Posted by: Chris | August 2, 2011

Chemical Chaos

Sometimes when I read a book I will find myself attracted to other books on the same topic. This time my latest readings have been on chemistry and the periodic table. The one that started it was The Disappearing Spoon, which is a history of chemistry, the hunt for elements and the creation of the periodic table (check out the extras, especially the videos). This romp into chemistry and the personalities involved is accessible to everyone, including students in upper elementary school.

I was reminded of another version of the periodic table I read about years ago. One of the founders of a math program, Theodore Gray, had read Oliver Sacks’ autobiography Uncle Tungsten. In his mind he envisioned an actual table, and being a fairly handy guy with a whole shop full of tools he made one. He details the whole thing on a website that I have spent literally spent hours perusing (often at the sodium party). The details actually include a click-able version of a periodic table with photos and descriptions of all the elements, which has been translated in a beautiful book on the elements, The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom of the Universe.

The Elements reminds me of the big beautifully illustrated National Geographic and Time-Life books I grew up with as a kid, much like Rob T.’s book Our Universe. As a kid I remember flipping through those books, possibly even before I could read, over and over again. This would be a good accompaniment to The Disappearing Spoon.

Then I saw Mr. Gray had another book on chemistry, Mad Science, a beautifully photographed book of interesting chemical reactions. See the videos on the book website, and his Popular Science column.

Warning! Warning! Many are explosive, fiery and really poisonous. I think I saw only a few that I would attempt, much less let a child try. Some are things that my kids have encountered at the annual engineering and science open houses (like the liquid nitrogen ice cream, which really is very yummy). It is definitely one way to get a kid excited about chemistry, and I don’t think there is any danger of most children attempting the more dangerous stuff. Mostly because there may be an age requirement to buy supplies like chlorine gas, phosphorous and heavy water (yup, just checked… you have to be over twenty-one to receive shipments from United Nuclear Scientific).

As far as home experiments I’ll stick to the very information dense, much safer, and not so beautifully illustrated tomes by Sean Connolly: The Book of Totally Irresponsible Science and The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science. These books are meant to be used, read in snippets, and be pulled out during an outbreak of “I’m bored” (something that often happens in the dog days of August). They have lots of stories, explanations and truly accessible experiments. Who knew that popcorn popping could be analogous to radioactive decay half-life?

Have fun before school starts (which may be a couple of weeks for some!). But make it safe fun. While I resented that I never got the chemistry set I always asked for, as a boring grown-up I understand why my parents never obliged: my brother. He liked to blow things up, and my parents did not really want to replace those things again.

I did do an experiment recently with an element when I saw a snail crawling up my rockery. I wanted to see if the copper screening actually stopped slugs and snails, so I put a piece in its path. Hah! It stopped! And no snails or humans were harmed in this experiment.

No! No! Not the copper barrier!

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