Pharyngula

Hey, gang! Who remembers these?

i-262ce809bec41b418d30674fc24f8255-chemistry_set.jpg

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.

Comments

  1. #1 Azkyroth
    May 31, 2006

    What kind of age group are we talking about with these?

    And what would you suggest I buy my daughter individually and assemble into a jury-rigged chemistry set for her when she reaches about that age?

  2. #2 PZ Myers
    May 31, 2006

    I was into that stuff in junior high and later.

    The Wired article makes a few suggestions for sources.

  3. #3 coturnix
    May 31, 2006

    On one of his trips to England, my brother bought me my first chemistry set. I was about 10 years old at a time. Soon enough, I started buying my own glassware and chemicals at a “real” store where real scientists buy theirs. Good old days. I hate the way they are making the sets less and less interesting – a process that has been going on for quite a while now, i.e., it is not this years’ news.

  4. #4 Azkyroth
    May 31, 2006

    Wonder if anyone’s set up a legal defense fund for United Nuclear yet…

  5. #5 RossK
    May 31, 2006

    PZ–

    Are you suggesting that EZ Bake ovens do not blow things up in interesting ways?

    If so, I beg to differ.

    .

  6. #6 Tara Mobley
    May 31, 2006

    It’s bad enough that this safety obsession has turned the home chemistry kit into anything but, but to take away hands on chemistry in school too is a crime against science. My parents wouldn’t let me have a chemistry set because they were convinced I’d blow things up with it (and by the time they decided to let me have one, they were already becoming pretty neutered), but at least I was able to neutralize bases and use HCl on my own in school. If this hasn’t gotten better in about 10-12 years, I’m jury-rigging a chemistry set for my kid.

  7. #7 Azkyroth
    May 31, 2006

    My thoughts exactly. Of course, in 10-12 years she won’t be inclined to eat the contents, which she now is…

  8. #8 Caledonian
    May 31, 2006

    It doesn’t take much to make aluminum-iron oxide thermite, and it blows up real good. (It also has an unfortunate tendency to melt through concrete…)

  9. #9 Gary Farber
    May 31, 2006

    “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.”

    I don’t fall in any of those three categories; I’m neither maimed nor a scientist nor an engineer, but I certainly never grew bored with science, but didn’t pursue an academic track, dropped out of college, and worked in science fiction and other publishing from the age of 15 on.

    “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.”

    Along with actually experimenting for one’s self to see what would happen, and what one could do.

    This is just criminal; I’m so glad I’m not a kid today in the sense of how over-protected and limited they are (and not to mention how over-regimented so many are), even with the compensations of today’s computers and technology.

  10. #10 DOF
    May 31, 2006

    No sense taking up much space except to say I totally agree. And by sheer coincidence another one of my regular reads happened to give the wimpy-science approach a good fisking today.

  11. #11 wheatdogg
    May 31, 2006

    It’s the lawyers, and the fear of liability suits that have killed off the chem sets of our youth. The mfrs are afraid of Mr and Mrs Citizen suing for millions of dollars if little Johnny or Janey blows off a hand or goes blind. Of course, you’d have to try really hard to do either even with my set of 40 years ago.

    I did find out that mixing all the chemicals into water produced a greenish-gray gloopy mess that left a nice stain on our cardtable and smoked a little. Nothing exploded — my mother was probably grateful for that!

    I also had a geology set with a hammer. It’s a wonder I didn’t put out an eye with that thing, chipping away at rocks in the yard. Back then, no one gave a thought about eye protection.

    Another big boogeyman now is mercury. My science teacher used to let us play with the stuff back when. Nowadays, teachers who do that risk losing their jobs. Risk and liability, that’s what it’s all about.

  12. #12 Tiax
    May 31, 2006

    I wish I had a chemistry set, but alas I’m more than young enough to fall into the category of overly-protected youth. Luckily, I’ve got science blogs to keep me interested, and ID blogs to keep me laughing. It’s not all that bad, I guess.

  13. #13 Azkyroth
    May 31, 2006

    Tiax rules all!

    Hehehehehe…

    I never had much of a chance to play with chemistry sets, not that I wouldn’t have loved the opportunity. For my parents, most of the ones they could find were expensive as well as dangerous. I think that was the excuse…

    Same for model rocketry. And the Justice Department’s claim that terrorists could use model rockets to blow up a commercial airliner needs to be publicly ridiculed on every channel. Unless the plane was on the ground, I’m quite certain that nothing short of a malign miracle would permit someone to destroy it with a tiny, unguided missile lacking the thrust to carry a significant quantity of explosive.

    As for Joey…well, at 10-12 I’d get her the hammer but probably insist she wear goggles, or at least sunglasses or something of the sort. However, from about the age of 6-10 I would routinely (an hour or two most days) entertain myself by simulating Star Wars-style space battles using bits of gravel to represent the ships and pulverizing the ones that were hit with a convenient chunk of what appears to be somewhat weathered gabbro, and I certainly never managed to hit an eye. (As one might have surmised, my parents initially bought the hysteria about television and video games harming children hook, line, and sinker, and consequently I was severely deprived in those departments as a child. They still seem to have trouble getting their minds around games like Baldur’s Gate and Deus Ex that are as intellectually complex and immersive as some of the better novels, and actually require the player to *think*.)

  14. This is what comes of the war On Drugs, the War On Terror, etc.

    The Wired article is being passed around on the chemical education mailing list, and while I didn’t respond on the list, I did jot down a few thoughts on my blog.

    http://shrimpandgrits.rickandpatty.com/2006/05/30/the-war-on-the-next-generation-of-scientists/

    (What, did nobody else do “toilet bowl chemistry”?)


  15. My science teacher used to let us play with the stuff back when. Nowadays, teachers who do that risk losing their jobs. Risk and liability, that’s what it’s all about.

    The rite of passage in the high school chemistry lab was to catch the bottle of mercury. This was always amusing because the bottle was a lot heavier than it looked. To this day, I’m amazed that nobody ever dropped the thing.

    After that, it was mercury hockey in the large sink, with the goal being the drain. My high school chemistry teacher will probably burn in hell for that, but nobody really paid much attention to mercury hazards back then. (Of course, this is the same teacher that managed to burn a hole in the ceiling with a slightly larger than recommended hunk of sodium, so …)

  16. #16 tim gueguen
    May 31, 2006

    I never had a chemistry kit as a kid, but I always kind of wanted one when I saw them in the Sears Christmas Catalogue. The closest I got to blowing things up was smashing paper cap gun caps, the kind that came on a long paper roll, with a hammer. I sometimes wonder if I didn’t damage my hearing a bit at a young age by doing that. Another thing I would do at the end of every school year was melt my crayons with a large cosmetic mirror my mother had. I’d take them outside and focus the Sun on them until they melted. The most dangerous thing my brother and I had as a kid was the “elephant gun” a cousin made us out of some waste wood and an old metal table leg. Its lucky we never put someone’s eye out with that thing.

  17. HANDLE CAREFULLY. NOT EXPECTED TO BE A HEALTH HAZARD.

    I actually found a warning label a lot like that in our lab the other day, on a box containing molybenum foil.

