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Is Science As Important As Football?

The subtitle of my new book, Mad Science, is "Experiments You Can Do at Home — But Probably Shouldn't." And I mean it! Although some of the experiments are perfectly harmless things a kid could do unsupervised (as long as you don't mind the monumental messes), others are not. Some would be very unwise for anyone but an experienced chemist to attempt. Most are in between: Potentially dangerous, but OK to try if you're a sensible person being reasonably careful.

Is it irresponsible to write a mass-market book that describes how to do dangerous science experiments? It used to be very common. I have books from the early 1800s through the mid 1900s that would make your hair stand on end. One 1930s book from none other than the Popular Science Press includes the recipe for Armstrong's mixture, a friction-sensitive explosive notorious for blowing hands off while it's being mixed.

But that's ancient history now. Books of home science, and even classroom chemistry at the high school level, are filled with baking soda and vinegar science. The Dangerous Book for Boys, for example, is completely devoid of danger.

Surely recommending only perfectly safe experiments is a good thing, isn't it?

Let's talk about football. Sports, especially at the high school level, are extremely dangerous. So many children are injured on a regular basis that you don't even hear about it. Many of these injuries are relatively minor, just a broken bone or perhaps a torn ligament that puts the child in a cast for a few months. But a substantial number cause permanent disability and death.

This carnage could easily be avoided by switching to video football. Graphics are very realistic these days; students could study tackles from all angles in complete safety. Gymnastics students could do their routines on a Wii Fit board, and video screens are readily available for exercise bicycles, eliminating open-road bicycle riding, a major killer of children.

You know I'm kidding. No one can seriously deny the value of actual physical education and exercise, and unfortunately, no matter how safe you try to make it, accidents, including bad accidents, happen. That's part of life.

But this is precisely what has happened to science education. Precisely. Virtually all experiments involving chemicals more dangerous that cabbage juice have been eliminated from the curriculum. And, yes, they have been replaced by elaborate video simulations that let you choose which of two beakers to mix together, then show you what happens.

This is all very safe, but there is a price to pay: death and misery for millions. And this time I'm not kidding. We have turned science, which should be the most exciting, the most engaging, the most relevant hour of the school day, into a deathly boring series of lectures and video games. Is it any wonder kids would rather become accountants, when chartered accountancy is made to seem like a more exciting profession than science?

The inevitable result is the well-documented decline in students entering universities to study science. But even worse is the equally well-documented decline in the understanding and appreciation of science by the general public.

For evidence of the harm this does, you need look no further than the ongoing series of flaming disasters we call policy debates, the ridiculous decline in the quality of textbooks, and the precipitous rise in quack medicine and bunkum of all kinds. We may be saturated with information, but we are also living in an age of ignorance unmatched in centuries. I am completely serious in saying that I believe not a small part of the blame can be laid at the feet of our eviscerated science curriculum, which has undone in one generation the progress of the past 200 years.

People die because of this. Entire ecosystems, maybe our whole planet, are at risk if we don't start teaching people to understand and value the truth and power that a genuine study of science leads to.

When students enter a science classroom, they should see things they cannot imagine in their wildest dreams. Science, done right, is the most amazing, mind-blowing thing we as a species have ever invented, and we need to show our children that. And although some children will be enthralled at a demonstration of how a sheet of paper dipped in water can spread out the colors in pen ink, I'm sorry, that just doesn't do it for me.

But no one who has heard an oxy-hydrogen soap bubble explode in a lecture hall can ever doubt the value of stoichiometric calculations. Do you believe that the Apollo moon rocket ran on diesel fuel, just like a truck? I can show you an experiment that will make you believe it could as easily have run on bacon.

Teachers should be able to do this kind of science, and many would love to, but cannot because of the fear of what would happen if there were ever an accident. A student suffering even a relatively minor injury from a dangerous chemical would be front page news anywhere in the U.S., even if the same student spending a week in the hospital due to a sports injury would go completely unnoticed (unless perhaps he's the star quarterback).

The science teacher would likely lose their job, while the coach would be offered condolences on the loss of their star player.

So, am I advocating the wholesale slaughter of innocents in the name of a better future? No, of course not. But just like any potentially dangerous activity, real meaty science experiments can be done safely enough, if you have well-trained staff and a reasonable budget. A teacher with a real degree in chemistry, and a well-equipped lab with fume hoods and Lexan blast shields, can safely demonstrate a very wide range of dramatic, interesting, and important experiments. There is absolutely no reason we can't have schools, teachers, and classrooms like that; it's simply a matter of deciding that this is what we want.

A class like that can turn a student around, create a new scientist, or at least foster an understanding that science is not just kid stuff; it's about powerful ideas making things happen in the world.

