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Thread: Safety Hazards in Potions Class

  1. #1
    MissMeg
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    Safety Hazards in Potions Class

    I recently re-read the Harry Potter series, and was shocked by the lax standards of safety in Potions. Personally I thought that Potions had many things in common with Muggle chemistry and biology. On the first day of any science class, the teachers give the entire class a two-hour lecture on lab safety, and inform us that a violation of any of the rules can get us kicked out of the lab permanently.

    During almost every potions class shown in the books something is done that was very dangerous for the rest of the class.

    In the Sorcerer’s Stone, Neville melts his cauldron because he didn’t follow the directions. First of all, why didn’t he follow the directions? If a Muggle had done that in science they would get in an incredible amount of trouble. Especially since what he has done has melted a pewter cauldron. If I was in chemistry and doing a lab that if done wrong could melt pewter, the teacher would be incredibly strict about following directions.

    In the Chamber of Secrets, Harry sends a firework into Goyle’s cauldron. The potion explodes on the whole class, and since Goyle made the potion correctly the whole class swell up. Harry seems to think that this is funny, but it's not in any way. What if Goyle had messed up his potion? What if he did something similar to Neville, and made a potion that could melt pewter? What would that potion do to people if it landed on them?

    In the Chamber of Secrets, Harry says “Deliberately causing mayhem in Snape’s Potions class was about as safe as poking a sleeping dragon in the eye.” (p.186) Well obviously. It has been shown that the potions that the first years are making can be incredibly dangerous if made incorrectly. If anything, I don’t think that Snape is strict enough. I have seen students kicked out of the lab permanently for not following directions, because when you’re working with dangerous substances not following directions can not only be hazardous for not only you but the whole class. All Snape does when students ignore directions (which happens constantly) is take house points or give directions.

    I also wondered whether robes would be hazardous around flames.

    What do you think? Do you think Snape is strict enough about safety in potions class? If you were a parent, who's child was at Hogwarts, would you be alright with the safety in potions class?

  2. #2
    SingingWren
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    I've never really thought about this before, but I definitely see your point. I know our chemistry teacher doesn't allow us to handle anything over a certain pH, and certainly nothing as potentially harmful as anything in the Harry Potter universe. Potions does sound like a hazard to the students, but when you think about it, what class at Hogwarts isn't? I mean, this is a school that puts on a tournament that pits students against dragons and thinks it's all in good fun. This is a school where the game of choice has kids flying thousands of feet in the air with balls enchanted to try and smash their faces in. God, I wonder what the insurance would be like for a Quidditch player? Defence Against the Dark Arts has serious potential for injury, even Care of Magical Creatures, despite what Hagrid might say about just having to be gentle with the animals, has been shown to lead to injuries on more than one occasion (Bowtruckles coming to mind). Really, Hogwarts isn't a place you send your children if you want them to have a safe school experience. Then again, like I believe Harry said something along the lines of in the fifth book to Umbridge, real life isn't safe. Preparing a potion in real life has got to be dangerous too if one is unprepared, so better to learn under the watchful eye of someone who knows how to fix your screwups.

    In defence of Snape, there's only so much he can do. I have suffered through many a safety lecture in my chemistry class, but that doesn't stop me, or anybody else, from doing something stupid if we feel like it. I remember one time we were measuring cabbage juice with eyedroppers, and someone dared me to drink some. I did, out of the eyedropper, and promptly realized how very stupid that was, considering I had no idea what had been in there before cabbage juice. This just proves that you can be lectured and taught and had safety thrown in your face, but that doesn't stop people like me from just being plain stupid now and again (now, imagine if it had been the Draught of the Living Dead in that eyedropper before cabbage juice...)

    From what I remember, I do remember children need dragon scale gloves for potions, which is a step in the right direction, but I'm surprised goggles aren't a requirement. That seems like a pretty standard safety measure to me, and easily implemented.

