Evolving Thoughts

A retired chemist has had his home lab confiscated in Maryland because a government official was scared of it. Sayeth Robert Thompson:

Pamela Wilderman, the code enforcement officer for Marlboro, stated, “I think Mr. Deeb has crossed a line somewhere. This is not what we would consider to be a customary home occupation.”

Allow me to translate Ms. Wilderman’s words into plain English: “Mr. Deeb hasn’t actually violated any law or regulation that I can find, but I don’t like what he’s doing because I’m ignorant and irrationally afraid of chemicals, so I’ll abuse my power to steal his property and shut him down.”

Hell, when I was fourteen I was mixing explosives to use as rocket fuels (because the university library didn’t have any texts on rocket fuels, but it had plenty of books on explosives, and a rocket is merely an oxidation-impaired explosion, right?). I suspect today I’d end up in Gitmo. Back then I made rockets.

People should go read Oliver Sach’s wonderful wonderful book Uncle Tungsten. Sachs grew up when chemicals of all kinds (including uranium salts) could be purchased either at the local pharmacist (we called ’em “chemists” in the Anglo countries for a reason) or by mail order. I used to buy all kinds of stuff, like Sulphur, Carbon and Potassium Nitrate, as a boy. Yes, the chemist knew what I was making, but he figured if I lost a finger it would be a valuable lesson. And I didn’t (not then, any way).

Kids today have emasculated chemistry sets that do precisely nothing interesting. And if Mythbusters has taught us anything, it’s that kids love explosions. That is the route to an educated population of science loving psychopaths. But we didn’t turn out to be psychopaths, we turned out to be lovers of science. We have lost something important. If a frigging chemist, who knows how to work safely, cannot do science at home, the west can pretty well forget about the next few generations of kids ever learning anything useful.

Hat tip to Bora.


  1. #1 Thony C.
    August 13, 2008

    Hands up all those male visitors to Evolving Thoughts who didn’t at least try to manufacture gunpowder in their youth!

    P.S. I know that this is mildly sexist but in my dim and distant youth little girls didn’t, on the whole, manufacture bombs, rockets and other inceniadry devices but little boys did.

  2. #2 Lab Rat
    August 13, 2008

    It isn’t so much that people are worried about breeding psychopaths, it’s that parents are worried about their kids getting hurt. My mum would have a fit if I started throwing chemicals around at home, but doesn’t ask too much about what I get up too in the lab. And as for doing things like that when I was young, not a chance.

    Apparently you still can make explosives by rummaging through the drawer under the sink. THere’s some powerful stuff down there. I don’t know though if I’d be happy with any prospective offspring I might end up with doing that though, at least not without my supervision :)

  3. #3 Who Cares
    August 13, 2008

    No gunpowder. I just studied how to most efficiently burn stuff. To the point my parents banned me from taking care of the wood stove due to damage I did to it by just burning wood (not my fault the iron bars holding the fireproofing decided to warp and thereby crack the fireproofing).

  4. #4 clinteas
    August 13, 2008

    //but in my dim and distant youth little girls didn’t, on the whole, manufacture bombs, rockets and other inceniadry devices but little boys did//

    Definetely a boy thing,making bombs.
    If girls would make bombs,we would be using them for something useful too.
    And great to see that in the US the government determines what a “customary home occupation” is.

  5. #5 Andrew
    August 13, 2008

    I’m not sure when “chemicals” became bad but it is depressing. Ever time I hear someone moan about something being bad because of “chemicals” I struck by an overwhelming desire to /facepalm.

