Subversive chemistry

I must urge you to steal buy this book: Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). The description makes it sound perfect.

Laboratory work is the essence of chemistry, and measurement is the essence of laboratory work. A hands-on introduction to real chemistry requires real equipment and real chemicals, and real, quantitative experiments. No existing chemistry set provides anything more than a bare start on those essentials, so the obvious answer is to build your own chemistry set and use it to do real chemistry.

Everything you need is readily available, and surprisingly inexpensive. For not all that much more than the cost of a toy chemistry set, you can buy the equipment and chemicals you need to get started doing real chemistry.

DIY hobbyists and science enthusiasts can use this book to master all of the essential practical skills and fundamental knowledge needed to pursue chemistry as a lifelong hobby. Home school students and public school students whose schools offer only lecture-based chemistry courses can use this book to gain practical experience in real laboratory chemistry. A student who completes all of the laboratories in this book has done the equivalent of two full years of high school chemistry lab work or a first-year college general chemistry laboratory course.

Ooooh, I wish this book had been around 15 or 20 years ago, when I could have infected my kids with it. Maybe I’ll have to wait a few years (many years!) and expose a grandkid to it … which will have an added advantage that the parents will have to deal with the messes and smells.

Odd thing, though: I looked through the table of contents, and there’s not one single solitary thing about chemistry prayers. How can the experiments possibly work?


  1. iwdw says

    How can the experiments possibly work?

    It’s just godless atheist revisionism created by transcribing all of the Biblical chemistry experiments without their original context.

  2. says

    Odd thing, though: I looked through the table of contents, and there’s not one single solitary thing about chemistry prayers.

    That’s because you godless atheists impose your view on the world.

    We need ID chemistry (alchemy), so that we can learn about how spiritual forces prevail and cause chemicals to react, what prayers should be said over which experiments, and which incantations work with which substances.

    If it weren’t for the persecution of Big Science, you’d have prayers in your chemistry book. Teach the controversy.

    Glen Davidson

  3. azqaz says

    Lord, may the hydrogen cation bond with the sulfite anion, as you have seen fit to do all these many years, so that my rotten egg smell experiment may be a success and bring even more glory and honor to you! Amen.

    There you go P.Z. The heathen atheist editors must have removed it without the chemists knowledge.

  4. P J Evans says

    Is it OK if I pray over the bowl when I make mayonnaise (dear Ghu, don’t let the emulsion break)? [cue the snickering]

  5. Epinephrine says

    Sounds like a must have! I can shelf it between Backyard Ballistics and Owl Puke for when my kids are old enough to appreciate it :)

  6. says

    My favorite toy as a child was my chemistry set. Mind you, this was 40 years ago and it was a real chemistry set. Not the pretend ones that are sold now. I had acids, bases, sulphur, potassium nitrate, and various other chemicals. Your could even make your own “Gasp” gunpowder (simply adding sulphur, potassium nitrate, and charcoal). There was even an experiment that I can remember the smell of burning sulphur from. Some sort of flaming volcano (sulphur, sugar, and a couple of other chemicals I can’t remember).

  7. beagledad says

    Funny, I remember praying quite a bit during chemistry class, at least during the exams. The basic prayer is quite simple–it goes something like this: “Please god tell me the answer to this question. Please god let my random multiple choice answer be the right one.” Not that it helped.

  8. Kseniya says

    “Please God, watch over my experiment, and let me not blow the roof off the playroom.”

  9. says

    “Odd thing, though: I looked through the table of contents, and there’s not one single solitary thing about chemistry prayers. How can the experiments possibly work?”

    Big Chemistry is suppressing chemistry prayers from not just the classroom, but also from the media! Someone set Ben Stein on them!

  10. Doug Little says

    1st year Chem experiments, is it all titrations?
    That’s all we did in first year. Also I heard that it is getting mighty hard to come across the glassware required due to the methamphetamine industry.

  11. Katrina says

    Oooh, this looks wonderful!

    Having nearly completed my first year of homeschooling, I’ve been very frustrated at the dearth of genuine science texts available. Believe me, there are plenty of so-called biblical science books out there for homeschoolers. But try to find something with real science in it? That’s a tall order.

    I’ll have to get a closer look at this one.

  12. janet says

    Oh, this is great. My husband was worried that our daughter wouldn’t be able to have a real chemistry set as he did when he was a kid. (I never had one. I’m catching up now.)

  13. First Post Inc. says

    I bet it’s tame compared to what you can find at There’s some chemistry books you can download from that were written when life wasn’t so regulated and people were less afraid of everything. Marvelous illutrations of how to suck on a pipette and things of that nature.

  14. Richard Harris says

    The success of stochastic chemistry over many years has led to chemistry profs forgetting to use invocations to the chemistry god, Apothecarius.