    (Of course, this is the same teacher that managed to burn a hole in the ceiling with a slightly larger than recommended hunk of sodium, so …)

    Hey, my AP chemistry teacher set the lawn on fire with a larger than recommended chunk of sodium. Gotta give her credit for having the foresight to do it outside, at least. I wonder how many of us who became chemists had teachers like that, who were willing to take a chance to show their students something interesting about science?

  18. #18 calladus
    May 31, 2006

    It would be nice if someone scanned a few of those old Chemistry set manuals and made them available to the general public.

    I’m sure we could dig up test tube amounts of the required chemicals.

    It’d be a great gift to give my friend’s kids.

    On a tangent subject – I recently started reading about distilling spirits – I was surprised to discover that it is still illegal for a private individual in the USA to distill alcohol!

  19. Overzealous warnings are pretty common on laboratory chemicals. Take sand, for instance:

    http://www.sciencestuff.com/msds/C2448.html

    “Generally not hazardous in normal handling, however good laboratory practices should always be used. Avoid long term exposure to skin or by inhalation.”

    “Effects of overexposure: Acute and chronic: May cause irritation to eyes and skin. Inhalation may cause pain in chest, decreased vital capcity and cough and is a suspected carcinogen. Conditions aggravated: Chronic lung scaring leads to a progressive massive fibrosis. Target organs: Lungs”

    I guess I’m glad I don’t live at the beach.

  20. #20 Dan
    May 31, 2006

    I didn’t follow the science path, either, but I was always fascinated (and still am) by it. It’s the logical process and the problem-solving that are so attractive. I had a chemistry set in the mid-to-late 1980s and did model rocketry for a little while as a teenager, at least until I lost my best rocket and was too sad to build another one. The chemistry set was probably partially neutered, but I don’t really remember. I also had this wicked-cool microscope set, with all kinds of pre-built slides of insect wings, onion skin, and the like, and plenty of blank slides.

    I took science classes voraciously in high school, even though I had by then already decided to go into music. My AP chem teacher gave me free run of the storeroom, since her chemotherapy numbed her fingers and I was always careful with my measurements. Oh, the fun I had in there. I liked math, too, especially algebra. I hated pretty much everything else about high school, but those were the days.

    Strangely enough, my least favorite class in high school was English lit, and here I am, pursuing an academic career in the humanities. Life is just funny like that, sometimes.


  21. It would be nice if someone scanned a few of those old Chemistry set manuals and made them available to the general public.

    It’d probably be better to go back to books / publications that are no longer under copyright and modernize those instead. Depends on how old the set you’re talking about is, though.

    There are one or two chemistry books with experiments on Project Gutenberg. Sadly, no pictures. (I actually have an original copy of one of the old chemistry books that’s available on PG and have debated scanning the pictures and making an HTML version … if there’s interest.)

  22. #22 ulg
    May 31, 2006

    Arg. I’m still jealous of all those who had chemistry sets as children. I had ‘General College Chemistry’, but no chemicals (except mercury and salt), and nobody to explain the book to me. I’m sure the rest of you grew up to be Terrorists, Mad Scientists, Black Helicopter Pilots, or at the least, Very Bad People ™.

  23. #23 RCP
    May 31, 2006

    I had a small one when I was a kid. All I can remember doing with it was putting aluminum foil in a clear liquid and getting heat, bubbles, and brown stuff, and getting iron filings in my eye.
    I did, however, have a decent collection of insects in mason jars, and spent a fair amount of time looking under rocks. I also remember being fascinated by a preserved fish eye in one of my science teacher’s shelves.
    That said, this is sad. Without the fun of doing it yourself, it just doesn’t feel like science.

  24. #24 Halfjack
    June 1, 2006

    How the hell is evolution supposed to work if we legislate away the opportunity to burn your genitals off in a home-made industrial accident?

  25. #25 porlockjr
    June 1, 2006

    So Texas has actually passed the Buy Lab Equipment Go To Jail law? A number of years ago some guy in the Lege got the Ig Nobel Prize for proposing that. Progress marches on.

    We really are doomed, you know. Not that this stuff is new, just that it’s progressing, as noted. During the Eisenhower admin there was some survey on high school students’ attitudes, and it was as disgusting as you’d expect; but I recall that in addition to their worries about too much of this free speech stuff, the majority agreed that it was necessary to be careful about who would be allowed to be a scientist. Well, now we’ve solved the problem: suppress the production of scientists as much as possible, right from the start. We can always import them — oooops, scratch that, we’re not about to let that sort of people get visas!

    But, as you know, the republic has no need of scientists.

  26. #26 Dmilligan666
    June 1, 2006

    Yeah, I remember having one of the good old chemistry sets. I also had a hobby shop that sold lab equipment and chemicals. I had an honest-to-god retort. Who even remembers what a glass retort is?
    Anyway, that’s where I first learned how to make ammonium tri-iodide.
    Ah – the memories….and explosions.

  27. #27 sockatume
    June 1, 2006

    I never had a chemistry set. Although I remember ones with literally dozens of tubes being advertised, I wound up getting a microscope instead (and making some hideous kind of agar jelly out of Oxo cubes). This was around the mid ’90s.

    Fortunately when I came to high school, most of the science teachers were certifiably insane (one would mess around with chlorine and ammonia without a fume hood, warning us in advance that we might get headaches from the occasional leak) and did some fantastic experiments. Were it not for that I probably wouldn’t be in chemistry.

    Alas, compensation culture and a lack of qualified people means that even this exposure to experiment is dissapearing. So I think we’re in trouble. :/

  28. #28 skblllzzzz
    June 1, 2006

    In Holland at least, physics is going down the same road.

    When I had my first physics class in about 1969, it was in a reasonably well preserved 1925 teaching environment. The classroom was equipped with a huge magic lantern with a carbon-arc lamp for projecting slides, and doing light experiments etc. It also doubled as a heliostat when the carbon-arc bit was set aside.
    In front of the classroom was a huge marble slab in the wall, with all the brass voltage and current regulating hardware you could wish for and four big black Volt and Amp gauges.

    The cabinet behind the classroom still contained the original Ruhmkorff coil mounted on the wall (needed two men to lift) and a large (10KVA) Tesla coil.
    The storage room held all the demo equipment of old and what had been added.

    I was very lucky to have the only and last physics teacher (Marc Walen, he rest in peace) who had no qualms about using all the big equipment. The others were clearly not comfortable with it, and they were scared to death of the Ruhmkorff and Tesla.

    Then the safety regulators caught up with education. The school started tossing the old equipment out one by one, so the magic lantern was put out with the trash and the hole for the heliostat mirror was filled shut. I was able to save the marble panel from destruction by interesting a science club in taking it as an ornament (no museum was interested). It was replaced with a dull grey box with a wheel and two unimpressive gauges.

