Archive for December, 2011

The Personal Computer vs. The Chemistry Set

Thursday, December 1st, 2011 Mike Ficco

Recent (and much needed) basement cleaning uncovered a treasure trove of childhood chemistry set experimenter books.

Back in the day, there was no Internet.  The only hope for young chemists looking for new experiments was to troll bookstores and newsstands.  Fortunately, chemistry sets were relatively popular when I was a kid and a number of authors produced books for this audience.

"The Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments", Copyright 1960








Some of the cools stuff we used when I was young.  These items were available at most hobby shops and some toy stores.











Let me emphasize that I’m talking about REAL chemistry sets, not pretend ones offering only colored water experiments.  I extracted chlorine gas and ignited steel wool in it.  I filled balloons with hydrogen and exploded them.  Stuffing thin glass tubing into tight stoppers was part of many experiments.  Fortunately, all of my injuries from breaking the tubing were minor.  I attempted several times to freeze mercury solid with an alcohol – dry ice slush.  Back then, relatively large quantities of mercury could be had from mercury switches – available at any hardware store.

"700 Science Experiments for Everyone", Copyright 1962






Some books described surprisingly dangerous experiments – like this one.








Of course there were safety concerns even back then.  I had several “recipes”, but was never able to successfully make phosphorescent paint.  I just could not get high enough temperatures with my alcohol lamp.  I lived in a house with gas heat and wanted to cut into the gas line to power a Bunsen burner.  My dad was very much against this and as a consequence it never happened.

Let me put chemistry set “danger” in perspective.  A number of my friends had chemistry sets and I knew of a couple of burns and cuts but no serious injuries.  Certainly nothing as bad as a broken clavicle suffered by a friend that fell out of a tree or the compound fracture of an arm and elbow from a bicycle spill.  Personally, my worst childhood injuries came from skateboarding accidents, not my “exotic” chemistry experiments.

Here we are more than 40 years later – trees have not been banned, bicycles still cause severe injuries, and chemistry sets – well, government “protective” laws and personal injury lawyers have killed them.

In my EXPERT opinion – chemistry sets, the geeky-kid right of passage for generations, have been replaced, poorly, by the personal computer.  Let’s examine the differences.  I assume all readers of this blog are very familiar with personal computers.  As we know, they are capricious.  Worse, youngsters often “learn” to program by surfing the web for some appropriate code, copying, pasting, and moving on to the next programming impulse.  The entire experience could be considered VIRTUAL.  It may even be conducted with very little thinking and even less learning.

Chemistry sets, however, were not virtual.  They provided real knowledge of the physical world.  Even as a 10 year old I understood chlorine gas was bad stuff.  Burns were real – and painful.  You couldn’t cut and paste, you had to prepare the area (i.e. clean test tubes), find the chemicals, plan, and execute.  Youngsters able to successfully perform chemistry experiments demonstrated far more organization and persistence than their modern personal computer counterparts.  Indeed, the scientists and engineers that created nuclear power, that created jet engines and broke the sound barrier, that created transistors and integrated circuits – started with chemistry sets.

"The Question And Answer Book of Chemistry", Copyright 1962









Thanks to chemistry sets, I was a scientist long before I was an engineer.  As a pre-teen I understood methodical preparation and execution.  I believe this had an extremely positive effect on my career as an engineer.










Unfortunately, this early learning has been halted.  Over the last several decades there seems to have been a powerful agenda to remove self-reliance from the hands of the public.  A strict regulatory climate has combined fear mongering with a promise that Big Brother will take care of us.  One must hope that this is misguided good intentions and not a purposeful insidious plot to turn citizens into passive chattel.  Regardless of the reason, the result is the same.  It has turned us into a schizophrenic society that discourages all forms of risk taking by the man on the street but visibly and vociferously honors “professionals” who risk their safety and even lay down their lives for a broad array of causes.

The fireman that rushes into a burning building to save someone is correctly honored.  The soldier who risks his life to stop a terrorist is also correctly honored, as is the policeman who brings a dangerous criminal to justice.  Pity the poor youngster, however, who attempts to buy volatile substances to make rocket fuel or firecrackers.  He is likely expelled from school and may even get jail time.  His interest in science may well have ruined his life instead of launching a promising career.

While the student may have hurt himself or someone else playing with volatile materials, the same is true when, for example, young people play football.  Some may say this is an issue of relative risk and, unlike football, playing with chemicals is just too dangerous.  My personal experience, drawn from a time when “dangerous” chemistry sets were commonly enjoyed, says this is wrong.  In fact, I felt I hit the million-dollar jackpot when I discovered the book pictured below.  This book launched a thousand experiments with fireworks and homemade rockets.

I was never materially injured by any chemistry experiment, by any homemade rocket flight, by any of my fireworks exploits.  More importantly, my enjoyment of life, appreciation of science, and intellectual engagement were greatly enriched by these activities.