    When biochemistry is to be used to solve problems of carbon sequestration, what should researchers rely upon, evolutionary processes or prayers to Apothecarius? Prayers to Apothecarius obviously; well, prayers to that feckin’ Jeezus are a dead loss, eh.

  15. says

    I still remember those blue bottles and the big tin box and some of the chemical names – Phenolphthalein, Ferric Ammonium Sulfate, Cobalt Chloride (my personal favorite). I stained my mom’s doorstep blue with one of those concoctions.

  16. says

    Marvelous illutrations of how to suck on a pipette and things of that nature.

    Big deal. I learned pretty much the same thing as a Catholic altarboy.

  17. hephaistos says

    Very good chemistry-at-home laboratory manuals were available until the high probability of lawsuits watered them down to uselessness. They are still available on the internet, e.g., eBay, abebooks. Many professional chemists, including your humble servant, developed their love of chemistry (and probably endangered their health) in bedroom/closet/basement labs.

    WRT prayers: Chemistry is overseen by the Goddess of Chemistry. She is a tough god. She is not moved by prayer, ritual, sacrifices, begging, or promises. She rewards only those who study chemistry lovingly, who work industriously in the laboratory, and who dedicate themselves to exploring, investigating, and teaching the wonders of chemistry. Her reward is to make chemistry the most wondrous field of human endeavour, and one which contributes the most to human welfare. If you are deserving and lucky, she will touch you with her platinum stirring rod and you will know it is She. This I believe.

  18. says

    It’s funny how people always seem to associate explosions with home chemistry experiments gone wrong, when I would think that chemical burns or poisoning would be more likely problems to worry about.

  19. says

    I actually have a home lab, and it’s not the difficult to get real equipment together. Glassware is easy to find on the ‘net, though I purchased mine from the local science store. Chemicals are the same way. I’ve recently added a microscope, and hope to be getting a nice scale sometime soon. I hadn’t heard of this book, though, and I’m looking forward to perusing it.

    I’ve done things like extract chlorophyll, looked at the alkaline metals, and other various chemistry experiments. It’s always a lot of fun, but there was that one unfortunate moment where I wasn’t thinking clearly about practical consequences and burned some sulfur inside…

  20. Kseniya, [bo]OM says

    Funny, I associate explosions with chemistry experiments going RIGHT.

    That’s The Laugh of the Day, so far, Dave! :-D

  21. Wisaakah says

    Josh @ 19

    I’ve done things like extract chlorophyll…

    Oooooh – did you put it under a black light? That’s the best part!

  22. SusanC says

    Marvelous illutrations of how to suck on a pipette and things of that nature.

    Back when I was in High School, we did pipette by mouth. As I remember it, you’ld have a rough idea of the toxicity of the materials you were working with, and only use one of those hand pipette fillers if you weren’t OK with the possibility of accidentally getting some in your mouth. There’s also an artists version of this rule, to do with when it’s OK to suck the end of a paintbrush to make a good point. (This is usually explained along with a story about luminous watches and radium factories…).

  23. says

    As I remember it, you’ld have a rough idea of the toxicity of the materials you were working with, and only use one of those hand pipette fillers if you weren’t OK with the possibility of accidentally getting some in your mouth.

    I’ll just repeat my comment at #15.

  24. Greg Peterson says

    For those living near the Minneapolis area, there are these stores called Axman Surplus where you can usually find some terrific glassware and other lab essentials. I built my kids’ science kits almost exclusively from stuff I bought there, for cheap. And I was able to make some great holiday gifts with the urine flasks–cork-stoppered bottles with the word “urine” raised on the glass. Great vinegar server.

  25. says

    Beyond the obvious (golden book of chemistry, ftw), what other books would you all recommend for the home lab?

  26. Anon says

    Nothing about prayers, because it is not prayer, but sacrifice, that appeases the gods. And nothing says “ritual sacrifice” like a home-made chemistry set!

  27. says

    Chemistry books have largely been made to be less dangerous as the years have worn on. When I was younger I came across a copy of The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments when going through some old junk in my grandmother’s basement. It was one of the things that got me started on my way to science geekdom.

    I learned later that the book is about as close to being banned as possible without actually being banned because some of the experiments were deemed too dangerous not only for unsupervised children, but for the general public as well. It now routinely sells for hundreds of dollars on Ebay and Amazon and can be found in roughly 100 libraries in the US.

    But for the low low price of free, you can have your very own scanned PDF copy of it here:

    I pray that none of you blow yourselves up after reading it.

  28. Jsn says

    Actually, the good Lord steps in without prayer intervention often, especially when it comes to science. Just look at the Moses dabaucle after the Red Sea almost coagulated from his misuse of the Holy Staff(tm). God Almighty had to clean that one up before it scabbed over so He could part it later to let the slaves escape, and all before anyone had time to nag Himto fix it. Why were major laws of nature magically changed when He could have smited (smote? smitten?) the Egyptian overlords outright? Who are we to question Him, and anyway, He created the laws of nature, so He can magically break them any time He wants to, so THERE!

