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Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

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Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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June 17, 2007

Access To Science

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Posted by Derek

Via Pharyngula, I came across this impassioned blog post on the problems that amateurs (and their children) have getting chemicals, lab equipment, and other science supplies these days. Regulatory attempts to cut down on access to potential explosives and company attempts to dodge potential lawsuits seem to be the main culprits.

I sympathize, and I just hope that the situation isn't as dire as it's made out to be. This isn't a new problem, though. Chemistry kits were already being drained of their more exciting components even in the early 1970s - my father went out and got me some supplemental chemicals back then, including a couple that I probably shouldn't have had. But from the sound of things, it's hard to even do that much under current conditions.

Even outside the hazardous parts of science, there's a general problem with a lot of equipment designed for kids being total junk. As an amateur astronomer, for example, it's not even safe to get me started on some of the telescopes that are sold as ideal for a young observer. And what's even more frustrating is that (compared to my childhood) good telescopes are more affordable and available than ever. There's no excuse for the unk. The situation isn't good in microscopes, either. As far as I can tell, you really have to go to the online surplus and auction sites and buy a used real microscope, if you can find a good one, because the ones marketed as starter instruments are trash.

I grew up with access to a fair telescope, a fine microscope, a good chemistry outfit, and more (model rockets, etc.) - which (now that I look back) was pretty good going on the part of my parents, considering where and when I had these things. I'm making sure that my kids have similar opportunities. There's no substitute for being able to use your hands if you're interested in science growing up. I hope that it's still possible.

Comments (16) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Current Events


1. Chemistry_Voyeur on June 17, 2007 9:19 PM writes...

There's a guy working on a "home chemistry lab" book for O'Reilly and Associates (yes, the same company that publishes all those books for computer geeks -- they've been branching out), and discussing the writing process in his blog.

He's found some reasonable suppliers for equipment and chemicals, it looks like.

He's generally got a few books in process-- some of the entries where he talks about the chemistry book are here:

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2. Kramylator on June 18, 2007 7:33 AM writes...

Hadn't thought about that pet peeve of mine for a number of years (now that you bring it up). You don't need to wonder why American students avoid science when you examine, or attempt to work with, the total crap that supposedly "reputable" manufacturers market as chemistry sets and other learning toys. I was luckier than most, having European relatives who would often send me as gifts the items you listed, but made places like Germany, etc. These instruments were of high quality and did not succeed at turning me off from pursuing a scientific/technical career (damnit!) Chemistry sets back in the 70's weren't great, now they're a complete joke (sodium bicarbonate is hazardous-har!) and the experiments in the manuals are so lame that, well, never mind. Brings up the happy memories of that fine winter day when I proudly fumigated my parent's house with hydrogen sulfide. Even better, that poor bird that discovered my sun-drying batch of freshly made nitrogen triiodide in the back yard. At least it was quick. Can't do that with anything Skillcraft sells today.

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3. Yttrai on June 18, 2007 7:52 AM writes...

As kids my brother and i had access to some fairly high quality equipment, because most of my entire family are teachers - mom, dad, uncle was my HS principal, aunt, grandma, etc. Can we get the word out on the street that the way to acquire the equipment is to know a teacher and ask them to keep you in the loop when the schools refresh their equipment every few years?

(My school district was not rich; in fact our millage failed about every other year. And yet our equipment was upgraded pretty regularly. In case anyone suggests non-wealthy schools are not a good resource.)

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4. JSinger on June 18, 2007 8:08 AM writes...

I'm skeptical about these complaints, which always strike me as a mix of nostalgia and fantasy:

1) I never played with either laboratory grade chemistry equipment (flasks and burners) or home-built rockets and have never heard of an 80's kid who did.

2) It may be that kids used to do that, back when basic chemistry was cutting edge science and adults routinely mixed their own fertilizers and explosives. Kids today want to mess with today's cutting edge technology (i.e. computers); it's not George Bush's fault they're not reinventing 1920's chemistry and radio.

3) Does anyone think that the "We live in dark times, where we were already lagging behind in all areas of science, Bush has pushed us back even further in an effort to rally the right wing christian coalition and strike false fear into Americans." guy and the rest of the commenters there really have any interest in doing organic chemistry in their garages? As with anti-creationist ranters, people who reduce science to just another fuel for red/blue hysteria strike me as contemptuous of science, not entranced with it.

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5. SP on June 18, 2007 8:34 AM writes...