  3. #3
    **plotbunnies**
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    I do see where you're coming from with this. It seems utterly insane, especially when you bring in Quidditch.

    That being said, I do see some places here where the Muggle world and the Wizarding world would differ. Take Quidditch. If a ball smashes into your arm, you get a broken arm. That much goes without saying. In the Muggle world, it would takes weeks or even months to heal, depending on the type of break. However, in the Wizarding world, Madame Pomfrey can fix a broken arm in seconds. Even if she has to regrow all the bones in an arm, it still only takes one night of pain. If I was a parent, I would be far more comforted knowing that even though my son is being chased thousands of miles in the air by a bunch of murderous balls, it can be fixed in minutes if he breaks anything. Just think- Luna fixes Harry's nose, and she's not even fully trained. Admittedly, if something goes wrong (like Harry falling off his broom) the pain and injury could be severe, but most of the teachers seem capable of saving a falling student.

    Potions is a (very slightly) different story. Snape seems very capable of restoring order and normality to students who were splashed by the potion. We, as readers, also don't know what safety instructions were in place. Snape spends most of the first lesson giving out to Harry for not having memorized the textbook, and after that it skips to "Potions was easily Harry's least favorite lesson." (That's not a direct quote, but you should get the idea.) The students may have been told about safety in the days that we do not hear about. Neville's cauldron is a little harder to argue about- although there is a possibility that he had the wrong type. However, that is unlikely. I suppose that perhaps the potion he brewed could melt through pewter.

    Potions does seem much more lax than chemistry in the Muggle world. The only thing I can offer is that supposedly there is a teacher who can fix the mistakes, and that Potions is such a basic skill needed that everyone has to learn it- and mistakes will just teach it to them all the better. Chemistry, though useful, is not expected to be a lifelong skill for everyone. It is expected to be one for wizards. The potions the students learn are all very relevant- shrinking potions, love potions, etc, and they are all things that the students will come across frequently in their lives.

    Overall, all I can say is this: I feel like it is not quite the disastrously unsafe class that I am getting from your interpretation, but it is not regulated as strictly as it could (or should) be. There is something to be said for letting people learn from difficult and possibly dangerous lessons, yet without knowing more about the rules and regulations in Potions class and for the Potions teacher I feel like we can't really give an accurate judgment on the condition of safety at Hogwarts.

    -Anne

    EDIT: I just saw the suggestion for goggles. That's something I can't argue. It would seem much more sane to have the students wearing goggles during potions, or at least some sort of eye covering. Perhaps they supply them at school?

  4. #4
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    By today's standards, yes, Potions does seem rather dangerous. But you've got to remember that PS was written before 1997, with an author who probably went to school in the 80s or something (too lazy to look up JKR's DoB), when safety rules were much more lax. Even when I went to school (I left secondary school in 2005), things seem more relaxed then than now. We never really had a safety talk, bunsen burners were kept on the desks, chemicals were kept on a shelf in the classroom, we were allowed to do the sodium in water experiment ourselves (something I don't think students are allowed to do anymore), we did disections ourselves (again, something I don't think students get to do) and played with electricity. In one experiment I dropped a burning piece of phosphorus onto someone's shoe. It was an accident (it bounced out of the sink), but still we could get ourselves into those situations. JKR's experiences of school chemistry and biology would just have been much less prohibited than ours would have been, and it mainifests itself in her writing.

    Plus, plotbunnies does have a good point in the fact that it would only take a few seconds to mend a broken arm, or a few drops of antidote to cure a splash of unfinished potion from wreaking whatever damage it does. Even the student who gets turned into a badger makes a full recovery in the lesson itself. I doubt that younger students are given anything that could be dangerous, but accidents do happen, hence the reason Neville's cauldron melted, and I dropped a burning chemical onto someone's shoe. Magic can fix things so much quicker (even after being poisoned, Ron made a full recovery after a few days), so there isn't the need for tight levels of safety measures.