And, sometimes, there will be accidents. Certainly far less often than in school-sponsored sporting events, to say nothing of bicycle riding or, heaven forbid, getting in a car. But accidents will happen, students will be hurt. What I want is to live in a world where a child being hurt in a science classroom generates no more, and no less, news coverage than a child hurt to the same extent on the football field.

If you ask me whether it's acceptable for a student to be seriously hurt in a science classroom, I'll ask you to tell me whether you think all school sports programs should be shut down. You can't have it both ways.

Because, ultimately, you have to decide: Is science at least as important as football?

÷ ÷ ÷

Theodore Gray is the author of Theo Gray's Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do at Home — But Probably Shouldn't and The Elements. Visit his website at, where you will find the world's most beautiful periodic table and periodic table posters.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Theo Gray's Mad Science: Experiments... Used Hardcover $11.50
  2. The Elements: A Visual Exploration...
    New Hardcover $29.95
  3. The Dangerous Book for Boys
    Used Hardcover $8.95

Theodore Gray is the author of The Elements: A Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe

16 Responses to "Is Science As Important As Football?"

    GregS June 3rd, 2009 at 2:20 pm

    I would say that as a society, we *do* value football and other sports far, far more than we value science. Being an athlete is far more attractive to most than being a scientist is, and being "tough" is valued in a way that being "scientific" is not. That's why we accept sports injuries to a degree that we wouldn't tolerate in most other activities. Indeed, a sports injury is almost a badge of honor to the athletically-minded, whereas no one would boast of a science injury.

    Unfortunately I don't see this changing any time soon.

    GregS June 3rd, 2009 at 2:25 pm

    Another comment. I have this book by Theodore Gray. I bought it because it looks cool, and because I have an interest in amateur science. So I'll give another reason why describing the dangerous experiments is important: it's a way of teaching what you shouldn't do. I don't have any intention of doing any of the dangerous experiments in the book, but I do want to know what is dangerous so that I don't accidentally do it. If you start experimenting with electricity at home, for instance, you can electrocute yourself by accident as well as by doing something dangerous. Ignorance is not a safeguard against danger.

    Mike Figueroa June 3rd, 2009 at 6:45 pm

    Mr. Gray has it spot on with this post.

    I remember in high school hearing from other students how lame Chemistry was. I ended up taking Botany, so I could at least leave the building. Home Economics (basically a cooking course) was desired above the vinegar/baking soda lessons being offered at that time. I can only assume it's even worse now.

    Rob Sanderson June 4th, 2009 at 1:04 am

    One reason I believe for the fear of 'dangerous' science experiments is what seems s to be a level of superstitious ignorance surrounding the subject in general. Speaking as someone who works as a science tech in a college I find that non-scientists treat the subject as something akin to a black art, although this is a bonus since we are left alone to practise blowing up things. Our demos and experiments have a proven track record of being completely safe though, because any risk has been accounted for and duly minimised, and our students have also been versed in good lab practise. Compared to the rest of the college our safety record thus far has been outstanding, strangely most of the injuries sustained by students in college are due to horseplay or playing sports.

    Naysayer June 4th, 2009 at 10:24 am

    Gotta love that nanny state.

    FriendOfScience June 4th, 2009 at 2:31 pm

    Part of the problem is, *alas*, the dreaded liability issue. Thanks for this go to the legal profession and the insurance industry. Schools are generally shielded from liability arising from football injuries due to its voluntary nature. No student is required to participate in football. But a school must accept legal responsibility for anything that it requires as part of its curriculum, and science education is generally required in order to graduate. Even having students and parents sign a liability waiver might not work, since little Jenny's parent's attorney would likely argue that the waiver is invalid because they felt pressured to sign it in order not to deprive their child of her education. So, schools have responded by stripping from the curriculum anything even remotely dangerous for which they might be held liable.

    Science Jock June 4th, 2009 at 5:19 pm

    Football is big business (as is baseball, etc) Any meathead can "appreciate" the skill involved. And rather dubious meatheads full of hubris own football clubs. Smart people who grok science can't be exploited to the same extent and anyway meatheads are intimidated by anyone with an IQ that numerically exceeds their age in years.

    Unfortunately our society is engaged in a race to the bottom as many international tests of educational levels will attest. Not to worry, we can always buy more footballs from some Asian sweatshop.

    Glenn June 6th, 2009 at 6:42 am

    So long as we maintain the factory school model - sit still, be quiet, parrot back the lecture and the teacher's optinions - real education cannot exist.

