Chemistry Sets a Casualty of War on Terror

The article below, from the 12 Angry Men Blog, mourns the dumbing down of home chemistry kits.

One has to wonder at these heavy-handed efforts to contain threats, particularly in a society that lacks gun controls. Are we next going to make styrofoam a controlled substance, since mixed with gas, it produces a decent napalm substitute?

From 12 Angry Men:

What do Islamofacism, methamphetamine production, tort lawyers, and homemade fireworks have in common? The answer is that they are all part of the seemingly inevitable process of destroying the childhood Chemistry Set. A.C. Gilbert, in 1918 was titled the “Man who Saved Christmas” with his innovative ideas of packaging a few glass tubes and some common chemicals into starter kits that enabled a generation to learn the joy of experimentation, and the basis for the scientific method of thought.

Some of Gilbert’s original sets included such items as sodium cyanide, radioactive samples (complete with a Geiger counter), and glass blowing kits. I will freely admit that one of the first things I did with my chemistry set was to attempt to make an explosive. I remember mixing up chemicals that evolved free chlorine gas and having to evacuate the house. I remember mixing potassium nitrate and sugar to make rocket engines and quickly evolving to higher specific impulse fuels. I remember the joy of finally obtaining some nitric acid which allowed me to nitrate basically everything in the house (cotton for gun cotton, glycerine and alcohol for nitroglycerine). So yes, I have to admit that there is a risk involved. But this is how people learn. Sometimes knowledge comes with pain — one-shot induction.

Today however, the Chemistry Set is toast. Current instantiations are embarrassing. There are no chemicals except those which react at low energy to produce color changes. No glass tubes or beakers, certainly no Bunsen burners or alcohol burners (remember the clear blue flames when the alcohol spilled out over the table). Today’s sets cover perfume mixing and creation of luminol (the ‘CSI effect’ I suppose).

In some States, you need a FBI criminal background check to purchase chemicals. Some metals, like lithium, red phosphorus, sodium and potassium, are almost impossible to purchase in elemental form. This is thanks to their use in manufacturing methamphetamine. Sulphur and potassium nitrate, both useful chemicals, are being classified as class C fireworks (here is a good precursor link). Mail order suppliers of science products are raided. Many over-the-counter compounds now require what is essentially a (poor) background check. Even fertilizer (ammonium nitrate) is under intense scrutiny. Where does this trend end? Ten years from now, will the list include table salt, seawater and natural gas — precursors to many industrical chemicals?

Then there is the liability issue. Of course some people buy into the lets be safe at any cost and assert that much chemistry can be done without explosions and stinky fumes. If a ladder manufacturer is under a constant barrage of liability suits, imagine the torrent of litigation directed to those giving a child a set of potentially dangerous chemicals. Its a CHILD, for God’s sake. [Oh, I’m sorry, for a minute there I was waxing Democrat.]

Yet there is still a little hope. Although Thames and Kosmos can’t ship their sets with the full range of chemicals needed to perform their listed experiments, at least they provide a list of sources from which to acquire them (assuming the appropriate permits, licenses, fees, FEES, background checks, and did I mention fees.) What is at stake here is no less than the future of America’s competitiveness and the innovation the make the United States the magnet for international entrepreneurs and scientists. Without the chemistry set, will we have scientists and innovators, or just a country of rock stars, political commentators and movie idols.

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  1. Anonymous

    Thank you Yves,

    My first chemistry set was a mid-1950s version which, by 1960, has transformed into a small home lab equipped with products from Fisher Scientific and with which I was able to perform many of Scientific American’s ‘Amateur Scientist’ experiments such as production of artificial rubber.

    Almost needless to say, the progression led to a Chem Engineering degree from Purdue and then employment in a large firm’s R&D lab where practical, sometimes beneficial, results were obtained.

    It feels ‘sinful’ that children today are being denied such possibilities in favor of a mythical security.

  2. Anonymous

    I had a Gilbert chemistry set as a kid. Source of my first set of sutures. (Safety glasses? I didn’t wear shoes. Stepped on the fragments of a projectile test tube.)

    Anyway, I grew up to be a mortgage banker. Maybe we’d better rethink this.


  3. Lune

    Although some of the more esoteric chemicals might no longer be sold due to the all-encompassing War on Terror, I’d bet most of the dumbing down of chemistry sets is due to liability issues. Why? Because it seems *Everything* that could possibly harm a child is now being eliminated. Many community pools have closed down because they can’t afford liability insurance in case a kid drowns, and the ones that are still open no longer have diving boards (I remember cannonballing off of 10-foot high dive boards as a kid — along with the stern talking-to from the lifeguard about soaking the decks :-)

    Have you been to the local jungle gym lately? Oh right. Those are extinct too, lest a kid fall off the rings and scratch an elbow (or, I suppose, break an arm). In their place are “kid-safe” structures that most kids get bored of after the age of 5.

    Damn. I feel old writing this post :-) But thanks for the childhood memories that unfortunately kids these days won’t be having (and what kid wouldn’t sacrifice a broken tooth in exchange for endless summers at the community pool horsing around with school chums??)

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