    Lastly, it's a childrens book, or it started out as that. Rowling, where she wrote the scene where Neville wrote his cauldron, or possibly even where Harry throws the firework, she never imagined that the books would grow to what they have. She had no idea that over a decade later, people would be discussing them and taking them apart on the internet. Fairly violent things do happen in childrens books, because children find them funny. Ever watched Tom and Jerry? Or what about Beatrix Potter? She had animals being put in pies and a fox grooming a duck. Children find things like explosions in books or being whacked with a rake funny, and that's who JKRs inital audience was. Perhaps today she would have written it different, who knows.

    Sarah x


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  5. #5
    MissMeg
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    Quote Originally Posted by SingingWren
    Then again, like I believe Harry said something along the lines of in the fifth book to Umbridge, real life isn't safe. Preparing a potion in real life has got to be dangerous too if one is unprepared, so better to learn under the watchful eye of someone who knows how to fix your screwups.
    I agree with this completely. I completely see your point that it’s better to be prepared to do things (like mix potions) in the real world. But, there are safety precausions, which can be observed to make these activities safer. As numorous people have said safety goggles could be worn. (Which in all the science classes I’ve ever taken, we’ve been required to wear them when we’re doing something as minor as heating something up.) Baggy robes could be a problem also around flames, so could long hair. In DADA, they learn spells for preventing injuries (which could be magically fixed) like the shield charm. By learning these rules in school, students would be much more prepared for the real world.

    Quote Originally Posted by SingingWren
    I remember one time we were measuring cabbage juice with eyedroppers, and someone dared me to drink some. I did, out of the eyedropper, and promptly realized how very stupid that was, considering I had no idea what had been in there before cabbage juice. This just proves that you can be lectured and taught and had safety thrown in your face, but that doesn't stop people like me from just being plain stupid now and again.
    Again, I agree with your point that rules can be forgotten on occasion. But most of the time (or at least a good portion of the time) people will remember, and it is important to know the safety rules for when they’re working in real life (because unlike chemistry, potions seems to be used quite frequently in wizarding life.) If someone were brewing a potion and it splashed and landed in their eyes, it would be a serious issue. There would be no teacher to fix them up.

    I agree that wizarding medicene can fix quite a few more things than muggle medicene (though I can’t think of any way that some of the injuries that can be fixed with magic could occur without magic to cause them (for example Harry losing all the bones in his arm)) But their medicine is not perfect. There do seem to be many things that they can’t fix (like eyesight, Neville’s parents, Dumbledore’s sister, etc…) It seems that in injuries or problems regarding the nervous system wizards seem to be further behind than muggles. And, some of the injuries that could happen in potions could definitely cause eyesight problems, which wizards don’t seem to be able to fix.

    Quote Originally Posted by Sapphire at Dawn
    By today's standards, yes, Potions does seem rather dangerous. But you've got to remember that PS was written before 1997, with an author who probably went to school in the 80s or something (too lazy to look up JKR's DoB), when safety rules were much more lax. Even when I went to school (I left secondary school in 2005), things seem more relaxed then than now. We never really had a safety talk, bunsen burners were kept on the desks, chemicals were kept on a shelf in the classroom, we were allowed to do the sodium in water experiment ourselves (something I don't think students are allowed to do anymore), we did disections ourselves (again, something I don't think students get to do) and played with electricity. In one experiment I dropped a burning piece of phosphorus onto someone's shoe. It was an accident (it bounced out of the sink), but still we could get ourselves into those situations. JKR's experiences of school chemistry and biology would just have been much less prohibited than ours would have been, and it mainifests itself in her writing.
    Firstly, I want to address the point about safety in the eighties. I asked my mother (who was in high school in the seventies) and she said that they were definitely required to wear closed toed shoes, have hair tied back, wear non-loose clothing (i.e. no baggy sleeves…etc.) and wear safety goggles.

