“I’ve spent years living safely to secure a longer life, and look where that’s gotten me. I’m at the finish line but I never ran the race.”
― Adam Silvera, They Both Die at the End
Today, I received an internet ad from a rare book site. I usually ignore these completely and easily, but this one caught my eye. It was for a copy of the “Rare” book – The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments – accompanied by a photo of the cover. I instantly recognized that cover, because my parents had bought me a copy (which I eventually completely wore out until if fell apart) when I was in… third grade or so.
In a week, I’m going to retire, which will be the end of a forty-five plus year career as a chemist. I’ve worked in a mine, cleaning up toxic waste sites, responding to chemical spills and accidents, running an analytical lab, working in arguably the biggest paint factory in the world, and supporting a sophisticated microelectronics and semiconductor manufacturing factory. All of this, for good or for bad, pretty much began with that book (along with a chemistry set) when I was in third grade.
I spent untold hours trying out all of the experiments that the book held that I could assemble the raw materials and equipment for… and more untold hours poring over the experiments and demonstrations that I couldn’t find the equipment for. My chemistry set – it came in a double folding metal cabinet – chemicals in plastic bottles on one side – laboratory glassware, including an alcohol burner, on the other. I remember spilling my precious phenolphthalein powder and thinking, “I’ll never see any of that cool stuff again!” – I had no idea (I have done more acid/base titrations in my life that an human should be forced to do).
I especially enjoyed setting up an apparatus for the electrolytic separation of water into oxygen and hydrogen. For someone that young – hydrogen explosions are cool.
This “rare” book appearing in a random email ad brought back so many memories – piled one upon the other – back from decades and decades ago.
But the question is, why is that book “rare.” Thousands of parents must have bought that book for their kids like mine did – I’m sure every school library had a copy.
The problem is, a few years after I had my grubby paws on my copy – someone realized that there was some dangerous stuff in the book. It tells how to make chlorine (though not, in my opinion, dangerous quantities) and talks about several reagents that have since been identified as potential carcinogens (but what hasn’t, really). So the book was banned, removed from library shelves, and destroyed as a menace to society. Chemistry sets too, like the one I had, are not available anymore. It is not considered safe to have third graders in the basement melting sulfur with an alcohol burner – no matter how much fun, how educational, and how bad-smelling that is.
It didn’t help that the book inspired one kid to try and build his own atomic breeder reactor. From Wikipedia:
The book was also believed to be a source of inspiration to David Hahn, nicknamed “the Radioactive Boy Scout” by the media, who attempted to construct a nuclear reactor in his mother’s shed, although the book does not include any nuclear reactions.
It’s a shame. Danger is overrated. Risk is not understood – not balanced against the possible reward. How many future chemists ended up studying “Blank” Studies in college, instead of something useful. Useful and dangerous – in my mind the two words are synonymous.
I see that the PDF of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments is available as a free download. If my kids were still small – I’d download it, print it out, and see if they are interested.