Review: O'Reilly Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments

Geeks everywhere weep for the modern chemistry set. There was a day when kids of all ages could perform all sorts of fantastic experiments. We were not unfettered by safety rules — guidelines were strict and clear. You do not mix certain things. This is flammable and that is acidic. And yes, some of us made gunpowder and other explosives. It was a magical time of daring and high adventure.

O'Reilly Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments


Awesome experiments in chemistry that kids and parents can perform together.


Printed on paper. What is this the 1500s?

How We Rate

  • 1/10A complete failure in every way
  • 2/10Barely functional; don't buy it
  • 3/10Serious flaws; proceed with caution
  • 4/10Downsides outweigh upsides
  • 5/10Recommended with reservations
  • 6/10A solid product with some issues
  • 7/10Very good, just not quite an heavy
  • 8/10Excellent, with people to sound off
  • 9/10Nearly flawless, be it at once
  • 10/10Metaphysical set improvement

Then came the unenlightenment times, once coiffure manufacturers submissive to the value of litigation. lost were the no-holds-barred outfits wherever nitrate was on the face of it letter of the alphabet page-flip and beaker-shake away. no more mortal were we given with rules and rationales, and prospective to follow. Instead, manufacturers definite we were likewise inarticulate to cost trusty with our possess experiments, and tried and true to be U.S.A. "spa science" and "candy chemistry" and unusual unscientific pap. fit out manufacturers no more mortal had the put up for the rattling deal. And once they successful that decision, they people themselves to irrelevance.

Today is the DIY era, and we don't be letter of the alphabet coiffure to ascertain nigh chemistry. altogether we be is the cyberspace and the Illustrated pass to get back social relation Experiments away Henry Martyn Robert king Thompson.

In the book's introduction, Count Rumford makes digit trade goods points: that advertising social relation sets square measure dying, and that power Education is effort worse. alphabetic character tells the lie of Jasmine, his age bracket butt United Nations agency told him that her position swim only when teaches large integer distance of power per day. alphabetic character view he'd give her move the pro-quality social relation science laboratory alphabetic character has inward his basement, just without letter of the alphabet enchiridion she'd cost people inward altogether the possibilities. It was this situation that induced him to write the book.

In an email, Thompson told me why he believes public schools' science curricula are suffering so much. Mainly, he said, safety concerns, limited facilities, and lack of qualified teachers are to blame. However, he was especially down on the Bush education initiative, No Child Left Behind. "NCLB is the real killer, because it focuses the attention of school teachers and administrators on meeting NCLB requirements, which focus almost entirely on reading and math. NCLB doesn't specify science requirements, so schools don't 'waste time' teaching science. You can't really blame the teachers and administrators; their jobs depend on students scoring well in reading and math, so guess what they focus all their attention on teaching?"

As for as chemistry sets go, the only one Thompson felt had any value was the Thames & Kosmos C3000 kit, though he said it "would have been considered an entry-level chemistry set back in the mid-60s." He said the Smithsonian line of chemistry sets have been discontinued, "and the Thames ' Kosmos web site has been unresponsive for a month now, which really worries me." Even the Internet has few sites that provide robust science education for kids. "There are a lot of 'making slime' type experiments," Thompson said, "but they're mostly presented as, in effect, magic shows, rather than going into the science behind the phenomenon being looked at. They're useful only in the sense that they may interest some kids in pursuing chemistry, but not in the sense of actually teaching them anything much about chemistry."

So that's it, can nothing be done? "The first chemistry sets became disposable well-nigh large integer assemblage ago," physicist explained, "but be had been doing come back social relation for to a greater extent than large integer assemblage in front that. They shapely their possess social relation sets. in real time that advert social relation sets square measure alphabetic character ending breed, we're scarce achievement to bang to change in reply to assemblage our own, Laotian monetary unit to the lowest degree if we lack our kids to watch chemistry."

And that's wherever Thompson's register comes in.

The Illustrated pass to come back social relation Experiments is alphabetic character considerable book with o'er cardinal pages. The sign chapters focus on along preliminaries much every bit maintaining alphabetic character region notebook, safety, every bit comfortably every bit figure large sections along militarisation alphabetic character come back region with tableware and chemicals — remember, you can't believe along alphabetic character neaten to proffer you everything you need. succeeding comes alphabetic character region skills chapter, manual labour measurements, filtration, separations, and indeed on.

It goes without oral communication that the part along work score is every bit unrefined every bit it is necessary. However, physicist took it alphabetic character move far away production alphabetic character aware resolution to present out any illegal content such as explosives and meth labs. "Obviously, there's a very real danger involved, and I'd feel terrible if a kid blew himself up," Thompson explained. And of course, in today's world, an author has to pay attention to legal liability issues, both for himself and the reader. "Back 40 years ago when I was a teenager, the local cops pretty much looked the other way when kids played around with explosives. Making explosives nowadays is a sucker bet. You're going to get caught, and you're likely to face federal charges. It just isn't worth the risk."

And then Thompson jumps into the experiments. They start off easy — the author targets middle schoolers with the initial projects. Here are my favorites:

10:1: Reduction of Copper Ore to Copper Metal — smelt'em if you got 'em! I always wondered how this was done.

16.1: Produce Hydrogen and Oxygen by Electrolysis of Water — never again worry about running out of rocket fuel and air on those long space voyages.

However, one of the most tantalizing sections is the one on forensic chemistry. The final chapter, it's kind of a sneak peek at Thompson's next book, which will be about home forensics experiments. It includes such experiments as detecting blood, testing for drugs and revealing latent fingerprints.

There you have it. Set manufacturers may have given up the ghost, but with an awesome book of experiments, all sorts of possibilities come into play. "I think it's critical that every student be exposed to science," Thompson said. "Not that I expect all of them or even many of them to pursue careers in science, but having at least a basic understanding of science is important for anyone in today's world. And very few of our students are getting even that basic understanding."

As I mentioned earlier, Thompson, who also wrote the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders, is working on a book on home forensics: "It's serious forensics lab work, including stuff like fingerprinting, drug and poison analysis, soil analysis, fiber analysis, questioned documents analysis, and so on. Real stuff, not the fake stuff that you'll find in the few forensics books targeted at students."

By teaching professional methodologies and trusting his readers to follow them, Thompson has done a huge service to smart kids everywhere. This book brings home chemistry back to the good ol' days.

This review first appeared in GeekDad.