Friday, October 16, 2009

Mad Science for the Masses


When I was a student at the College of William and Mary, Chem 101 was taught by the head of the department. Invariably, he began each lecture by explaining how one of the chemicals under discussion that day could be used to play a practical joke. This one would make a fine contact explosive that could be painted on the steps to the Chem Building, that one if insinuated into the drinking water, would turn everybody's urine blue, a third would blow a utility building sky-high, and so on. It was, I thought at first, his equivalent of opening with a joke. Certainly, we all laughed.

But eventually I twigged that the one thing all the practical jokes had in common was that they were very, very public. What the Head of the Chemistry Department (I've forgotten his name, alas; he wore a bow tie, of course) was doing was trolling for chemists: If he had a natural anywhere in his class, a true chemist, a born chemist, that person would not be able to resist trying these tricks out, and the dept. head, knowing one was out there, would seek out him or her to mentor and encourage.

That was a sad moment for me, because I realized then that I was not a chemist, nor ever would be. I regret that, because to be a chemist is a fine thing, and probably as close to being a Mad Scientist as is possible in real life. Certainly, every chemist I've ever known has a streak of anarchy that could only be satisfied by working late into the night to concoct explosives or synthesize LSD ... not because they were anti-social, necessarily, but just because, well, who could resist?

Theodore Gray was one of those natural chemists. He grew up, co-founded Wolfram Research (of Mathematica fame), won an Ig Nobel Prize (for his Wooden Periodic Table -- check it out here, but be prepared to spend a lot of time wandering about), and has now published a book of experiments that you really-o truly-o ought not to try at home. With careful step-by-step instructions.

Theo Gray's Mad Science is chock-a-block with fun things to do that could cost you an eye, a leg, your home, your liberty, and in some cases even your life if your lab technique isn't everything it should be.

Highlights of this luxuriously illustrated book include instructions on how to:

  • Make ice cream in 30 seconds, using liquid nitrogen.
  • Shrink coins to half their size.
  • Build your own cloud chamber.
  • Make exploding hydrogen bubbles.
  • Preserve snowflakes for decades.
  • Make your own salt out of sodium and chlorine.

And much, much more. Most of it, as I said, terribly dangerous. I suspect most of the book's readers are, like myself, armchair chemists, who might do two or three of the safer expiriments but are no more likely to start mucking about with thermite than crime readers are to heist the Koh-i-Noor Diamond. But there will be some readers who have the right stuff and they're going to use this volume like a cookbook. God bless 'em. I hope they take Theo's safety advice extremely seriously. Particularly the bit about buying lots of top-grade safety glasses.

So how did I come upon this wonderfully demented tome? Theodore Gray sent me a copy. He's sort of a friend, you see. We've never met in person, but he wrote the introduction to the PS Publishing book version of my Periodic Table of Science Fiction (which I recently put back online here), and we occasionally swap e-mails. I strongly approve of Theo. We're both in the same business: That of trying to make the world a more interesting place.

Actually, he sent me two books. I'll blog about the other one sometime next week.



Unknown said...

Wow. I must get a copy of that book.

My dad got kicked out of Berkeley for 1) blowing up a chem lab, and 2) "attempted murder" (he had done the blue urine trick on a classmate, but had put the chemical in pill form into some peanut brittle. When she bit into the candy, the pill was exposed).

A dear friend of mine is a research physicist at IBM's Almaden Research facility, and he got me a copy of the cookbook that the guys had put together--it has THREE different recipes for ice cream that use liquid nitrogen for the freezing.

I love science nerds!

David Stone said...

When I was a kid my brother tried to make gun cotton in our bathroom sink. Unfortunately, he used brown paper bags instead of a more conventional source of cellulose (white office paper? I don't really understand the details) and there seems to have been chlorine in that brown paper. That's what it smelled like, anyway. Perhaps the chlorine came from something else? Anyway, luckily it was in the bathroom which had a fanned vent, so the yellowish gas that was produced vented away outside. When my mom came home and smelled chlorine, he explained that because we had friends over, he had used bleach to clean the bathroom.

Oddly enough, despite the early enthusiasm, I think he decided he was not all that interested in, or particularly talented at, chemistry after this.