    And then there are Physics Books without prayers for the same reason. You know prismatic refraction did not exist until after the Great Flood.The wicked nasty people were all drowned in a minor fit of pique, except for Noah and his family and male and female pairs of ALL the animal species of the earth. (no gay animals allowed). Later God realized He had over-reacted (and all without a Mrs. God) and so He said he was sorry and created rainbows to signify He wouldn’t go on worldwide drowning binges ever again, thusly physics were changed forever without anyone having to pray for it (Moses was too busy getting drunk and naked to pray, his kids were too busy ogling him).
    The fact that the gays later adopted the rainbow as their own is an omen I haven’t figured out yet…
    That book is only as good as God’s willingness to allow oxidation/reduction.
    It’s up to His discretion on whether chemistry or physics work at any given moment, and no amount of prayer will sway Him if his mind is already made up, Dr. Smarty-pants Biology perfessor!!! Ha Ha!

  29. sublunary says

    Reading these comments kind of makes me jealous. If only I’d had a chemistry kit as a kid my crappy high school chem teacher might not have turned me off to the subject so completely. I might have paid more attention in college and gone into science or medicine… ah the dreams.

    But mostly, I wish I’d gotten to blow things up (or burn holes in the rug, either’s good). That would have been fun.

  30. Quiet Desperation says

    You had me at “All lab” :-)

    Now how much overlap is there with the material in The Anarchist’s Cookbook?

  31. Quiet Desperation says

    Ooooh, I wish this book had been around 15 or 20 years ago, when I could have infected my kids with it.

    Oh, so it’s a biochemistry book.

  32. Hank Fox says

    I had a chemistry set as a kid! My uncle bought it for me and I felt like the king of the world for months after. I can definitely say that my lifelong interest in and respect for science was enhanced by that set.

    Years later, after I’d grown up, I saw a chemistry set in a toy store, and it was just plain shit. They tried to make chemistry — science — SAFE. And they killed it. I still remember how frustrated and disappointed I felt, looking at it.

    Getting one of those SAFE “chemistry sets” for Christmas would be like getting a kitten … with no legs, no head and no tail.

    (My own stupid metaphor is making me laugh. I’m picturing a picture book for kids titled “A Kitten Named Beanbag.” But I still hate the SAFE chemistry sets.)

  33. T. Bruce McNeely says

    Does “JESUS CHRIST IT’S ON FIRE!!!” count as a prayer?

    I still remember the smell of alcohol lamps and sulfur dioxide. That’s nerd-stalgia.

    And what was the deal with Logwood?

  34. Tosser says

    With all your elitist chemistry, why have there never been any transitional chemicals found? You mix two together, and a third forms, sure…but they are all chemicals in and of themselves. And anyway, Where did the chemicals come from in the first place? Chemistry is just a theory.

  35. Sili says

    Ever noticed how the world has gone to hell since people abandoned phlogiston?

    Hitler couldn’t have burned all those jews if it wasn’t for an understanding of how combustion works, could he now?

    Damn Lavoisierists/Scheeleists/Priestleyists!!

  36. Quiet Desperation says

    But mostly, I wish I’d gotten to blow things up (or burn holes in the rug, either’s good). That would have been fun.

    Not really. Seems fun at the time, maybe, but I look back in wonder that I or my friends didn’t lose a major body part.

    We were really quite the little terrorists in training when young, although we confined our experimentation to the deep Mojave Desert. Our crowning achievement was launching a full sized refrigerator (well, significant portions of it) an estimated 60 feet into the air with a single blast. There were plans to rocket power a remote controlled motorcycle, but funds were limited.

    Yes, I watch Mythbusters religiously. ;-) If only we knew back then there was a market for just blowing crap up.

  37. says

    thats because the GODLESS athiest heathen of a author is praying to his god sATAN! to make the chemstrey work for his followers who will end up wprshipping the Devil because of evil science!!1! their taking away aids as a punishment for fags!!!one!

    Ok, as a Chemistry major with a decent understanding of grammar, that actually hurt. I think I need to lay off the FSTDT for a while.

  38. SteveC says

    Speaking of old chemistry sets and such, does anybody remember an old book that was, iirc, aimed at highschool science teachers which was about all sorts of home made science laboratory things?

    I remember it mentioned using old light bulbs for test tubes, for instance. And there was an “digital computer” that was two disks with nuts and bolts which somehow made contact to light up lights (i think this book was from the ’50s.) There were things about making pipettes. Bunch of other cool stuff I can’t remember.

    I haven’t seen this book since I was a kid — 1981 or so — and off and on since then I’ve tried to find it, tried to remember what it’s called, but without any luck so far. Anybody know the book I’m talking about?

