Student learns to ‘play with fire’

May 27, 2010 — by Arnav Dugar

It has instilled fear in our minds, bringing images of pain or widespread destruction. From childhood, we are taught not to play with it. We are taught that fire is dangerous. But over the past four years, sophomore Nick Turpin has learned something very different: that fire can be tamed.

“I always thought fire was an amazing, interesting thing.” Turpin said. “And now that I know that, if used properly, it isn’t very dangerous, it has become even more interesting.”

For him, the passion to play with fire started during his seventh grade on a Boy Scouts camping trip when he saw some of the older scouts performing a trick with fire, Turpin recalled while demonstrating the procedure.

After pouring heavier-than-air butane from a lighter into a glass bottle, he dimmed the lights and struck the lighter. In his left hand he carefully balanced the bottle between his fingers; in the other, he inched the lighter flame toward the bottle’s spout. Suddenly, the butane in the bottle ignited, sending a bright light shooting down the bottle.

After watching the older scouts repeat the trick several times, he tried it for himself and was surprised by the ease with which he replicated the results. Since that debut with fire, he has built an ardor for this new, uncommon pastime.

“I like playing with fire. It’s kind of exotic and dangerous, which is attractive,” said Turpin. “And its pretty unique.”

All of his tricks come from experimenting with readily available materials Turpin said, noting how many things that he daily encounters, seemingly ordinary on the surface, are actually quite flammable. One such example is hand sanitizer in both the foamy and liquid form and is quite convenient as the moisture keeps the flame from doing much damage.

For his more complicated tricks, most of his inspiration still comes from the world around him, often from YouTube and TV or from possibilities he occasionally he stumbles upon.

“Once, one of my friends pointed to something on a shelf,” Turpin recounted, “and said, ‘hey, that looks really flammable.’ It was.”

One of his easiest tricks is a modification of a demonstration from an episode of Mythbusters, a popular TV show, in which methane is bubbled through soapy water to form a highly flammable column. Turpin instead lights less volatile butane bubbles in his hand, making his hand seem like it is on fire when they burst into flames.

“If you look at my hands they don’t have very much hair left on them,” Turpin said, “but they are not burned.”

Coming into such close contact with fire may seem dangerous, but all of Turpin’s tricks are relatively safe. With the butane bubbles, a thin soapy lining keeps his hand from injury.

“Safety is actually one of my top priorities,” he said, pointing out that he gets hurt occasionally but has never seriously burned himself. “I never really do anything unless I try it in a safe way.”
Turpin also understands the science behind his tricks and keeps himself safe by understanding the heat amount of heat produced and other chemical properties of the different reactions, always taking into account how the fuel burns.

For instance, he described how rubbing alcohol does not burn very hot, so when he lights it on his hand for a second or two, he’ll be on fire, but it does not feel warm. Also, since heat rises, the intensity of the flame is directed away from his hands.

However, he warned, “Don’t let it get on the underside of your hand or you’ll feel pain.”
Turpin has even convinced his parents that his tricks are relatively safe. Through his experience he has built a unique connection with fire, not one of fear, but of understanding and appreciation.

“I will probably continue to make my tricks more interesting,” said Turpin. “I’m not likely to get a job doing pyrotechnics, but who knows? Maybe I could get an internship or something.”

Note: The Saratoga Falcon neither endorses nor encourages any of the actions mentioned in the article.

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