  6. #6 joemac53
    August 13, 2008

    Point of info. The lab is in Massachusetts. I used to have chemistry sets going all the time and scrounged in garages for other chemicals or old shotgun shells to get explosives. My parents would tell the other kids to “just leave him alone” when I was in a destructive mode. (I found this out when I was 30, and teaching math and science)

  7. #7 Nick Gardner
    August 13, 2008

    The closest I ever came was with a weird set up involving dousing a can of shaving cream with adhesive remover and lighting the whole affair on fire. I suppose I should be grateful I’m not dead or missing any body parts as a result. :-)

  8. #8 tlb
    August 13, 2008

    Maybe if we all read the source article instead of just the juicy bits, we might see that it’s not a simple case of a man running a perfectly safe home lab being shut down by the nasty, ignorant code enforcement officer:

    //Vessels of chemicals were all over the furniture and the floor, authorities said. The ensuing investigation involved a state hazardous materials team, fire and police officials, health officials, environmental officials and code enforcement officials. The Deebs were told to stay in a hotel while the slew of officials investigated and emptied the basement.

    Pamela A. Wilderman, Marlboro�s code enforcement officer, said Mr. Deeb was doing scientific research and development in a residential area, which is a violation of zoning laws.

    �It is a residential home in a residential neighborhood,� she said. �This is Mr. Deeb�s hobby. He�s still got bunches of ideas. I think Mr. Deeb has crossed a line somewhere. This is not what we would consider to be a customary home occupation. � There are regulations about how much you�re supposed to have, how it�s detained, how it�s disposed of.�//

    I would like to humbly suggest that Mr. Deeb may not have been following good safety practices, AND apparently was violating zoning regulations in a residential neighborhood. Perhaps the reaction appears a bit extreme, and we do not know how they found out about it in the first place, nor what type of chemicals were being stored on the couch. However, it does not look to be a completely unwarranted violation of rights by an ignorant and frightened public official.

  9. #9 jeff
    August 13, 2008

    “Hands up all those male visitors to Evolving Thoughts who didn’t at least try to manufacture gunpowder in their youth!”

    Oh yeah, I had a massive and very cool chemistry set. One time I left a mixture of powders (mostly sulfur and NaCLO, I think) in the cellar, and it exploded. Scared everyone, and gobs of stuff and chlorine gas everywhere. The folks were not pleased.

  10. #10 karen
    August 13, 2008

    Sorry boys,I am a girl who blew things up,having exploded a test tube full of interesting under the sink items, my mother forbade me from any chemistry practise, that didn’t involve pretty coloured salt crystals(do you know how boring being a girl is?).
    What always seemed unfair to me in the late sixties early seventies was the fact that boys were allowed to make big bangs……..sigh……..

  11. #11 Elf Eye
    August 13, 2008

    My dad was a chemist, and he brought chemicals home for my brother to play with. My dad didn’t think it necessary to offer any supervision, and I can recall my brother setting off explosions in coffee cans. Also, my brother discovered that if he mixed certain chemicals together, a flame would shoot out of the test tube. He did this once while our toddler sister stood nearby, and her skirt caught on fire. We beat out the fire, and, oddly, there were no scorch marks on the skirt, which meant we didn’t have to come up with a cover story. (Fortunately, our sister wasn’t going to say anything.) So my brother continued to play with chemicals. Somehow, we all survived my brother’s pyrotechnic phase. He did manage to hack off the tip of my finger with a lawnmower, but nobody lost any eyes or digits to tube rockets.

  12. #12 archaeo-nerd
    August 13, 2008

    Here’s another girl who spent her youth attempting to light things on fire to see what happened. My parents also did not think that this was an appropriate past time for their daughter, nor were comic books, train sets, radio cars, etc. Do you think that maybe the reason guys think that girls don’t want to set things on fire and/or explode things is because we’re not given as much license as the old saying ‘boys will be boys’ gives guys when they’re children?

  13. #13 Don Moyer
    August 13, 2008

    Oh dear, the fridge and cabinets here are full of chemicals and there are chemicals on the couch after a late night snack — better turn myself in.

  14. #14 Big Cat
    August 13, 2008

    I understand that equipment used in genetic engineering can be had for the price of a high end entertainment center. I wonder how code enforcement people would feel about horticultural hobbyists running experiments out in the garage. THC in your tomatoes, anyone?

