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Outsmarting the teacher

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Experimenting with metallic sodium
Leonard Hayflick Scientist
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One day I decided that I would like to buy metallic sodium, which, as many people will understand, is quite a dangerous material, it's highly reactive with atmospheric oxygen and bursts into flame on contact with the atmosphere, and so it is kept under kerosene, under a layer of kerosene, in a metal can. The... the metallic sodium is soft like butter; you can cut it with a knife. And this clerk wouldn't sell it to me without permission from my mother. As I mentioned earlier, my mother was quite liberal about these things, she trusted my judgement. Of course, she had no training in chemistry and I told her what I wanted and she said, 'Okay', and she signed a letter permitting me to buy it, which I did do, and brought it home.

The only dangerous thing that we did, although in retrospect it wasn't all that dangerous, more of a prank, we use... there were, behind these row houses, a socket or a hole in the concrete behind... behind these houses that held a clothes drying rack that would be set out in that opening in order to support it and allow it to be opened. After a rain my friend and I, on our bicycles, having cut the metallic sodium into little cubes and having kept it under kerosene, would take these small cubes out and throw one into each of these openings. Of course as we... a minute or so later after we drove by – it took that long for the reaction to occur – there would be an explosion, not a... like a gun shot or even less than a gun shot, and a flare of orange flame would shoot out of these openings. And, of course, the neighbours would come out and look at this and be uncertain as to actually what happened, because by this time we had disappeared, which was without the extent of the threats to my neighbours that I... that I made.

As a result of all this knowledge of chemistry, I also became very much interested in biology. I recall borrowing a book from the high school library that I was now about... that I had now entered, and it was a book on pond organisms, which opened up a whole new category of biology for me that I wasn't terribly interested in prior to that. And I recall getting a kind of microscope as a gift. It wasn't a standard microscope; it was... it's difficult to explain, in fact I don't recall in detail exactly how it worked, but it allowed me to look at pond organisms. That, of course, opened... as I say, opened up a whole new area of interest and fascinated me very much.

Leonard Hayflick (b. 1928), the recipient of several research prizes and awards, including the 1991 Sandoz Prize for Gerontological Research, is known for his research in cell biology, virus vaccine development, and mycoplasmology. He also has studied the ageing process for more than thirty years. Hayflick is known for discovering that human cells divide for a limited number of times in vitro (refuting the contention by Alexis Carrel that normal body cells are immortal), which is known as the Hayflick limit, as well as developing the first normal human diploid cell strains for studies on human ageing and for research use throughout the world. He also made the first oral polio vaccine produced in a continuously propogated cell strain - work which contributed to significant virus vaccine development.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: metallic sodium, reactive, atmospheric oxygen, parental permission, prank, explosion, flare, flame, biology, microscope, pond organisms

Duration: 3 minutes, 30 seconds

Date story recorded: July 2011

Date story went live: 08 August 2012