When I was growing up as a kid, I remember begging for a chemistry set one Christmas, at the time the holy grail of chemistry sets was the Salters Science Chemistry Set 5. A large vile-green box packed full with everything you needed to split water into hydrogen & oxygen, strips of magnesium ribbon to blind yourself with when you stare at it burning and more copper sulphate than you can eat.
Of course I never actually got set 5. I was given set 2, which came with the same manual as set 5, but had a slip of paper telling you the contents of set 2 would not let you perform the experiment in the book beyond page 30 or so. It did also come with a nice order form so you could purchase chemical refils and seperate parts to upgrade set 2 to sets 3-5. Chemicals were about 15p per tube, the most expensive piece of glasswear ran to about five pounds.
I never did get set 5, but looking back over the manual I’ve saved these many years I realise that there was nothing too spectactuar you could do. The the most dangerous things in the set were magnesium ribbon and some chemicals for making chlorine gas.
Three years ago I was bought another chemisty set as a joke gift (I left the physics dept to join the chemistry dept). Nowhere in the manual did it make any mention of a more advanced set being avaliable – infact there was no more advanced set – this was the best it got. It contained about a half dozen test tubes, a small spirit burner and 8 chemicals. There was the obligatory copper sulphate, two dyes, iron filings, some citric acid and a few other odds and sods. There was nothing ‘fun’ in there. Not even any fun experiments listed in the manual.
If I’d had been given that set as a kid, I’d have felt conned. You can do many more fun and educational things with the contents of your kitchen cupboards. I used to know a couple of people that did chemistry at home – plating metals, coating mirrors, trying to find fun stuff in coal-tar. The don’t any longer, it is next to impossible for a private individual to get chemicals at home.
Chemistry teaching at schools, well science teaching in general, seems to be crap now. So where will the next few generations of scientists get turned on to science of not at home or school?