  39. magetoo says

    Nobody has mentioned Molecule of the Day yet?

    There are some good chemistry blogs out there, but posting too many links will probably just lead to the comment being held for moderation, so I’ll limit myself to the one I know here on SB.

  40. CrypticLife says

    *Thanks PZ profusely*

    Please! I want to infect my kids! My son is highly interested in science, always seems to know the most relevant and probing questions to ask, and is in second grade (in a mediocre public school :().

    I was really happy you published the “Ask a Biologist” website, and now this!

    Incidentally, I have two other younger sons. The four-year old has social skills which destine him for a life as a leader/con artist/seducer of beautiful women (so, will probably go for biology over chemistry), and the two year old … well, he’s brilliant and arrogant and thinks the world revolves around him, so he’ll do physics. I need books for elementary kids for all of these.

  41. says

    Glen Davidson: (#2): “We need ID chemistry (alchemy), so that we can learn about how spiritual forces prevail and cause chemicals to react, what prayers should be said over which experiments, and which incantations work with which substances.”

    No shit! And I really think that the search for the Philosopher’s Stone should be revived as well, don’t you? Can you magine every ID chemist on this planet being capable of transmuting base metals into gold?

  42. CGinTucson says

    Re @12, @16, @28, etc:

    A couple of years ago I was trying to learn to etch silver for jewelry, and most of the recommended methods were pretty terrible (mostly involving nitric acid). Is there a chance this “suppression” is why?

    I will definitely look for this book — I loved my chemistry set too — but can chemists here suggest any other resources for this specific use?


  43. CrypticLife says

    Which, of course, is not to say biologists are con artists, but that excellent social skills facilitate con artistry.

  44. Naked Bunny with a Whip says

    Maybe I’ll have to wait a few years (many years!) and expose a grandkid to it

    Nah, current chemistry will be obsolete by then. It’ll all be HD digital chemistry!

  45. DominEditrix says

    We do need to resurrect alchemy, especially for the editor who changed Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. [Why? “Because American kids wouldn’t know what a philosopher’s stone was.”]

    Back in the dark ages, when I was a lass, my high school chem teacher also taught us the history of chemistry. And let us freeze things with liquid nitrogen and smash them to bits, and occasionally blow up the lab. I miss her.

  46. Number8Dave says

    You lot over in the US don’t have it as bad as you think. Here in New Zealand we home-schooled our daughter (yes, there are a few home-schoolers who are not fundamentalist wackos), but when I tried to buy some basic chemistry equipment and a few chemicals (copper sulphate, potassium permanganate, nothing fancy) it seemed that virtually everything was off-limits. The government was convinced I would use it to start a methamphetamine lab, apparently. In some respects America remains the Land of the Free, at least in comparison to Aunty Helen’s nanny state.

  47. OrchidGrowinMan says

    I, too remember the smells, sights and sounds of summers (outdoors) with a plethora of chemistry stuff. I had the best and biggest set in the neighborhood, and in high-school supplemented it enormously…. That 2kg of zinc powder was a whole cloud of fun! I made NYLON. I grew silver crystals, and made mirrors! ‘Remember “Moon/Magic Rocks”? I made those too (in different colours) with different salts (Cr, Ag, Ni, Co, Fe2+, Fe3+, Mn, Cu, Al,…). (see I learned to extract a wide variety of pigments and interesting substances from plants. Those were the days. I still try to keep my hand in, but I work in a different field, and, besides, it’s getting HARD.

    Nowadays, I can’t even get methylene blue or iodine, and I think it’s NOT because of safety/liability issues. The local store “Science Art & More” sells some overpriced glassware, but neither chemicals nor chemistry books; they say they get harassed if they try. Don’t get me started on trying to buy HID bulbs: I REFUSE to fill-out the mandatory DEA form; I’ll just buy “slightly used” ones from a car trunk. Has anybody noticed that you can’t even buy LYE any more? How am I going to make hydrogen without NaOH? (“Drano” works, but is expensive).

    Compare Oliver Sacks’ account of his home chemistry in “Uncle Tungsten.” The older the days, the more fun.

    But go to Theodore Gray’s site and look for “Sodium Party”: I guess there’s still some fun to be had, if you own your own lake and buy stuff on-line!

    My kids love the experiments I do with them: extracting plant pigments (carotenoids, betalains, anthocyanins, flavonoids….), testing for starch, sugar, protein, fat, alkaloid content, pH and nutrient levels…. but I have to worry about their friends’ parents turning me in! Definitely keep the Erlenmyer flasks behind closed curtains. I don’t know if they still advertise in the backs of local papers, but there used to be a “turn-in your neighbor for a reward” program that was once apparently invoked on me. Is it a war on the possibility of kids establishing an interest in Chemistry, the most accessible of the natural sciences? What can we expect of a generation where the subject is restricted to authorized (school) facilities, and your neighbor’s having a rack of test tubes makes him a Reportable Suspect(TM)? The way things are, only kids of parents who have a Chem background have a fair chance of learning how interesting chemistry is. Those dumbed-down “chemistry sets” with tiny bottles of salt, sand, clay and baking-soda are worthless!

  48. Indy says

    yeah, they tend to still throw in a lil’ bit of history to make the chemistry seem less dry “And lo, Keukle dreamt of a snake, swallowing its tail!”

    as to the sliver/nitric acid thing, nah, the nitric is most likely standard. Mix nitric and sulfuric to get aqua regis, which will dissolve gold. Mix nitric and phosphoric if you want to kill yourself and everyone in the building with you! (phosgene=not yer lil’ buddy)

    The chemical restrictions arn’t that bad, depending on the setting. Don’t try to buy a whole bunch of ammonium nitrate, though. that will definitely raise flags.

  49. Jim Thomerson says

    I think “how to” books have a long history. I recall one in my high school library, early 50’s, which explained how to make black gunpowder. My cousin and I made a bunch and had fun blowing things up.

  50. Tlowe says

    I wish my parents had bought me chemistry sets as a kid. I got dolls & my brother got the chemistry sets (which he refused to share with me. I still want to make crystals). I sure showed them though–I’m the scientist.

  51. OrchidGrowinMan says

    Oh, Yeah, check out Skylighter for a big advocate of home chemistry: All you folks who fondly remember blowing stuff up will find paradise, with safety tips included! (Something I never had; I just had dumb luck and a penchant for reading.) (In fact, that’s how my parents got me to learn to read: “You can’t play with the chemistry set, and I won’t buy you more Magnesium until you can read me the instructions.”)

  52. Coragyps says

    Logwood. Holy shit!! I’d forgotten all about logwood, but it was sho’ ’nuff in my chemistry set, too!! Maybe it still exists, and has a bright future in the petroleum extraction business…..

    I smell a patent…..

  53. OrchidGrowinMan says

    Indy (#52): Isn’t phosgene just COCl2? Carbon-Oxygen-Chlorine? It’s really really nasty (WWI) poison gas, nearly odorless. I know it reacts with phosphates to make POCl3, which is probably worse….

  54. Coragyps says

    Also I heard that it is getting mighty hard to come across the glassware required due to the methamphetamine industry.

    Indeed. All of my Erlenmeyer and Florence flasks are registered with the horribly misnamed Texas Narcotics Service, who, despite that “service” part have never sent me as much as a small-town taste of anything. Mason jars or Mr Coffee coffeepots really do about 95% of the same work, though. You just don’t look as sciency with them.

  55. SusanC says

    copper sulphate, potassium permanganate, nothing fancy

    Not too long ago, I got some potassium permanganate from my local pharmacy; I was prescribed it as an antiseptic, but I’m pretty sure you can get it without a prescription. (And yes, it’s an oxidising agent).

    A friend of mine who is a pharmacist got me some potassium aluminium sulphate when I needed some as a mordant for dying fabric.

    These kinds of compounds are the easy ones. Back when I was in high school, toluene, thorium hydroxide or liquid mercury were a bit more strictly supervised, but you could still use them in class. (Thorium hydroxide produces radon gas by radioactive decay. You need liquid mercury for the physics experiment to measure the gravitational constant – you measure the gravitational attraction between a lead sphere and a flask of mercury).

  56. Greg Peterson says

    We used to play table hockey with beads of mercury in my sixth grade science class. I’m not kidding.

  57. says

    Brownian at #15 and #23: I can’t tell if that’s more horrible because it’s so funny, or more funny because it’s so horrible. Thanks for the guffaw!

  58. SusanC says

    … potassium permanganate …

    If I remember correctly, there’s a bit in Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow where the cocaine dealers can’t get any potassium permanganate because it’s all being used as an oxidant for the the V-rockets.

    You’ve got to love a compund that can be used both in processing cocaine and in making bombs.

  59. Quiet Desperation says

    The government was convinced I would use it to start a methamphetamine lab, apparently.

    I think it’s hard to buy certain cough medicines here in the States now for the same reason. They think Mr. Drug Lab is going to Walgreen’s and buying it by the bottle.

    In some respects America remains the Land of the Free, at least in comparison to Aunty Helen’s nanny state.

    Oh, we’re getting there. There’s talk of electronically monitoring our garbage cans here in California to make sure we recycle every possible atom of garbage. The state wants to radio control the thermostats in our homes. All the while one legislator suggested government buildings be laid out according to feng shui principles.

    Myself and EVERY person I know in my private life and at work is planning to leave California as soon as we can retire. Sooner if the opportunity arises. We have the absolute stupidest people on the planet running this state. It’ll be nothing but them and 100 million uneducated, uber-Catholic migrant workers in 20 years. They deserve one another.

