Chemistry at home

YouTube user TheHomeScientist (via In The Pipeline) is posting a series of videos about what you can do in a home chemistry lab; as a nice example, there's this beautiful one about the purification of hydrochloric acid:

Isn't this method elegant? No complicated boiling or fumbling around with strong acids; just take advantage of the fact that HCl is a gas.

I think it's great to show people that you can really do chemistry at home. Science is not just the domain of white men in white coats with PhDs. On the other hand, I'm hesitant to get too ecstatic about how "democratic" this is. Not just anyone can afford the time, energy, and space to set up a lab like this.

To set up a chemistry lab responsibly, you more or less need your own home. It's dangerous, and can easily release poison gases or start a fire; I have no problem with people taking such risks with themselves and other consenting adults, and if you're going to do this you can instruct the people who live with you in proper safety procedures. But endangering an apartment building full of strangers is just irresponsible.

It can't be just any house either; while TheHomeScientist does his experiments in a kitchen, he doesn't use the kitchen where his food is prepared; I think that would be extremely dangerous, since many chemicals that are safe enough to work with would be thoroughly poisonous to eat, even in residues that might be inadvertently left in your kitchen. At a minimum you'd want to keep labware and dishes rigorously separate, and how do you apply this rule to a sink? So I think, realistically, you'd need a house with a spare room you could devote to chemistry. I don't have one, and it makes even my very limited and safe experiments with gallium considerably more awkward.

Then, of course, there's the cost of the equipment and chemicals - pretty minor compared to a house, but important nonetheless. He describes ways you can make many things out of fairly cheap commodity materials, but the more things you have to make this way the more slow and laborious your experiment becomes. And trying to use pots and pans to replace laboratory glassware is not just clumsy and laborious but is risking dangerous errors.

Labor, time and energy, is perhaps the biggest issue. If you're working several jobs to make ends meet, or full-time at a job that leaves you so exhausted it's all you can do to microwave a frozen pizza and slump in front of the television, you're not going to be spending your evenings doing chemistry. Or, for that matter, if you get home and are immediately occupied with child care and house cleaning. This kind of free-time experimenting is within the reach of a 1950s idea of the father of a nuclear family - 9-to-5 job, owns his own home and car, wife who cleans house and takes care of the kids. But that ideal is largely a fiction, few people are in such a situation, and it's hardly the "democratic" ideal I'd like to see for amateur science.

In a way, this is bringing us close to the Victorian "gentleman scientist": an upper-class gentleman "of independent means" (i.e. supported by revenues from land he nominally governs) who has the time and resources to educate himself and carry out experiments. The prosperity we in the developed nations have, and the decreasing cost of technology, makes it possible for many of us to get into this game. I think that's a very good thing. But I try to remember that what's within reach for me is not necessarily within reach for everyone.


Popup said...

There's one other possibility:
The obsessive teenager.

Anne M. Archibald said...

Yes, I came across his story some time ago. It's not clear, seen through the distorting lens of journalism, just how much he knew about what he was doing. But yes. teenagers often have plenty of time and, somehow, disposable income. Middle-class North American teenagers in particular also often live in houses with backyards, may have cars to drive to isolated locations, and probably have access to the Internet and/or decent libraries. So yes, they're a good candidate for amateur science. Ideally, we as a society would turn that impulse towards education — someone who likes the science that much should get an opportunity to do real science. Good science fairs do just that.

An interesting population I only know a little about arises in Japan. As I understand it, under the system there, high school students take difficult exams to get into college. Many people don't pass the exams the first time around, and spend a year out of school studying to pass them the next time around. These "gap year" students at loose ends are, I think, a similar fount of energy, producing projects like this (although I'm not sure this particular one was made by gap-year students).