  15. #15 Ginkgo100
    August 13, 2008

    I have to disagree with your version of the situations, in which an ignorant, ham-fisted government functionary with more authority than brains came down on a delightful absent-minded professor engaged in the romantic business of scientific investigations.

    In the real world, most local governments have developed a code of zoning laws to keep their cities orderly. Zoning laws are what prevents your neighbor from running a retail store out of their garage — and from poisoning your kids, pets and landscaping with improperly used and stored chemicals.

  16. #16 Thony C.
    August 13, 2008

    THC in your tomatoes, anyone?


  17. #17 conelrad
    August 13, 2008

    Just read the linked article + all
    comments there. Sure, the local
    officials overstepped their bounds,
    but the whole thing also sounds a
    little like one of those public
    health deals in which the city has
    to clean out a house filled with 20
    years of garbage. Just remember the
    ancient curse: “May you come to the
    attention of the authorities.”

  18. #18 Amar
    August 13, 2008

    You make some very valid points about getting the whole story and not jumping to conclusions, and the apparent non-professionalism of this retired chemist. However, you then go on to say that you don’t know how they found out about it. In the article that I read, they stated quite clearly that the fire department was called to the house because a window air-conditioning unit had caught fire and the firemen saw all of the chemicals strewn throughout the house (the fire was ‘unrelated’ to any of the chemicals in the house). My personal opinion of this matter is one of public safety. While i would want our society to encourage scientific experimentation, i would prefer that it happens in a generally safe way. I don’t know how ‘dangerous’ the chemicals that were being used are, but i would hope that because the guy was working in his own house, he wasn’t messing with anything that was going to accidentally blow up his house.

  19. #19 tlb
    August 13, 2008

    Amar –

    //Firefighters found more than 1,500 vials, jars, cans, bottles and boxes in the basement Tuesday afternoon, after they responded to an unrelated fire in an air conditioner on the second floor of the home. //

    Oops, I should have followed my own advice, sorry about that. I didn’t mean to come off sounding like I was trying to lecture anyone by the way.

  20. #20 Jon D
    August 13, 2008

    I would have thought that the zoning laws would only have come into play if the guy was running a commercial operation? Sounds to me like it was just a hobby.

    As for kids with chemistry sets, I was lucky in that for some reason, me making flash bombs, gun powder grenades and smoke bombs never freaked my mom out. Even after I blew up her rose garden a couple of times and the letterbox too. Sure her and my dad told me stories about kids blowing their fingers off, as did the pharmacist I bought all my stuff from, but they just served as a warning. Looking back now, its incredibly strange – she had no real interest in science herself, but she even softened my smoke bomb mixtures in the frying pan for me so I could mould them! Only thing I ever did that freaked her out was start to collect spiders..

  21. #21 DSKS
    August 13, 2008

    Well, obviously researchers working under government supervision are far more responsible, sane, reliable and unlikely to be plotting mass murder…

    Oh, erm, wait a minute…

  22. #22 Mike_F
    August 13, 2008

    You conveniently left out the most relevant part of the government official’s comments-

    “There are regulations about how much youre supposed to have, how its detained, how its disposed of.

    This was apparently not a kid playing with a few chemicals under the sink

  23. #23 Noadi
    August 13, 2008

    Me and my brother on occasion blew things up as kids. Not very often though, my parents disproved of us scaring the pets.

    Unfortunately I grew up in the 90s when chemistry sets had already been watered down a lot. My explosions were all household chemicals (and the occasional disassembled shotgun shell) because the best my chem set could do was make slime. I had to wait until high school chemistry class and the coolest chem teacher ever for lots of explosions and other fun in the lab.

  24. #24 Louis
    August 13, 2008

    Big Cat @ #14 and Thony C @ #16:

    Sad to say that the hallucinogenic (and analgesic) effects of cannabis are due to a more complex mixture of cannabinoids (and their metabolites) than merely delta-9 THC and its isomers.

