Tuesday, June 26, 2007

"Don't Try This at Home"

A fascinating though rather sad article on the effects of government regulations regarding safety, drug labs and terrorism on the study of chemistry at home...

The lure of do-it-yourself chemistry has always been the most potent recruiting tool science has to offer. Many kids attracted by the promise of filling the garage with clouds of ammonium sulfide – the proverbial stink bomb – went on to brilliant careers in mathematics, biology, programming, and medicine.

Intel cofounder Gordon Moore set off his first boom in Silicon Valley two decades before pioneering the design of the integrated circuit. One afternoon in 1940, near the spot where Interstate 280 intersects Sand Hill Road today, the future father of the semiconductor industry knelt beside a cache of homemade dynamite and lit the fuse. He was 11 years old.

Moore’s pyrotechnic adventures grew out of his experiments with a neighbor’s chemistry set. He turned a shed beside the family house into a lab, stocking it with chemicals mail-ordered from San Francisco and filling an old dresser with beakers and funnels. Now retired, the 77-year-old Moore looks back on his days and nights in the shed as a time when he learned to think and work like a scientist. “The things I made, like nitroglycerin, took a fair amount of lab technique,” he recalls. “I specialized in explosives because they were fun, and I liked doing things that got results in a hurry.”

Many of Moore’s illustrious peers also first got interested in science by performing experiments at home. After reading a book called The Boy Scientist at age 10, Vint Cerf – who became one of the architects of the Internet – spent months blowing up thermite volcanoes and launching backyard rockets. Growing up in Colorado, David Packard – the late cofounder of Hewlett-Packard – concocted new recipes for gunpowder. The neurologist Oliver Sacks writes about his adolescent love affair with “stinks and bangs” in Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. “There’s no question that stinks and bangs and crystals and colors are what drew kids – particularly boys – to science,” says Roald Hoffmann of Cornell University, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1981. “Now the potential for stinks and bangs has been legislated out.”

Popular Science columnist Theodore Gray, who is one of United Nuclear’s regular customers, uses potassium perchlorate to demonstrate the abundance of energy stored in sugar and fat. He chops up Snickers bars, sprinkles in the snowy crystals, and ignites the mixture, which bursts into a tower of flame – the same rapid exothermic reaction that propels model rockets skyward. “Why is it that I can walk into Wal-Mart and buy boxes of bullets and black powder, but I can’t buy potassium perchlorate to do science because it can also be used to make explosives?” he asks. “How many people are injured each year doing extreme sports or playing high school football? But mention mixing up chemicals in your home lab, and people have a much lower index of acceptable risk.”

Read the entire article here

Hat-tip HE&OS

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