I’m not going to dispute the existence of risk.  My point is that we can never remove all risk from life – and it starts getting really expensive the harder we try.  The problem truly becomes deciding when we are safe “enough”.  This is a real problem since people are notoriously bad at judging relative risk.  Worse, there is a staggering array of agendas being pushed by powerful interests.  Some of these interests sell fear for profit.  Some sell distrust for political gain.  Some cover themselves in the flag and hide behind morality.  Facts are manipulated and misrepresented.

As a result, every year the “developed” countries become more cautious, fearful, and restrictive.  At the same time the “developing” countries, operating in a wild-west fashion, embrace risk, create jobs, and accelerate their economies.

We very much need to get away from the idea of “safety at any cost”.  We just can’t afford it – for at least three reasons:

  1. Financially, we’re headed for disaster if we keep spending money creating and policing anti-danger laws.  Spending money to arrest and prosecute a citizen who buys fireworks seems like an incredible waste of money; and we’ve experienced decades of failed, expensive, zero-tolerance drug interdiction.  Don’t get me started on airport security.
  2. Morally, who is the government to decide something is too dangerous but something else, say driving in the Indianapolis 500, is ok?  How can this be anything other than an individual decision?  Would you have found it offensive if a government official told a young Danica Patrick, “Racin’ go-carts is too dangerous for little girls.  You should be takin’ a cooking class over at the community center”?
  3. The existence and actions of aggressive “Safety Police” can create an intellectually cautious environment.

Of these, by far the most damaging is the “Safety Police”.  When too many people become intellectually cautious you have the Dark Ages.  When the Safety Police become too aggressive you have the Spanish Inquisition.

The history of the world shows both of these have happened before.  They can happen again.

What if watchful and “protective” governments determined that the work of young experimenters Robert Goddard and Wernher Von Braun was dangerous and jailed them for their activities?  This would likely cause a domino effect of icy fear.  One after another youthful rocket scientists would abandon that field of endeavor.

Today there would be no communications satellites, no GPS, no orbital views of weather patterns.  Of course launching high-powered rockets was, and still is, dangerous.  You can’t have great achievements without risk and it has been proven over and over that the “authorities” are really bad at judging which risks are worth taking.

What if a religious cult strongly believed man should not fly and successfully sued to stop the “dangerous” and “heretical” experiments of Wilbur and Orville Wright?

Did you just think of Stem Cells?

What if the purveyors of the social revolution called Personal Computers were prohibited from distributing their wares?  What if the authorities, fearing disruption of the status quo, fearing access to knowledge and computation power by the masses, “excommunicated” Marc Andreessen, Tim Berners-Lee, Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Gary Kildall, Steve Wozniak, and the legion of dope-smoking hippies that created the Personal Computer and Internet revolutions?

What if our masters applied the “dangerous” label to anything that threatened their position as masters?

Do you feel the chill in the air?

What vital element of our nature is suffering from our modern preoccupation with safety?  What of our society will remain when the authorities have subdued the risk-seeking members?  What is our future without folk heroes like Evel Knievel, Steve (Crocodile Hunter) Irwin, Daniel Boone, and yes, even without socially disruptive risk takers like Henry Ford and Howard Hughes?

Many are uncomfortable; unhappy with the current direction of society and our culture.  Sensing a platform that may resonate with voters, growing contingents of politicians condemn government regulations.  They say the regulations cost money and jobs.  They say we would be better off without them.

Well, you know, I happen to like some regulations.  I don’t want my food to poison me and I’d like to be able to trust any medicine I buy.  I don’t want to breathe junk from industrial smokestacks or roast from global warming – manmade or not.  Yep, this may cost more, but that’s what engineers are for – to implement solutions while minimizing the cost of doing so.  For centuries (millennia?) we’ve all benefited from paying engineers to create a better living standard.

The politicians have it wrong.  Regulations don’t cost jobs – they create jobs.  Every company that spends money to satisfy emission standards is paying engineers and technicians to invent and implement ways of doing so.  Diversity and union requirements mean someone must write standards, meet with representatives of all sides, and negotiate with all groups.  These are just two examples, but the fact is money spent on regulations ends up being someone’s paycheck.

Do rules and regulations raise the cost of goods?  Of course.  This impact, however, is small compared to that of manipulated currency exchange rates, benefits like pensions and healthcare, and mega-CEO salaries.  Some car companies, for example, need the profit from the sale of 30,000 cars just to pay their five most expensive executives.  Some drug companies need to sell a half million prescriptions to pay their president.

The problem is not the cost in dollars of corporate and personal rules, regulations, and prohibitions.  The problem is the emotional cost – the chill in the air.  While many regulations create jobs, some destroy our very souls.  We’ve been taught for too long to defer to a professional and wait for the authorities to solve problems.  How many times have you heard from SO many sources: “Don’t try this at home”.  Well, it’s time we go back a few decades and at least ALLOW people to try things at home.  It’s time to reclaim our souls.