I've been thinking about getting a telescope for my kids- what do you suggest? I thought a reflector with drive and preprogrammed coordinates of neat things is a good way to make things easy. Of course, I'm in a city, so we'd have to drive somewhere to see anything well.

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6. Around the corner and down the hall on June 18, 2007 8:54 AM writes...

As a USDA certified 80's kid, I can certainly attest to the quality of the science equipment during that time. While the chemistry set I had as a child may not have been as 'complete' as the one Derek or Yttrai had. There was certainly enough in there to get in trouble, maybe even make NI3, I can't remember. Certainly there was the halogen, not sure about about the nitrogen source. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I didn't know about the wonders of NI3 until college. The microscope I had was certainly of basic research quality, it even came with several preserved animals for dissection. Obviously only small critters, frog, worm, etc. I can't imagine that you would be able to find something like this today, imagine the lawsuits when junior spills a little preserving fluid. Kids today lead such a sheltered life, they aren't allowed to hurt themselves or, God forbid, actually learn anything interesting. As for the 'cutting edge technology' kids want, I grew up in a time when computers really were cutting edge and yes, I was quite interested (remember good ol' DOS), but it seems that computers today could be put to better use. Perhaps better integration into science learning would allow for the US to regain the edge we once had. I would've given anything to have a computer, and the internet, to help answer the many questions I had after looking through the lens or running through the book of experiments in the chemistry set...

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7. Kent on June 18, 2007 11:06 AM writes...

During the 70's, I too had a telescope, a microscope (*not* a fine one, regrettably), a couple of chemistry sets, and model rockets. Also sundry electronics and a dissection set.

My set had everything needed to generate chlorine. But then so does my pantry today. I don't recall that there were any nitrates in the set, which puzzled me at the time. But there was sodium ferrocyanide, which sounds scarier than it is, and which gave my father a few palpitations.

Nowadays chemistry sets boast of how they use the minimum possible amounts of environmentally benign chemicals and require no open flames. Heck, open flames were a big part of the fun. How else can a youngster get the opportunity to rig a miniature flame thrower using rubber tubing, and eyedropper, and denatured alcohol?

I can't get my boys interested in anything but Star Wars, computers and dinosaurs. At least they're interested in dinosaurs. I haven't tried model rockets and probably should. Actually, I think my mistake is letting my wife buy all the Christmas and birthday presents.

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8. JSinger on June 18, 2007 12:42 PM writes...

Check out "Uncle Tungsten" by Oliver Sacks for an amazing account of how it used to be.

I remember reading the Mad Scientist Club books and wondering how on earth they got all that stuff that certainly weren't available to me. You used to be able to go to the drugstore, feed store, hardware store and round up enough reagents to do experiments that weren't that many steps behind what industrial chemists of the day did.

That's just not the case anymore, and hasn't been for decades. If you really need to blame a politician, John Edwards is probably the most representative place to start. But the reality is that that crude chemistry is so removed from both modern life and modern research that it's not attractive to most kids.

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9. SRC on June 18, 2007 12:42 PM writes...

Well, as a (ahem) 60s kid, I received a chemistry set as a nine year old, and loved it. It had lots of stuff that is long gone today, and included instructions on glassblowing (of soft glass, with a blowtorch over an alcohol lamp) and about 300 reagents. It was great!

My father helped me to pursue my interest by taking me to a chemical supply house, where he bought stuff for me (initially I could only use dangerous stuff under supervision, but later it was apparent I was pretty sensible about hazards). So by age 12 I had most of the standard reagents of a chem lab, and among other things prepared guncotton, AgBr gelatine emulsions (and developed exposed ones), extracted bromine from sea water, did the thermite reaction (after spending hours with an Al bar and a file!), built a carbon arc furnace and a manometer, the lot. Great fun!

It's regrettable that that era is gone. I wouldn't even try to buy concentrated nitric and sulfuric acids, or, e.g., Hg, for my preteen boys now. No one would probably sell the stuff for liability reasons, and the attempt would probably get me on a watch list (for good reasons, to be sure). Sad, really.

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10. Wavefunction on June 18, 2007 1:57 PM writes...

I second Jose's thoughts about Uncle Tungsten; awesome book, awesome kid, awesome uncle, and awesome time. These days, even copper sulfate is forbidden in chemistry kits.

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11. Neil on June 18, 2007 4:16 PM writes...

As an 80's kid, I can definitely agree that our science equipment was crap...and if ours was crap, today's is just horrid.

