Friday, June 6, 2008

New Book..."Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments..."

Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture


Robert Thompson

ISBN-10: 0596514921



Barbara Barnett

June 6th, 2008

I got my first chemistry set when I was 10 years old. It was filled with lots of cool things like litmus paper; an alcohol lamp, 40 little plastic bottles filled with exotic-sounding chemicals like ferrous ammonium sulfate and phenolphthalein. Small beakers, flasks and test tubes, the iconic alcohol lamp, mixing sticks and measuring spoons completed the kit, along with an instruction guide on “how to make wine from water,” and lots of other fun experiments. Playing with that little kit placed me on an inevitable path (my undergraduate degree is in biochemistry), and helped shape my life.

But my first science project didn’t come out of my neat chest of chemicals, it came out of the kitchen. It was second grade, and my mother had read a recipe in Ann Landers' Chicago Sun-Times column for making a "crystal" garden. It required pieces of coal or other rock, ammonia, “bluing,” and salt. And food coloring. It smelled awful, but worked its wonders as the tiny crystals of ammonium chloride grew in exotic branches of yellow, red, green and blue. It was totally awesome; and still remains a favorite chemistry experiment in my household (and I would suggest, similarly put my own daughter, about to enter a PhD program in inorganic chemistry this autumn, on her career path when she was a little girl playing kitchen chemist with me.)

So it was with great anticipation that I picked up the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments (O'Reilly, $29.99) by DIY (do it yourself) scientist Robert Bruce Thompson. The book's premise is that chemistry sets like the ones we had back in the 60s and 70s no longer exist; and when you can find them, they lack all of the cool stuff (safety and liability concerns have all but made chemistry sets extinct). The blurb on the back cover states that Thompson's book "fills this void." The book by promises to return to you to (and one-up) the old chemistry set, and allow you to do "real" chemistry experiments, once again opening you (and your children) to the excitement of and hands on experimentation that set so many people on the path to careers in science.

Because the blurb on the back cover and the description of the book suggest this as the logical replacement for the now-defunct chemistry set (which was marketed to young adolescents), I'm not sure what I was expecting, but it was certainly not the text-book like volume (more than 400 pages). But it is clear by the time you get to the outline describing which experiments are appropriate for AP (Advanced Placement, aka college-level) chemistry students, that this book is less a "kitchen chemistry" book and more a "home-schooling" chemistry laboratory text book.

The book is quite readable and user-friendly (as much as a chemistry lab text can be), but I can't help but wonder if the book, the extensive (and necessary) introductory chapters on safety, materials, and basic chemistry text are a bit too intimidating for a curious adolescent (to whom those great chemistry sets were marketed) - and probably that curious adolescent's parents. The equipment list alone would have made me (as a parent) shy away from using the book with my kids (and I'm not easily intimidated by science, having spent several years working as a bench microbiologist/chemist right out of college.)

Assembling the basic materials in Thompson's "no lecture, all lab" book is expensive (the cost of a "good set of golf clubs" or a decent home stereo system), and, clearly, setting up and storing all of the equipment and supplies precludes using the kitchen counter. (Which is where I used my own chemistry set, and where my kids and I played with theirs). It would make more sense to set up a lab bench in the basement, temperature-controllable garage, or as the author suggests, a photographic dark room. These factors really make it difficult to recommend the book as a chemistry set replacement.

But taking Thompson's book for what it really is (rather than what it is promoted to be) it is actually a very well-written, clear and non-intimidating exploration of high school (or college) lab chemistry. The author states that if you work through the entire book, the user would have acquired about two years of general chemistry experience at the high school level. And I would agree with that assessment. And for that future (teenage) scientist in your house, the book provides ample opportunities for hands-on chemistry and potential science fair-worthy experimentation. Each experiment takes the student through the theory and process of a chemical principle, including exercises and a lab report to assess both the success of the experiment and how well the student understands the concepts explored.