    Mark Syzdek June 7th, 2009 at 2:08 pm

    When my brother's blog sent me to this web site I was skeptical. My thought was science can't compete with extreme sports, the history channel reverting to UFOs during prime time, the Learning Channel becoming who knows what, because I don't watch it any more. Making science the latest Bond movie won't sell science to anyone who's not already interested. Science can't compete with football and the latest People magazine story (marital/adoption crisis). Science shouldn't. It's above that. I think the science "crisis" is an indictment of every thing that's wrong with society today. We're so risk (litigation) adverse stores put obstacles in the doorway when it's raining to tell everyone the floor is wet. I don't know about you, but I'm insulted when I see that. I drive over speed bumps in my housing area to slow me to 15 MPH so I don't kill all the kids sitting inside their homes playing video games, except the 4 days a year when it's low humidity and 71 degrees outside. (Sorry, unlike Time magazine, I don't translate, to the 7 people who care, to Celsius.)

    All that said, I don't think we're in a crisis, yet. Yes, we should have meaningful science experiments in high school (PETA didn't stop my kids from cutting open cats...yet) I think we hear about the bad and we don't hear about my kids (OK, some of them) who will grab Sibley's with me to help figure out what that bird in the back yard is, one who wants now to major in biology because a friend did (after getting a $1000 go be a lawyer scholarship). They go kayaking and gig flounder, and bring them home, waking me up at 130 AM to cook them. They're in Pensacola, Fl this afternoon seeing the Elcano, a Spanish tall ship visiting for the weekend. They love going out and doing stuff because the wife and I and their parents aren't helicopter parents--scared of every shadow. One issue is parents and people (educators) who refuse to risk.
    When I graduated from high school in '75 the Japanese were going to eat our lunch because we didn't do science well. JFK started the space race because we didn't do science well. Japan and Germany both thought we were weak in the 40's and couldn't do science well. In the formative years of this country 1800 to 1900 we went from an agroconomy to trying to be the first in 1903 to fly. I think our system of government (should we keep it under the current and subsequent administrations) lends itself towards innovation and those who are interested and want to contribute will. Those who aren't and won't won't. Amateurs still make astronomical discoveries. Birders still track what's showing up where. I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll persevere despite our educational system. As I heard in church this morning as the priest quoted "I had a great education, and I've almost recovered from it."
    To summarize my ramblings: I think unfettered capitalism will keep science in this country alive. I think a much better understanding by government, schools, people, and laws of risk is paramount. I, unfortunately, don't have a good answer for addressing the risk issue, except to shut down the press unless they post risk assessments with every story they publish. I flew on business right after 911. People asked if I were concerned. My response was, of course not...everyone is being especially vigilant. I worry more when folks are complacent. Bottom line, again, when we quit trying to legislate and sue all risk (and that includes being offended by someone else's speech) out of every endeavor, we'll do better as a country and people.

    rob June 8th, 2009 at 6:39 pm

    Too many kids get the "college prep". I have my degree in economics and now work as a union elecrician. Old man has money and I saw the world, but what pays the bills is working with my hands. I wish more kids knew this crap and I am only 35.

    build more trade schools now, give this to the young.

    I know avagadro's (sic) number but know nothing of how to implement the ideas of chemistry. Give people basic trade/science and material sourcing and we can get too some good stuff.

    dangerous chem sets, auto/woodworking classes (the guy with no thumb) did build America.

    Benson Grad June 10th, 2009 at 1:49 pm

    When I was a Benson Polytechnic High School student, our physics teacher Mr. Bachman suggested that football be replaced with BB stacking. As far as he could tell, stacking BB's would contribute as much to our education as football, be considerably less expensive, and result in many fewer injuries.

    HealThoid June 10th, 2009 at 4:20 pm

    Interesting... But what sign on novelties of the news?

    Jen August 1st, 2009 at 11:52 pm

    The way science is taught in schools does have some problems, but school is not the only place where a child may learn. I have always loved science and decided to major in chemistry in college because my dad got me interested in science outside of a class room. If I had only depended upon my school I would have never considered a career is science. My high school did not even offer a physics class. It really all comes down to parents getting involved, yet it seems that many parents are content to let the schools raise their children.

    Joe December 23rd, 2009 at 9:48 am

    I'll never forget the lesson of Mr Krantz at Marina High School doing electolosis of water and exploding a a mix of H and O2. Thansk you Mr Krantz. And he raced rail buggies.

    kate December 29th, 2009 at 9:00 am

    Damn straight and well said

    Jerry S. December 31st, 2009 at 6:22 am

    We need to export our legal system to China and India, and keep our science at home, before we sink completely into a sea of ignorance and economic stagnation. Look at what the lawyers are doing to us in Washington. Law of course has a vital place, until it becomes destructive to progress. I would suggest they focus more on malpractice-- and go after each other. I am a retired physicist who as a kid experimented with fireworks, making my own parachute, building tree houses, dams, makeshift guns, and all the other dangerous stuff kids used to get into.

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