Thursday, December 4, 2008

Texas outlawed the Erlenmeyer flask!

I was reading a blog today, when I got a serious shock to the system. I read:

Kits Today: Wimpified

Compared to their robust ancestors, chemistry sets today are wimpy. They revolve around low-energy reactions and the quiet creation of crystals and polymers. The average set from the mall has no burner to provide a flame, no chemicals that go bang. It’ll let you prepare solutions that change colors or glow like a light stick, but that’s about it for excitement.

Why? It’s common sense to delete highly toxic compounds, and we’re certainly more focused these days on insulating kids from risk.

But mostly it’s fear: of liability, of terrorists, of the neighbors. Overreacting to methamphetamine trafficking, Texas has outlawed the Ehrlenmeyer flask. In August, panicky Massachusetts police ransacked the basement lab of retired chemist Victor Deeb, who was simply fiddling with experiments in his home.

(emphasis is mine)

The post concerned making your own chemistry set in this modern age, where the chemistry sets of yore do not appear in stores before Christmas like they did back in the 50's. I got my large, Gilbert set for my November birthday in 1958, just in time for a parental divorce and in time to become familiar with it before entering the halls of high school chemistry lab. After a sulfur smell came from it, my mother banned me to a tiny outbuilding reminiscent of an outhouse in shape, but a trifle larger. I built in a shelf for a lab table, put a lock on it to protect my set, and poured a bag of ready-mix concrete in front of the door to solidify to keep it from getting mired in mud. It was all the way on the back of the property, so it was far away from danger to the house. Since there was no electricity, all the experiments had to be done during light hours. That was probably a good thing.

I replicated almost all the high school lab experiments at home, where I had more time to appreciate them and think about how they worked. But I did not have access to sodium, nor did I want that. I was in rapture over the "spinthariscope" that showed me some evidence of "atomic energy". Woo-hoo! What adventure.

Well, back to the shock of Texas law and the (almost) death of the chemistry set. The Texas Department of Public Safety (state troopers/state police) entered into a memorandum of understanding with higher education folks in the state to prevent glassware of chemistry nature from coming into the hands of the public, some of whom might use it for nefarious and illegal purposes.

Who knew that we would come to the situation of failing our kids by incapacity to provide them with chemistry sets to stimulate their science leanings because of laws to "prevent" folks from creating illegal drugs. Whew. I'll have to think about that for a while.


  1. Kids need a controlled environment to 'experiment' with that kind of stuff. The ones that can go farther should be mentored and they will have more at their disposal and can actually learn facts about what they quest for. The challenged ones need supervision to keep themselves and others safe.
    The only 'experiment' I have witnessed of late that was scary and OUTSIDE of an educational setting was some guy who put toilet bowl cleaner of a certain type into a liter bottle and wadded up tin foil and stuffed it into the same space for a resultant bomb explosion..... imagine this is how the Oklahoma bombers began their experiments? Or just took note of cow dung left unattended and gone awry? and expanded on that concept? Either way they could have benefitted from some intellegence (mentoring) and some curtailing their interests (moral guidance?)
    Personally I am a bit challenged myself and need all the mentoring I can get. But the kind of mentoring makes a great deal of difference! In about the eighth grade I had a science teacher who was having all of the class wire for a door bell and I could not get my head wrapped around whatever concept he was presenting. Ok so maybe it was a telegraph. Or maybe a light switch. I can't remember rightly now some 45 years later but I remember not 'getting it' and having him laugh at me and causing the class to laugh at me and it is hard to learn under a hostile atmosphere. today I could do simple electricity but I have to tell you it did nothing for my psyche then and for many years down the road. something that just would stop me cold in my tracks from being able to do those things. Probably for not wanting to fail.
    today I hold a ticket for 'Ham radio' I am not as proficient as my little brother who is always encouraging me to go the extra mile but in todays world I have little time to get to that extra mile's worth of effort with so many other needs in the family. At one point I was an engineer at a TV station but after several years of doing wehat I was taught a computer (in '87 this was not something I had been exposed to much let alone mastered) and an antenna program let me know I was in the wrong field.
    I brought that up to see where I was and now where I am.... knowing where I could/should be.
    This year I took apart a GEO Metro with the asssistance of a wife who had gathered a lot by osmosis from her car-restoring xhusband and the use of an outdated book. We learned a lot not written thru the process and got it back together again. And routinely I attack and solve homestead issues and endevours that need someone's attention. Creative solutions; cheap and last minute. I have learned from being a Mom as much as from life experiences. A mentor would have been nice for most of the down-and-dirty education that was mostly by trial and tribulation and the NEED to suceed.

  2. Its so sad to look back on the love of discovery and science I had fostered in me by my father and conclude it would be viewed as criminal in this day of hypervigilance for victimless crimes.

    Most of our great names in science were backyard/basement experimenters, and I weap to think what this pointless war on drugs is doing to our nation's children unable to have the simpe joys of learning elementery chemistry experiments.

  3. Although I am no longer interested in home chemistry (I moved on to electronics long before my college chemistry.), here is a really good blog post on tips toward home chemistry projects: