Friday, August 15, 2008

Book review: Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture

Warning: This book might be dangerous. It has the capacity to make the reader think.

When I was a kid growing up in India, it was some sort of dream of mine to have my own little secret chemistry lab. There were all these stories in books about kids having their secret dens in their basement, where they made fascinating discoveries or invented cool compounds. Except there were two small problems; we didn’t have a basement (or too many extra rooms) and, more importantly, there was no such thing as a “home chemistry set” to be found in any store in India. So it was with absolute wonder that I imagined every smart or curious kid in the US to be working away into the night in his or her own little lab.

Of course, I learnt that it wasn’t really true. But it certainly was true that at least till the eighties many, many kids in the States got a home chemistry set as a Christmas or birthday present sometime in their lives. And many of them had the time of their lives creating colorful solutions, horrible stinks or flashing explosions, even as they learnt the scientific method and gained a love for chemistry. Somehow, this love for “do-it-yourself” science died in the US in more recent times. Perhaps it was because companies became too worried about liability issues that could come from some kid getting injured. Perhaps it was because the state became a big nanny, and people live in constant fear about the next potential chemical weapons attack. Perhaps because of this it became harder to get chemicals. Or perhaps it was because of all these reasons and more. Anyway, the concept of home chemistry kits was slowly lost, and that sadly might have killed the potential scientist in many a kid.

But it looks like there have remained some die hard enthusiasts of home chemistry experiments, and Robert Thomson, the author of the “Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture” must be amongst the foremost enthusiasts of those. In writing this book, he has thought through every little detail to help anyone, from a high school student to the adult diehard, in establishing a complete, very effective home chemistry lab.

In a world where everything comes in a nicely over-wrapped package, Thomson doesn’t expect you to rely on any kit. On the contrary, he points out how most of the kits out in the market presently have been dumbed down to ridiculous proportions, and also avoid selling any chemical that could be slightly toxic or dangerous (which pretty much leaves only salt and sugar to sell). The book starts with the very basics; the equipment you need, the space you’ll need, and the source for chemicals, and goes through seventeen comprehensive chapters of chemistry. There are simple chapters on making and separating solutions, chapters covering important chemistry basics like redox reactions or acid-base reactions, chapters on chemical stoichiometry and then electro and photochemistry, qualitative and quantitative analysis and finally even a pure fun chapter on forensic chemistry. In all of these chapters, Thomson has been very meticulous in explaining basic chemistry concepts (using simple definitions and very effective examples), providing details on the equipment, and finally, some excellent experimental details. The first chapter draws you right into the book, as Thomson explains how he became interested in home chemistry. He describes how to convert anything, from a kitchen to a garage, into a suitably safe and convenient chemistry lab. And then he provides plenty of information on obtaining equipment and reagents that are surprisingly extremely cheap. I was very surprised not just at how many chemicals I could get at the local pharmacy or hardware store, but at how pure many of them were. Many of them were an order of magnitude cheaper than the stuff my own lab buys from Fisher and Sigma-Aldrich, but just about as pure. Perhaps I should tell our lab manager to get our stuff from the retail market. Home chemistry can be very effective and very cheap. And he also makes sure to tell you how you can get stuff that is safe, and will not get you into trouble with paranoid agents. Importantly, Thomson tells you how to avoid serious trouble by avoiding any discussion of making stuff that could blow up (which is a little bit of a pity, since some of the most fun science experiments start or end with a pop and some nasty smells sure to amuse kids).

Thomson also is very clear in telling you how easy it is to hurt yourself (or someone else) by not taking the right precautions at home, and then goes on to tell you the precautions you should take for a safe working environment. Home science is a serious pursuit, but while you have to be careful, you can and should have fun doing it. Thomson remembers that throughout the book. I was particularly pleased with his emphasis on good book keeping, and the importance of a record notebook. Without carefully recording experimental detail and results, science quickly deteriorates from reproducibility and substance to entertaining but irreproducible anecdote.

This book is almost a must have for a high school chemistry enthusiast (any AP Chemistry major), but will work just as well for any kid with a love for experiments, or the adult who has time for a hobby and a passion for science. There’s a lot of learning to be had by doing experiments yourself. This is a book that should be whole-heartedly recommended, and is something I hope many high school chemistry teachers will adopt enthusiastically in their classes. It is also my dearest hope that this book reaches India, and at least some school teachers there get their hand on it. It is a book that can actually make you think.

If you are one of those closet home chemists, this is the book for you. Go get it. Meanwhile, I’m off to observe some copper turning turquoise blue due to oxidation.

7 comments:

sunshine said...

i like ur warning!! its true how we're dumbed down by all the spoon-feeding.. creativity or even curiosity is out the window!

Rifleman_82 said...

Why are you even buying from Aldrich? I only use them when I want things *fast*.

Alfa Aeser and Avocado give cheap organics. Look around for some repackers who buy in 25 kg sacks and repack to 1 kg bottles, they usually have good prices. Not sure about your local market though.

Sunil said...

sunshine....it is, isn't it?

Rifleman.....you do have a good point about Aldrich. They usually infuriate me with their prices. But since i work in a typical biochemistry lab and the lab manager just prefers to order from one or two vendors, it usually ends up being from sigma. For my home chemistry lab though, i'm going with cheaper organics, the day I actually decide to set up one :-)

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AP Chemistry Lecture said...

Chemistry science fair projects have changed over the years; they've gotten a lot glitzier and much more technically involved.A guidance like you is always helpful.

Siladitya said...

Did Steve Harvey copy the book title Act Like A Lady Think Like A Man

and theme from an earlier book?



Book with same title & theme copyrighted and published by Sharon P. Carson in 2003





CHICAGO, IL – Sharon P. Carson the author of the original title: Act Like A Lady –Think Like A Man, watched the February 27th episode of the Ophra show on which Steve Harvey was promoting his book of the same title. She was hoping that Steve would reveal to Oprah where he got the title and the theme for the book. It just seemed odd to her that his book had the same title and theme as her book that was copy written in 2003.



Upon subsequently purchasing the book, she found some interesting parallels and realized that it is not unusual for a high profiled person to take a great title and theme, rewrite a book and use their celebrity status to sell it. This she says happens too often to the unsung poets, authors and entrepreneurs of the world.



Steve wrote in his book that his hope was to “empower you with a wide-open look into the minds of men”. Sharon P. Carson wrote in her book in 2003 that her hope was for women to gain some insight into how men think in terms of relationships. Sharon also noted that in chapter 8 of Steve Harvey’s book titled “Why Men Cheat” he came to the same conclusion that she did in chapter 37 of her book, titled “Why would a man cheat”, and the answer was, “because they can”.



Sharon actively promoted her book before the release in January 2009 of Steve Harvey’s book, and would not like to see her promotion efforts hindered. She feels that her book has much to offer from a woman’s perspective and seeks to empower women to practice self love and tough love in relationships.



Before the publication of Steve Harvey’s book of the same title, Sharon bought the domain name: www.actlikealadythinklikeaman.com from which she has been selling her book. She has also held seminars with women at a Chicago University in promotion of her book, and can be viewed on the following youtube clip as she was being interviewed on a cable television program about her book in 2007 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xxVVQX15X2Y.



Mindful of all the self - published poets and authors who have a hard time finding publishers for their works, Sharon is currently consulting with attorneys regarding her options, and hopes that her book with the first and original title of Act Like A Lady Think Like A Man will finally receive the recognition it deserves for the wisdom, encouragement, and empowerment that it provides to women.

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