    Next, I would like to say that I’m currently in high school, and I have done dissections and played with electricity.

    About your point about the phosphorus, Isn’t that why closed toed shoes are required?

    The magical world definitely is more dangerous than the muggle world. Even though they can fix broken arms, burns, and many other injuries in a second, isn’t it still better to avoid those injuries in the first place? I would say that potions could be made much safer by observing basic safety rules and carefully following directions.

  6. #6
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    Quote Originally Posted by Meg
    There do seem to be many things that they canít fix (like eyesight, Nevilleís parents, Dumbledoreís sister, etcÖ)
    I've been lurking in this discussion and enjoying it for quite some time now, and you all have brilliant POVs and well-made points.

    I would like to point out, however, that on top of nerve disorders, the reason why Harry's scar won't go away and why the Dark Marks don't come off is that they were put there by Dark Magic, which has been said to be canonically more difficult damage, even impossible in some cases, to repair.

    Also, the intent of curses and such categorise them as Dark Magic as compared to simple curses used in the course of a battle.

    So, back to Potions, as it was established that only wizards and witches can brew potions etc, it would again fall back to intent. If someone was brewing something intended to kill or maim and it exploded in their face, it should, theoretically at least, be more difficult for a Healer to repair that damage as compared to someone without ill intent brewing the exact same potion.

    In reference to the topic at hand, I would imagine that a vast, vast majority of students don't brew their potions with any intent other than to not get a Troll on their assignment from Snape, which should according to the (fuzzy) rules of magic, make their injuries in case of incident less difficult to reverse. Just thought I'd throw that in there.
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  7. #7
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    There do seem to be many things that they canít fix (like eyesight, Nevilleís parents, Dumbledoreís sister, etcÖ) It seems that in injuries or problems regarding the nervous system wizards seem to be further behind than muggles. And, some of the injuries that could happen in potions could definitely cause eyesight problems, which wizards donít seem to be able to fix.
    The things that happened to Neville's parents and Arianna Dumbledore wouldn't happen in a classroom. Granted they can't be fixed, but no amount of safety procedures would have prevented them. As Jess said, things caused by Dark magic seem more difficult to repair. Dark magic would not be used in the classroom. With eyesight, someone does get splashed in the eyes with that Swelling Solution stuff, and that person was cured with a few drops of antidote, so it seems that wizards can cure things with eyes. Perhaps the problem with Harry's eyes is that the problem is there from birth, and they don't know how to cure it. Eyesight problems caused by a spalsh of potion might be easier for them to cure because they know what's caused the problem in the first place, and can rectify it with antidote.

    The magical world definitely is more dangerous than the muggle world. Even though they can fix broken arms, burns, and many other injuries in a second, isnít it still better to avoid those injuries in the first place?
    In some cases, perhaps, but are you going to tell someone who loves playing Quidditch to stop playing because they might get injured, even though it could be fixed in a second? It's the same in the Muggle world; you could get injured walking down the street. Are you going to stay inside all the time? No. When I was eight, I fell of a pony and badly broke my shoulder. It was six months or so before I could ride again, yet I got back on the horse after that time, and I'm still riding today, over ten years later. Should I never have started riding to avoid that painful injury, just to be safe? Should I have missed out on all the hours of happiness riding has given me through fear of injury? It's the same with the wizarding world.

    Firstly, I want to address the point about safety in the eighties. I asked my mother (who was in high school in the seventies) and she said that they were definitely required to wear closed toed shoes, have hair tied back, wear non-loose clothing (i.e. no baggy sleevesÖetc.) and wear safety goggles.
    Who is to say that the students in Potions don't do these things? Granted, we never hear about them in the book, but then again, we only ever see Harry take a bath once. It's probably a given that they're wearing close-toed shoes, but would it perhaps be detail not needed if you let the readers know about the safety measures they take in each class? Because the books are told from Harry's point of view, he wouldn't perhaps notice all the girls tying their hair back, or every student rolling their sleeves up. We can't necessarily rule out safety measures just because we didn't see them.

