Issue Date: October 26, 2015
Generational Science Literacy
After hiring a college student who had never used a handsaw, I am concerned the current generation of students, while extremely computer-savvy, has been raised in sterile urban or suburban environments, handled chemicals in microscale organic lab, and is missing a lot of practical knowledge of materials that was once taken for granted.
The UC Berkeley explosion, involving 1 g of a diazonium perchlorate compound, is hard to fathom when the first thing you learn about diazonium salts is that they are generally explosive in the solid state and are handled in solution at low temperatures. The explosive nature of organic perchlorates is legendary, or at least it was when I was in school. No one who had set off cherry bombs as a youngster would consider isolating an entire gram of either class of chemical.
The recent fatality at UC Los Angeles, mentioned in the article, gave me the same impression. I inferred that the California chemist failed to follow written instructions and then attempted to extinguish a minor tert-butyllithium fire by emptying a beaker of hexanes on herself.
I think that the remedy for this situation is more time in the library, not more bureaucracy. The photo of the professor and the university “safety executive” working together reminds me of a quip my father once made, that knowledge did not result from the exchange of ignorance.
G. David Mendenhall
- Chemical & Engineering News
- ISSN 0009-2347
- Copyright © American Chemical Society