Wired says Don’t Try This at Home. Remember those Chemistry Sets so popular for budding scientists in the fifties? Or perhaps chem lab in school twenty or thirty years ago? Are you one of those amateur explosive-ologists who got a big kick out of making your own big bang?
Liability concerns and seeking absolute safety was one nail in the coffin. The illegal drug trade became another. And then terrorism concerns added another. The result is that it is becoming more and more difficult for an amateur to engage in chemistry experimentation. And that does not bode well for technological and scientific literacy.
To Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” who hosted an Emmy award-winning series on PBS in the 1990s, unreasonable fears about chemicals and home experimentation reflect a distrust of scientific expertise taking hold in society at large. “People who want to make meth will find ways to do it that don’t require an Erlenmeyer flask. But raising a generation of people who are technically incompetent is a recipe for disaster.”
To ensure that the tradition of home chemistry survives, self-proclaimed “mad scientists” are creating a research underground on Web sites like Sciencemadness, Readily Available Chemicals, and the International Order of Nitrogen. There, in comfortable anonymity, seasoned experimenters, novices, and connoisseurs of banned molecules share tips on finding alternative sources for chemicals and labware.
Yes there is a danger. That is a part of the appeal. But perhaps the pendulum of concerns has swung too far towards removing risk. Not only is it becoming harder for children to learn by doing, but the doing is being established as a ‘priesthood only’ activity. People learn by making mistakes. Good pedagogy is charged with seeing that these mistakes are meaningful but controlled. It does not mean removing them to be something on a par with movie special effects. The spectator only approach to science can too readily become one where there is a disconnect and the science is just a trick or magic.
There are indications, though, that the spirit cannot be quelled. Making soap or beer at home are examples. For the serious amateur chemist, it means going back to the nineteenth century methods for finding and purifying the chemicals needed. This is the McGyver approach or the technology behind Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island (Gutenberg project or the Kravits translation).
This has also been a worry of science fiction writers (other than Verne). They wrote stories wondering about what would happen to humanity when robots took over all of the risk and took care of their human ‘masters.’ Humans would then have nothing to do. No risk. No zest. No reason for living. Where would this lead?