“Talent hits the target no one else can hit; genius hits the target no one else can see.” -Arthur Schopenhauer
You've probably heard the story, by now, of Kiera Wilmot, the 16-year-old girl who performed a mildly dangerous chemistry experiment on school grounds, mixing together household cleaner and aluminum inside a sealed container. You can get the full story (excellently covered) via DNLee, but to give you the 15-second version, she was arrested, expelled, and is presently being charged with a felony that carries up to 5 years in prison. The school board is not backing down, the attorney general has not (yet) dropped the charges, and there's been a tremendous outcry surrounding this from all over the world.
Now, the vast majority of you reading this -- at least my regular audience -- will be beyond outraged at this. But I'm well aware that there's also a large group of people out there who stand behind a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to any sort of unsafe behavior on public school grounds, and so even though this isn't what the rule was designed to address, they feel that Kiera needs to face whatever legal consequences ensue. All other issues aside (and there are plenty of other issues), it is this latter viewpoint that I'd like to address.
This is Earth, the planet we were all born on. It doesn't look very different from how it looked some 15,000 years ago, at least, not from this view. But over the past few millenia, as a species, we've certainly left quite a mark on the world.
This didn't happen overnight, or in a generation, or in a lifetime, or even in a dozen lifetimes. It happened because of two reasons: because of fundamental science and applied science. Let me explain.
Everything in our daily experience is not what we think of as fundamental. All the colors, sounds, sights, and macroscopic objects that make up everything we've ever experienced is made up of even smaller, more fundamental things.
Living creatures are made up of cells, cells are made up of even smaller organelles and other forms of protoplasm, each of those are composed of molecules, which in turn are made up of atoms, and finally, by splitting atoms apart into the most fundamental particles that we know of in the Universe, we arrive at something truly fundamental. We arrive at indivisible particles, ones that we can no longer break up into anything simpler, no matter how hard we try, how much energy we have, or whatever reactions we subject them to.
That's the most fundamental science that there is: understanding the basic constituents of the Universe. This also extends not just to the matter and energy we know of, but also to the fundamental nature of space and time, which -- after all -- contains the whole Universe.
That's fundamental science, and it tells us what the most basic things in the Universe are and the laws that govern them.
But if all we did was investigate these fundamental things, probing smaller and smaller, to deeper and simpler physical truths, we'd never have the world we enjoy now, and we'd never have figured out some amazing truths about existence, the heavens, and our Universe.
Because fundamental science tells you how these indivisible entities exist and fundamentally interact, but it doesn't tell you how they react with one another, how they assemble into larger structures, how they store and/or release energy, and a whole host of other things.
That's what I call applied science, or the science of how these fundamental things behave in the presence of one another.
How quarks and gluons assemble into protons, neutrons, and other atomic nuclei? That's the applied science of nuclear physics.
How nuclei and electrons assemble into atoms and molecules, including their reactions? That's atomic physics and chemistry, both organic and inorganic.
How these molecules work biochemically to explain all the processes involved with life? That's biochemistry, biology and many specific sub-fields.
And it's through the application of all these different branches of science -- plus many more -- that we were able to create the world we live in today.
But in order to do that -- and in order for us to continue to advance, move forward, and create an even better world for ourselves -- we need to learn how it works. We need to learn the various fundamentals and applications of our science and technology, we need to develop our engineering skills, and we need to try novel things that we've never tried before.
In other words, we need to experiment.
Sometimes, experiments work perfectly. I've heard stories of that being the case, I really have. But far more frequently, experimentation involves setbacks, property damage, and occasional injury. Just as a teenager, I shocked myself with some 600 Volts multiple times, shattered glassware, temporarily blinded myself, and burned myself and my clothing with 14 molar sulfuric acid. (Which could've been worse; I had diluted it from 18 molar! And you wonder why I became a theorist.)
Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Ben Franklin, and pretty much every one of the great (and even the not-so-great) inventors, engineers and scientists that you know of were curious enough to engage in this. Either they tried to take some part of the world apart, and find out how it worked and what made it up, or tried to put things together, to see how they fit, how they reacted and combined, or what new things they could build out of them.
The result of all that?
