Wired magazine has an article called “Don’t Try This at Home” which starts by describing a recent CPSC raid on the house of the family that runs United Nuclear. We’ve mentioned UnitedNuclear before. They’re one of the few companies still around that is selling cool scientific supplies (i.e. chemicals) directly to consumers. Their list of chemicals contained fun oxidizers like potassium perchlorate and potassium nitrate.
Home-based experimentation is essential to raising the next generation of science nerds. And to make the best nerds in the world, the home experimentation needs to be a wee bit dangerous. My own interest in chemistry started when my AP chemistry teacher allowed us to raid the chemical stockroom of my high-school the summer before the school closed down. Our haul: silver nitrate, sodium peroxide, potassium permanganate, glycerine, magnesium strips, iron oxide and aluminum powders, and enough glassware to construct a working distillation apparatus. Those of our readers in the know will recognize these ingredients as dangerous; we hauled away enough thermite to burn down the neighborhood, and the glycerine / potassium permanganate reaction is truly a wonder to behold.
The reason that this raid on United Nuclear has nerdy bloggers like BoingBoing and myself up in arms is that the chemistry kits that kids have access to today are too darned “safe” to breed real science nerds. Chemistry kits these days have a bit of acid-base chemistry, a red-cabbage indicator, and maybe a little bit on phase changes. Possibly they’ll include the ingredients needed to make Oobleck. Where’s the highly exothermic redox reaction? Where are the half-cells to build your own battery? Where’s the fire and smoke? Where’s the fun?
I’m sure some of these changes are due to the increasingly litigious nature of our society, and some are due to fears of terrorism. The Wired article points out another reason that home chemistry kits have become so boring. They pin the blame partially on chemophobia, the fear of anything containing the prefix chem. Have you ever noticed that something with the Bio- prefix is considered perfectly safe and beneficial, while the same thing with the Chem- prefix is to be avoided at all cost? To quote my friends Kim and Dave: BioRinse sounds like an organic shampoo; ChemRinse sounds like something that will remove all your hair and skin.
Whatever the reasons, the disappearance of meaningful and fun home experimentation will mean that even fewer of our youngsters will be interested in pursuing careers in the physical sciences. And that’s a shame.
[tags]chemistry, experimentation, explosions[/tags]