Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Meeting 'Willy Pete'

My seventh-grade science teacher had a flair for the dramatic. His performances often involved pyrotechnics, like making a batch of flash powder or setting fire to a magnesium ribbon to show us the bright white light with which it burns.

One day, he told us to get up from our desks and stand against the back wall of the classroom. He then donned safety glasses and thick rubber gloves, picked up a pair of forceps, reached into a jar of water and drew out a chunk of a whitish material. Holding it at arm's length, he waved it slowly back and forth through the air, attempting to dry it.

Without warning, the chunk burst violently into flame, splitting into two small pieces. One bit landed on the floor, burning through the tile to the concrete slab beneath, and the other burrowed a deep hole into a desk in the front row. It was a stunning and memorable demonstration.

The substance was white phosphorous.

Every news story I see about Israel's use of white-phosphorous munitions in Gaza takes me back to seventh grade and the day that I saw firsthand, albeit on a very small scale, the wickedly destructive properties of this element.