    I know everyone calls politicians stupid, but the sheer scale of the idiocy of the current California State Legislature is breathtaking. The words simply do not exist to heap sufficient revulsion onto these walking sacks of human brain damage. It is not humanly possible to insult them enough to get even close to what these ideological retards deserve.

    Oops! I used the word “retard”. That’s five years in the State Pen for me. Oh well…

    They may not be Ayn Rand’s evil genius politicians trying to make everyone into a criminal by passing a law against everything, but the end result is pretty much the same.

  60. CG in Tucson says

    I can’t find a URL, but I read a while back that U of A actually employs a glassmaker to custom-make stuff out of borosilicate for its science labs. Sounded like a fascinating job.

  61. says

    I can’t find a URL, but I read a while back that U of A actually employs a glassmaker to custom-make stuff out of borosilicate for its science labs. Sounded like a fascinating job.

    Wow! The things I didn’t know about my own school.

  62. OrchidGrowinMan says


    For me it was sodium peroxide or hypochlorite and glycerin; “timers.” We also used steel wool and a 9V battery for fuses, but apparently they changed steel wool now: it won’t burn!

    When I was a kid, some other kids had purple-brown hands from permanganate: their mothers put it on them as a topical antimicrobial.

  63. says

    Get out there and get chemistry sets for your kids! When I taught 7th grade science,(retired now)I would demo a few basic chem principals like diffusion and osmosis, and the kids would react like it was the coolest magic show on the planet. The interest is there, help cultivate it.

    While you’re at it, you might catch a fish, frog (screw E.T.), crayfish, or worm. Then show your kids that dissection is a careful, picky process and that animals have lots of cool parts inside. (And lots of homologous structures too.)

  64. says

    #72 Vince, buying kids a chemistry set is a great idea, but part of the reason Thompson wrote this book is because most chemistry sets have been “defanged”. That is, they’ve taken out almost everything interesting or fun. But his book is a guide to building your own chemistry set and doing really exciting experiments with it.

  65. zadig says

    Does “JESUS CHRIST IT’S ON FIRE!!!” count as a prayer?

    Perhaps it’s the wine talking, but I nearly woke up the neighbors laughing at that one. Thank you for your post, Bruce.

  66. tim rowledge says

    I never had a chemistry set of my own but a friend had a really quite impressive one that we used to dissolve, melt, blow up or corrode an amazing number of things :-) And for my A level chemistry class synthesis I made about a pint of bromobenzene. Which, as you can see from the wikipedia page ( is pretty nasty. Did we wear gloves, masks, use a fume cabinet? Like hell….

    Slightly off topic but definitely in the spirit –
    or an mp3 snippet at

  67. Sam Paris says

    One of my college chemistry classrooms had a lovely chemistry prayer affixed to the bulletin board. As I recall it went something like:
    From Caustics and Toxins
    And Foul-smelling Vapors
    And Things that go BOOM in a Flask
    Good TA delivery us!

  68. Epikt says

    I have to admit to not really “getting” my chemistry set. My mother had previously presented me with a cooking set (an early effort at gender deprogramming, I gather), and the chemistry set seemed to be pretty much the same thing, except that you weren’t supposed to eat the results. Really, other than figuring out atomic weights, and that simple proportions supported an atomistic picture, I didn’t get much out of it. I had a lot more fun with the wind tunnel I built, until my parents wanted the bedroom fan back.

  69. Epikt says

    Also I heard that it is getting mighty hard to come across the glassware required due to the methamphetamine industry.

    It isn’t just the narcs. The Humorless Chemical Safety Police at work took my beaker/coffee mug from my desk when I was out one day. I guess they thought I was going to absent-mindedly swap the beaker for one containing something dangerous, and off myself. They even removed the “Irritant” sticker that had been placed on my office door by thoughtful coworkers.

  70. CanadianChick says

    #52, lye isn’t impossible to find – if it was, all my soapmaking buddies would be SOL. If you have trouble finding any locally, Google “soapmaking supplies” and you should find a local source.

    KOH can usually be found from soapmaking supply places, as well as TEA on occasion – plus a few fun surfactants and emulsifiers.

    Dye shops often have weird chemicals too – used as mordants.

  71. CanadianChick says

    oh, and often has really good deals on lab glassware, scales and other lab equipment…

  72. BobbyEarle says

    The Golden Book was/is great. I remember having it as a kid (maybe 15 years old); my grandmother bought it for me from a Safeway!!

    Lots of hella dangerous things to play with…there is even a quick and dirty procedure for making chloroform.