    So I knew then that it would be only a matter of time before the Ruhmkorff and Tesla would go too, especially after Mr. Walen had left the school. I did in 1975, but I remained alert, ready to pounce at the first sign. I had already made a schematic of the Ruhmkorff’s wiring……
    The Tesla coil was first, and I got it to the science club. Not a big problem exept for the transformer, which clearly could not be lifted other than by some heavy equipment. Maybe it’s still there, gravity bound. But I got a 1KVA transformer to replace it, and the coil works fine.
    Then came the word that the Ruhmkorff coil was to be trashed ‘tomorrow’. So I arranged a car the same day and took it home (nobody wants these things, exept a professor in Brazil) where it is now awaiting restoration.

    What can I say, things like http://members.iinet.net.au/~pterren/ will never be allowed where I live, except in places where nobody can see them.

    I’ll stop here, it is depressing……. πŸ™

  29. #29 windy
    June 1, 2006

    Overzealous warnings are pretty common on laboratory chemicals. Take sand, for instance.

    And dihydrogen monoxide!

    It’s a bit worrying that nucleotides are sometimes marked hazardous, as well. How to get rid of all the nucleotides in my cells?

  30. #30 Azkyroth
    June 1, 2006

    And dihydrogen monoxide!

    -windy

    “Caution: May be wet.”

  31. #31 windy
    June 1, 2006

    I think the best DHMO warning labels are:

    “DHMO is a major component of acid rain” and

    “Thousands are killed by accidental inhalation of liquid DHMO each year”.

  32. #32 Jonathan Badger
    June 1, 2006

    Well, perhaps this is a bummer for the budding experimentalist, but the standard route for the budding theoretician is still open — working your way through cheap Dover paperbacks like Donald E. Sands’ “Introduction to Crystallography”. Quite often I still see them at Borders…

  33. #33 zadig
    June 1, 2006

    Seems to me that with the Internet, all things are possible, but I don’t have the background to know whether this will be good for my kid some day. Any opinions? I mean, it comes with an alcohol burner ‘n stuff. They even mention the dreaded hydrogen peroxide! πŸ˜‰

    http://www.physlink.com/estore/cart/CHEMC3000.cfm

    You can also buy the old manuals that came with the classic chemistry sets and assemble your own:

    http://www.essex1.com/people/speer/chem.html

    So all does not appear to be lost, right?

  34. #34 curmudgeon
    June 1, 2006

    When we were kids in England we used to roll mercury around with our bare fingers in its big drops, then when we got tired of that we would take penny coins (copper colored) dip them in acid, then cover them in mercury and they came out looking just like half-crowns. I don’t know how many we managed to pass off. Of course those were the day when when you went to the shoe shop you could spend a happy quarter of an hour looking at your toes through a flouroscope. Strangely enough I don’t know of too many negatived health effects.

  35. #35 Flex
    June 1, 2006

    Heh,

    I lobbied for, and got, a very nice chemistry set when I was about ten. The workbench I used was quickly scarred with acid stains and spilled electrolysis solutions. I may have been a little young by some standards, although I still don’t think so.

    But as a related experience, I’d like to share an experience I had when I was in India in the late 1980’s. I was talking with an Indian government official and we were comparing the educational systems we both went through when we were younger. I described the alarm clocks I took apart (and couldn’t get back together), the chemistry set I used to destroy things, the thermite bomb some of us made in middle-school with stolen materials, and even the various cars I drove and repaired.

    His comment was that, at least during his childhood, India was too poor to have the artifacts like clocks and cars for children to play with and possibly destroy. In his case, and he implied it was typical, the family had textbooks which each child studied in turn in order to learn how clocks, cars, or chemistry happened.

    He attributed American ingenuity to the fact that our children were able and allowed to dismantle and modify all sorts of devices, giving them an edge in understanding the limits of each design. Knowledge of how things operate which cannot be discovered in a textbook.

    Now, this is an anecdote, and I don’t know how true it was at the time, or even if it was true if anything has changed in India. It seems to be popularly thought that the opportunities for American children to take apart things are less today than it was when I was growing up. I don’t know how true that may be, I have no children myself and my own experiences may have been exceptional.

    However, it seems to me that rather than stifle the curiosity of children by telling them an activity is unsafe (and thus not allowed), we should do what we can to improve safety but also recognize that some activities have an element of danger and accept it. As adults we don’t live in a world of cotton wool, we should allow our children to learn how to deal with hazards before they reach the age when they are allowed to drive or drink.

    Again, not having children, I don’t have much of a feeling as to how important they are to people. So if I have completely miss-read the emotional aspects, I apologize. It is never my intent to preach, only share my own thoughts and experiences.

    Cheers,

    -Flex

  36. #36 Arun Gupta
    June 1, 2006

    If I remember correctly, Bruce T. Moran. Distilling Knowledge: Alchemy, Chemistry, and the Scientific Revolution,

    Medieval Home alchemy recipes for the public may have had something to do with the scientific revolution, as more and more people became accustomed to the idea that one should actually do the “experiment” to find out what happens.

    I wonder what Google will lead us to – search for an “expert” who advocates our point of view?

  37. #37 John Emerson
    June 1, 2006

    It’s a cliche, but it’s a real cliche. My HS chemistry teacher was one-handed because of a teenage mishap with a matchhead rocket or bomb.

  38. #38 guthrie
    June 1, 2006

    Arun, the medieval recipes werent really scientific, it still relied completely on the authority of the expert. They also lacked a sensible approach to hypothesising and all the rest of it. Sure, there were a lot of people fiddling about, but it can hardly be called science.

    My hypothetical children will be the envy of the neighbourhood, permitted to play with chemicals, swords, wood, hammer and nails, etc etc.
    Mind you, I need to find a wife first.

  39. #39 Keith Douglas
    June 1, 2006

    (For those of you interested in the history of chemistry I’ve always found the Norton volume to be a good one volume one.)

    My father is a chemist by training, and he illustrates that kids are going to do crazy dangerous crap regardless of where they get their stuff. He still has a slight scar from where he burned his neck (!) with nitric acid as a kid. I doubt even these old-timey kits had large amounts of conc. nitric acid, so it suggests that ambitious kids will find a way.

    Myself, I never had any chemistry kits, though I did some weird stuff at home. I remember making some wonderful blue … something by dissolving (and then some) a crazy amount of something I don’t remember and food colouring in water. I brought it to school in a little bottle or something and it got some attention because the colour was rather remarkable. Something about

  40. #40 Michael Bains
    June 1, 2006

    That’s some sad commentary, there. Problem is that so many parents shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near that stuff. The solution is kinda built-in though. Those parents aren’t bloody likely to be shoppin’ anywhere that would sell such kits.

    It sounds like more lame-arsed hubristic paternalism, which means there’re bound to be quite a few of our “well-meaning” Liberal brethren supportin’ the dumb-down as well.

  41. #41 PaulC
    June 1, 2006

    I think my view is outnumbered about 40 to 1 here, but I don’t see anyone offering a reasonable proposal; you’re just offering another take on the old “I survived childhood” canard (without child safety seats, with lead paint and asbestos ceiling insulation everywhere, etc.) I sympathize with it more (I was too young for good chemistry sets and I did play with a soldering iron a little) but it’s still the same naive libertarianism.

