While some college students dabble with perfecting homemade alcoholic beverages, Phillip J. Atkinson was busy brewing something with a little more bang -- nitroglycerine.
By day, he is a mild-mannered Harvard freshman with a burning fascination for the chemistry of rocket propellants and explosives.
At night, in the quiet of his dormitory room, surrounded by a makeshift chemical still of test tubes and bunsen burners, Atkinson becomes "Nitro Man."
Or at least he did until uneasy university officials discovered that the budding scientist was keeping the explosive in his dorm room and storing enough of the stuff in the Science Center to blow a large hole through the lecture room wall.
A state explosives expert recently was called in to neutralize it while an army of nervous state, local and university officials supervised the evacuation of the Science Center.
"Nitroglycerine is probably the most dangerous high explosive. It is very unstable and very easily set off," said Harvard chemistry professor emeritus George B. Kistiakowsky, a principal in the creation of the first atomic bomb. "It could have blown the hinges off the doors, left the room in an absolute shambles and hurt a lot of people."
Atkinson was ordered to dismantle his dorm room laboratory at Massachusetts Hall, where, incidentally, Harvard President Derek Bok's office is located. And he said he was told, "If I so much as stockpile monosodium glutamate, the university will become very, very unhappy with me."
Why make nitroglycerine?
"Why does one get into coin collecting or stamp collecting? I just did," Atkinson counters. His experiments later became a personal challenge to discover the most efficient method of manufacturing nitroglycerin.
"He was doing what a lot of young fellows do," said Ronald Vanelli, director or the Science Center. "They get interested in science, and they really get interested in things that go 'boom; "
Atkinson's research began two years ago, in his hime town, Fullerton, Calif.
He tried using various ingredients in his scientifc quest for the perfect explosive. "I once tried to nitrate a banana to make it explode, but it didn't 'boom.'"
Undaunted by potential danger, he took a batch of homemade nitro to Harvard when he entered the university in September.
Though he refused to say whether he traveled the thousands of miles by plane from home with the unstable chemical, he concedes that it is simple to hide the liquid. "It's very innocent looking.It looks remarkably like Wella Balsam Creme Rinse."
But around the Harvard dormitory, some students began to notice telltale signs of Atkinson's experiments.
Atkinson's roommate, Jordon Budd, of Sacramento, said, "Sure, his experiments would occasionally let off fumes, but Phil's activities were a comical sideshow more than any grave threat."
Atkinson's antics included linging the underside of toilet seats with minor contact explosives, filling keyholes with the stuff, and, for a real blast at parties, lining the floors with the "Harmless" explosive, causing a loud noise when someone walked on it.
"He added life to the old dorm." said Kurt Opperman of Colorado Springs, another roommate.