War on Terror's war on chemistry sets

The 12 Angry Men blog has a good little rant about the death of the chemistry set, blaming it on lawyers, the war on terror, and the war on some drugs (specifically, the war on meth). These sets were key to interesting untold millions of kids in science and the scientific method.
Today however, the Chemistry Set is toast. Current instantiations are embarrassing. There are no chemicals except those which react at low energy to produce color changes. No glass tubes or beakers, certainly no Bunsen burners or alcohol burners (remember the clear blue flames when the alcohol spilled out over the table). Today’s sets cover perfume mixing and creation of luminol (the ‘CSI effect’ I suppose).

In some States, you need a FBI criminal background check to purchase chemicals. Some metals, like lithium, red phosphorus, sodium and potassium, are almost impossible to purchase in elemental form. This is thanks to their use in manufacturing methamphetamine. Sulphur and potassium nitrate, both useful chemicals, are being classified as class C fireworks (here is a good precursor link). Mail order suppliers of science products are raided. Many over-the-counter compounds now require what is essentially a (poor) background check. Even fertilizer (ammonium nitrate) is under intense scrutiny. Where does this trend end? Ten years from now, will the list include table salt, seawater and natural gas – precursors to many industrical chemicals?

Link (via /.)

(Photo credit: Ancient Chemistry Set, a Creative Commons Attribution-License photo from Vortistic's Flickr stream)



  1. I think that it was the liability thing that killed chemistry sets, way before the meth plague and the Warren Terra. I worry that electronics kits may be next, with some kid bringing his project to class running across a trigger-happy security guard who sees the wires and blinkenlights and thinking “bomb”.

  2. Chemistry sets were getting wimpy long before 9/11. Halloween Jack is correct about the liability issue. And it’s spread to other science sets. Oh for the good old days when you could order sets from places like Sears allowing one to dissect frogs and the like! I bought my daughter a microscope last year and the slides were plastic. Plastic, for all love!

  3. #2, Halloween Jack, you’re right on about the electronic kits.

    When I was in grade school back in the late seventies I found a cool old glass pill bottle with a small cork on top. I asked my dad (who was an electronic tech) what we could do with it. He took it to work and that afternoon he came home with a “time bomb”. It was basically some resistors and capacitors wirewrapped on a small circuit board with a red flashing LED on top. He even put a black Dymo label on it that said “Sven’s Time Bomb”. I took it to school and explained to everyone in my class that the resistors and capacitors actually contained gunpowder and would blow up anytime. The teacher raised an eyebrow and then sent me to the principals office where I explained it was all a joke. He laughed and sent me back to class – with the “time bomb”.

    If my kid did that today, I’d be put in jail for turning my son into a bomb wielding terrorist and off he’d go to the hospital after he was tased by the school security guard.

  4. Oh, the fun we used to have in the late 60’s-early 70s, when we could walk to the local Mom & Pop corner store and buy 3 oz. boxes of saltpeter for 11¢. A big reason I sold greeting cards from that company that advertised in comic books was so I could finance my saltpeter, sugar and BBQ briquette research.

    3 of us teenage kids would pool our money and walk out of the store with a standard paper grocery bag half full of saltpeter, and the cashier wouldn’t even blink. And then we’d do it the following weekend. Still, not even the slightest arch of an eyebrow. Of course our Moms always wondered why they were going through so much sugar.

    Somehow–and fortunately–our folks taught us well enough that we never used the stuff to damage property. And we paid enough attention in science classes to respect the nature of the reaction, even when mixed in huge quantities.

    Maybe there’s something to that.

  5. While I’m no fan of the war on terror as implemented, it’s simply not true that it’s behind the demise of the chemistry set. This is entirely a products liability issue.

    And I have to ask, in the BSBtv ad that’s at the top right of the page, what is the man on the left-side picture holding?? I’m assuming it’s not what it looks like…

  6. Sequestration is an tterly futile response in a high-tech society. You can make it harder, but not too difficult if the potential perp is determined. Without making a list of the obvious — let alone the rest — there are simply too many universally available options. Are they going to ban dung, wax, sugar, alcohol?

    Really draconian measures would require a spree through libraries and used bookstores to remove technical resources and various cookbooks dating back to the mid-1800s. Technical magazines would need to become extinct. All circuit components would need to locked in inscrutible packages. Undergrad classes would need to be dumbed down. All software would need to be heavily abstracted – no more assembly access to hardware.

    What are the consequences of limiting such technical means and knowledge to an elite few? Much of that has already happened to an extent … mostly unnoticed and unremarked on. (Today, how many can build an FM transmitter from scratch?) But it can’t stop those who really need to know, or can afford to hire the right talent. Or those who simply resort to materials that are as old as technology. Or those who are clever enough to repurpose apparently innocuous surplus tech. Who guards the guardians?

    Much of the US’s inventiveness — that eventuated the generation that went to the moon — is due to the “model-rocket” or “ham-radio” or “chemistry-set” type of experimenting. Would Tesla be branded a terrorist today? Goddard? Asimov?

    Draconian lockdown may be strangling our technical future. Perhaps the US will spend the last years of its existence selling the world paintings, videos and diet books. But I very much doubt that hiding technology will bring an end to violence … so long as it is widely used to anger and motivate those who’ve lived without it. They will find the unforeseen ways.

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