Why the end of science kits could blow up in our faces

Image by Gregory Tobias/Chemical Heritage Foundation Collections

My four year-old son, Oscar, says he wants to be a scientist. It was after he saw a documentary about NASA. I don’t have the heart to tell him the Space Shuttle he loves so much is retired. Or that there’s only 6 people in space at the time of writing (though I freely acknowledge that, technically, ladies and gentlemen we are floating in space). I think he thinks people are on their way to visit new planets right now.

Anyway, if Oscar is going to be a scientist he’s going to need to dig in and start experimenting. So it’s kind of sad that the old chemistry sets that a lot of us grew up with us are no longer being made:

Ask scientists of a certain age about their childhood memories, and odds are they’ll start yarning about the stink bombs and gunpowder they concocted with their chemistry sets. Dangerous? Yes, but fun.

“Admittedly, I have blown some things up in my time,” said William L. Whittaker, 64, a robotics professor at Carnegie Mellon University who unearthed his first chemistry set, an A. C. Gilbert, in a junkyard around age 8. By 16, he was dabbling in advanced explosives. “There’s no question that I burned some skin off my face,” he recalled.

Under today’s Christmas tree, girls and boys will unwrap science toys of a very different ilk: slime-making kits and perfume labs, vials of a fluff-making polymer called Insta-Snow, “no-chem” chemistry sets (chemical free!), plus a dazzling array of modern telescopes, microscopes and D.I.Y. volcanoes. Nothing in these gifts will set the curtains on fire.

“Basically, you have to be able to eat everything in the science kit,” said Jim Becker, president of SmartLab Toys, who recalled learning the names of chemicals from his childhood chemistry set, which contained substances that have long since been banned from toys.

Some scientists lament the passing of the trial-and-error days that inspired so many careers. “Science kits are a lot less open-ended these days,” said Kimberly Gerson, a science blogger who lives outside Toronto. “Everything is packaged. It’s either ‘yes’ or ‘no.’ If you don’t get the right result, you’ve done it wrong and you’re out of chemicals.”

Read the New York Times piece in full here.

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Why the end of science kits could blow up in our faces