Pharyngula

Hey, gang! Who remembers these?

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I know that Gary does, and of course, so does the Disgruntled Chemist. 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.

The kids who built on this experience were almost all boys. There were significant exceptions; my wife-to-one-day-be, for instance, was the only girl in a short-lived science club we were in as kids, one of our dates was spent classifying and dissecting crustaceans, and I was jealous to discover that she owned a nicer microscope than I did. Perhaps one way to end the gender gap in the sciences more quickly is to give little girls kits that let them blow stuff up in interesting ways rather than those horrible Easy Bake ovens.

But maybe that isn’t a possibility anymore. Chemistry sets have been spayed and neutered by timid authorities who are afraid of drug labs and terrorists, reduced to little more than Easy Bake ovens themselves, and splattered with warning labels to instill fear of even the most innocuous reagents. The end result is going to be a new generation of kids stripped of an important formative experience in the sciences. Neither boys nor girls are going to get to make stink bombs, or pepper the walls and floors of their junior high schools with the stains from ammonium triiodide.

This is the state we’ve been reduced to.

One kid whose interest in science was sparked by the gift of a chemistry set was Don Herbert, who grew up to host a popular TV show in the 1950s called Watch Mr. Wizard. With his eye-popping demonstrations and low-key midwestern manner, Mr. Wizard gave generations of future scientists and teachers the confidence to perform experiments at home. In 1999, Restoration Hardware founder Stephen Gordon teamed up with Renee Whitney, general manager of a toy company called Wild Goose, to try to re-create the chemistry set Herbert marketed almost 50 years ago. “Don was so sweet,” Whitney recalls. “He invited us to his home to have dinner with him and his wife. Then he pulled his old chemistry set out of the garage. It was amazing — a real metal cabinet, like a little closet, filled with dozens of light-resistant bottles.”

Gordon and Whitney soon learned that few of the items in Mr. Wizard’s cabinet could be included in the product. “Unfortunately, we found that more than half the chemicals were illegal to sell to children because they’re considered dangerous,” Whitney explains. By the time the Mr. Wizard Science Set appeared in stores, it came with balloons, clay, Super Balls, and just five chemicals, including laundry starch, which was tagged with an ominous warning: HANDLE CAREFULLY. NOT EXPECTED TO BE A HEALTH HAZARD.

Isn’t that pathetic? Fear really is the mind-killer.