Review: O’Reilly Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments

Geeks everywhere weep for the modern chemistry set. There was a day when kids of all ages could perform all sorts of fantastic experiments. We were not unfettered by safety rules — guidelines were strict and clear. You do not mix certain things. This is flammable and that is acidic. And yes, some of us made gunpowder and other explosives. It was a magical time of daring and high adventure.

Then came the dark times, when set manufacturers bowed to the fear of litigation. Gone were the no-holds-barred outfits where nitroglycerine was seemingly a page-flip and beaker-shake away. No longer were we presented with rules and rationales, and expected to follow. Instead, manufacturers decided we were too dumb to be trusted with our own experiments, and tried to sell us “spa science” and “candy chemistry” and other pseudoscientific pap. Kit manufacturers no longer had the stomach for the real deal. And when they made that decision, they doomed themselves to irrelevance.

Today is the DIY era, and we don’t need a set to learn about chemistry. All we need is the internet and the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments by Robert Bruce Thompson.

In the book’s introduction, Thompson makes two basic points: that commercial chemistry sets are dying, and that science education is getting worse. He tells the story of Jasmine, his young neighbor who told him that her middle school only teaches 15 minutes of science per day. He thought he’d let her use the pro-quality chemistry lab he has in his basement, but without a guidebook she’d be lost in all the possibilities. It was this situation that induced him to write the book.

In an email, Thompson told me why he believes public schools’ science curricula are suffering so much. Mainly, he said, safety concerns, limited facilities, and lack of qualified teachers are to blame. However, he was especially down on the Bush education initiative, No Child Left Behind. “NCLB is the real killer, because it focuses the attention of school teachers and administrators on meeting NCLB requirements, which focus almost entirely on reading and math. NCLB doesn’t specify science requirements, so schools don’t ‘waste time’ teaching science. You can’t really blame the teachers and administrators; their jobs depend on students scoring well in reading and math, so guess what they focus all their attention on teaching?”

As for as chemistry sets go, the only one Thompson felt had any value was the Thames & Kosmos C3000 kit, though he said it “would have been considered an entry-level chemistry set back in the mid-60s.” He said the Smithsonian line of chemistry sets have been discontinued, “and the Thames & Kosmos web site has been unresponsive for a month now, which really worries me.” Even the Internet has few sites that provide robust science education for kids. “There are a lot of ‘making slime’ type experiments,” Thompson said, “but they’re mostly presented as, in effect, magic shows, rather than going into the science behind the phenomenon being looked at. They’re useful only in the sense that they may interest some kids in pursuing chemistry, but not in the sense of actually teaching them anything much about chemistry.”

So that’s it, can nothing be done? “The first chemistry sets became available about 80 years ago,” Thompson explained, “but people had been doing home chemistry for more than 100 years before that. They built their own chemistry sets. Now that commercial chemistry sets are a dying breed, we’re just going to have to go back to building our own, at least if we want our kids to learn chemistry.”

And that’s where Thompson’s book comes in.

The Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments is a hefty tome with over 400 pages. The initial chapters focus on preliminaries such as maintaining a laboratory notebook, safety, as well as two huge sections on equipping a home laboratory with glassware and chemicals — remember, you can’t rely on a set to give you everything you need. Next comes a laboratory skills chapter, covering measurements, filtration, separations, and so on.

It goes without saying that the section on lab safety is as robust as it is necessary. However, Thompson took it a step further by making a conscious decision to leave out any illegal content such as explosives and meth labs. “Obviously, there’s a very real danger involved, and I’d feel terrible if a kid blew himself up,” Thompson explained. And of course, in today’s world, an author has to pay attention to legal liability issues, both for himself and the reader. “Back 40 years ago when I was a teenager, the local cops pretty much looked the other way when kids played around with explosives. Making explosives nowadays is a sucker bet. You’re going to get caught, and you’re likely to face federal charges. It just isn’t worth the risk.”

And then Thompson jumps into the experiments. They start off easy — the author targets middle schoolers with the initial projects. Here are my favorites:

10:1: Reduction of Copper Ore to Copper Metal — smelt’em if you got ‘em! I always wondered how this was done.

16.1: Produce Hydrogen and Oxygen by Electrolysis of Water — never again worry about running out of rocket fuel and air on those long space voyages.

However, one of the most tantalizing sections is the one on forensic chemistry. The final chapter, it’s kind of a sneak peek at Thompson’s next book, which will be about home forensics experiments. It includes such experiments as detecting blood, testing for drugs and revealing latent fingerprints.

There you have it. Set manufacturers may have given up the ghost, but with an awesome book of experiments, all sorts of possibilities come into play. “I think it’s critical that every student be exposed to science,” Thompson said. “Not that I expect all of them or even many of them to pursue careers in science, but having at least a basic understanding of science is important for anyone in today’s world. And very few of our students are getting even that basic understanding.”

As I mentioned earlier, Thompson, who also wrote the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders, is working on a book on home forensics: “It’s serious forensics lab work, including stuff like fingerprinting, drug and poison analysis, soil analysis, fiber analysis, questioned documents analysis, and so on. Real stuff, not the fake stuff that you’ll find in the few forensics books targeted at students.”

By teaching professional methodologies and trusting his readers to follow them, Thompson has done a huge service to smart kids everywhere. This book brings home chemistry back to the good ol’ days.

This review first appeared in GeekDad.

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