The entire modern world! If it weren't for this process -- exploration, invention, innovation -- and all the people who've contributed to it over all of human history, we wouldn't have the world we have now. And, what's more than that, if we stop allowing (or even stop encouraging) people from learning, exploring, and making the world better, we're not going to get a better world. That's just the plain truth.
Which brings me back to Kiera. I'm very optimistic that Kiera Wilmot will have all charges against her dropped, that she'll be admitted to the college of her choice (and -- if she's reading this -- if you want to go to Lewis & Clark College, contact me and I'll see what I can do), and that she'll have a fulfilling life doing whatever it is she wants, whether it's science-related or not. I've also made an AI-powered collection of articles, continuously updating in real time, on Kiera for you to follow here. This is a topic that touches us all, because it's not just about one young woman and her life and career, but it's about what we value as a society, and what kind of world we want to build.
So think about it. Think about what we know. What we've learned. What we care about, and how we're going to make the world better. I'm confident, at the end of the day, we all want the same things.
Super post, Ethan. Thank you.
As a science educator, and a former drano-bomb maker, I have to say this is NOT just some cute, "mildly dangerous" experiment. The student seems like she didn't understand what she was doing, but drano bombs are no joke, they will blow your face off. I once saw one put in a metal mail box. The bottle shot out through the back and left the rest dangling by a couple screws. I don't know whether she should be brought up on charges, but ignorant "news" reports like this are practically criminal, and likely to get people hurt.
But I’m well aware that there’s also a large group of people out there who stand behind a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to any sort of unsafe behavior on public school grounds
I'll believe that when they apply the same sanctions to high-energy body-to-body impacts of the kind that have been proven to cause significant brain injuries even in fully mature subjects.
I've treated enough deceleration trauma -- and messed around enough with hydroxides and aluminum -- to have a pretty fair idea of the relative dangers of the two. And the chemistry is worlds safer than contact sports.
It took me all of 3 seconds to find out what putting aluminum foil and drain cleaner in a bottle does. She knew exactly what she was doing. No, she shouldn't be expelled and be a felon, but there should be consequences for this sort of thing.
She should have informed whoever was supervising this event, told them what would happen, and asked them for approval, perhaps suggesting that this take place safely outside.
It appears that it did take place safely outside.
But I’m well aware that there’s also a large group of people out there who stand behind a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to any sort of unsafe behavior on public school grounds
Yet there is no "zero tolerance" policy for things like
Corruption (if you're connected)
Some complaints? Yes, but no action indicating "zero tolerance".
Disagree with this whole post. Science is all about the consequences of performing a certain set of actions. The science experiment she performed was "What happens when an otherwise good student sets off a small explosive device on school grounds?".
To say that it can't be a crime because it was done in the name of science is itself anti-science, and just plain wrong. Do you also believe the experiments performed by Josef Mengele can't be crimes because they were done in the name of science?
I also think they way they came down on her was harsh, and enjoy your style of story telling sprinkled with personal experience, but your central theme on this one is not good.
Students should be taught safety and how to take precautions while doing an experiment.
But dismissing from school, and pressing charges on curious kids shows how ignorant authorities are about how science and scientists work.
At my high school in 1959, someone tried stuffing match heads into a two inch long empty CO2 cartridge. When it (of course) went off, it dented a metal shade, punched a hole in the window, bounced off the cement block wall outside, whizzed through the open door of the classroom next door, and spent the rest of its energy on a desk seat between a student's legs. Amazingly, no one was hurt. I never heard if anyone was punished, or just how this "experiment" was allowed in class. Seems like a failure of supervision in all cases of this kind. I also toasted myself playing with powdered zinc and sulfur rocket fuel, but THAT was a real science experiment!
As a science educator, and a former drano-bomb maker
I'm disgusted that a felon like you is allowed to teach.
"I’m disgusted that a felon like you is allowed to teach."
Student makes drano bomb in parking lot.
Ignorant reaction: Expel student and charge her with felony.
Intelligent reaction: Make student serve detention writing about experiment safety. Create a school program that encourages other students to bring such experiments to a teacher who can supervise.
I don't think she should go to prison or anything that severe, of course. But I disagree with Ethan also, that this is all fine and dandy.
If she was inteligent, she should have done it in the lab under supervision if she decided to do it at school. And I don't think this has anything to do with science fair and that. She tried home made explosives on school property. Dumb, very dumb.