Luckily growing up I got my uncle's old chemistry kit (from the 60's!), which my grandfather had kept tucked away. The other science kits and things I received steadily got worse over the years.

I don't know what I'm going to do when I have children...I'm thinking of home schooling!

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12. CET on June 18, 2007 6:22 PM writes...

Re: Interesting, useful, basic chemistry.

Extractions. Especially Caffiene. I just need to figure out how to do it without using organic solvents and getting a visit from my friendly, neighborhood branch of the DEA.

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13. Zinc on June 18, 2007 8:29 PM writes...

Reasonable choices still exist, though they tend to be expensive, e.g. the Chem C3000 kit:

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14. Kent on June 19, 2007 5:08 PM writes...


That's my kind of chemistry set! Though, back in the day, we called it "potassium ferrocynanide" rather than "potassium hexacyanoferrate(II)" and I don't remember anything as fun as potassium permanganate.

At that price, though, I have to be sure my kid really wants it. I can't take the risk of buying it and hoping I can persuade him it will be fun. Though I suppose, if I did, I'd have no alternative but to play with it myself ...

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15. Jonadab the Unsightly One on June 30, 2007 10:33 AM writes...

While it's true that most of the stuff sold as learning toys for children is junk, I don't think that implies that decent equipment is unavailable.

Growing up in the eighties, I had two microscopes. The first and better one was one that my parents had picked up used. It wasn't fantastic, but it was an actual microscope. I would have used it more if I had more interesting things to put under it. Clothing fibers aren't very fascinating to a ten-year-old kid, I'm afraid. If I'd had access to pond water and cover slips...

The second microscope was one I was given at a Christmas gift, I think from my parents. It was new, but it was designed and marketed for children. Think in terms of plastic parts (and this was the eighties, so the quality of plastics was not what it is now). It was "better" because it was new, came in a flashier box, and had higher nominal magnification numbers. (The tendency of people who don't know better to assume equipment with higher magnification numbers is automatically better could be the subject of an entire thread in itself.)

It did not take me very long to figure out that I could actually see things better under the older microscope.

So the problem may not be so much that good equipment is unavailable, as that a lot of people don't know how to tell the difference between good equipment and bad. As long as that's true, shoddy stuff will always be common.

Chemistry sets are another matter. I never had a chem set growing up, until eventually I bought one myself at a garage sale. (I was in high school at the time, and the set was certainly beneath my academic level at the time, but it was something I'd always wanted.)

Only when I was in college did I finally realize why my parents and never bought me a chem set when I was a kid. (I'd always assumed it was because they were too expensive, but in retrospect they spent more than the price of a chem set on me, not least in private school tuition.) They didn't buy me one because what I wanted to do with it, at the time, was pretend to be the Absent Minded Professor by pouring random stuff together and watching the results explode, preferably in such a way as to leave an outline of my face in the black scorch marks on the wall. At the time, I would have been much happier with three bottles of colored water and a couple of stoppered vials of powdered alkali metals than with a real chem set that contained instructions for specific experiments with the intention of teaching me anything. Hence, they didn't buy it for me.

Are the chemicals you'd need to produce a reasonable chem set actually hard to get, though, or is it just that the chem sets sold as toys for children are junk? Yeah, I know there are a handful of specially regulated compounds that can be hard to obtain, but it seems to me that there are plenty of perfectly interesting and useful chemicals that can be had cheaply and easily, so that an informed person with the desire to put together a good chem set ought to be able to accomplish it.

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16. we_are_still_around on July 6, 2007 9:06 PM writes...

While it is true chemistry and other science exposure is down these days there are still people that do it. I'm 17 and got interested in chemistry about 2 years ago. I got MSDS of household and hardware products and used a lot of those as cheap chemicals. After awhile I got some ST 24/40 glassware and an aspirator and a corning hotplate stirrer. Before this I used beakers and jam jars and coffee filters and such. I've made some inorganic and organic compounds - all pretty simple stuff. Highlights include 1,4-dioxane(I threw it away after awhile knowing of its dangers), bromine that I distilled and stored under water in a teflon and glass vial, and even isopropyl nitrite, iodine by displacement from the salt with Cl2 and them sublimation and hydroxylamine HCL using nitromethane and HCL in a wine bottle as a sort of pressure vessel(less then 5atm).

So where there is a will there is a way. But for every kid like me there are 100s that never get the chance to explore chemistry and it is sad and a problem.

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