    There are two conflicting public goods. One is providing kids with unbridled access to fascinating science. The other is keeping them safe. Of the two, I think the latter is clearly more important. (Note: I agree that what drives in practice this is fear of lawsuits, not a careful balancing of public goods, but I don’t think the outcome is as terrible as virtually everyone else here does.)

    I assume the actual number of deaths/maimings from chemistry sets was always pretty low, or else they would have been dropped sooner. Let’s say you produce a product that results in about a dozen deaths per year. Some people would argue (correctly) that this does not rise above background risk from other products consider safe enough. However, this argument ignores the importance of a causal connection. By analogy, suppose I announced plans to pick a social security number at random and kill the person who holds it. It would be right to devote public resources to prevent me from carrying out my plan even though I could correctly claim that my plans had little effect on the background risk.

    Obviously, lots of products are dangerous in one way or another, but we cannot ban them because we need them. The judgment on chemistry sets is that we don’t actually need them the way we need cars, ladders, or cans of Drano. It’s true that some number of kids would greatly benefit from having chemistry sets. However, even if the result were, say, 100000 additional scientists per year, I don’t that would justify a dozen deaths causally linked to the decision to release a product. (You could say that the kid gave consent to the risk but we usually do not allow minors to make such decisions.)

    I also see a false dichotomy here, mixed with a good bit of nostalgia. Some people have fond memories of being inspired by playing with the old kind of chemistry set. But it’s not obvious that this is the only way or the best way for kids to be inspired by science. Chemical puttering around does not make you a scientist, clearly (but it does set the groundwork in terms of interest).

    Actually, kids today do many very dangerous things with the consent of their parents and some do get maimed and killed without the activity’s being banned. This is usually in the context of sporting activities, and centers that support this kind of thing (e.g. kayaking, indoor rock climbing) have (in theory) high safety standards and require a waiver to engage in activity. I know we all hate additional paperwork, and I also realize that organized activity will never substitute for individual exploration. However, it seems to me that the same method could be introduced for scientific experimentation if there were sufficient interest.

    I don’t claim that my proposal is ideal, but I really don’t see any other proposals here, just a lot of grousing.

  42. #42 mark
    June 1, 2006

    The local hobby shop in my town had a chemistry display where they sold small bottles of chemicals and various kinds of lab glassware. We also managed to find household chemicals that would work just fine for making rockets, playing Hindenberg Disaster, and other fun things. Matchhead rockets were a favorite.

  43. I think my view is outnumbered about 40 to 1 here, but I don’t see anyone offering a reasonable proposal; you’re just offering another take on the old “I survived childhood” canard (without child safety seats, with lead paint and asbestos ceiling insulation everywhere, etc.) I sympathize with it more (I was too young for good chemistry sets and I did play with a soldering iron a little) but it’s still the same naive libertarianism.

    The Wired article’s not really about chemistry sets – it’s about outlawing Erlenmeyer flasks and harassing people who sell chemicals to the general public. All done in the name of the War On Terror or the War On Drigs.

  44. #44 speedwell
    June 1, 2006

    I begged and begged for a chemistry set when I was a little girl, (no, Daddy, the kitchen was not enough of a lab) and finally got one for my 12th birthday. I diligently worked at it for a few weeks, but it had already had all the cool stuff taken out and I couldn’t make any satisfactory holes, stinks, colors, or bangs with it. My little brother got into it and mixed every darn chemical together–survived the experience too, no thanks to me when I found out. πŸ™‚

  45. #45 frank schmidt
    June 1, 2006

    When Homer Hickam (October Sky) came to our campus, the biggest theater was filled to capacity with students from gradeschool to gradschool, faculty and the public. In the present situation, he and his friends wouldn’t have been able to escape the coal mines. Maybe that’s what the purveyors of joylessness really want to suppress – science as upward mobility.

  46. #46 Dave S.
    June 1, 2006

    I desperately wanted a chemistry set as a kid, but my mom insisted I get a plastic model of a boat instead. What a gyp!

    Later on in high school I got to play with fun chemicals. Tried burning sodium peroxide and then spit in it to see the response…result…a scar right between my eyes. Knew that acids react with bases in solution…what happens when molten acid (oxalic) is mixed with molten base (sodium hydroxide)? Result…busted 2 test tubes and made hell of a racket. Ammonium tri-iodide is very fun too. Place a few drops in a drawer and let dry. Result…the dried crystals are shock sensitive…when the drawer is opened…BAM! Noisy but harmless…mostly. Back then we could still work with liquid bromine and benzene and metallic mercury by the pound.

    Damn I was stupid. Later got a chem degree though.

  47. #47 Sailorman
    June 1, 2006

    It’s not just the REAGENTS which are limited. It’s the SIZE.

    I mean, half the fun of my brother’s chem set was that you could make a fairly large amount of good shit.

    Now, it’s all about “micro-reactions” which is corporate speak for “nothing to see without a magnifying glass.”

    I am, sadly, not joking. One chem set I wanted to buy came with a small tray and a pipette so that you could do “exciting” things like “Mix a drop of this and a drop of that in a hole, and look for the tiny amount of lead precipate with the included tiny poorly made plastic-lens magnifying glass! Fun, fun fun!”

    Sigh. All I want is to blow up sodium. Is that so wrong?

  48. #48 Coragyps
    June 1, 2006

    I’m a chemist in Texas, and have to reregister my lab each year with the Narcotics Service division of the Department of Public Safety. I have to keep my Erlenmeyer, three-neck, distilling, two-neck, single-neck, round-bottom, Florence, thermometer, and filtering flasks inventoried and secure, but not, apparently, my four-neck flask or my large collection of Mason jars. And if I were running a meth lab, I can assure you that I’d use Mason jars instead of flasks – they cost a few percent of what a comparable-sized flask does.

    And I often wonder: the state calls it the Narcotics Service, but have they ever even offered to send me any? Even a Darvicet?

  49. #49 Coragyps
    June 1, 2006

    Ammonium dichromate. That’s the whole reason I went into chemistry. I just HAD to find out what that orange stuff was that made the green ash on the top of that home-made volcano….and it’s even better if it lights itself after you drip glycerine on potassium permanganate.

  50. #50 Millimeter Wave
    June 1, 2006

    This is indeed a serious problem that myself and a friend have been grappling with recently; both of us have been attempting to acquire chemistry sets for our children.

    In my case, I bought my son a “science kit” which is actually fairly broad but includes some chemistry stuff, including a large instruction book. A good few of the chemistry experiments described in the book start with copper sulfate – but it doesn’t come with the kit (the kit includes such things as sodium bicarbonate, but no copper sulfate). The purchaser is instructed to “buy copper sulfate separately”.

    This isn’t anything unstable, explosive, or radioactive. It’s copper sulfate for crying out loud. So where exactly is one supposed to buy this stuff? Incidentally, the stumbling block for my friend was trying to find potassium permanganate, which is particularly difficult to source.