How do we contribute to her defense fund? A felony disqualifies a person from much of life.
There's a big difference between bomb-making and honest inquiry. Sure, it's an over-reaction by the authorities, but let's not pretend this is harmless hijinks or the work of a well-intentioned young scientist.
There's a big difference from being silly and being a criminal too.
A felony disqualifies a person from much of life.
Fortunately, she's a minor.
ISTR that there was intent to remove that distinction in the USA. It may have been passed or not and may have been a state issue rather than federal.
We're assuming the kid really did do it "for science" and didn't just ad hoc come up with the defense after getting caught. (I'm willing to believe it was just an innocent mistake.)
The reaction has been completely overblown. This isn't "science hatred", this is basically a massively disproportionate reaction after the whole nation got scared from the Boston Bombing. I myself have been a direct victim of this sort of crazy disproportionate response, in my case after Columbine, so I can relate more than just about anyone posting here. Of that I'm certain.
However, and this is important, taking dangerous risks is only okay as long as you never ever endanger anyone else in any way and are fully informed about the risks you are taking.
If she'd gotten permission and this was done the proper way, under supervision and with proper safeties, that'd be one thing.
This is not a pure black and white situation. She made some stupid mistakes when doing this and needs to learn from it (learning from it need not be through punishment, if she can work with school officials to make sure this is channeled as safe as can reasonably be expected, that would be enough for me). The school and local prosecutors have certainly gone way too far though, and that's where the focus should lie. (This should NEVER have been put to the level of felony, not without some clear evidence that she intended to hurt someone.) However, ignoring the minute details of the situation won't help our side in that regard. Specifics, nuance, these are far more important to me than messy ill fitted "ideals".
Now on a somewhat unrelated topic, my failures as a human being. I understand you took a lot of risks yourself. I read PZ's blog and was shocked to find he actually dissected road kill (unhygienic, my neat freak side screams). Is this what separates true passion from the everyday person? There are times when I get the impression that such passionate people actually have disgust for those who "play by the rules", seeing following rules and playing safely as the opposite of following their dreams. I just never saw any other way myself. Is this what is needed to become a scientist of any sort of worth? Am I a coward if I accept "no" as an answer? Nah, I'm just incredibly lazy, like most of humanity. Not everyone can be so exceptional, or at least these are the lies I tell myself every day I get home and think "and now to play video games, I worked all day, meaning 8 hours, and that's enough". Then I complain that there's no time in a day.
Is there a drug I can take to give myself exceptional dedication? That seems easier.
(The above wasn't really meant as sarcasm. It's pretty much a dead accurate assessment of my own failures.)
The only life Kiera put in danger was her own and that in any normal society is her right, risk behavior in youth has been documented and normal for as long as science has existed. She was in an empty lot and anyone watching chose to be there. These are vastly different circumstances to situations to things like Boston where there was intent to harm others and people where not in harms way by their choice.
The problem is USA is so caught up in terrorist threat they are jumping at shadows.
The facts for US citizens are:
30 176 people where killed in gun related homicides or accidents (2010 figure).
25,580 people where killed in road fatalities or accidents (2012 figure)
Given those two statistics you really wonder why US citizens would be overly worried about bombings and jumping at shadows over them they are far more likely to be a victim of a gun or road accident.
So the question for US citizens continue with this sort of charge against a curious youth who had no intention to harm anyone and the terrorists win because you are inflicting damage on your society.
"The reaction has been completely overblown"
Yup, "zero tolerance" combined with idiots who don't know what the hell is going on or going wrong, but are DAMNED SURE going to do SOMETHING about it!
The neat thing about bad decisions by government officials, politicians, church leaders is all of the bad press.
And right now the State of Florida is getting a lot of bad press. And since all news is good news, even bad news is good news. Right?
Well in my humble opinion, Florida is one of the most over promoted places on the planet. And a good part of that overpromotion is the human interest in .... what????
Yes Bad News.
So, I'm not worried about Kiera, she'll be fine.
She'll have a photo opportunity with the Governor and be back in high school before any of the really big bad Florida bad news stories are solved.
