Banning bangs

Via BoingBoing, here’s a Wired story on the crackdown on home science kits by federal agents concerned with everything from consumer safety and drug enforcement to homeland security.

National security issues and laws aimed at thwarting the production of crystal meth are threatening to put an end to home laboratories. In schools, rising liability concerns are making teachers wary of allowing students to perform their own experiments. Some educators even speculate that a lack of chem lab experience is contributing to the declining interest in science careers among young people.

. . . The lure of do-it-yourself chemistry has always been the most potent recruiting tool science has to offer. Many kids attracted by the promise of filling the garage with clouds of ammonium sulfide – the proverbial stink bomb – went on to brilliant careers in mathematics, biology, programming, and medicine.

Examples of junior boom makers who made good include Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, Internet architect Vint Cerf, Hewlett-Packard cofounder David Packard and neurologist Oliver Sacks.

Update: At Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers notes the gender gap in chemical mayhem:

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.

My husband-to-be had an Easy Bake oven in his youth, figuring the best way to get as many cupcakes as he wanted was to make them himself. I think he also fooled around with model rockets, before focusing on electrical engineering. He decided that the best way to get control of a stereo and access to a color TV was to build them himself.

At any rate, Pharyngula has lots of comments from former experimenters with a taste for stinks and bangs.

Update II: Also read First Things on the science boys of the pre-computer era and the series of books on the Mad Scientist Club.

About Joanne


  1. I inherited my brother’s A.C. Gilbert chemistry set, and then got a Porter Chemcraft set of my own, when I was 10. I liked the experiments in the Gilbert instruction manual better. Especially the making of sulfuric acid. Yes. You read right.

    In those days, the Gilbert sets actually provided potassium nitrate (saltpetre), the key ingredient in gun powder. The method for making sulfuric acid was fairly consistent with industry practice: Generate sulfur trioxide and dissolve the gas in water. The generation of the SO3 was the tricky part, however. While industry uses a catalytic process, A.C. Gilbert instructed thousands of pre-pubescent boys (girls didn’t have chem sets in those days) to heat a mixture of potassium nitrate and sulfur in a test tube, VERY SLOWLY. (The letters were in caps just like that). Most boys don’t know how to heat anything very slowly, and I was no exception. I heated the sucker and it exploded with clouds of white smoke. I did manage to dissolve some of the white smoke (prior to the explosion) in water. I don’t recall how potent my sulfuric acid solution was.

    I ended up majoring in math.

  2. Walter E. Wallis says:

    On the other hand, my brother blew off a hand.

  3. Mike in Texas says:

    Please, there are plenty of ways to generate an explosion with readily available chemicals. I haven’ searched for any on the internet but I’m sure they are easy to find.

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    And yet, when I google, I find many sites willing to sell me chemistry equipment and supplies.

    As an example, the article quotes as follows:

    “I can’t buy potassium perchlorate to do science”

    But this site, seems to be happy to sell it:

    Maybe Wired doesn’t know what they are talking about?

  5. In the early days of the personal computer I was talking with a bunch of engineers. They all agreed that the PC saved their lives. What they meant was that during the teenager years they were all playing with model rockets and explosives. Then the PC came along there were something new to hack with before they had serious accidents with explosives.

    As for able to buy chemicals over the web, that is not a fair argument. You can buy anything on the web, legal or not.

  6. Nels Nelson says:

    In regards to the update, I’ll gladly wager that bakers have brought more happiness into the world than have chemists.

  7. No missing hands in my family, just some temporarily missing eyebrows. A handy oxy-acetylene torch was the source of more fun & noise than any toy chemistry set.

  8. Twill00 says:

    Nels – Bakers are chemists.

  9. Joanne Jacobs says:

    Posted for Michael McKeown:

    re chemistry sets and sexual dimorphism.

    My thesis advisor only had one working eye. Chemistry set explosion.

    When I was a postdoc, a fellow (fellowette?) postdoc had come to the lab from Stanford Biochem (very classy at the time). She, or one of her friends, had polled all the grad students with the simple question: “Did you blow stuff up as a kld?” According to Mariana (now a Cornell professor and no slouch), ALL the men/boys replied ‘yes’ or ‘of course.’ The women all answered ‘no.’ For the record, I blew stuff up.

    This relates to a story I read in the New Yorker many years ago. An all woman trip to Africa toured a wildlife preserve. During the tour, they came upon bull elephants busily knocking down a tree. The tourists asked the (male) guide why they did this. He responded, “Well, I suppose it’s because they can.” This caused much consternation among the tour group.

    I told son Charles about this (placing this at about a time when he was 15, so nearly 9 years ago). The next day he went to high school and polled his friends, “If you could just knock down a tree, would you do it?” The guys all said words to the effect, ‘that would be cool, of course.’ The girls all said ‘why would you want to do that’? Got the same split at our dinner table. We didn’t know to ask Andrew Sullivan then.

    About a year later, I was at a conference. The guy in the room next to mine was David Page, a prof at MIT who studies the Y chromosome. We are both tall and thin, two six footers with a combined weight of less than 300 pounds. I asked him the tree question. He answered “When I was a boy scout, we used to pull down dead trees. Do you know why we pulled down dead ones? Because the live ones were too hard!” (I got that before the punch line, having done something similar).

    I imagine that Christina Hoff Sommers must have something to say about this as well.


  10. Michelle Dulak Thomson says:

    Heck, if I’d had the wherewithall to blow stuff up (on a small, pacific scale, naturally) as a kid, I would’ve. I stuck mostly to zoology (=mostly insects) and model aircraft.

    It does seem mostly to be a guy thing, though. Too bad, because whenever I hear of someone else’s exceptionally witless homemade experiment, I half-wish I’d tried it. I once stayed at the home of a fellow music student for a week or so over a summer at Berkeley, and noticed some odd little burn marks in the wooden door of the bathroom. My friend explained that her brother had somehow gotten hold of a piece of solid lithium and dropped it into a bathroom sink’s worth of water to see what would happen. Half my mind was saying “You blithering idiot!” while the other half said “Whoa, cool!” Ditto the guy I knew who once put a lit bottle rocket in his apartment toilet to see if it would burn underwater. It did, and went down the plumbing, and produced a highly satisfactory explosion, apparently, though the dude in question had to search a few days for a suitably antique toilet to replace the shattered one so that his landlord wouldn’t know. Between that and the emergency plumber, he must have been out several hundred dollars at least, but I bet it was fun.

    The most people got up to in my college days was poaching silver nitrate solution and applying it surreptitiously to other people’s shoelaces. Not very interesting.

  11. Michelle Dulak Thomson says:

    I should have added, in the “Whoa, cool!” department, that a Mill Valley physics teacher apparently got into some trouble recently (judging by an SF Chron story) for an experiment in which he shot a bullet into a suspended block of wood, and got his students to calculate the velocity of the bullet from the kinetic energy imparted to the block. May I just say that I love demonstrations like that? The best I remember from Cal chem classes involved three balloons, filled respectively with air; hydrogen; and hydrogen and oxygen in 2:1 molar ratio (results when you put a match to them: unimpressive ex-balloon; mini-Hindenburg; very satisfying fireball).

    The gun was the problem, naturally. Guns are EVIL, and besides, possibly this gun shouldn’t have been on campus according to state law. People quoted in the article cited safety concerns, though I doubt that was the real problem, that being that the popularity of the experiment might have something to do with some boys thinking guns are cool. To which the only answer is that you’re going to have a devil of a time convincing them otherwise, however early you start. (Cf. Saki’s “The Toys of Peace,” which is really the last word on the topic . . .)