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.


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!

andreew 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... is, isn't it? 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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