That's right, right now Florida is ripe with bad publicity
- the invasion of the giant African slugs
- the establishment of the burmese pythons
- the dying Florida coral reefs
- the "Florida is a 'hub' for human traffickers, attorney general says"; of course the positive Florida political spin is Florida now has "zero tolerance to human trafficking"
- the "Gallinippers! Monster mosquitoes poised to strike Florida" problem http://science.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/03/09/17249991-gallinippers-monst…
- the Florida weather problem Hurricanes etc. "Why Does NASA Launch Space Shuttles from Such a Weather-Beaten Place?" http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=space-shuttle-weather-…
- the florida prostitution problem
- The "Problems with Florida's Science FCAT Test?"
- the Florida Keys and rising sea level problem
It's really hard to find a good story in the bad news state of Florida. So what are they going to do.
Well of course, give Kiera a big hug and say, "We really need scientist in Florida." Smile, all smiles. "Florida is a science friendly state."
Then there is the Florida teaching creationsim more than any other state problem. "The program where we discovered the most creationist voucher schools was in Florida, where we discovered 164 schools." http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/hundreds-of-voucher-schools-tea…
Smiles, Smiles. Florida is just the science friendliest state in the USA.
Then there is the "Florida’s Racist Anti-Choice Bill"
Wait a minute.
Maybe, I'm a bit slow. Maybe there is a pattern here. Yeah message.
OK, so if Kiera is convicted of two felonies; what exactly is the State of Florida trying to tell the world about science, women, race and ..
Oh, so you still want my business as a tourist.. And as an investor too.
Thanks for making me think about all of this. Because without Kiera, I might not have put it all together to try to get a bigger picture.
Nah, the politicians in Florida can't be dumb enough to convict Keira and keep her out of school.
Then there is the "Housing bust damage to last through 2019" problem. http://www.miamiherald.com/2013/03/26/3307472/housing-bust-damage-too-l…
Oh, you want me to move to Florida and retire there??
And then the "Florida's lieutenant governor resigned and nearly 60 other people were charged in a scandal involving a purported veterans charity that authorities said Wednesday was a front for a $300 million gambling operation." http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/03/13/jennifer-carroll-resigns-_n_28…
Now just think about this a minute. Just treat a 16 year old science student really unfairly and just think about how much bad news disappears from the front pages about the world.
Nah that's too crazy.
Even my opinions about all of this are just too much.
I mean sure Florida has a very long list of problems that just seems to get longer and longer and...
Then there is the Florida migrant worker problem, "the ‘invisible population’ of the state.. live in sequestered communities, isolated, and with little permanence.. the 150,000 to 200,000 migrant workers work in the State of Florida. .. earn $7,000 a year for a single worker and $10,000 for a family." http://students.com.miami.edu/netreporting/?page_id=1617
then there is florida's legal drug problem "Legal Drugs Kill Far More Than Illegal, Florida Says" . So when Florida has a big problem they just declare it solved by passing a law that zero tolerances that. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/14/us/14florida.html
Your sentence to link ratio is almost 50/50. lol
Complete overreaction. And while I wouldn't protest against some more minor hand-slap for safety reasons, I think we need to recognize that even that would be driven more by social ignorance of science than any objective evaluation of risk.
I say that last bit because D.C. brings up a good point, which is that we tolerate unchaperoned yet just as risky sports play all the time. Seems very hypocritical to say "no, you can't make a bottle rocket. Its unsafe. Why not go out on that field and play tackle football with your friends like a good american kid."
Not to mention we put 16 year olds behind the wheels of fast-moving killing machines.
So, was this experiment unsafe? Yes. More unsafe than other stuff we encourage 16-year-olds to do? No. I Risky chemistry may be less familiar to your average adult than risky driving or risky sport behavior, but I don't think the chemistry is really any worse in terms of danger.
This was an error in judgement, a safety hazard, not an act of violence. She could have seriously injured herself, or any hapless bystanders and lookers-on. People get in less trouble for causing car wrecks that DO injure people. Hell, people get in less trouble for causing environmental disasters that affect us for decades. More than this girl needs to learn proper safety habits in chemistry experiments, we desperately need government to act responsibly and with some common sense. We need to put aside the trivial, like this, and address concerns with real gravitas.
