Chemistry: No fun if nothing explodes


Our house had two or three of the things around from my three older brothers — you know, the old Gilbert or Chemcraft chemistry sets, complete with potentially dangerous chemicals, test tubes, an alcohol lamp, a couple of beakers and stands, and instructions for how to make cool reactions with warnings about not making things explode.

chemistry glassware with colored water

We all made things explode, of course. That’s the fun stuff. Making jellied alcohol was fun, too — older brother Wes did that at Halloween, as I recall, the better to make a flaming hand (once was enough, thanks). We didn’t worry so much about the poisonous qualities of hydrogen sulfide, as we did worry about how to claim somebody else was suffering from flatulence when we made it. The kits and their metal boxes were in poor repair by the time I got around to them, but other kids in the neighborhood had new ones, and we always had the labs at the junior high and high school, which were stocked with enough dangerous stuff to keep us on the edge of blowing up the school, we thought (probably incorrectly).

One sign of laboratory experience: The acid holes in the Levi jeans. Older son Kenny recently discovered these things still happen in a lab at college. It had never occurred to him to worry about it before — one of his favorite t-shirts, too. (Holes in clothes appear not to be the fashion statement they were for his parents . . .)

12 Angry Men laments the wussification of these old chemistry sets. No danger anymore, he says.

Someone in comments claims you can still get the dangerous stuff.

But someone else claims such kits may be illegal under Homeland Security and DEA rules. Heck, they say even Erlenmeyer flasks are illegal in Texas. They used to be very popular among the secretaries in the biology department because they made such fine vases for the single-stemmed flowers their grad-student admirers could afford. Gotta see what’s up with that.

Technology changes so you can’t get it anymore.

But, kids with solid chemistry experience make more money in the real world — especially chemical engineers. Here’s a Catch-22: Kids can make more money if they have the experience to get the job, but they can’t get the experience until they get the job.

Update, November 1:  The PBS/Wired Science segment on kids doing chemistry, and chemistry sets

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4 Responses to Chemistry: No fun if nothing explodes

  1. Ed Darrell says:

    Phosphorus was always cool! It pains me to think that kids today grow up without seeing that happen.

    Among other things, with those tiny chemistry sets, we learned there were real dangers. Knock over a burning alcohol lamp and spill the alcohol across the table, one quickly learns the benefits of tight lids, moving flame from other flammable stuff, and that heat doesn’t always require bright fire. Best to learn it with small amounts of stuff, I think.

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  2. Chris says:

    I don’t know about blowing things up (had a deprived childhood) but since my high school chemistry teacher was a troll and I didn’t so much as learn that there’s some rhyme and reason to the periodic table, I can tell you that the only things I remember from that class are the guys across the lab table regularly burning phosphorus — to the accolades of all their neighbors. Oh yeah. The day they made poisonous gas and emptied the lab was pretty good too.

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  3. Blowing stuff up, in the larger scheme of things, can be used to illustrate the principles of physics, too. To understand chemistry you have to understand experiments, and to understand experiments you have do them. I guess in our contemporary climate there are security concerns about all this — but education is about experience in the end. Not everything can be simulated.

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  4. Ray says:

    What the heck. ‘splodin’ things is a part of growing up. Grampa Munster and Uncle Fester must be turning in their graves about now. I say let them blow things up. Eight or nine fingers work almost as well as ten. Plus, a lack of fingers gives them something to talk about on rainy days in the tent at scout camp.

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