Issue Date: July 13, 2009
Embracing 'Mad Science'
When I was asked to review "Theo Gray's Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do At Home—But Probably Shouldn't," by Theodore Gray, my first thought was to begin with a cute comment disputing the title and suggesting that everyone really should try all of these experiments at home. Then I flipped open the book to a random page and was quickly disabused of that notion. Among the eclectic assortment of experiments are more than a few that you really don't want to try at home—unless you don't mind burning the house down or having your door kicked in by drug enforcement agents in full body armor.
Gray's no-holds-barred book is a glorious assortment of the kinds of chemistry and physics experiments that hearken back to the "good old days" when things were a lot more relaxed. Back then, kids rode their bicycles without helmets and pads and still somehow survived. No one worried about terrorists, drugs were something you bought at the drugstore, and we had "better living through chemistry." And kids learned about chemistry and physics by doing hands-on experiments, many of them more than a little dangerous.
Nowadays, we as a society have grown timid, cowed by the irrational fears that are continually stoked by the government and media: Chemicals are dangerous. Science experiments are dangerous. Safety first. Avoid risks at all costs. We have to keep our kids completely safe, even if that also means that their only exposure to science will be from watching videos and demonstrations.
Not that videos and demonstrations don't have their place, of course, especially for experiments that are truly dangerous or that require chemicals or equipment that are expensive or difficult to obtain. And it is exactly those types of experiments that Gray features in his book.
One experiment, for example, uses white phosphorus, an extremely dangerous chemical that for all practical purposes has been unavailable to home scientists for decades. Another experiment uses 30 lb of liquid mercury—this in an age when breaking a mercury lab thermometer demands immediate evacuation of the building and calling in a hazardous materials cleanup crew in space suits. Still other experiments use oxyacetylene and oxyhydrogen torches; a high-voltage, high-amperage capacitor bank; and an electric-arc refractory furnace. Not to mention the experiment that uses the thermite reaction to produce white-hot molten titanium metal in a flowerpot, of all things.
Mad science, indeed, but just the kind of thing that gets kids seriously interested in science. As a teenager 40 years ago, I watched experiments like these up-close-and-personal in school science classes and did many similar experiments in my own home laboratory. In today's safety-conscious society, few kids will have the opportunity to watch such experiments being done, let alone do them themselves.
Enter Gray's book, which in some ways is actually better than watching live demonstrations of these dangerous experiments. It lacks the sounds and smells and tactile experiences of a live demonstration, of course, but it makes up for that with stunning high-resolution photographs that capture the decisive moments of these experiments, revealing details frozen in time that would be missed by those watching a live demonstration or even watching a video of that demonstration.
But this book is far more than just a collection of gee-whiz chemistry and physics demonstrations captured in images and text. Gray's narrative descriptions are well written, crisp, and fascinating, revealing some of the history behind each of the experiments and many interesting details about the underlying science.
Kids of any age with even the slightest interest in science—which is to say almost any kid—will find things to pique their interest here. Kids who are already fascinated by science will find much here to reinforce that interest. Of course, the perceived danger is a big part of the lure. Kids who are destined to become scientists have always liked to burn things down and blow things up, and this book caters to that inclination in spades.
When I showed my review copy of this book to our neighbors' six-year-old son, I expected him to show some interest. But when I left half an hour later, he was still sitting there, paging through the book, his eyes glued to it, and periodically shouting "Wow! Cool!" I gave him the book and got another copy for myself—a small price to pay to encourage a budding scientist.
Although most of the experiments in this book are impractical to reproduce at home—either because they are extremely dangerous or because they require chemicals and equipment that are difficult to obtain, or both—Gray includes many useful experiments that present only moderate hazards and can be done with readily available chemicals and equipment. The following are among my favorites in this category:
◾ Making ice cream with dry ice obtained from a CO2 fire extinguisher
◾ Making hydrogen by electrolysis of water
◾ Building a gravity-cell battery
◾ Burning metal (steel wool pads) ◾ Catalytic oxidation of propane
◾ Burning magnesium ribbon in a carbon dioxide atmosphere
◾ Anodizing titanium
◾ Building a cloud chamber
◾ Etching metals to reveal their crystalline structures
◾ Preserving snowflakes with Super Glue
◾ Copper-plating an iPod
◾ Making sodium acetate sculptures
Of course, many people will be concerned about the manifest safety issues raised by such a book. Gray takes a sane approach to safety, placing ultimate responsibility where it belongs, squarely on the reader. He points out that safety depends on knowing what one is doing—and that what may be relatively safe for him to do is not necessarily at all safe for an inexperienced reader to attempt.
Gray recommends that if you don't know exactly what you're doing—if you haven't done the experiment you're contemplating doing or something very like it already—either don't do it or get an experienced person to supervise. He explicitly warns: "This book does not tell you enough to do all of the experiments safely!" but without saying exactly which experiments he's referring to. And that's actually all to the good, because the particular experiments for which this warning is relevant will differ from reader to reader.
Gray does provide some safety warnings. Of the 54 experiments in the book, Gray has flagged about two dozen with "real danger alert" boxes. It's tempting to assume that these flagged experiments are the truly dangerous ones and should be avoided by home scientists, but that's not necessarily true. One of the flagged experiments, for example, involves reacting a post-1982 penny with hardware store muriatic acid (28 to 31.45% hydrochloric acid) to remove the zinc core, leaving only the paper-thin copper foil coating. Another experiment is flagged because it involves melting sulfur for doing wood inlays. Those experiments and several others that are flagged actually present minimal risks, assuming the experimenter wears proper gloves and goggles. Conversely, some of the unflagged experiments, which many readers would presume to be relatively safe to perform, use table saws and other high-speed power tools.
The only real safety concern I have with this book is that Gray recommends wearing "safety glasses" to protect your eyes. That's fine for those experiments that produce particle impact hazards, but most working chemists would agree that safety glasses are inadequate protection for working with hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide, and other corrosive chemicals. In experiments where such chemical hazards exist, Gray should recommend, at a minimum, wearing approved laboratory splash goggles, and for some of the experiments it would not be overkill to supplement those goggles with a full face shield. I've spoken about this concern with the author, who agrees and has contacted his publisher about revising this when the book is reprinted.
That one issue aside, this book has my unqualified endorsement. Most adults, even those with no science background, will be fascinated by it. But it's young people who really need to be exposed to the mad science of Theo Gray. So, do a kid a favor. When you order a copy for yourself, order a second copy for a deserving child. You may be starting that child on a path to winning the 2049 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, Physics, or Medicine.
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