Issue Date: September 21, 2009
Smokin' 'Mad Science'
As I read Robert Bruce Thompson's review of Theo Gray's "Mad Science," I couldn't help but think of the ACME Co. (made so famous by the Wile E. Coyote/Road Runner cartoon rivalry) and the outlandish products they created that always failed catastrophically and explosively at the last minute (C&EN, July 13, page 32).
Explosive chemistry certainly grabs attention—all one has to do is look into the sky on the Fourth of July to realize the show-stopping effects that chemistry can have. However, the real science of chemistry takes place under far different circumstances and leads to benefits that can be described as equally astonishing and attention-grabbing in their own right.
Organizations such as the Chemical Educational Foundation (CEF) are working to create a foundation of understanding that helps students focus on the importance of chemistry and how it shapes their world on a daily basis. Helping students draw connections to chemistry through applications they see and use every day—the fibers in their clothing, the makeup of their electronic video games, the process of water treatment, and even the chemistry of the human body—demonstrates that chemistry is all around them and that it impacts not only their world but the world at large. This is exciting in itself.
Although "Mad Science" and the experiments Thompson discusses in his review certainly have a place in the history of chemistry and demonstrating what chemicals can do, there are programs out there that are grabbing students' attention while also educating them on the benefits of chemistry and showing them how chemistry and chemicals will continue to affect their everyday lives. CEF's You Be the Chemist programs (which are funded by chemical companies that participate in industry responsible management practices such as the Responsible Distribution Process, Responsible Care, and ChemStewards), Science Olympiad programs, and the American Chemical Society's National Chemistry Week are just some of the ways in which various organizations are working to build that foundation of knowledge, ultimately encouraging the next generation of scientists, chemists, doctors, and engineers—no explosions necessary.
I think Thompson hit it on the head in his book review. Fun experiments that are safe will interest kids for a fleeting moment. Do something that goes bang or makes a lot of smoke, however, and now you've hooked them into trying to find out why the action took place. This takes me back to smoking up my parents' basement with sugar/KNO3 rocket-fuel experiments.
One thing that wasn't mentioned was Gray's pages in Popular Science. Some pretty wild stuff was in there, too, such as a 5,000 °F bacon torch or the vegetarian version using a cucumber! Now, that's mad science!
Mark W. Maxwell
Egg Harbor City, N.J.
I was excited to see that Gray has put out a book on mad home science. Lacking from the review, however, was mention of www.theodoregray.com, Gray's website, which many readers of C&EN will find interesting. There are all kinds of treats hidden on the site, but its central feature is his magnificently designed periodic table table.
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