Adventures in Ethics and Science

Months ago, I wrote about the Department of Homeland Security’s concerns about chemistry sets. (You know, for kids.) Well, it seems the push to make the world child-safe (or perhaps not legally actionable?) continues.

Reader Donn Young points me to this story from Wired about government crackdowns on companies catering to garage chemistry enthusiasts. Donn also shares a story of his own:

Growing up, two friends and I had a chemistry ‘club’ centered around our chemistry sets and ‘labs’ in our basements. My friend’s mother, who was a chemist at Battelle Memorial Institute, would give us short monthly talks about famous chemists, have us do an experiment based on some important principle, and as the grand finale [which kept the interest of 11-year olds] gave a demo of some greatly exothermic reaction – the loud noises, colored fire, billowing smoke, and smell were impressive – in a time of no smoke detectors! It resulted in two of us getting degrees in chemistry [her own son became an investment banker - go figure]. We all held her in awe because she could get us chemicals that were really strong oxidizers, powerful acids, or toxic [and we all survived because she taught us lab safety as well - goggles, gloves & a plexiglas shield saved my eyesight when my hydrogen generator blew up - I was curious to see what color a pure hydrogen flame would burn].

The current movement to squelch a kid’s curiosity in a basement lab with a chemistry set doesn’t seem to bode well for the future of the field

Given my present position as ScienceBlogs resident chemist, I ought to weigh in on this.

Especially since PZ Myers (a biologist!) has:

Those old sheet metal boxes containing an assortment of strange chemicals in vials and test tubes and alcohol burners were a rite of passage for my generation and thereabouts. There was stuff in there that would burn, or blow up, or stain the furniture irreparably, or kill someone…that was the fun and the thrill of it all. I had one, although I quickly moved on to more ghoulish occupations (most of the boys I knew could be separated into several tracks: the ones fascinated with road kill, and the ones making homemade explosives, and the ones with the soldering irons); I had a few insane friends who discovered the dangerous world of match heads and homebuilt solid fuel rockets. It was a process that separated American youth into the majority who got bored with it all and gave up on science, a very rare few who maimed themselves, and a less rare but still minority group who built on the experience to become scientists and engineers one day.

As has naturalist (and non-ScienceBlogger) Chris Clarke:

I’m the last person to complain, usually, when government agencies act to restrict public exposure to harmful substances. But this is just… bizarre. It smacks of the FDA’s protecting narcoleptics from a one-in-five-hundred-thousand chance of negative health impacts by banning pemoline. But this administration is hardly known for its diligence in shielding people from hazardous substances. It’s all just very odd. In the meantime, one more way in which kids once became interested in the sciences has been taken away.

First off, I feign no hypotheses about what might really be motivating the tightening regulations on old-school chemistry set ingredients — whether it be fears about their use in bomb-making or meth labs, concerns about toxic waste in the municipal landfills, a drive to lure kids away from an interest in science, whatever. I’m sure there are good conspiracy theories to be had here, but I’m not in the mood to spin them right now.

I wonder, though, if the clamp-down on chemistry sets might backfire. Many of the kids who might be experimenting with chemistry sets have heard of the internets. Even if they can’t buy a complete kit of oxidizing agents and acids and such at their Wal-Mart, they may be able to get all sorts of information — from myriad sources online — detailing not only wondrous experiments, but also alternate sources for chemicals (like the kitchen or garden shed or medicine cabinet). Kids are resourceful, and it’s hard to think of an instance in which putting something off limits didn’t make it more attractive to the younger set. Natural curiosity plus teen rebellion probably means a whole generation of budding chemists will not be lost to accounting programs or dangeral studies.

(Of course, there’s a lot of unfiltered information on the internets. Will we be able to recognize the kids who are critical consumers of information by their full complements of fingers and eyes and their relative lack of visible chemical burns?)

Also, I should note for the record that fooling around with a chemistry set as a child is neither necessary nor sufficient for later scientific studies and serious engagement in scientific research. To reiterate from my earlier post, it was one of my brothers who played with the chemistry set in the basement, not me. (I did things like mummifying Cornish game hens — I blame the King Tut exhibit.) He did not end up studying chemistry; I got a Ph.D. in it.

It probably helped that my high school chemistry teacher was wildly engaging — imagine a guy in a white labcoat, looking a lot like Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, sitting serenely at the back of the room as the class is taking a quiz, using the gas jet to blow soap bubbles and setting them on fire halfway to the ceiling. We learned to balance redox reactions. We learned thermodynamics. We learned to assign point groups. And we did a whole mess of cool experiments (plus the standard issue stuff like titration). There was this vague air that the fun experiments might be … corrupting us somehow, that maybe we were having too much fun to really be engaged in schoolwork.

In that sense, I guess I had something akin to the “garage chemistry” experience.

My point is: there are resources out there for people who want to fool around with chemistry. Some are DIY (and getting more DIY every day). Others, surprisingly enough, fall under the auspices of classes at school (or at college, or continuing ed programs). Find the teacher who cannot get over how much fun chemistry is, and you’ll get what you came for.


  1. #1 Thomas Winwood
    June 2, 2006

    I remember stories from my early childhood of people having chemistry sets… I’d have given my eyeteeth to use one.

    But I ended up in chemistry anyway, so I don’t suppose it matters.

  2. #2 Evan
    June 2, 2006

    I recall reading a piece — I think by Freeman Dyson — I think in New Scientist — in which the writer suggests that the “chemistry sets” of the 21st century will be at home, DIY, organo-synthesis (in which organo means organisms). Assuming that turns out to be true, the DHS’ obsession with chemicals would be tragically misdirected.

  3. #3 David Harmon
    June 3, 2006

    Just for the record, the classic Anarchist’s Cookbook definitely falls under “unreliable”… IIRC, their syntheses were notably short on safety precautions. E.g., “how to synthesize chlorine”, without even a warning about enclosed spaces!

  4. #4 Polly Anna
    June 4, 2006

    Oh, my!

    If only kids could be turned on to making Biodiesel for a simple entry point into the wonders, simiplicity and practical applications of chemistry?

    triglycerides + methanol/KOH = fatty acid esters (biodiesel) + glycerol
    (about 1 gallon oil gives one gallon fuel)

    It’s simple, safe, clean, environmentally correct, teaches self-reliance and self-sufficiency, run the family lawnmower (maybe they would want to mow the lawn) as a start and with scale-up the family truck on Saturday night (permission contingent on providing your own homemade fuel!).

    Polly Anna