    Probably not the most sensible thing to be sharing with THIS crowd. ;)

  73. Crudely Wrott says

    Hey, d’ya remember that one chemistry set you got for Christmas and you were kinda scared of it? You read the book that came with the set and there was a lot of stuff you didn’t know about? And how you wanted to grow crystals and there were a whole bunch of ways to do it? And you tried a bunch of them and they were pretty cool? And then one day you put as many of the crystal-growing experiments all in one test tube and got down really close to watch and suddenly it all happened at once and crystals and filaments and tubes just flashed into sight and it was all happening like breathing and that quick and you just never forgot?

    No? Too bad. You don’t know what you missed.

    circa 1963, RFD 2, Drew Road, Ma’s kitchen table.I tried to save the test tube and all the cool stuff in it, but I musta banged it on something and all the stuff broke ’cause I don’t have it anymore. But I remember how it went. Fast!

    A privileged point of view? Only if actually seeing something is actually magic. I say not. It’s routine.

  74. themadlolscientist says

    Just DL’d the pdf…… will look at it tomorrow when I’m closer to awake.

    Mercury hockey….. ahhhhhhhhh, the good old days. The things we did in the lab in college — slopping in acetone, formaldehyde, benzene, and DMSO without gloves; working with all kinds of smelly, nasty, and potentially dangerous stuff without fume hoods or respirators (and probably surviving with most of our brain cells intact only because the college was in a warm climate and the lab windows could be left open for most of the year); and pipetting all kinds of nasties by mouth…….. Sometimes I’m almost amazed that we and/or our kids didn’t grow three heads from all the exposure.

    But if you want a taste of the way chemistry really used to be done at home, I recommend’s Uncle Tungsten: Memoirs of a Chemical Boyhood by Oliver Sacks (the neurologist who also wrote The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat). Terrific, sometimes hilarious book about how Sacks’s uncle, an amateur chemist and inventor, introduced him to “chem lab done right.”

    Oh, and I love this snippet from the MacGyver Chemistry article:

    DNA Sample Preparation:
    Your genomic snot DNA can be removed at the end of the extraction procedure using a wooden stir stick.

    “Snot DNA” FTW!

  75. BlindSquirrel says

    Potassium permangamate is still available at Menards, no less. It is used to recharge iron removing devices in home water systems. We use it to artificially age artifacts to sell to the gullible on E bay. Not much of an oxidizer, at least compared to my all time fav, potassium perchlorate. If it didn’t have to be shipped railway express, it wasn’t shit; that was our motto. White phosphorous, 30% h202, Aluminum dust (Paint pigment grade), that’s where it was at. Gunpowder? Why would you mess with a low velocity explosive that had to be contained when 40 wr dynamite was available at the local blasters on the edge of town at 25 cents a stick? Caps were a dime, and yes, he sold to kids, no questions asked. Our bestest mail order company was called central rocket; you had to sign a paper stating that you were 21 yrs of age and if you had the money honey…I suppose phosgene is ok if all you want is a poisonous gas, but phosphogene self ignites on contact with air. Bubble it and some hydrogen gas through soapy water and you have self detonating soap bubbles! Loud too and no fragments:(

    Ya I guess things have changed a bit.

  76. JoeB says

    Just last night I was reading in Janet Browne’s bio of Darwin about the chemistry lab of Charles and his big brother, Ras. The local chemist (pharmacist in Amurican) was happy to indulge the precocious sons of the estimable Dr. Darwin, and uncle Josiah Wedgewood sent them some of his patented fireproof china dishes. One one occasion, Ras spent 8 pounds, 10 shillings on chemicals and apparatus; his father was not amused, and said it must never happen again.
    When the two boys went off to Edinburgh, one of their classes featured Professor Thomas Charles Hope, who put on spectacular chemical demonstrations to audiences of over 500. He was said to have spent a thousand pounds on chemicals and apparatus, about three years of professorial income, which derived solely from student fees. Students were not allowed to touch anything; no such thing as student laboratory work.
    Meanwhile in the surgery ampitheater, Charles watched a doctor perform surgery (probably an amputation) on a child, without anesthesia. He ran out of the room, and soon decided to abandon medicine, despite his father’s wishes. He was sixteen years old.

  77. JoeB says

    A true story of chemistry and prayer, or at least, of chemistry and altar boys:

    My best friend in 7th and 8th grade, Richard, a future PhD chemist, had a basement laboratory, where we made gunpowder, smallish pipe bombs, and gun-cotton. We were also altar boys, at St. Patrick’s. The primo altar boy role was to man the thurible, or censor, for evening novenas and benedictions. First a charcoal briquette with sharp ridges and indentations was ignited back in the sacristy, and the fire was maintained by swinging the censor. At the appropriate time, the altar boy lifted the lid, and the priest spooned in a bit of incense; the altar boy got to swing the thing, sending sweet smoke up to heaven. We all wanted to handle the censor, but DUDLEY (I am using only real names here) always got to do it. Richard and I plotted our revenge.
    We smuggled out some of the briquettes to Richard’s basement lab. We drilled a horizontal tunnel into each, filled with gunpowder, capped with damp powdered charcoal, and put them out in the sun to dry. At the appropriate time, we replaced the briquettes. The climax was a very satisfying flare-up of black smoke and fine charcoal dust, no real explosion, of course. No one suspected foul play at all; just a defective batch of charcoal. THEY didn’t know chemistry!