One of my favorite college chemistry experiments involved purifying a chemical compound by supersaturating a solution and then precipitating out the crystals. It’s always been for me an perfect example of chemistry’s magic. Thompson’s procedure and explanation of this classic experiment brought back fond memories and, in a fit of nostalgia, made me want to run out and buy a beaker, some chemicals, a little acetone and try it for myself!

I would say that the Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments is a worthwhile addition to a chemistry student’s library (if you want to play outside the chem lab) or for serious chemistry home study by teens and adults. It is not for kids (under high school age) and should not be used without first reading, understanding and internalizing all of the safety and usage information described in the first chapters. And it has a cool tear-out periodic table of the elements too!

For students, DIY hobbyists, and science buffs, who can no longer get real chemistry sets, this one-of-a-kind guide explains how to set up and use a home chemistry lab, with step-by-step instructions for conducting experiments in basic chemistry -- not just to make pretty colors and stinky smells, but to learn how to do real lab work:

* Purify alcohol by distillation
* Produce hydrogen and oxygen gas by electrolysis
* Smelt metallic copper from copper ore you make yourself
* Analyze the makeup of seawater, bone, and other common substances
* Synthesize oil of wintergreen from aspirin and rayon fiber from paper
* Perform forensics tests for fingerprints, blood, drugs, and poisons
* and much more

From the 1930s through the 1970s, chemistry sets were among the most popular Christmas gifts, selling in the millions. But two decades ago, real chemistry sets began to disappear as manufacturers and retailers became concerned about liability. The Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments steps up to the plate with lessons on how to equip your home chemistry lab, master laboratory skills, and work safely in your lab. The bulk of this book consists of 17 hands-on chapters that include multiple laboratory sessions on the following topics:

* Separating Mixtures
* Solubility and Solutions
* Colligative Properties of Solutions
* Introduction to Chemical Reactions & Stoichiometry
* Reduction-Oxidation (Redox) Reactions
* Acid-Base Chemistry
* Chemical Kinetics
* Chemical Equilibrium and Le Chatelier's Principle
* Gas Chemistry
* Thermochemistry and Calorimetry
* Electrochemistry
* Photochemistry
* Colloids and Suspensions
* Qualitative Analysis
* Quantitative Analysis
* Synthesis of Useful Compounds
* Forensic Chemistry

With plenty of full-color illustrations and photos, Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments offers introductory level sessions suitable for a middle school or first-year high school chemistry laboratory course, and more advanced sessions suitable for students who intend to take the College Board Advanced Placement (AP) Chemistry exam. A student who completes all of the laboratories in this book will have done the equivalent of two full years of high school chemistry lab work or a first-year college general chemistry laboratory course.

This hands-on introduction to real chemistry -- using real equipment, real chemicals, and real quantitative experiments -- is ideal for the many thousands of young people and adults who want to experience the magic of chemistry.

About the Author:

Robert Bruce Thompson is a coauthor of Building the Perfect PC, Astronomy Hacks, and the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders. Thompson built his first computer in 1976 from discrete chips. It had 256 bytes of memory, used toggle switches and LEDs for I/O, ran at less than 1MHz, and had no operating system. Since then, he has bought, built, upgraded, and repaired hundreds of PCs for himself, employers, customers, friends, and clients. Thompson reads mysteries and nonfiction for relaxation, but only on cloudy nights. He spends most clear, moonless nights outdoors with his 10-inch Dobsonian reflector telescope, hunting down faint fuzzies, and is currently designing a larger truss-tube Dobsonian (computerized, of course) that he plans to build.

The home chemist...long gone


If you wish to start a home lab or add to your existing lab here are some sources. The "Amateur" section should pose no problems but difficulty may be encountered under the "Professional" section.


American Science & Surplus

Edmund Scientifics

H.M.S. Beagle

United Nuclear Scientific Supplies


Daigger & Company

Fisher Scientific



WARD'S Natural Science


Periodic Table

rocks and minerals

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