    Most of the internet suppliers which will even sell small quantities are like this one:

    http://www.sciencekit.com

    any “chemicals” (don’t know what the boundary is) are marked in their catalog as “restricted” – meaning, of course, that they won’t sell them to the average person. From the FAQ:

    You do not need to be a teacher to order. However, you do need to be a teacher to order materials that are flagged with the “restricted” button.

    a quick check shows that they just apply a blanket “restricted” to the entire chemical supply:

    http://www.sciencekit.com/category.asp_Q_c_E_440915

    Sodium chloride in the form of fine white crystals is “restricted”.

    This experience is commonly repeated.

    I have, however, just found this site:

    http://www.hometrainingtools.com/

    which doesn’t state restrictions. I’ll try ordering some stuff and see what happens…

  51. #51 PaulC
    June 1, 2006

    frank schmidt:

    When Homer Hickam (October Sky) came to our campus, the biggest theater was filled to capacity with students from gradeschool to gradschool, faculty and the public. In the present situation, he and his friends wouldn’t have been able to escape the coal mines.

    That’s one of my favorite movies, but I disagree with your conclusion. Hickam and his friends were unusually fortunate in escaping their coal mining community through personal initiative and the freedom to work on rockets. But the “situation” that imprisoned them was a cultural prejudice that all the kids who grew up in the mining town were unsuited for going on to college and were somehow predestined to work in the mines.

    That’s the first order effect that needs to be addressed. Whether the same kids are also prevented from pursuing potentially dangerous hobbies is a second order effect. In short, if our schools are prisons, the problem isn’t that we aren’t getting enough cakes with files into the schools, the problem is that our schools are prisons.

  52. I’m a chemist in Texas, and have to reregister my lab each year with the Narcotics Service division of the Department of Public Safety. I have to keep my Erlenmeyer, three-neck, distilling, two-neck, single-neck, round-bottom, Florence, thermometer, and filtering flasks inventoried and secure, but not, apparently, my four-neck flask or my large collection of Mason jars.

    I shudder to think of trying to keep track of all of that stuff with my freshman and intro chem labs. What do you do if you break something? Do you send the piece in to the Narcotics Service?

  53. #53 PaulC
    June 1, 2006

    Rick:

    The Wired article’s not really about chemistry sets – it’s about outlawing Erlenmeyer flasks and harassing people who sell chemicals to the general public. All done in the name of the War On Terror or the War On Drigs.

    I agree that these kinds of policies go way too far. My point was addressed only at child safety. Adults can give consent to all sorts of risks and must do so routinely. My pet peeve in this area is the way “hydroponics” seems to conflate to “growing pot” in a lot of people’s minds. In practice, that is probably a big commercial driver, but I find it offensive that the act of buying some fluorescent grow lamps gets you on a registry of suspected drug purveyors.

  54. There are two conflicting public goods. One is providing kids with unbridled access to fascinating science. The other is keeping them safe. Of the two, I think the latter is clearly more important.

    Safe from what, though?

    I don’t think anyone is seriously advocating that a kid-level chemistry set should come with three pounds each of white phosphorus and sodium metal. The problem with the modern chemistry sets is that they don’t even contain relatively safe substances anymore.

    The other problem is that unless you’re someone like me who teaches chemistry for a living, you can’t buy even the relatively safe stuff without hassle. Did you look at the list of suspect chemicals for meth labs? Iodine, rubbing alcohol, pH strips, sulfuric acid, hydrogen peroxide, etc. are potentially on the chopping block (along with Sudafed, the only OTC allergy remedy that actually works worth a damn for my hay fever) because someone, somewhere might use them in a dangeroos way or to make a drug.

  55. #55 jess
    June 1, 2006

    There’s a serious inability to comprehend scale going on here, a la “they call it pollution, we call it life.” According to the article, the chem-set-hobbling feds are worried about the “manufacture” of illegal fireworks, or the setting up of meth labs. Why does that mean you can’t buy one chemistry set (mine only had a few ounces of each chemical), or for god’s sake one pack of Sudafed? Don’t tell me they’ve got no way to set off alarm bells if they catch you buying 300 kids’ chemistry sets and you aren’t a school administrator.

    About the dangerous class experiments…I kind of hated my chemistry class, because I didn’t like memorizing ions, and we did more memorization than cool experiments. But one of the things I learned from the experiments we did do is that it’s important to be careful when you’re told to be careful — titrate one drop at a time, don’t pour sulfuric acid all over yourself, basically follow directions and common sense. What are we teaching kids by forbidding any access to potentially dangerous materials? Basically, that they cannot possibly be trusted to behave sensibly. It’s the AA approach to chemistry: because it’s dangerous, you cannot be around it, because you’re too weak to cope. Then they leave class and burn themselves with Drano because they haven’t learned how to handle hazardous materials.

    Incidentally, I know a lot of great nerds who grew up playing with bottle rockets and homemade napalm and fireworks. The only person I’ve met who’s ever reported being stupid enough to let one go off in his hand? C. Everett Koop. I shit you not.

  56. #56 Bill Dauphin
    June 1, 2006

    PaulC:

    Your analysis…

    “There are two conflicting public goods. One is providing kids with unbridled access to fascinating science. The other is keeping them safe. Of the two, I think the latter is clearly more important.”

    …sounds reasonable, except that it contains a value judgment many of the commenters here may not share: That safety, even children’s safety, is a preeminent public good. Your position also presumes, without (AFAIK) evidence. Both concerns are embodied in this:

    “…even if the result were, say, 100000 additional scientists per year, I don’t that would justify a dozen deaths causally linked to the decision to release a product.”

    Societies frequently value things sufficiently highly that they’re willing to accept a certain number of deaths to get them, and it’s not at all clear to me how many folks here would consider 100,000 scientists for a dozen fatalities a bad trade. Obviously it’s a tragedy for the families of the casualties, but it’s not so obvious that it’s a tragedy for society at large.

    In addition, I don’t know that there’s any real reason to think children’s chemistry sets are causally linked to dozens of deaths total, much less annually. I understand you were offering a hypothetical; I’m just not sure it’s a hypothetical that reflects reality. Lots of things seem like they ought to be dangerous, but don’t cause much harm in actual practice. Show me statistically significant numbers of deaths and injuries and I might change my mind…

    …or I might not. As Rick pointed out, the trends identified in the Wired article didn’t seem really to be focused on child safety, but on addressing other social concerns such as fighting terrorism and drugs. In that context, this creeping loss of chemistry sets seems like just another example of two disturbing trends in this country since the election of Bush and 9/11: As a nation, [1] we seem increasingly willing to trade away all good things for the appearance of increased security, and [2] we seem increasingly contemptuous of science, and thus even more willing to trade it away than most other things.

    Finally…

    “I don’t see anyone offering a reasonable proposal…”

    …this demand for “a reasonable proposal” presumes that what predate this trend was a problem, and that’s a presumption many here would not agree with. Nobody’s suggesting abolishing car seats or taking away Little Leaguers’ batting helmets; we’re just saying that this one thing wasn’t “broke,” and people should stop trying to fix it.

