The Decline of the Chemistry Set
Quick quiz: What do Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, internet guru Vint Cerf, and Hewlett-Packard co-founder David Packard have in common? Besides their later tech accomplishments, all spent their childhoods blowing things up with chemistry sets.
And unfortunately, they may be the last generation able to do so. "There's no question that stinks and bangs and crystals and colors are what drew kids -- particularly boys-- to science," Nobel Prize winner Roald Hoffmann told Wired magazine recently. "Now the potential for stinks and bangs has been legislated out."
Yep, chemistry sets are fun stuff for bright kids who want to do more real science than the ball-dropping "experiments" in school allow. But good luck finding a decent one these days.
According to Steve Silberman's recent story in Wired on the topic, the crackdown began after Timothy McVeigh used commonly available chemicals to construct the bomb that tore through Oklahoma City in 1995. General terror worries after September 11 prompted more concern. Then add the crystal meth epidemic to the mix. Thirty states have passed laws in recent years restricting sales of chemicals and equipment that can be used to make that drug. According to Wired, in Texas, you have to register Erlenmeyer flasks with the state's Department of Public Safety. The rise of the internet means enterprising kids can now concoct explosions straightaway, without having to tinker with the set for a while, first. And did I mention how litigious people have become? Imagine the lawsuits a real chemistry set could inspire.
But all this means that the old Porter Chemical Company Chemcraft labs-in-a-box can no longer be sold. That set had enough equipment to perform 800 experiments. The new Mr. Wizard Science Set, by contrast, comes with only five chemicals, including laundry starch. Ho hum.
The only "real" set still available, according to Wired, is the Thames & Kosmos C3000, which retails for $200. But even this top-of-the-line set comes with a list of chemicals you must purchase elsewhere in order to actually do certain experiments. Ted McGuire, the company's head, told Wired that "A lot of retailers are scared to carry a real chemistry set now because of liability concerns... The stuff under your kitchen sink is far more dangerous than the things in our kits, but put the word chemistry on something and people become terrified."
That's too bad because, in case anyone hasn't noticed, America is cranking out fewer scientists than we once did. The kind of science practiced in a lot of classrooms looks nothing like the real thing, where you have to come up with questions and find answers that aren't in the back of the book. Chemistry sets help you do that. Too many inquisitive kids these days, unfortunately, are going to have to settle for a sanitized version of the subject.