Today (10th May*) is the thirtieth anniversary of the release of the book Good Omens, which is an old favourite of mine, and one I’ve found science-based excuses to write about before. In honour of the day, I’m going to do it again—but this time I’m going to talk about fire.
Fire plays an important role in both the book and the acclaimed television adaptation. Of course, fire is rather easier to do in a novel, since reading words like “fire” and “flames” are generally quite safe. In TV land, however, it’s a bit trickier. In particular (spoiler alert), at the start of episode five, the bookshop owned by the angel Aziraphale is burning when Crowley arrives and walks in. Crowley, after all, is a demon. From Hell. Fire can’t hurt him.
Except, of course, he’s actually the lovely David Tennant, who is a very much not-fireproof human being. Which poses a few questions: did the film crew really set the bookshop set on fire? Did they really make David Tennant walk into a burning building? How is that done safely? And what did they actually burn?
It turns out that they did, in fact, burn down the bookshop set. According to The Nice and Accurate Good Omens TV Companion, director Douglas Mackinnon “wanted a real fire” and “there were thousands of books, tapestries and beautiful grandfather clocks inside the shop that were real.”
Which… argh. Actual books. In flames. I might be a bit traumatised. Give me a moment.
Anyway. The thing is, if you’ve ever set fire to paper you’ll know it’s not very controllable. You can’t just burn books and achieve consistent and, more importantly, safe, flames. The Good Omens TV Companion goes on to explain that the set was rigged with gas lines and flame bars. It doesn’t say what the fuel was, but the probable candidate is propane.
This is where we get to the chemistry. Propane is a hydrocarbon—a molecule made of hydrogen and carbon atoms—and the “prop” part of its name tells us that it contains three carbon atoms. The “ane” part tells us it’s an alkane, and from that, handily, we can work out its formula without having to do anything so mundane as look it up, because the formulas of alkanes follow a rule: CnH2n+2. In other words, take the number of carbons, multiply it by two, add two, and you get the number of hydrogen atoms. This gives us three carbons and eight hydrogens: C3H8.
Propane’s boiling point is -42 oC, meaning it’s a gas at room temperature. You may be familiar with propane canisters which slosh when moved, suggesting liquid, and that’s because the propane is under pressure. The only real difference between a gas and a liquid is the amount of space between the individual particles. In a liquid, the particles are mostly touching one another, while in a gas there are large spaces between them. If you take a gas and squash it into a small volume, so that the particles are forced to touch, it becomes a liquid.
But once the propane is allowed to escape from the confines of a pressurised container, at room temperature, its molecules spread out once again, into a gas.
The expansion is BIG. Theoretically, at room temperature, one litre of propane liquid (with a density of 493 g/litre) will expand to occupy roughly 270 litres of space. But, of course, the space it’s expanding into also contains air, so the volume of flammable mixture—approximately 5% propane to 95% air—is actually much higher.
Gases burn faster than either liquids or gases. We know this, of course: it only takes a brief spark to light the gas burner on the cooker hob, for example, but you’d struggle to light a liquid fuel with the same spark (unless it was warmed, and therefore starting to vaporise). The reason is those big gaps between molecules: each molecule in a gas is free, none are “buried” in the middle of a volume of liquid (or solid), so they can all mingle freely with oxygen (needed for combustion) and they all “feel” the heat source and become excited more easily.
Apart from being a gas at room temperature, propane is also chemically very safe in that it’s non-toxic and non-carcinogenic. It’s also colourless and odourless—although small amounts of additives such as the eggy-smelling ethyl mercaptan (ethanethiol) are sometimes added as a safety precaution, to make leaks more noticeable.
Mechanically there are more hazards. There’s a significant temperature drop when a pressurised liquid expands into a gas. The simplest way to think about this is to think of temperature as the energy of all the particles in a substance divided by its volume. If the volume increases while the number of particles stays the same, the energy is spread out a lot more, so the temperature drops. Potentially, a sudden release of too much gas near a person could severely chill their skin, and even cause frostbite. Plus, of course, although propane isn’t toxic, if it displaces oxygen it could cause asphyxiation, and it’s heavier than air, so it tends to accumulate in the bottom part of a room—precisely where people are trying to do pesky things like breathe.
Then there’s the issue of complete combustion. Generally, when hydrocarbons burn they produce carbon dioxide and water as products, neither of which are too much of a problem for nearby humans (up to a point). However, when there’s not enough oxygen—say, because the fire is inside a building—other products form, in particular carbon monoxide, which is very toxic, and carbon particles, which make a terrible, terrible mess.
I mentioned earlier that a flammable mixture is about 95% air to 5% propane, and this is why. In fact, it’s even more precise than that: for propane to burn cleanly it should be 4.2% propane to 95.8% air. In industry terminology, if there’s not enough propane it produces a “lean” burn, where flames lift from the burner and tend to go out. If there’s more propane (and thus not enough oxygen) it’s called a “rich” burn, which produces large, yellow flames, soot, and the dreaded carbon monoxide.
You might, of course, want a certain amount of yellow flame and smoke, to achieve the right look, but the whole thing needs to be carefully controlled to make sure no one is in danger. It’s all manageable with the use of properly checked, monitored and maintained equipment, but you can imagine that a big effect like the bookshop fire needs a very experienced professional to oversee everything.
For Good Omens, that was Danny Hargreaves (of Real SFX), who’s worked on all kinds of projects from War of the Worlds to Doctor Who. As he says in the Good Omens TV Companion, “everything is under control [but] we took it right to [the] limit.” At one point, he says, he turned off gas lines sooner rather than later and, when director Douglas Mackinnon asked why, had to explain that the roof was about to catch fire.
So, yes, they burned the bookshop set. But it’s all right, everyone. It’s all right. Because (another spoiler) thanks to the powers of Adam Young, everything was restored again afterwards. Phew. All the books were saved. Shh.
*Funnily enough, everyone thought the anniversary was 1st of May. Including the whole Good Omens team. So they made a brilliant lockdown video** to mark the occasion and celebrate. And then it turned out it was actually the 10th. Just an ordinary cock-up, as Crowley would say.
**Which proves the bookshop, with all its books, was fully restored, doesn’t it? Told you.
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