As the toluene evaporated, the white phosphorus did what its name implies—it phosphoresced, reacting with oxygen from the air to produce a luminous gas fractions of an inch above the surface of my hand. This reaction is not just risky to create, it’s also difficult to photograph. We used the best low-light camera available to get it to show up so well.
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White phosphorus, an uncommon form of the element, is terrible stuff. It’s incredibly toxic, catches fire spontaneously in air, and is frequently used in the production of methamphetamine. There are few companies lining up to sell it, and the producers of the television show couldn’t find any sane scientist able to get it and do the demonstration for them. I, however, keep some out back behind my house in an army-surplus ammunition case.
With my trusty Icelandic chemist friend Tryggvi at my side calculating the proportions to make sure we’d survive, I mixed up a solution of white phosphorus in toluene (paint thinner) and spread it on my hand (with latex gloves on—I may be mad, but I’m not crazy). The effect was something I’d only read and dreamed about: fleeting, flickering, flowing sheets of cold light all over my hand that rippled as I blew on them.
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