  57. #57 PaulC
    June 1, 2006

    When I was growing up, the regional mecca was Edmund Scientific in New Jersey. Anyone know if they still have that big store? I vaguely remember them more focused on optics than chemicals, but I think they had some. I wonder if that has been significantly dumbed down.

    I suspect there is an independent trend away from experimental to computational science, anyway, since most middle-class kids have computers and science itself is increasingly reliant on computational models. I’m not sure if this is a good thing or not. There is probably more room to do something really new, but obviously a computational model is no substitute for empirical data.

  58. #58 PaulC
    June 1, 2006

    Rick:

    The problem with the modern chemistry sets is that they don’t even contain relatively safe substances anymore.

    In that case, the problem does not appear to be liability lawsuits run amok, but something else entirely. Could it just be a dwindling popular interest in science? They’d manufacture a safe product if enough people would buy it, wouldn’t they? Or maybe they perceive incorrectly that it would not sell, or maybe they would like to produce it if they knew how, but they don’t. So what is it?

    As I noted earlier, there are large commercial markets in demonstrably dangerous recreations. E.g., at a park, I recently noticed parents allowing a toddler (apparently) to drive an electric go-cart out of sight and earshot. That seems more risky to me than letting a 10 year old use a chemistry set.

    The point of my comment was that I didn’t really accept the implied safety tradeoff of many previous posts. But I think it may well be that science for kids is getting dumbed down anyway, and I agree that’s a bad thing. I’m just unclear about the root cause. I think if kids want to carry out potentially dangerous chemical reactions, they ought to be supervised even if it takes away some of the fun. But I don’t accept the premise that the attempts to create a safe environment are a major contributing factor to the relative lack of interest in experimental science compared with, say, 40 years ago.

  59. #59 Evan Murdock
    June 1, 2006

    My mom taught me to make gunpowder. Seriously. And I turned out ok, ten-fingered, and everything.

    I think there is real danger in the overprotection of kids; part of childhood is trying stuff out and getting hurt. Child seats and lead paint are one thing; there’s no benefit in using them. But chem sets, or even playing in the dirt, are supremely important to growing up curious. The whole “antibacterial” BS is yet another problem…

    As for the 100,000 scientists per 12 deaths – show me evidence that deaths were occuring at anything like this rate! This paper shows one fatality in a study in Britian (full text not available online, so unfortunately the time period is unclear…); They agree that poisoning is a significant problem (note that inadequate supervision was determined as the cause in 64% of incidents), but in the US in 2001 134 children died from bicycle accidents. Shall we ban bicycles? Swimming? Travel in motor vehicles?

    Point is, we cannot protect children from every risk and still have them grow up to be interesting, healthy people. We have a resposibility to protect kids, but also a responsibility to expose them to the world.

  60. #60 Halfjack
    June 1, 2006

    I have to say that even if 100,000 new scientists versus 12 deaths were actual figures, this looks like a win to me. On both sides of the equation.

  61. What are we teaching kids by forbidding any access to potentially dangerous materials? Basically, that they cannot possibly be trusted to behave sensibly.

    We may also be teaching them (more via simulation than absence of chemicals) that chemical and biological hazards don’t really exist or don’t apply to them. They play around with simulations, etc. and they think that since they can’t hurt themselves with the computer they can’t hurt themselves at all. This leads to rather unsafe behavior when they do encounter a chemical or biological hazard.

  62. In that case, the problem does not appear to be liability lawsuits run amok, but something else entirely.

    The key word here is “relatively”. The science set mentioned in the Wired article had starch tagged with a warning label. That sounds like safety paranoia to me.

    (Oddly enough, the superballs were not listed as having a warning label. Aren’t those the hard little rubber balls that are still sold in gumball machines as “high bouncing balls”? Or am I thinking of something else? Those high bouncing balls did more damage in my parents’ house than any of my juvenile chemistry experiments, by the way. Getting about 25 of those things bouncing from floor to ceiling in a room is a cool demonstration of the laws of motion, though!)

  63. #63 Halfjack
    June 1, 2006

    ([…]Getting about 25 of those things bouncing from floor to ceiling in a room is a cool demonstration of the laws of motion, though!)

    “Okay you start throwing them any which way and I’ll stand in the doorway and be Maxwell’s demon!”

    A physics geek as a young teen.

  64. #64 PaulC
    June 1, 2006

    Rick:

    They play around with simulations, etc. and they think that since they can’t hurt themselves with the computer they can’t hurt themselves at all.

    I think this no more likely than coming out of a violent video game believing that you can just start over after you get killed. Kids are capable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy. Admittedly the degree varies from individual to individual. I would think a more likely effect of running only simulations would be to imagine that the experiment being simulated was far more dangerous than it really was, or else why didn’t you just go ahead and do it.

    Can someone here make a concrete statement on what they would like to see. Should we just be manufacturing and distributing a circa 1960 Chemcraft chemistry set and allowing kids to play with it unsupervised? I am against doing that. I think it’s unnecessarily dangerous. Am I alone in this?

    I think there is a lot of middle ground. I agree that today’s chemistry sets are lame and uninspiring. Actually, even back in the 70s in grade school, the only “experiments” I remember seeing were very lame. On my own I played with a few things like copper sulfate after learning it could be used as invisible ink, and did some electrolysis; no explosions.

    Clearly we could give kids more exposure to interesting chemistry. But despite our fond memories, should it be unsupervised the way our best experiences probably were? Should it include chemicals now known to be carcinogens (the risk of cancer is pretty low after all)? It strikes me as a little odd to inspire kids to be scientists by encouraging them to work in disregard routine safety practices of professional scientists.

    I think that right now a sufficiently motivated parent could expose their kids to interesting science after doing the research and obtaining materials (I realize the point of the Wired article was that it is increasingly difficult, but some things are still available). This would provide an opportunity to go well beyond the sort of tapping your finger on corn starch paste “experiment” that you’re likely to find in a prepackaged set. It would also encourage supervision, with all the advantages and disadvantages of doing so.

    Again, I suspect the problem is not really the unavailability of good chemistry sets, or even liability lawsuits, but a culture that has shifted away from experimental science. There is really nothing to stop parents and teachers from inspiring their kids to become scientists except that the parents and teachers may themselves be ill-prepared or uninterested.

  65. #65 Halfjack
    June 1, 2006

    Few things teach as effectively as a well timed chemical or thermal burn.

  66. #66 Halfjack
    June 1, 2006

    PaulC, you repeatedly refer to supervision and I think this gets nicely to the heart of the matter. Modern chemistry sets are designed for unsupervised play. As with anything that explicitly expects the parents to be uninvolved with their children’s education, it will need extraordinary padding in order to avoid expensive litigation. So really, the sad part isn’t the defective chemistry sets. It’s the defective parents implied by them.

  67. #67 ktesibios
    June 1, 2006

    When I was growing up, the regional mecca was Edmund Scientific in New Jersey. Anyone know if they still have that big store?

    The Barrington store, with the Japanese sub periscope and the light show, where I used to drool over things like an 8″ Newtonian reflector with a clock drive (I had an Edmunds 4 1/4″), is long gone. The company now appears to be headquartered in Tonawanda NY and doing catalog sales only.

