America's War on Science
But many of the youth of today will never get that chance. The Consumer Product Saftey Division has made it a point to outlaw chemicals that can be used to make illegal fireworks. Chemicals like sulfur and potassium perchlorate, that would have been standard issue in any lab experiment of yesteryear are now contraband. The CPSD, best known for its issuing of recalls for consumer goods, claims that this ban is in effect to reduce injuries from home made fireworks. The fact of the matter is that 98% of all firework related injuries are caused by off the shelf fireworks. All of this CPSD nonsense is to cut down on the other 2%.
The modern CPSD does more than just alert consumers to dangerous toasters. They have the power to mobilize law enforcement, and sponsor raids on citizens and businesses. One such raid was directed at the amazing online store United Nuclear. United Nuclear sells super powerful magnets, aerogel, lasers, chemicals, lab ware, and all sorts of other geeky goodness. The founders of United Nuclear were held at gun point, handcuffed, and had all of their computers and records confiscated. Why? Because some of the chemicals they sell could be used to make fireworks. United Nuclear is now involved in a long legal battle to avoid fines and prison sentences thanks to the CPSD.
And the fun doesn't stop there. In an attempt to curb the production of crystal meth, more than 30 states have now outlawed or require registration for common lab equipment. In Texas, you need to register the purchase of Erlenmeyer flasks or three-necked beakers. The same state where I do not have to register a handgun, forces me to register a glass beaker. In Portland, Oregon, even pH strips are suspect. Modern off the shelf "chemistry" sets are sold without any of the questionable chemicals or equipment. For example, when a current company tried re releasing a kit based on the one marketed by Mr. Wizard himself back in the 1950s, they found that they could only include five of the original chemicals in the set. The rest of the items were replaced with inane things like super balls and balloons. Even a non neutered modern chemistry set like the C3000 from Thames and Kosmos is forced to ship without many key chemicals, suggesting to their customers that they acquire the missing ingredients elsewhere.
Forget about model rocketry. Since the beginnings of the war on terror, the government has ridiculously claimed that model rockets could be used to shoot down commercial aircraft. Now all rocket engines above a certain size and thrust limit require fingerprinting, background checks and waving of your search and seizure rights! Said engines often require a Low Explosive Usage Permit to launch or take them across state lines. And all of these paranoid laws and regulations on chemistry, rocketry, and lab ware are not being done in ignorance. The powers that be are aware of the effect legislation is having on budding scientists and hobby enthusiasts. Pentagon and Justice Department consultant, professor James Tour said, “The fact that there are amateurs and retired professors out there who need access to these chemicals is a valid problem, but there aren’t many of those guys weighed against the possible dangers.” So because we still fear the terrorist boogieman, our kids are not allowed the same access to science that we had growing up. And hobbyists are forced to collect their chemicals and do their work in secret.
But there are some lights shinning in the darkness of this situation. Companies like United Nuclear, which continue to sell chemicals and lab equipment despite legal problems, and websites that support chemistry hobbyists. Like Readily Available Chemicals, which maintains a list of places where one can make an end run around the restrictions and purchase chemicals or lab ware. Or The Nitrogen Order, who provides a how to on building your own chemistry set, and provides lessons and experiments. And Science Madness who's forums give hobbyists a place to meet, compare notes, and exchange secrets of the trade anonymously. One of my favorites is the Society for Amateur Scientists, which just began a LABRats program, to match up youngsters that are interested in science with mentors that are practicing scientists.
I propose a Web 2.0 weapon in the fight to protect good chemistry from bad government. Perhaps a combination of the above websites, along with a strong membership of successful scientists. You could invite any and all hobbyists to participate, recommending and rating various experiments for others to try. Rolling lists of where to buy chemicals and supplies in local areas could be constantly updated with pricing and availability. Arm chair scientists could hold meet ups, collaborate on projects, and even "publish" their findings on the sites electronic periodical. It would be a great jumping off point for youngsters looking to start the beakers bubbling, and an excellent haven for amateur chemists of all ages. You could get a high profile spokes person, like Bill Nye or the Myth Busters, and subsidize the site via marketing deals with companies like Thames and Kosmos, United Nuclear, and Estes. I'd be happy to pay a small fee to join something like that, and they could even funnel a chunk of the profits into lobbying to put an end to the war on science.
While this continues, and children's exposure to real chemistry is stifled, our national science scores are plummeting. People are getting out of high school without ever having fired up a Bunsen burner. Now more than ever, innovation is needed for the United States to compete in the global economy. Visionaries like Gordon Moore, Vint Cerf, and David Packard all acquired their love of science and technology by enjoying real hands on chemistry as children. By legislating away amateur chemistry and rocketry, we are depriving an entire generation of potential innovators that same chance. All in the name of a little extra false security. “People who want to make meth will find ways to do it that don’t require an Erlenmeyer flask. But raising a generation of people who are technically incompetent is a recipe for disaster.” says Bill Nye.
Take a look at the picture I included with this post. It came from Stacina's Creative Commons licensed flickr stream. It's a picture of a home chemistry lab in Fort Myers, Florida. A lab full of unlicensed glassware and chemicals that would break all sorts of rules, and arouse untold suspicion and maybe even be shutdown by the powers that be. It's a good thing the war on science is a relatively new phenomenon... Because that's the home chemistry lab of Thomas Alva Edison. [via Wired]
I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale. - Marie Curie