    I think that the standards of safety in the Harry Potter books seem so lax to us today is because we live in a 'compensation culture' where conkers are banned from schools, and the Queen can't climb up a flight of five steps because 'she hasn't been trained'. Someone from the turn of the century might not be as shocked as we are by the danger. Perhaps we can take the lack of safety goggles or whatever as a sign that they're actually not needed in Potions. Perhaps if there was a serious accident, or whatever, the rules might change, but at the moment, with trained teachers on hand, potions and ingrediants that aren't incredibly dangerous, and, if Jess's theory is right, begnin intent, serious accidents aren't that big a threat.

    Sarah x


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  8. #8
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    Quote Originally Posted by Miss Meg
    On the first day of any science class, the teachers give the entire class a two-hour lecture on lab safety, and inform us that a violation of any of the rules can get us kicked out of the lab permanently.
    Uh, well, I'm younger than JKR by a few years (and your mum, I think) but probably had similar schooling. A two hour lecture on safety would have been unheard of in the eighties - certainly in the UK. We were given safety goggles, told not to be stupid and then had instructions on how to light the bunsen burner.

    Occasionally someone would stuff a bit of paper into the gas pipe and we'd watch it shoot across the room ... but that was about it. yes, things were probably laxer in the 80's but in UK we weren't as hidebound to 'Health and Safety' issues that seems to have pervaded our classrooms today.

    Closed toed shoes were a requirement at my school for every lesson. It wasn't about safety, per se, but certain standards as well as the fact that someone treading on an unprotected toe could cause a lot of damage.

    Basically, I agree with what everyone else has said, it was easy to fix the accidents. When the class got splattered with Potion so Harry could sneak into the storecupboard, Snape fixed it. The kids didn't run to the lawyers and demand compensation.

    If you want to pick at an unsafe class, I think you could find someone much laxer than Snape, who for all his faults, was able to keep control. Care of Magical Creatures springs to mind ...

    What do you think? Do you think Snape is strict enough about safety in potions class? If you were a parent, who's child was at Hogwarts, would you be alright with the safety in potions class?
    If I'd been a magical parent, then sure, because I'd know what happens in the classes. I think far worse things happen in the corridors - like Draco giving Hermione huge teeth and the twins chucking Montegue in the Vanishing Cabinet (where he could easily have died)

    But analysing the lax safety standards in Hogwarts kinda takes the fun out of the series, doesn't it?

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  9. #9
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    But analysing the lax safety standards in Hogwarts kinda takes the fun out of the series, doesn't it?
    This is what came to mind for me reading this topic. You can definitely argue that safety is lacking in certain classes, but to what end? It's important to remember the books' audience, I think. Although people of all ages do enjoy the Harry Potter series, they are primarily children's books. Do children want to read stories where the characters are completely safe and play by the rules all the time? Probably not. Harry and co. are huge rulebreakers throughout the series, and I think that's part of what gives the book their appeal. They are adventure stories, in many ways. So if JKR inserted Snape's five-page lecture on the importance of following directions, it would feel a bit out of place to me.

    Who is to say that the students in Potions don't do these things? Granted, we never hear about them in the book, but then again, we only ever see Harry take a bath once. It's probably a given that they're wearing close-toed shoes, but would it perhaps be detail not needed if you let the readers know about the safety measures they take in each class? Because the books are told from Harry's point of view, he wouldn't perhaps notice all the girls tying their hair back, or every student rolling their sleeves up. We can't necessarily rule out safety measures just because we didn't see them.
    This is the other main thing. We all know Harry is not the most attentive Potions student, and that he expresses pretty blatant dislike for the subject. There's a very good possibility that he simply wasn't paying attention when Snape was telling the students about safety precautions. Thinking back to my own experiences with lab sciences, I remember being so bored when listening to teachers drone on about the importance of wearing close-toed shoes. It's likely that Harry was bored or uninterested as well. Plus, I don't think reading about speeches like this, even in the Harry Potter world, would be particularly engaging.