    As someone who has a) worked on cannabinoid chemistry, b) eaten the occasional “special” brownie, and c) eaten pure delta-9 THC in the correct dose and been violently and unpleasantly ill (worse than any “whitey”) I speak from both professional and bitter personal experience! 😉

    The genetic engineering “Potmatoe” job is a lot harder than one might think….more’s the bloody pity actually.


    P.S. To maintain the illusion of on-topicity: Being arrested for home chem lab….erm…excuse me, I have some {cough} “items” to move from my shed. I also strongly agree with John about the removal of nice bangy chem sets is a detriment not only to the childhood scientific lives of our youth, but our future prospects at getting them educated.

  25. #25 themadlolscientist, FCD
    August 13, 2008

    Uncle Tungsten – and everything else I’ve read that Oliver Sacks has written – are insanely great! I haven’t read Musicophilia yet, but that’s only because I haven’t been able to get to the library recently.

    I’m another XX who would have loved to be able to blow things up, but my parents were the overly cautious type, so I never had the opportunity. Otherwise I don’t think they’d have had a problem with it. They always encouraged my interest in science – when I turned 7 they gave me a microscope and “The Visible Man.” (They woudn’t let me paint the organs though, because the paint was too expensive.) I had huge collections of leaves and rocks (well, huge for a 7-year-old, about a hundred of each) and got to tinker with a whole bunch of gadgets. I even had a few real tools of my own.

    In the mean time, I had to content myself with the lovely smell of capgun caps and the pleasure of lighting a roll of them to see how many would go off.

    Eventually I went to college and got a degree in chemistry, but we never got to blow anything up there either.

    I feel so deprived…….

  26. #26 Porlock Hussein Junior
    August 14, 2008

    Surely the three ex-girls who were not allowed to make explosions and bad smells have the sympathy of everyone here. I recall my two cousins remarking once, many years after the fact, that what they had really wanted for Christmas was electric trains, but of course (as they said) girls knew better than to ask for such things. My mother’s liberal soul was rather shocked that they had felt that inhibition and no one had guessed it; so, I suppose, were other members of the older generation. (Perspective: 20 years older than McCain.) I do think things are substantially better now.

    But the times aren’t better for chemistry. The officials talk about how terrible this guy’s illegal lab was, but there’s no overwhelming reason to take their stories seriously in an age of hysteria. Someone asks when chemicals became evil. Over the past 10 years I’ve watched it happen. In the 90s there were plenty of fascistic regulations about what you could buy, because some things could be used to make DRUGS!!!! But if you knew enough to avoid them, and in some cases showed that you knew what you were doing, you could buy most things. Ammonium nitrate could be had even after Oklahoma City.

    For people who have no idea how bad it is, I suggest a simple Internet exercise; I know what the results will be in the USA, and suspect they’re not much different elsewhere. Find a Web site for a company that sells chemicals. Look for some exotic and dangerous substance on their list. May I suggest “sodium chloride”? Try to place an order for maybe 500 grams of the stuff. Do it. Just see the results.

    I understand that that particular chemical can be had through unofficial, non-chemical channels. In all fairness, there are some places that offer a tiny number of super-innoccuous chemicals that might also sell it. But not some halfway general supplier. They are not required to do this; the official government limits on what you can buy haven’t changed much. But the government still has clamped down on legal chemicals wherever it can get away with it, so why should a company bother to sell to any customer but an official Qualified Company?

    Here’s a specific: try Carolina Supply, a big supplier of biological and related stuff for education. Look up their policies, and find that if anything is classified as a Chemical, they won’t sell it to a private party. Good company; feculently stupid policy; but don’t blame them, they’re just trying to stay in business.

