If you're a fan of Lost, you are probably well aware of a dynamite scene (literally and figuratively) about the history of nitroglycerin, a lesson imparted by high school science teacher Leslie Artz (Daniel Roebuck).
And I’m going to discuss the scene (and the history of dynamite and nitroglycerin) without spoiling a thing, I hope. I figure if you’ve seen it a million times, you don’t need to me to describe this particular scene, and if you haven’t watched Lost but want to get around to it someday, you’ll appreciate that I don’t go into too much detail about this scene episode.
But here it is, in a nutshell, what we can learn about the history of nitroglycerin and dynamite by watching Lost.
Today's "TV Lesson" Breakdown:
The scene where the history of nitroglycerin is first discussed
If you’re a fan of the show, you know exactly what scene I’m talking about.
The irascible Leslie Artz was played by Daniel Roebuck, who seems like he would be very amicable in real life, or maybe that’s just because I mostly am familiar with him in Matlock, when he co-starred as easy going Cliff Lewis, Ben Matlock’s private investigator sidekick.
But I digress. So there is a nail biting scene in the 24th episode (Exodus, Part 2) of the first season on Lost involving Leslie Artz, who gives his fellow castaways and the TV audience a mini-lecture, one that he probably had given his students several dozen times, on, as noted, the history of nitroglycerin. And ever since I first saw the scene, and I’ve watched this scene a gazillion times over the years, I’ve wondered – "How accurate was Leslie Artz’s lecture?"
Here's what he says, and, again, I will go light on the plot details surrounding this dialogue.
ARZT: What the hell are you people doing?! Wait, wait, stop, stop, right where you are. Alright, I want you to put that down carefully. Put it down carefully.
(For those who don’t know and wondering what "it" is, Artz is talking about sticks of dynamite.)
ARZT: Put it gently, gently. Damn it, carefully, gently, gently. Alright, now get out of there. Come away from there. C'mon, get out. Move away from it.
JACK: What the hell are you doing?
ARZT: Shhh. Be quiet. Do any of you have any idea what happens to dynamite in 90 plus degree heat, huh?
(Arzt then pries open the crate with a pocket knife.)
ARZT: So you know? Any of you? It sweats nitroglycerin.
(Jack starts moving toward him.)
ARZT: Whoa, hey, what you doing? Did I ask you to come closer?
(Arzt removes a stick of dynamite from the crate, and then he offers up a little science lecture, one that he presumably used to tell his high school students back in the day.)
ARZT: Dynamite is nitroglycerin stabilized by clay. Nitroglycerin is the most dangerous and unstable explosive known to man. Hey, Kate give me your shirt. Now, princess, give me your shirt. I need to wrap the dynamite. Just throw it to me, right here. Be careful, c'mon, hurry up.
(Kate gives him her shirt. Yes, she has layers of clothing on.)
ARZT: Okay, good, now back up, back up, back up. Just back up. Get out of my way.
(And here comes the history lecture.)
ARZT: Any of you ever hear about the guy who invented nitroglycerin? Probably not -- because he blew his freaking face off.
(Arzt wets Kate's shirt and wraps it around the dynamite.)
“His lab assistant came into the room, saw that his mentor detonated, and he said, ‘Huh, I guess this stuff does work.’”
And that’s the crux of Arzt’s lecture. (These scenes always take time to play out on TV, but when you read back in the script, you realize, “Oh, that’s pretty short.”)
Still, I found myself wondering – so did the guy who invented nitroglycerin blow his face off? Did he die? Did the lab assistant come into the room and see that his mentor was blown up? Did Leslie Arzt, in other words, know what he was talking about? How good of a science teacher was he?
The TV Professor is about to tell you.
Who was Ascanio Sobrero?
Ascanio Sobero was the guy who invented nitroglycerin, an explosive that eventually became a key ingredient in the invention of dynamite. So was Leslie Artz right about the rest of his mini-lecture?
Well, The TV Professor is happy to report that Mr. Artz was pretty close to being accurate, though he did give the impression that Sobero was killed, and that the lab assistant came into the room to find his mentor headless or in pieces. That isn't quite true. Sobero did sort of blow himself up, but he lived to tell the tale.
Well, here’s basically the actual story in a nutshell.
Ascanio Sobero was an Italian chemist working in a lab in 1846, in the town of Turin, when he decided to add glycerol to a mixture of concentrated nitric and sulfuric acid. Geez, what a rube. Everybody knows not to do that. I’m being facetious. As somebody who had a C- average in high school chemistry, I should not be allowed near a chemistry set.
