I got my first chemistry set when I was 10 years old. It was filled with lots of cool things like litmus paper; an alcohol lamp, 40 little plastic bottles filled with exotic-sounding chemicals like ferrous ammonium sulfate and phenolphthalein. Small beakers, flasks and test tubes, the iconic alcohol lamp, mixing sticks and measuring spoons completed the kit, along with an instruction guide on “how to make wine from water,” and lots of other fun experiments. Playing with that little kit placed me on an inevitable path (my undergraduate degree is in biochemistry), and helped shape my life.
But my first science project didn’t come out of my neat chest of chemicals, it came out of the kitchen. It was second grade, and my mother had read a recipe in Ann Landers’ Chicago Sun-Times column for making a “crystal” garden. It required pieces of coal or other rock, ammonia, “bluing,” and salt. And food coloring. It smelled awful, but worked its wonders as the tiny crystals of ammonium chloride grew in exotic branches of yellow, red, green and blue. It was totally awesome; and still remains a favorite chemistry experiment in my household (and I would suggest, similarly put my own daughter, about to enter a PhD program in inorganic chemistry this autumn, on her career path when she was a little girl playing kitchen chemist with me.)
So it was with great anticipation that I picked up the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments (O'Reilly, $29.99) by DIY (do it yourself) scientist Robert Bruce Thompson. The book's premise is that chemistry sets like the ones we had back in the 60s and 70s no longer exist; and when you can find them, they lack all of the cool stuff (safety and liability concerns have all but made chemistry sets extinct). The blurb on the back cover states that Thompson's book "fills this void.” The book by promises to return to you to (and one-up) the old chemistry set, and allow you to do “real” chemistry experiments, once again opening you (and your children) to the excitement of and hands on experimentation that set so many people on the path to careers in science.