  27. #27 Porlock Hussein Junior
    August 14, 2008

    Extending the rant:

    In spring of 2004 IIRC (I have the New York Times issue somewhere), the wife of a New York artist died suddenly overnight. He called the ambulance people. One of the paramedics saw Lab Stuff! Bacterial Culture stuff!! So of course he called the cops, who came in and found the (unconcealed) cultures of colorful bacteria that the artist used to make the living items that he displayed, publicly, for a living, in galleries. They confiscated everything in sight and arrested him. These naive officials didn’t put out any stories about zoning problems or unsafe practices or that nonsense; it was enough that he was growing germs like a terrorist. At the time of the story I saw, he was trying to dig out of this BS; since I was only in town briefly, I’ve no idea how it came out.

    So: keep your legal, harmless, inoffensive stuff where it cannot ever be seen by an official or anyone else, because if it looks Scientifical, you’re for it. No peeks through the window. Nothing an ambulance attendant might see in an emergency. In case of fire, commit suicide.

  28. #28 MrKAT
    August 14, 2008

    Losing labs and impossible to get special chemicals due to police is not necessary hindrage but advantage, You get more genius to manufacture those.

    Before any internets I invented myself chemical routes how to make sodium hydrate and sodium chlorate from home chemicals. (That explosive chlorate were considered impossible to make in home (!) in Terrorist’s Handbook as I later read in internet, and for buying sodium hydrate I’d needed police licence in pharmacy ~ impossible for me, so I had to do it myself ;).

    Later I got job in company that made computer programs and databases for chemical factory etc.

  29. #29 John S. Wilkins
    August 14, 2008

    MrKAT, you are the ten thousandth comment poster on Evolving Thoughts. You don’t win anything, but congrats anyway.

  30. #30 m deeb
    August 15, 2008

    I am the daughter of Victor Deeb and what they did and took from my father is not only unfair but devastating to an old man whose life for the last 40 years has been chemistry. They not only took all of his chemicals (which he used in his research for non-toxic sealants for baby food jars) but 20 years of notes that were valuable only to him. Now his research notes have magically disappeared into thin air. Can someone tell me where the justice is in that?

  31. #31 jeff
    August 16, 2008

    There is no justice whatsoever in that. I have lived in MD for a while, and it is an area with many restrictive laws and regulations. Although some states and remote areas are more relaxed, I’m finding that things are tight just about everywhere in the US after 9/11 – more laws, regulations, and police everywhere, and computers know a great deal about you and they don’t forget. At any given time, I’m not sure how many laws I’m breaking. Best to stay under the radar, if you can.

  32. #32 John S. Wilkins
    August 16, 2008

    I am disgusted by that even more than the initial “raid”. Losing the results of your research like that is simply bastardry.

    Please tell your father that in Australia, someone is aghast at what was done to him.

  33. #33 CortxVortx
    August 18, 2008

    As a chemist, I’d be interested to know what were some of his materials. A lot of people freak out over the idea of “chemicals,” and their brains freeze at just seeing the label from Sigma-Aldrich or Fisher, with mysterious strings of letters and numbers (like, say, FeCl3-6H2O) and things like melting point and molecular weight and, most of all, the flame symbol or skull & crossbones symbol prominently displayed. So imagine the reaction at seeing scores of such containers.

    And as for “… Vessels of chemicals were all over the furniture and the floor …” tables and dressers and countertops are “furniture,” and boxes of stuff are often set on the floor. That may be how he had them organized (I know I don’t have sufficient storage for all my junk).

    I second the observations about all the dangerous household chemicals, and toss in pesticides and insecticides and up to 20 gallons of highly volatile gasoline stored under cars.

  34. #34 MrKAT
    August 19, 2008

    Hi John ! Thanks for noticing that I was 10’000th. That’s reward enough.

    I’m more shocked too now reading that he lost also his notes. I remember how upset I was when older charwomen(JW,btw) had destroyed some of my important science notes years ago. Fortunately those were mostly general results of others ,not me, googling shows me most of those nowadays..

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