A lot of people spend their youth experimenting. As my mother often tells people who really don’t want to know, I spent my youth experimenting: with chemicals, electricity, and the flora and fauna of Birmingham’s green belt. Just like my peers who took part in drug parties, random sexual coupling, and street violence—I suppose I also participated in the last of these activities, but involuntarily—I look back on some of the stuff I did and wonder how I managed to live this long. My mum will never let me forget, for example, The Sulphur Explosion. When I read E. O. Wilson‘s account of how he lost his eye, I thought: “There but for the grace of God…”
At the risk of drawing a bunch of anti-health-and-safety nutters into the comments, I am amazed at the ease with which a small boy could, if he really wanted to (or even if he hadn’t planned to), cause serious damage to himself, others, and the family dining table back in the 70s and 80s. The range of potentially fatal ingredients that it was possible to buy cheaply in the high street and the absence of any protective equipment inside a typical chemistry set, for example, shock me today. A lot of people forget that chemist‘s shops used to sell chemicals. They probably still do, but I suspect I would become the subject of a large-scale surveillance operation if, in these days of terror, I walked into my local pharmacist and tried to buy some of the things I have in mind.
Anyway, this comes with goggles and I might get one “for my niece” for Christmas.
When I was a child I woke up the neighbourhood with a large explosion behind my parents shed involving an empty tin of paint, sugar and potassium nitrate (from a gardening store – never asked a single question) amongst other things. I seem to remember the fuse took less time than I expected.
Interestingly, the Strasbourg Christmas Market bombing plotters traveled around 48 different chemists in order to collect 44 pounds of potassium permanganate – which they said they were collecting to sending to hospitals in Africa. We do actually teach undergraduates to be aware of the responsibilities they have when supplying such materials.
Yes, I spent an inordinate amount of unsupervised goggle-free time up to my elbows in copper sulphate too. But at the risk of becoming the resident anti-health-and-safety nutter, it would be interesting to know how many serious accidents ocurred because kids were free to experiment with chemicals in the 70s and 80s. There should be stats for that, I should think. Of course, we can only speculate about how many future E.O. Wilsons are being lost because they can no longer do this sort of thing. At least they will (mostly) have two eyes to do their accountancy with, though.