The reaction by the authorities and school body is extremely disproportional. Granted, what Kiera did here posed a danger to herself, and possibly others, but an effective system would help educate instead of punish. She should write a lab report on the exothermic reaction she set off and perhaps a paper on safety around potentially dangerous chemicals. Zero tolerance is not an effective method of control.
"Zero Tolerance" once again proves that what it really means is "Zero Intelligence".
And this is considered a FEATURE by the school districts that use it. Because any teacher or other employee who tries to use intelligence and judgement to deal with a problem based on the specifics of the scenario in question may mis-judge. They may make a mistake. That mistake may open up the school and district to legal liability. Lawsuits.
However, as long as there is a prescribed "correct" action that can be applied without thought or judgement, then the teacher and school board can always point at their "Zero Intelligence" policy and say "We were just following our policy that you agreed to by sending your student here."
And the only downside is the bad publicity from the occasional student being arrested for taking an asprin or conducting a science experiment!
Hooray for not thinking!
Hypocrisy is a fundamental principle of Zero tolerance laws.
"Florida has a Zero Tolerance law for drivers under 21. This means that any driver under 21 that is stopped by law enforcement and has a blood alcohol level of .02 or higher will automatically have their Florida drivers license suspended for 6 months. The .02 limit really means that you cannot have a single drink and drive. And that's the idea... (but) For drivers over 21 the legal limit in Florida is .08." http://www.dmvflorida.org/florida-dui.shtml
But for an "adult" over 21 who hasn't learned the "lesson" of "zero tolerance" It is OK to have 4 drinks and drive. Yes that is law; but actually the practice on "important" adults is even more forgiving.
Monday, May 06, 2013
"Martin Health System CEO arrested on DUI charges... 61-year-old Mark Robitaille is the well respected leader of one of the biggest hospitals... Police say video footage shows the leader of Martin Health System speeding swerving and slurring his words... Police say tests about a half hour later later found Robitaille's blood-alcohol level is 0.151 percent nearly twice the legal limit... Robitaille released the following statement, "I take full responsibility for my actions. Most importantly, I am profoundly grateful that this situation did not result...in harm coming to anyone else."
"Martin Memorial's board of directors also released a statement saying, "while we are disappointed in this situation, martin health will continue to move forward under mark's leadership... and provide the same exceptional care that we have provided to our community for nearly 75 years." http://www.cbs12.com/template/cgi-bin/archived.pl?type=basic&file=/news…
Ah shucks, Zero Tolerance is for kids, minorities and illegal aliens; it was never intended for pillar's of society and their children. Remember the drinking Bush daughter "Jenna.. breaking a law her father signed as governor."
Get use to it, hypocrisy is a fundamental principle of Zero tolerance laws.
The rich and powerful are privileged and have always been exempt from Zero Tolerance laws.
"Not to mention we put 16 year olds behind the wheels of fast-moving killing machines."
Or putting a killing implement in their hands and teaching them to use it on other people.
I think this whole thing has been blown out of proportion. To me it seems like an honest science experiment gone wrong, not an act of violence. Instead of worrying about the consequences that she should face the school should focus on safety habits.
By going the way they are proceeding they are just asking for kids not to take interest in science. Without future scientist the entire world would come to an halt.
So, it's a constitutionally backed right to own an automatic weapon (and ammo, of course), but if you make a plastic bottle burst, you end up in jail. If you're black, you'll probably end up in jail faster and remain there for a longer time.
Not disagreeing totally with what you are saying, but it's certainly not a right to own an AUTOMATIC weapon. Automatic weapons have been banned for private ownership in the US for nearly a century now. What you probably meant is SEMIAUTOMATIC weapon. (The difference is that an automatic weapon will fire rounds continuously as long as the trigger is held down, while a semiautomatic will only fire one round per trigger pull, but doesn't require any action on the part of the shooter to ready the next round.) Not disagreeing with your premise, but let's get the facts right.
"there’s also a large group of people out there who stand behind a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to any sort of unsafe behavior on public school grounds"
Time to ban football, then?
Sean, there are many in the NRA campaigning to allow AUTOMATIC weapons.
And turning the semi's into full is fairly trivial (by design).
But a millitia and defense force WITHOUT automatics and high explosive rockets is not a millitia, they're just an armed gang.
The point is that the need for a millitia is absolutely unnecessary when there's the largest armed force in the world (by expenditure) doing that job.