    From a writing standpoint, describing the detailed safety instructions behind a Potions class is a pretty bad idea. It wouldn't be interesting to read about, and it would be fairly irrelevant, especially considering that the mistakes made in Potions can't be replicated in the real world. And looking at it in terms of plot development, all the mistakes and blunders that occur in lessons make for an interesting story.

    Yes, by our real-world standards, some classes and activities may be unsafe. But I think the parents of Hogwarts students trust the faculty to ensure that their children don't all die in cauldron explosions every year. And considering Hogwarts has been around for more than a thousand years, and routinely graduates living, unscathed students, they must be doing something right.
    Eliza

  10. #10
    MissMeg
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    Quote Originally Posted by obsessed_with_jo
    You can definitely argue that safety is lacking in certain classes, but to what end? It's important to remember the books' audience, I think. Although people of all ages do enjoy the Harry Potter series, they are primarily children's books. Do children want to read stories where the characters are completely safe and play by the rules all the time? Probably not. Harry and co. are huge rulebreakers throughout the series, and I think that's part of what gives the book their appeal. They are adventure stories, in many ways. So if JKR inserted Snape's five-page lecture on the importance of following directions, it would feel a bit out of place to me.
    I honestly think that as Harry gets older, the audience of the books gets older. In the sixth book there is the whole Harry/Ginny thing and the Ron/Lavender thing, and thatís a slightly more adult idea. And, in the Deathly Hallows, thereís Ronís jealousy of Harry/Hermione. All the books can be red by children, but I think the audience the books are directed at gets older as Harry gets older. This is somewhat inevitable because as Harry gets older he deals with more adult issues. So, children can read the later books but they probably wonít get as much out of them as an older teenager for example.

    Quote Originally Posted by Equinox Chick
    But analysing the lax safety standards in Hogwarts kinda takes the fun out of the series, doesn't it?
    You could make this argument about any analysis of the series. Personally I donít think it takes the fun out of the series. But, Iím one of those people who enjoys debating books more than reading them. I guess itís a matter of personal preference.

    Quote Originally Posted by Sapphire at Dawn
    In some cases, perhaps, but are you going to tell someone who loves playing Quidditch to stop playing because they might get injured, even though it could be fixed in a second? It's the same in the Muggle world; you could get injured walking down the street. Are you going to stay inside all the time? No. When I was eight, I fell of a pony and badly broke my shoulder. It was six months or so before I could ride again, yet I got back on the horse after that time, and I'm still riding today, over ten years later. Should I never have started riding to avoid that painful injury, just to be safe? Should I have missed out on all the hours of happiness riding has given me through fear of injury? It's the same with the wizarding world.
    You make an excellent point, but safety measures are designed to make dangerous activities less dangerous. When you fell off the pony, if you werenít wearing a helmet you could have smashed your head, which probably couldnít be fixed. Itís the same with walking across the street. Youíre taught to use common sense and think. For example, you cross at a cross walk or make sure no cars are coming.

    Iím not arguing against teaching dangerous concepts, because people will still encounter them in real life. I just think when learning things that could be potentially dangerous, they should learn precautions, which can make them safer. Umbridgeís class is an excellent example. By not teaching the students defense at all, she increases the risk of a situation where DADA would be used. It would help the students more if she taught them the spells and how to use them properly. Thatís what my point is. They still should teach all the concepts, but they should also teach the students proper precautions and emphasize the importance of using them.

    I completely agree that Potions is not at all the most dangerous class. It could potentially be the most dangerous class, but Snape is definitely knows what heís doing. But, if they had a less competent teacher it would be much more of an issue.

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