Hurrah for Home Chemistry

Today, in most schools, science is taught as a body of acquired knowledge, but not as much as a set of tools and practices that were used to discover that knowledge and expand upon it. Students are expected to learn from lectures and textbooks, not labs with hands-on learning and experimentation. Nothing quite embodies the practice of science like a chemistry set, a home lab that once was a favorite childhood gift has now vanished from the shelves of toy and hobby stores.

In 1964, Robert Bruce Thompson got what he wanted most for Christmas and his first chemistry set introduced him to a fascinating, new world. He went on to major in chemistry in college. Recently, a neighbor’s teenage daughter started asking him questions about science, which she wished to pursue as a career, but she admitted she wasn’t learning much science in school. Robert wanted to introduce her to the chemistry lab but realized it was nigh impossible to buy a good chemistry set in a store and he couldn’t recommend any of the exisiting books on chemistry. So Robert decided that he could write a book himself and that it would start with describing how to build your own chemistry set and set up a lab.

Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments
is Bob’s seventh book with O’Reilly; he’s written previously about PC hardware and astronomy. A man of many interests, Bob has put together a wonderful book that I’m proud to publish and it completely fits with Make’s DIY ethic. Bob’s book has the subtitle: “All Lab, No Lecture.” What surprised me most about the book was how much Bob had tailored the book to home schoolers and other students who might be getting “chemistry-lite” in school. (“A student who completes all of the laboratories in this book has done the equivalent of two full years of high school chemistry lab work or a first-year college general chemistry lab course.”) It also works for adults, like me, who were bored by chemistry in school and did poorly yet could see the fascination of a lab filled with vials, flasks and burettes.

The book is also a great example of collaboration as Bob has worked with Dr. Mary Chervenak and Dr. Paul Jones, each of whom hold Ph.D’s in organic chemistry. Their insights are featured throughout the book, not just as subject-matter experts but also as experienced teachers and practitioners. Says Dr. Paul Jones: “Most students are aware of acids and their dangers but are more or less ignorant of the dangers of alkali (base). For instance, aqueous sodium hydroxide can blind you in a matter of minutes if not cleansed thoroughly and I’ve seen lots of kids who are quick to put on goggles to work with 0.01 M HCI but throw 6 M NaOH around like it’s candy. Aqueous bases are every bit as dangerous as aqueous acids.”

Concerns about the liablity of practicing science in school have led schools to offer less of it. (Sports is a more common source of serious injury.) This book offers a “real science” alternative. Bob writes: “One of the recurring lessons throughout this book is the importance of assuming personal responsibility for useful but dangerous actions — understanding the specific risks and taking the necessary steps to minimize or eliminate them.”

Bob will be featured at this year’s Maker Faire, talking about his love of chemistry and his new book. He’ll be in the Maker Shed area all weekend, doing some of the experiments from the book. His talk on the Main Stage on Sunday at 1pm will be “What’s Happened to the Chemistry Set?”

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