My Chemistry Set by Robert W. Bly

Can you imagine making a career choice based on a horror movie or a toy? Well, I did both.

As a child in the 60s, I was blissfully unaware of hippie protests. My consciousness was focused with laser-like intensity on comic books, science fiction, horror movies, and -- above all else -- my chemistry set.

Science was my favorite subject in school, but it was the laboratory scenes in the horror and science fiction movies that intensified my desire to have a lab of my own.

I started with a Gilbert chemistry set, lovingly setting up the test tubes and numbered bottles of chemicals on a worktable in the basement of my parents home. It was the first and home my parents owned, having recently moved from a rented first-floor in a two-family house; and as we looked at potential new homes to buy, my one criteria was that the house have a room for my "laboratory."

My mother, who had been a chemistry major before turning to psychology, understood my lab-love and took me to a wholesale scientific supply house from time to time. At the counter, I would gleefully spend my small allowance on beakers, flasks, and graduated cylinders to expand my lab far beyond what Gilbert thought was necessary for a prepubescent chemist.

Looking back, my mother was perhaps too liberal in what she permitted me to add to the lab. Since I had no Bunsen burner, she allowed me to buy a portable blowtorch, which I kept on my lab table in a makeshift stand I formed out of a wire coat hanger.

She also let me buy a bottle of sulfuric acid, a powerful reagent a 10-year-old has no business handling. I poured the acid into a container of sugar and watched the sweet white granules transform into a single hard, black lump resembling coal.

Despite her own chemical bent, my mother was not always pleased by the results of my experiments.

Her least favorite was when I distilled wood by heating wood splinters in a test tube. I did it to create the stinky tar-like substance, which I thought had strong practical joke potential (but would never have the nerve to actually use). But the distillation also produced a stinky yellow gas, the odor of which lingered in my basement lab -- which doubled as my mother's laundry room -- for many days. She reminded me by exclaiming "Oh, pew!" loudly every time she went down the basement steps carrying a load of (and she was very specific about this) my laundry.

My love for chemistry intensified in high school, where in Mr. Oliver's class I got an A+ by building a working model of a Voltaic pile and producing electricity. I also put my sulfuric acid to work again building a lead storage battery.

But when I entered the University of Rochester as a chemistry major, I got a rude awakening: It takes a lot more than tinkering with a chemistry set today to be a good chemist.

It wasn't always so. Hundreds of years ago, many important discoveries in chemistry were made by amateurs -- who, like me, simply enjoyed playing with chemicals and chemical equipment. Joseph Priestly, for example, a Unitarian minister who was an amateur chemist on the side, discovered oxygen by burning chemicals with a magnifying glass, the same kinds of magnifying glass kids use to light leaves and paper on fire on summer days.

Like me, Priestly also had a fondness for sulfuric acid. He dropped chalk into a flask of the acid, collected the gas, and bubbled the carbon dioxide into a beaker, creating the world's first glass of club soda.

But modern chemistry requires a broader range of skills than just puttering around the lab. These include the manipulation of chemical formulas, calculus, and computer programming. I switched my major to chemical engineering, for which I had even less of an aptitude.

I barely escaped college with my bachelor's degree in chemical engineering, a profession for which I was wholly unsuited. Does this mean my years of playing with chemistry sets and my chemical education were wasted?

Quite the contrary. As a freelance writer, my background in science and engineering gives me a broad base of knowledge I apply every day -- especially in a society as technology driven as ours.

Do I still play with a chemistry set? I thought that phase of my life was over, but another surprise -- this one happy -- intervened. I have two sons, and my youngest, Stephen, 8, has inherited my scientific interests. We have already used up the supplies in two beginner's chemistry sets, and are setting up a space for a more extensive laboratory in the basement.

I wish I could give Stephen my old lab equipment. But years before he was born, because the garage was cluttered, I wrapped up the beakers and flasks and graduated cylinders in old newspapers and gave them to a friend's teenage child, and the gear is long gone.

So Steve and I will have to go to the lab equipment supplier and start assembling our laboratory from scratch. But we don't mind. In fact, that's half the fun.

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