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.
Because the blurb on the back cover and the description of the book suggest this as the logical replacement for the now-defunct chemistry set (which was marketed to young adolescents), I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was certainly not the text-book like volume (more than 400 pages). But it is clear by the time you get to the outline describing which experiments are appropriate for AP (Advanced Placement, aka college-level) chemistry students, that this book is less a “kitchen chemistry” book and more a “home-schooling” chemistry laboratory text book.
The book is quite readable and user-friendly (as much as a chemistry lab text can be), but I can’t help but wonder if the book, the extensive (and necessary) introductory chapters on safety, materials, and basic chemistry text are a bit too intimidating for a curious adolescent (to whom those great chemistry sets were marketed) — and probably that curious adolescent's parents. The equipment list alone would have made me (as a parent) shy away from using the book with my kids (and I'm not easily intimidated by science, having spent several years working as a bench microbiologist/chemist right out of college.)
Assembling the basic materials in Thompson's "no lecture, all lab" book is expensive (the cost of a “good set of golf clubs” or a decent home stereo system), and, clearly, setting up and storing all of the equipment and supplies precludes using the kitchen counter. (Which is where I used my own chemistry set, and where my kids and I played with theirs). It would make more sense to set up a lab bench in the basement, temperature-controllable garage, or as the author suggests, a photographic dark room. These factors really make it difficult to recommend the book as a chemistry set replacement.
But taking Thompson’s book for what it really is (rather than what it is promoted to be) it is actually a very well-written, clear and non-intimidating exploration of high school (or college) lab chemistry. The author states that if you work through the entire book, the user would have acquired about two years of general chemistry experience at the high school level. And I would agree with that assessment. And for that future (teenage) scientist in your house, the book provides ample opportunities for hands-on chemistry and potential science fair-worthy experimentation. Each experiment takes the student through the theory and process of a chemical principle, including exercises and a lab report to assess both the success of the experiment and how well the student understands the concepts explored.
One of my favorite college chemistry experiments involved purifying a chemical compound by supersaturating a solution and then precipitating out the crystals. It’s always been for me an perfect example of chemistry’s magic. Thompson’s procedure and explanation of this classic experiment brought back fond memories and, in a fit of nostalgia, made me want to run out and buy a beaker, some chemicals, a little acetone and try it for myself!
I would say that the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments is a worthwhile addition to a chemistry student’s library (if you want to play outside the chem lab) or for serious chemistry home study by teens and adults. It is not for kids (under high school age) and should not be used without first reading, understanding and internalizing all of the safety and usage information described in the first chapters. And it has a cool tear-out periodic table of the elements too!