    It looks like they’ll at least sell you an Erlenmeyer flask without making you prove four generations of noble descent and giving a DNA sample. You can find their Web site at scientificsonline (dot) com.

  68. !#@$#@ Typekey ate my post again. Here goes nothing!

    I think this no more likely than coming out of a violent video game believing that you can just start over after you get killed. Kids are capable of distinguishing between reality and fantasy.

    Well, there’s one distinct difference. Kids (and adults too, for that matter) know that video games are not reality. Simlations used in an educational environment, though, are not marketed as video games. They’re marketed as, well, simulations. I see it time and time again in my freshman labs – the kids whose high school chemistry experience involved little to no actual experiments are more dangerous in the lab. They may be aware, at some level, that the chemicals have dangerous properties, but they have no sense of how real chemicals behave. (Is it dangerous in this quantity? Would it burn me if I got it on my hands?)

    Can someone here make a concrete statement on what they would like to see. Should we just be manufacturing and distributing a circa 1960 Chemcraft chemistry set and allowing kids to play with it unsupervised?

    Unsupervised? Certainly not. The chemistry set is not a babysitter, and it’s going to require some adult supervision. It’s just like teaching a young person how to do woodwork. You don’t hand them a circular saw and tell them you’ll be back in a few hours.

    Clearly we could give kids more exposure to interesting chemistry. But despite our fond memories, should it be unsupervised the way our best experiences probably were?

    I can’t speak for the rest of the posters here, but I don’t recall advocating anyone dumping a bunch of chemicals in front of a kid and letting them have at it. If anything, the availability of a good chemistry set (with good instructions and reagents for stuff that actually LOOKS cool) would be more of an incentive for the parent to join in on the fun. The LACK of cool stuff in these sets today probably drives kids to Google – and you know where that will lead. πŸ™‚

    Should it include chemicals now known to be carcinogens (the risk of cancer is pretty low after all)?

    The exact makeup of a kit is going to be subject to some debate. You won’t be able to do some things you’d find in a late-1800s era chemistey book because we have discovered that some things there are a LOT more dangerous that we thought they were. But we don’t seem to have that problem today. We’re at the other extreme – packets of starch with big warning labels, and laws against Erlenmeyers flasks.

  69. #69 PaulC
    June 1, 2006

    BTW, if you think lame chemistry sets are bad, how about this?

    In my search for the correct spelling of phenolphthalein (still wondering if even that is available in modern chemistry sets) I found something really atrocious:

    http://www.stuff4church.org/Free%20Lesson.htm

    It’s about how to use chemistry “magic tricks” to scare gullible kids about Jesus and sin. At least, there appears to be no attempt in the “lesson” to explain to the kids that they’re seeing a well-understood chemical reaction.

  70. Re: the stuff4church link

    I can see myself asking the demonstrator “Excuse me, but why does God smell like cat pee? And why does Jesus smell like the french fries at the fair?”

  71. #71 PaulC
    June 1, 2006

    Rick:

    I can’t speak for the rest of the posters here, but I don’t recall advocating anyone dumping a bunch of chemicals in front of a kid and letting them have at it.

    I think it’s a fact, though, that some of the most rewarding experiences were unsupervised. E.g., it didn’t sound as if Gordon Moore’s dad was out in the shed with him helping him make nitroglycerin. When PZ wrote “The end result is going to be a new generation of kids stripped of an important formative experience in the sciences” and referred to “a very rare few who maimed themselves” I assumed he was referring to unsupervised play. I think that no amount of experimentation under even the most inspiring mentor could replace this as a formative experience. However, I also don’t think it’s worth the risk. Kids will find risks regardless, but I’m against prepackaging the risk into an easily available consumer product.

  72. #72 speedwell
    June 1, 2006

    ABOUT COPPER SULFATE… or “sulphate” if you like that better…

    When I was constructing stained glass windows, we used a solution of the stuff to reactive-blacken zinc came (the metal pieces around the glass, stronger than the lead variety). I read the back of the bottle, because I read everything. It’s apparently used to pour down drains to kill the roots that grow into the pipes. Bright blue crystals in a plastic bottle. Plumbing supply. You’re welcome.

  73. #73 PaulC
    June 1, 2006

    On the subject of where to obtain chemicals, here’s a link with a long list of suggestions for duplicating old Chemcraft chemistry sets. It doesn’t include copper sulfate, though.

    http://www.essex1.com/people/speer/chem.html

    It seems you can order reprints of the instruction books from here as well.

  74. #74 Millimeter Wave
    June 1, 2006

    It’s apparently used to pour down drains to kill the roots that grow into the pipes. Bright blue crystals in a plastic bottle. Plumbing supply. You’re welcome.

    I also found that a source of copper sulfate/sulphate is aquatic centers/centres.

    It’s sold as “bluestone” and is apparently a traditional treatment for pond algae. Very similar to the above, I guess. No problem getting this stuff in quantities of 10lb – it’s if you want to buy 30 grams of it and it’s called “a chemical” that people shit their pants and call the police.

    For added farce points, I also found that Home Depot will sell you concentrated (93%) sulfuric acid, in the guise of “traditional high strength drain cleaner”, in 1 liter bottles. I kid you not – I have a bottle at home. I don’t know what the purity is like, but it isn’t mixed with anything else.

    I just placed an order for copper sulfate with the home school site I mentioned earlier. If it arrives without problems, I’ll be almost tempted to forgive them for their “science” text book section (eeek!).

  75. #75 PaulC
    June 1, 2006

    Millimeter Wave

    Incidentally, the stumbling block for my friend was trying to find potassium permanganate, which is particularly difficult to source.

    Maybe you knew this but a little searching reveals that it is used as a fish pond conditioner and can be bought in bulk (but cannot be shipped by UPS since 9/11 but can be shipped other ways (?) )

    http://www.pondrx.com/store/customer/product.php?productid=1

  76. #76 Millimeter Wave
    June 1, 2006

    oh, I forgot to say – the “stuff4church.org” site pointed to by PaulC must surely get bonus stupid points for this gem of lab safety training:

    Fill a clear pitcher with water and add about a tablespoon of ammonia. (The children will assume this is just water.) Place four clear glasses on the table.

    niiiiiiiice

  77. #77 Millimeter Wave
    June 1, 2006

    PaulC,
    thanks for the link – I wasn’t aware that you could get KMnO4 as a pond treatment…

  78. #78 Brook
    June 1, 2006

    Loose in the Lab (looseinthelabs.com sorry I don’t do tags) doesn’t seem to be as squeamish as some of the other places.

    I think we are deeply confused between the real and the virtual often mistaking the latter for the former to our detriment.

    Instant fire rules.

  79. #79 SmellyTerror
    June 1, 2006

    Regarding terrorist labs (yay, a subject I’m qualified to comment on): terrorism is easy. Idiots can and do get involved in it – because it’s easy. You can ban and limit everything under the sun, but there are still a thousand ways to kill, maim, and slaughter if you really want to.

    Hell, you going to ban petrol?

