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A recent story about a high-schooler named Kiera Wilmot got me to thinking over my teenage years while I was coping with my manic father and my suicidal mother. This was in the mid to late 1950s. I have mentioned that my love of nature and my hobby of astronomy helped me through that time, but I had a friend, a neighbor boy, one of my few friends when I was a teenager, with whom I shared another interest - chemistry. Chemistry became one of my major hobbies, along with astronomy and entomology, although I had several lesser ones - rock and fossil collecting, stamp and coin collecting, and art.  My friend went on later to be a chemistry and physics instructor at a local high school, while I went on to become a professional biologist (the bugs won out!)  However my time with him doing chemistry experiments in his room and outside helped me later on when I actually got a chance to go to college.

We were serious about our chemical experiments and we read old textbooks, bought glassware, chemicals, and even really potent acids.  We could easily get most of the materials ourselves (this was the 1950s) and they even sold wonderful chemicals and chemical apparatus at the local hobby shop! These were produced by such companies as Chemcraft and Gilbert. However the one piece of chemical glassware that I really wanted, but never got (they were out of them at the hobby store and in any case I could not afford one) was a retort (a glass apparatus made by an expert glass blower for condensing gas to liquid,) which just about symbolized chemistry in my mind. Still Florence and Erlenmeyer flasks, beakers, test tubes, alcohol lamps, volumetric flasks, ring stands, and clamps, etc., were pretty cool. These days some states (Texas for one) are requiring a permit to even buy some of this glassware, in part because of the drug trade and in part because of worries about terrorist groups. The world has changed, and in many cases not for the better!

We did decide not to make some really dangerous chemicals, but we did produce hydrogen gas, oxygen gas, carbon dioxide, hydrogen chloride, chlorine, bromine, iodine, various colored salts, and a number of others.  Through various means we acquired hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid and nitric acid (and we had the yellow-stained fingers to prove it!)  We made aqua regia (a substance that can dissolve gold.) However, my memory of us making hydrofluoric acid (a substance that etches glass and is extremely dangerous) may not be accurate. I know we talked about it, but I am not now sure that we ever did it!  However, with the electrolysis of a sodium compound (we used one with a low melting point so my friend's father's lead soldier furnace could melt it) we made metallic sodium, which formed hydrogen gas so rapidly and so hotly when added to water that it ignited the hydrogen!

In short we were very much like Charles Darwin and his brother Erasmus (Darwin was nicknamed "Gas" because of chemical experiments that went bad) or Oliver Sacks and his uncle (I met and had a short conversation with Oliver Sacks once - see his wonderful book "Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood" for the story of his love affair with chemistry.)  Admittedly neither of us could compare ourselves to these great men, but it was comforting to me in later life to read that such scientists shared our enthusiasm.  Was it dangerous?  Yes, and I would not recommend it these days because of the likelihood of the same thing that happened to Kiera Wilmot, as well as the actual danger involved. My friend and I were lucky and, even more important, very careful. However, I was glad to have had the experience, for when I entered college chemistry was no mystery to me. I had learned to balance equations, I had learned lab technique, and I had learned basic facts about chemical bonds. Like Oliver Sacks I was amazed by the periodic table of elements and got to know how the elements were arranged on it.  I knew the alkali metals and the halogens. I knew about electron shells and double bonds. To my great surprise I was the top student in General Chemistry for the first semester and second in the class for the second semester in junior college. I aced Organic Chemistry (except for one lab, which was a separate course) at the state university.  I also got a "B" in quantitative analysis, a course that only produced two or three "As" in a semester and was full of chemistry majors. Having been homeschooled by parents who never finished high school it was amazing to me that I could really be successful at something!  Certainly my father never expected that I would ever be good at anything (in reality I'm not sure he cared one way or the other.)  

My attempts at rocketry were much less successful, but let us just say that I avoided injury because I was very cautious. I'm sure that I would be reported these days, but in the 1950s nobody cared. Unlike chemistry, I seemed to be pretty much unsuccessful at applied technology, such as rocketry. I only wish I had been as interested in physics (which would have helped), but there I foundered a bit, later getting "Bs" in college physics only because everybody in the class was failing!  Still I am interested in the history of physics, especially relativity, quantum physics and particle physics, even if I was a bust as a physics student.

I hope that Kiera Wilmot is able to do what I did, and learn the scientific details of chemistry (and maybe do better in physics), because they are quite wonderful and fascinating. Kudos to Homer Hickam for getting her and her sister into Space Camp. He knows what it is like to run afoul of authorities and still overcome the problems to follow his dream. The overreaction of the school was a shame as they could have cautioned her and the other students about unsupervised experiments, without going off the rails.  She probably should have had some consequences, but not arrest or expulsion. Zero tolerance (like three strikes laws) have ruined a number of lives over minor infractions. I have little use for either as they fail to take circumstances into account and substitute authoritarianism for thoughtful examination of the situation.  

I did buy a chemistry set for our daughters, but supervised their experiments closely.  Today I would not allow such chemicals as my friend and I used in our house.  But I have to say that I don't regret my time spent with an alcohol lamp, ring stand, and glassware, plus a set of chemicals. It did set me pretty firmly in as a scientist.


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Originally posted to Desert Scientist on Sun Jun 02, 2013 at 05:40 PM PDT.

Also republished by SciTech and Community Spotlight.

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