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 And, yes, they have been replaced by elaborate video simulations that let you choose which of two beakers to mix together, then show you what happens.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?