Twice (here and here) over the past year or so I've chided the Discovery Channel's "Mythbusters" show for editing out basic chemistry facts from their programs -- facts that can be easily uncovered with a simple Google search.
For those who are interested in encouraging their kids to look into careers in chemistry and science, Wired magazine has an interesting article on the fall of the home chemistry kit and how that may translate into a dearth of chemists in the future.
In the meantime, more than 30 states have passed laws to restrict sales of chemicals and lab equipment associated with meth production, which has resulted in a decline in domestic meth labs, but makes things daunting for an amateur chemist shopping for supplies. It is illegal in Texas, for example, to buy such basic labware as Erlenmeyer flasks or three-necked beakers without first registering with the state’s Department of Public Safety to declare that they will not be used to make drugs. Among the chemicals the Portland, Oregon, police department lists online as “commonly associated with meth labs” are such scientifically useful compounds as liquid iodine, isopropyl alcohol, sulfuric acid, and hydrogen peroxide, along with chemistry glassware and pH strips. Similar lists appear on hundreds of Web sites.
“To criminalize the necessary materials of discovery is one of the worst things you can do in a free society,” says Shawn Carlson, a 1999 MacArthur fellow and founder of the Society for Amateur Scientists. “The Mr. Coffee machine that every Texas legislator has near his desk has three violations of the law built into it: a filter funnel, a Pyrex beaker, and a heating element. The laws against meth should be the deterrent to making it – not criminalizing activities that train young people to appreciate science.”
The increasingly strict regulatory climate has driven a wedge of paranoia between young chemists and their potential mentors. “I don’t tell anyone about what I do at home,” writes one anonymous high schooler on Sciencemadness.org, an online forum for amateur scientists. “A lot of ignorant people at my school will just spread rumors about me … The teacher will hear about them and I will get into legal trouble … I have so much glassware at my house, any excuse will not cut it. So I keep my mouth shut.”
I must confess that one of the most memorable high school science experiments I witnessed was when our teacher took pure calcium and dumped it in water. The resulting explosion shattered the glass bowl to the delight of just about everyone.
It's a little sad that our society has become so litigious and paranoid that small, simple chemistry sets can no longer be sold. Maybe the government should think twice about the effects the laws they pass to prevent illegal activities have on legal, educational pursuits.