What do Islamofacism, methamphetamine production, tort lawyers, and homemade fireworks have in common? The answer is that they are all part of the seemingly inevitable process of destroying the childhood Chemistry Set. A.C. Gilbert, in 1918 was titled the “Man who Saved Christmas” with his innovative ideas of packaging a few glass tubes and some common chemicals into starter kits that enabled a generation to learn the joy of experimentation, and the basis for the scientific method of thought.

Chemcraft Set Gilbert Set
Chemcraft Chemistry Set Gilbert Chemistry Set

Some of Gilbert’s original sets included such items as sodium cyanide, radioactive samples (complete with a Geiger counter), and glass blowing kits. I will freely admit that one of the first things I did with my chemistry set was to attempt to make an explosive. I remember mixing up chemicals that evolved free chlorine gas and having to evacuate the house. I remember mixing potassium nitrate and sugar to make rocket engines and quickly evolving to higher specific impulse fuels. 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). So yes, I have to admit that there is a risk involved. But this is how people learn. Sometimes knowledge comes with pain — one-shot induction.

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 and creation of luminol (the ‘CSI effect’ I suppose).

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 (here is a good precursor link). Mail order suppliers of science products are raided. Many over-the-counter compounds now require what is essentially a (poor) background check. Even fertilizer (ammonium nitrate) is under intense scrutiny. Where does this trend end? Ten years from now, will the list include table salt, seawater and natural gas — precursors to many industrical chemicals?

Then there is the liability issue. Of course some people buy into the lets be safe at any cost and assert that much chemistry can be done without explosions and stinky fumes. If a ladder manufacturer is under a constant barrage of liability suits, imagine the torrent of litigation directed to those giving a child a set of potentially dangerous chemicals. Its a CHILD, for God’s sake. [Oh, I'm sorry, for a minute there I was waxing Democrat.]

Yet there is still a little hope. Although Thames and Kosmos can’t ship their sets with the full range of chemicals needed to perform their listed experiments, at least they provide a list of sources from which to acquire them (assuming the appropriate permits, licenses, fees, FEES, background checks, and did I mention fees.) What is at stake here is no less than the future of America’s competitiveness and the innovation the make the United States the magnet for international entrepreneurs and scientists. Without the chemistry set, will we have scientists and innovators, or just a country of rock stars, political commentators and movie idols.

[Author's Note: This article is primarily a result of my frustration in trying to acquire a few hundred grams of potassium carbonate for an electrolyte solution.]

Update: See also Sightings in the Wild on this blog.