  78. BlindSquirrel says

    It’s all coming back to me. My folks were poor and Pat’s (since we are using real names) Were well off. He could afford to by white phosphorus from Central Rocket while I could only afford red phosphorus and had to distill it to white in my parents basement.

    But I had better chemistry experiment books.

    In particular, I knew how to make the trippiest luminous “paint”. Actually a thin, clear solution. White phosphorus dissolved in carbon disulfide (essence of flatulence) moderated with mineral oil to prevent the mix from bursting into flame.

    Pat wanted the formula. So I gave it to him but for some reason I left out the oil. So the effete snob mixed up some and decided to show his running mates how it looked by dousing his cloth hanky. In the dark. In the local movie theater during a movie.

    He had the presence of mind to stuff the blazing hanky back into his pocket and ran from the theater trailing a dense cloud of white smoke. His pants were the only casualty and he could afford a new pair. The effete snob.

  79. says

    Wot no alchemy!?!

    One of my favourite parts of chemistry and organic chemistry classes was getting REPEATABLE measurements in the labs. I could titrate a solution to three significant digits and, in an idle moment, personally weighed one of my fingerprints. It massed 0.0003 grams.

  80. says

    Wot no alchemy!?!

    One of my favourite parts of chemistry and organic chemistry classes was getting REPEATABLE measurements in the labs. I could titrate a solution to three significant digits and, in an idle moment, personally weighed a fingerprint. It massed 0.0003 grams.

  81. MarkW says

    Our O-Level Chemistry teacher loved to regale us with tales of how once a student stole a lump of potassium from the lab and tried to hide it… in a toilet cistern. LOL

    I enjoyed making silane in A-level Chemistry, everyone else got a yield of maybe 10 ml of gas, I got about a litre! I had great fun letting little bits of it go ‘bang’ into the air long after everyone else’s had all disappeared.

  82. Ian says

    You don’t need prayer. God intervenes at crucial moments to make the chemistry come out just right. At least that’s what Behe would say….

  83. guthrie says

    Here in the UK, you can still get real chemicals, but you have to look much harder. I could do with some iodine, but have not looked very hard yet. But meanwhile, there is a small chemical supply company that will supply most chemicals to you for some money. They took a lot of finding, even since I left school the plethora of chemical supply companies is down to 2 or 3.

    I made my own nitric acid last year using an original recipe, potassium nitrate and alum, distilled in clay pots.
    If you are interested, such books as “De Pyrotechnia” by Biringuccio can be useful starts. It is one of the earliest chemistry books, from a modern perspective. You can get it from Dover books.

  84. pluky says

    After reading up on thermite in one of my father’s munitions texts (Army officers have such things around the house), two of my buddies and I decided to try and initiate the reaction. We knew we were on the right track when the science teacher overseeing (thankfully!) our endeavors told us to take it outside. Without going into details, potassium permangenate was a key ingredient.

  85. says

    One and all, thanks for gathering such an interesting collection of links. They are going onto a resources page on my blog, perhaps in the science books for kids section.

    My brother had a chemistry set but we were both able to use it. I remember a friend tasting a fingerprintful of the POTASSIUM CYANIDE despite all the warnings. Jeorg reported a wave of faintness about 30 seconds later.

    In case you’re wondering, all cyanide does is interfere with your energy production by fat metabolism: the snipping off of pairs of carbon atoms and their residues for oxidation, from the long carbon tails of fatty molecules. (I know this thanks to one of Isaac Asimov’s science essays.) Bet you didn’t know that fat metabolism is so vital that you’d die in a minute without it.

  86. Hap says

    #94: I don’t think cyanide kills people/organisms by inhibiting their fat metabolism, but by inhibiting electron transport instead (see Stryer’s Biochemistry, 3rd edition, p.412). It prevents your body from using not only fat, but proteins and carbohydrate for energy – your body can chemically break them down, but it can’t derive energy (ATP) from them. Without ATP, cells can neither maintain equilibrium nor carry on any other processes (protein synthesis, DNA synthesis, import/export of proteins, etc.) that keep them alive. That’s probably why it acts so fast – you could get along without fat for a little while, but if you can’t make ATP (pretty much your body’s only usable source of energy), you’re dead very quickly. It may also inhibit other proteins (I think it binds to hemoglobin, for example), but electron transport inhibition is probably the showstopper.

    I think the LD50 for cyanide in about 70 mg – not a fingertip, but not a whole lot, either.