Quantum Foam: A Life in Physics' (1998).

Duration: 3 minutes, 12 seconds

Date story recorded: December 1996

Date story went live: 24 January 2008