Am I seriously suggesting that children be allowed to have chemistry sets and fireworks?  Absolutely yes, but I’m not requiring it.  I want government barriers and negative messages removed but parents must be comfortable with risky activities in which their children participate.  I grant that some kids – and their parents – have no common sense.  However, things usually go bad quickly when the government steps in and starts making rules.  I’ve seen enough to convince me that excessive protection leads to non-thinking.  You are most at risk when you expect everything to be safe.  Unfortunately, it is very rare that everything is safe.

We live in a society created by giants and we embarrass them as they gaze down at us.  Powerful concepts like, “Better 10 Guilty Men Go Free than to Convict a Single Innocent Man“, have served us well for a long time.  Have we become so timid and fearful that we must always vote for the safest approach?  Isn’t it better that one is injured rather than 100; 1,000; or 100,000 be prohibited from the joy of experimentation and discovery?

Some parents will be protective and not allow their children to have chemistry sets.  Many of the same parents will not allow their children to play football.  That’s ok and their choice – but this issue is bigger than parents and children.  This issue is bigger than speed bumps in so many neighborhoods; bigger than seatbelt laws and smoke-free restaurants.  This is about an increasingly cowardly society that wants to be protected and coddled at every turn.  This is about decades of strict regulatory climate and government “caretaking” having eroded our “can-do” attitude.

You don’t ban chainsaws just because someone gets hurt.  You don’t stop launching rockets because a couple of space shuttles crash.  You don’t stop doing open-heart surgery because some patients die.  You don’t stop playing football because of lost teeth, concussions, and even the rare cases of spinal cord damage and death.

Accidents, even grisly ones, should be addressed with better education and better preparation – not personal injury lawyers and additional government prohibitions.  In any activity there will always be the unlucky.  We must respect, not fear, risky situations and materials.  Banning all things risky costs society far too much in too many ways.  We must jump-start our society and reject expensive over-protection by Big Brother.

We can’t fix our mess of a society with political sound bytes and catchy phrases.  We need a multifaceted approach that engages politicians, parental good judgment, and spiritual advisors.  Perhaps we need to honor those injured in the pursuit of knowledge just like we honor firemen who rush into burning buildings.  Perhaps we need to indemnify companies who make dangerous products against ambulance chasing lawyers who see money behind genuine accidents.  Think this is a bad idea?  We already bailed out “too big to fail” banks and wealthy individuals who did crazy and perhaps maliciously stupid things.  Is this any worse?

Wouldn’t it be great if there were a sane political party?  One that embraced the need to cut spending but, at least until we get things cleaned up, recognized the need to raise some taxes?  You know, I just don’t think raising billionaire taxes by 3% will cause them to fire a maid or chauffer.  Likewise, cutting their taxes seems unlikely to cause them to hire another gardener.

This sane political party is currently imaginary, but together we can create it.  Together we can write the specification for a new political party that:

  • Cuts spending on the convoluted mess of expensive subsidies, interdictions, and prohibitions.
  • Maintains regulations and inspections on food, drugs, and environmental issues.  Why?  Well, what good is having a job if we turn the place into a wasteland and the food sickens your children?
  • Explores the possibility of significantly reducing the cost of healthcare by allowing regular people direct access to curative drugs without needing a doctor as an expensive middleman.
  • Looks at additional revenue sources such as adjusting corporate and personal tax rates or a national gas tax – but NOT toll roads.

Aside on toll roads.

Some politicians have seized on toll roads as a way to generate more revenue.  They use the self-serving interpretation that these are User Fees, not taxes.  Wrong.  Toll roads are socialism.  It is not only the drivers on the road that benefit from the road.  General commerce benefits since those who drive to work on the road spend some of their paycheck in many ways that benefit society as a whole.  Likewise delivery trucks to food stores and shopping centers, even the mail service will be paying tolls for the benefit of those who need not drive on that toll road to shop and receive mail.  This is clearly socialism at work as the active few pay an unfair share and support passive consumers.

The sane political party I envision will distinguish two categories of regulations.

  1. Good Regulations.  These require purity of ingredients, freedom from contaminants, honesty about usefulness and side effects, truth in advertising, and forbid the wholesale destruction of nature.  In essence, the good regulations prohibit exaggerated claims and malicious behavior by the seller.
  2. Bad Regulations.  These attempt to enforce what the government has determined to be desirable behavior by the citizen.


In my ideal world, manufactures cannot lie, mislead, or misdirect – but consumers, with access to truthful and factual information, are free to make risky and even bad choices.

This has been a long and rambling blog but some of the most intelligent and capable people in the world visit this site.  While my writing undoubtedly has an American slant, I believe the ideas are applicable to the world.  I’m hopeful that a number of you will pick up this challenge.  Perhaps we really can start a movement.

Remember –

Some things, my friends, are far more important than being safe.