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The death and rebirth of the chemistry set

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Opinion Zone,Jason Kuznicki

This morning I found myself Googling online chemical supply stores.

Why? Because I want my daughter to have a chemistry set. That is, I want her to have a real one. Our over-regulated society has made kids' chemistry sets basically a thing of the past.

In the old days, sets included chemicals and equipment that, while dangerous, served to teach the fundamentals of chemistry, lab safety, and scientific method. Today? Not so much. Recalls one enthusiast, "I remember the joy of finally obtaining some nitric acid which allowed me to nitrate basically everything in the house (cotton for gun cotton, glycerine and alcohol for nitroglycerine)." He continues:

Today however, the Chemistry Set is toast. Current instantiations are embarrassing. There are no chemicals except those which react at low energy to produce color changes. No glass tubes or beakers, certainly no Bunsen burners or alcohol burners (remember the clear blue flames when the alcohol spilled out over the table). Today's sets cover perfume mixing...

In some States, you need a FBI criminal background check to purchase chemicals. Some metals, like lithium, red phosphorus, sodium and potassium, are almost impossible to purchase in elemental form. This is thanks to their use in manufacturing methamphetamine. Sulphur and potassium nitrate, both useful chemicals, are being classified as class C fireworks... Mail order suppliers of science products are raided.... Even fertilizer (ammonium nitrate) is under intense scrutiny.

Now some of these things are most certainly unsafe. That's the whole point of a chemistry set, as the wise folks at Make magazine seem well aware. It's important for kids to learn safety -- around chemicals, around glassware, around fire. And you learn safety by doing, not by pretending.

The quote above was written in 2007, but here's the latest outrage, the thing that had me Googling chemical supply houses. As reported in the Examiner, the Consumer Product Safety commission has been considering whether science kits count as a "children's product" -- and thus whether they should scrutinize dangerous -- wait for it -- dangerous paper clips.

That's right, paper clips, used to show how magnets work. Maybe some child could swallow them!

This, my friends, is ludicrous. It's contemptible. It's an embarrassment that the United States, historically a leader in both liberty and science, has sunk to such a level.

The real problem here is that we've turned over much of our risk management to professional bureaucrats who will never feel that they've done their jobs unless every so often they prohibit something new.

Their standards are not mine. They are not yours, either. And given how the bureaucrats tremble at the specter of paper clips for children, it's a fair bet that their standards aren't shared by any sane person at all.

Much of being an adult is really just the sensible, controlled management of risks. The truth is that risks are everywhere. Being an adult means choosing, and taking, appropriate risks in all areas of life. Among many others, we find risks -- and rewards -- in transportation, food, drugs, exercise, finances... and science.

Everyone will have a somewhat different tolerance for various risks, and in a free society, that's not a problem. We measure the worth of a life not based on how long we stave off our inevitable deaths, but on how well we live in the meantime. There is room for creativity here, and for prudence. It's only in a bureaucratically micro-managed society that we all have to accept the lowest, most infantilizing level of risk, under which everything that counts about your life can be plugged into an actuarial table.

But what about the children? It's a good question.

Much of being a child is a gradual, careful approach to adulthood, one that's best managed by responsible, well-informed adults. These responsible adults are called parents, not bureaucrats. Childhood is about learning which risks are personally acceptable and which are not. It's about learning to make good decisions. The development of this skill is very important, and it's one of the best things a parent can give a child.

I want my daughter to learn chemistry because chemistry is one of the foundational sciences. Understanding it opens the way to valuable careers. Chemistry offers practical knowledge about everything from auto repair to cooking. Above all, chemistry teaches prudent risk management. Being an adult means taking control of the things around you -- one molecule, one idea, one risk at a time.

That's what I want for her.

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