    Limiting the tiny quantity of chemicals in a chemlab is actually *counter productive* to fighting terrorism. Any fool who buys a thousand of the things to get enough for a bomb would raise a lovely big red flag. We’d be *better off* selling bomb-specific chemicals in small “kit” quantities, just to catch out anyone silly enough to buy lots of them.

    And yes, that is just the kind of mistake many would-be terrorists make.

  80. #80 wheatdogg
    June 1, 2006

    While we’re on the subject of kids’ exposure to science-by-doing …

    When I was a kid, my folks spent all kinds of money buying me things like a telescope, a microscope, chem set, geology set, science books, and building kits (Lincoln logs, some kind of plastic girder kit to make buildings, model car kits, etc.) That kind of hands-on activity seems to be out of favor today, even among my own kids who instead turned out to be computer geeks. My high school students profess to have never played with iron filings and magnets, in school or at home. Their middle school science classes are mostly book work. Most have never touched a tool, much less built anything. So I’m wondering, was I an aberration, or do some kids still actually play around with things (not virtual things) today?

  81. #81 Coragyps
    June 1, 2006

    Rick – I don’t have to report breakage, just keep an inventory noting any.

    Oh, and on a bigger scale than just the lab: toluene is a drug-related reportable solvent here. Xylene and unleaded gasoline are not. The latter two would pull the cocaine out of macerated coca leaves with exactly the same efficiency as toluene. You couldn’t tell the difference.

    I think, just maybe, that the same pig-ignorant legislators that write laws forbidding high-school cheerleaders to jiggle excessively write these laws, too.

  82. #82 Chris
    June 1, 2006

    Well, I think the old chemistry sets could stand to be made safer: goggles, aprons and gloves, with instructions on when and why to use them; replacing glass containers with difficult-to-break plastic; drop some chemicals that are now known to be more dangerous than they were previously believed.

    And they probably shouldn’t be given to kids that can’t be trusted not to misuse them, either because they’re too young or too reckless/stupid/whatever you want to call it.

    But that isn’t a justification for banning them completely. They’re probably no more dangerous, and a lot more beneficial, than skateboards. You can hurt yourself by unsupervised use of a skateboard without proper safety equipment; lots of people do. But we don’t ban skateboards. Do you think we should?

    However, even if the result were, say, 100000 additional scientists per year, I don’t that would justify a dozen deaths causally linked to the decision to release a product.
    You are neglecting second-order effects. If even one of those additional scientists is a Pasteur, a Salk, or a Borlaug, the effects of their work cancel out your dozen deaths with a LOT of change left over.

    Science isn’t just beneficial to the scientist.

  83. #83 7feet
    June 2, 2006

    Oh,the joys of ammonium triiodide. Once, in tenth grade, I was late to chem class (a routine occurance), and that was one of the demos for the day. The teacher had spread a liberal amount of it just inside the door of the classroom. It “detonated” nicely under my feet as I entered, a helluva surprise, but no harm done. That was 25 years ago, and the only repercussions were getting laughed at. Today, I’m pretty sure he would have been out of a job before you could blink.

    I had most of the variously mentioned bits – telescope, microscope, chemistry and geology sets, model rockets… Evne though we were what could charitably be classified as dirt poor, I swore I was going to be a scientist from the time I was 4 or 5, and Mom went out of her way to help me there. I still have the circa 1973 chemistry set, and it does have a few kinda nasty things in there, but I was damn careful with them, and never got hurt a bit.

    The only damage I ever did to myself was a pretty nasty burn on my lip from trying to build an explosive charge with a number of things, including chunks of crushed model rocket engine, to blow up a model for a film I was making. I got hit with a chunk of that. It was pretty dumb, but I was 14, and learned quick.

    It was, actually, a ponter to where I was going. I was a chem major at BU for a year, but then quickly switched to my second love through an unexpected opportunity. And so I’ve been doing special effects for films these last 20 years. I learned an awful lot about science and engineering as a kid, and it’s all come in handy over the years, the practical, hands on stuff especially. You never really know the limits, in your guts, of what can be done until you’ve done it.

  84. Oh, and on a bigger scale than just the lab: toluene is a drug-related reportable solvent here. Xylene and unleaded gasoline are not.

    Oh, good $DEITY. Admittedly, I was already convinced by the whole business with the Erlenmeyer flasks that the Texas legislature was completely clueless.

    What next, a ban of dihydrogen monoxide?

    I think, just maybe, that the same pig-ignorant legislators that write laws forbidding high-school cheerleaders to jiggle excessively write these laws, too.

    Okay, you win. Your legislators are even more crazy than ours here in South Carolina. All we are usually famous for is the Confederate flag nonsense – although I do wonder if our escapades with the old Confederate sub are talked about outside the state.

  85. #85 Keith Douglas
    June 2, 2006

    Sailorman: At least microscale has a slightly redeeming feature – less hazardous waste. There’s a movement in chemistry education called “green chemistry” that is trying to be less wasteful.

    Millimeter Wave: I think you might be able to get KMnO4 from a pharmacist. I think sometimes people use it as an anti-infection agent. As for sodium chloride crystals being restricted – say WHAT?

    PaulC: I’m all for good computational models in appropriate contexts, but as far as I can tell they aren’t terribly sophisticated these days due to a paucity of theories, particularly in chemistry. Instead people are running massive regressions and other datamining techniques. There have been a fair number of notes in C&E News about even the pharmaceutical industry wanting to fund basic research because we have run out of good basic science.

    And I am not for unsupervised use of chemistry sets. In fact, that’s a reason to put the cool, exploding or whatever stuff in the sets. Kids want them, and will get them anyway. Yes, this requires parents or others to do some work with their kids. Tough.

    Millimeter Wave: Home depot carries 93% H2SO4?? Now that is crazy.

  86. #86 frostieb
    June 3, 2006

    Millimeter Wave: They are a creationist homeschool supply company. We homeschool (from a science perspective) and although I hate to give them my money, in my experience they are one of the only places to sell chemicals to regular people. They also sell disection specimens, which are regulated too. In my experience they are fast and reliable.

  87. #87 James
    November 17, 2006

    I don’t think using the generalized term “science” is quite appropriate when complaining about a lack of women. I’m a PhD student in microbiology, and I don’t think I’ve had a single biology class, in undergraduate or graduate school, that was less than 2/3 female. (except the mandatory classes that non-majors take, of course) My entering class in my current department contained 12 women and 2 men. (2 of the women have since dropped out)

  88. 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.

  89. #89 Brenda
    January 30, 2007

    I found your posts while looking for science experiments to do with elementary aged kids. I am a homeschooling mom who wants to help my son learn to blow things up, but never did it myself as a kid. I am looking for chemical reactions that we can do at home and can buy the supplies fairly easily. Any ideas?

  90. #90 Stefan Patejak
    May 30, 2007

    It would be nice if someone scanned a few of those old Chemistry set manuals and made them available to the general public.

    Well somebody has. See:http://www.essex1.com/people/speer/chem.html

New comments have been temporarily disabled. Please check back soon.