So Sobero adds the glycerol to the mixture, and reportedly, he tasted it. Probably not a great idea, but in case anyone is curious, he reported that it had a sweet, burning taste. After deciding to not ingest another drop, Sobero decided to heat a drop in a test tube, and KA-BOOM!
The glass test tube exploded, sending shards of glass into his hands and face. Sobero was left with a terribly scarred face, but that’s not quite the same thing as having one’s head blown off.
I haven’t found any historical evidence of a lab assistant finding Sobero afterwards either, but you know, Leslie Artz was under a lot of pressure and doing his best to keep his castmates from blowing themselves up with dynamite, and so I should cut him some slack for embellishing history a little. His “lesson” was close enough.
More Science Lessons from Leslie Artz
Of course, I got caught up in the history lesson that Leslie Artz provided, but in those moments, he also taught Lost viewers smidgen of science as well:
Art mentions that dynamite is nitroglycerin stabilized by clay. He is right. That said, it can also be stabilized by sawdust, which can make nitroglycerin more stable and a little safer to use. Unfortunately, the Lost gang was dealing with clay-based dynamite. That makes sense.
What makes less sense is that the nitroglycerin was found on an old ship called Black Rock, which apparently set sail from Portsmouth, England, we learn in another episode called "The Constant." And Black Rock left Portsmouth on March 22, 1845, one year before Sobero invented nitroglycerin -- and 21 years before dynamite (more on that coming up) was invented.
But maybe if there had been an extra season of Lost, Sobero and Alfred Nobel (more on him coming up, too) would have been brought in as historical characters, and maybe we'd have learned that they were actually working on nitroglycerin and dynamite earlier than history recorded it and that early prototypes of dynamite wound up on Black Rock.
After all, Lost had a lot of time travel elements. On the other hand, an auctioneer mentions the 1845 date, and maybe he just had bad information about Black Rock. Is anybody else's head starting to hurt?
Art also says that nitroglycerin is the most dangerous and unstable explosive known to man. Well, actually, no… he was almost right, and we’ll cut him some slack because he was trying to make a point to keep everybody safe. From everything I’ve read (and as earlier noted, The TV Professor is no scientist or science blog), azidoazide azide is actually the world’s most explosive, dangerous and unstable chemical known to man. It’s compromised of 14 nitrogen atoms, and it sounds like nothing will really stabilize it. According to the American Chemical Society, azidoazide azide will explode if…
- you touch it
- move it,
- disperse it in solution
- expose it to bright light
- or just leave it undisturbed on a glass plate.
But other than that, it's really safe.
What Happened to Ascanio Sobrero After He Sort of Blew Himself Up
Ascanio Sobrero was 35 when he was injured by nitroglycerin – but he lived another 41 years. Still, he was rattled by his discovery. It took him a year before he told people exactly how he had wound up with glass shards in his face and hands. (I’m imagining those conversations with family and friends before he brought up the nitroglycerin: “Well, you know me, Ol’ Butterfingers… I was holding this glass beaker and dropped it really hard…”)
But eventually, Sobrero came clean and shared with the scientific world his discovery of nitroglycerin. In 1851, the papers described it as a “detonating sugar.”
About a decade later, Alfred Nobel – who studied under a professor J.T. Pelouze, who taught Ascanio Sobrero – began using Sobrero’s formula in his own experiments and, in 1867, invented dynamite. But not before having some explosions of his own, one of which killed five people in 1864.
Ascanio Sobrero was aghast. "When I think of all the victims killed during nitroglycerin explosions, and the terrible havoc that has been wreaked, which in all probability will continue to occur in the future, I am almost ashamed to admit to be its discoverer,” he once said, after dynamite was a mainstream invention and after Alfred Nobel was incredibly rich.
“Of course, if my dear friend Alfred would like to send royalty checks to Ascanio Sobrero, that might help with some of that shame,” he added.
OK, no, he didn’t say that, but we all know that he wanted to.
Anyway, the next time you watch Lost, you can feel bad for Ascanio Sobrero, but at least he led a good long life. Plus, thanks to his discovery, while a lot of people have been blown to bits, the discovery of nitroglycerin did lead to a pretty good catchphrase on Good Times, with J.J. shouting, “Dy-no-mite!,” so, you know, there’s also that.
Where to watch Lost (at the time of this writing): You can find Daniel Roebuck playing Leslie Artz (and the entire series of Lost) on the streaming channel Hulu.com.
Articles similar to this Lost article: No other Daniel Roebuck or Leslie Artz-heavy articles on The TV Professor, but maybe you'd enjoy this look at whether Phil Silvers invented the high-five?