May 4, 2009
If you ever meet Theo Gray, you’ll realize that the name “mad scientist” is probably a good description. He has serious credentials (he co-founded the company that produces the ever-useful Mathematica computer program), but his Wooden Periodic Table Table (for which he won an Ig Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2002) and “Gray Matter” columns in Popular Science show his true nature. In his new book, Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do at Home—But Probably Shouldn’t, he compiles and expands 55 Gray columns to provide an interesting take on chemistry experimentation.
I’ve always thought chemistry was much like cooking, and Gray has taken that familiar approach in his presentation. Each experiment is described with an ingredient list and a few easy-to-understand steps, both in words and full-color photographs.
There is little chance, though, that you will try most of these experiments. For some, the equipment required puts them out of reach (unless you’re, say, a welder). For others, Gray has kindly labeled them with a little skull to indicate the potential for great harm, if not death. (“Chlorine gas kills,” he notes, “and you hurt the whole time you’re dying. Mix phosphorus and chlorates wrong and they blow up while you’re mixing them.”) And, one experiment, “How to Make a Match,” is nigh impossible unless you’re willing to break the law. (“Private possession of red phosphorus is a federal crime.”)
However, there are several that have potential, such as making steel burn, tinting titanium and cooking up a batch of carbon dioxide ice cream. The parts lists and instructions are within easy reach. I might even try some of them myself, if I find the time and appropriate location (that is, not my tiny, enclosed apartment).
Gray agrees that you’d have to be nuts to try some of these experiments, though he has done them all. “I do only things I know I can do safely,” he writes and cautions that you try only those experiments you know you can do safely. But even if you never try one, the book—from the warnings in the introduction to the last experiment, creating a self-heating hot tub—makes for a fascinating read.
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