Home Chemistry: A New Guide for Hobbyists and Home Schoolers

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Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture (DIY Science) is a new book by Robert Thompson. The premise is simple. The coolest thing in the world is a home chemistry set like this one from Gilbert, which combined both chemistry and microscopy:

Chemistry Set Combine the sciences of Chemistry and Microscopy in one big laboratory set! Microscope has a magnification of 60 power, plus unique Polaroid device that shows the brilliant colors of specimens under the lens. Set includes “Fun With Gilbert Chemistry”, “Gilbert Microscope”, “Glass Blowing” manuals and dissecting stand. From the Eli Whitney Museum and Workshop

But these chemistry sets are no longer available because the companies that made them (or would make them today) started paying attention to the memos from the Legal Department. True, there are chemistry sets, such as the CHEM C3000 Advanced Chemistry Experiment Kit, which attempt to replicate these wonderful vintage kits, but they are just not the same. (Thompson, the author of the book we are reviewing here, does claim that the C3000 is the best out there).


Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments: All Lab, No Lecture (DIY Science)
Thompson grew up with these chemistry sets, and in his youth developed beyond what they had to offer, eventually making his own chemical workbench, then majoring in Chemistry in College, and eventually becoming a Chemist of sorts (and an Astronomer and a Computer Designer/Builder, and some other things). He is coauthor of Building the Perfect PC, Astronomy Hacks, and the Illustrated Guide to Astronomical Wonders. so chances are you’ve at least seen his books on the shelf if not read some of them.

The Illustrated Guide is suitable for the serious hobbyist but it is also suitable for the Home Schooler. In fact, Thompson provides a very handy concordance indicating how one should use the lab sequence presented in the book to match various High School curricula, including AP Chemistry.

In the process of writing and developing lab manuals, I have reviewed all the major College chemistry labs (as well as life science labs) and I have to say that the layout and presentation, do-ability and clarity of the labs in this book is unsurpassed overall. I have not done any of the labs in this book, so I cannot verify any of them nor can I point out those funny glitches that happen in labs when they are actually implemented. Which sometimes are not so funny. If you do use this book, you may want to keep an eye on the Errata page. I am not suggesting that there will be a lot of mistakes in this volume, but there are a lot of labs, it is a new book, and it is Chemistry (boom!) so caution suggests that you do this.

How does Thompson deal with the issue that over the last 25 years Chemistry Sets have gone, sadly, away seemingly over safety concerns, but he has a book that tells you how to make bombs and rocket fuel?

Well, for starters, he is pretty clear that this book DOES NOT TELL YOU HOW TO MAKE BOMBS (or rocket fuel). However, the experiments as a whole are in fact dangerous. There is glass (that can cut) there is fire, and there are chemicals that you don’t wan in your eyes and that you certainly should not ingest.

Thomson takes a pragmatic approach to safety. He makes clear how important it is to take responsibility for your own safety and those in your environs when you are mucking around with Chemistry. and he provides safety information.

Getting back to content, one of the important differences between this volume and at least some college chem labs is the inclusion of many optional activities as well as additional information. However, this is not a Chemistry text. If you are going to use this book as the center piece for a home schooling chemistry course, you will also need a chemistry textbook. Thomson recommends Chemistry: The Central Science, which is very expensive unless you get a used or older edition.

Just as important as the labs themselves is the discussion on how to set up your home chemistry lab, where to get the equipment, what kind of equipment to get, and so on. I do think Thomson goes a little easy on you here in a way that I would not recommend. He says it is OK to use the student grade materials in most cases, and not to worry about it. I recommend that you worry a little. Make it part of your plan to upgrade to professional grade glassware over time, even if you must use student grade in the beginning. Most importantly, determine where the difference between student grade and pro is a matter of ease of use, sturdiness of equipment, or accuracy of measurement (like the measuring lines on the side of a beaker). Figure out what is important for you and purchase your stuff that way. You can make use of household materials and student grade products in many areas, thus saving money for that really good graduated cylinder that covers the size range you use a lot, for instance.

The book is 432 pages, weighs 2.2 pounds and is made of paper. (Hey, I’m just making basic physical observations, as recommended in the book). It costs less than 20 bucks, though the list price is of course higher.

Have you read the breakthrough novel of the year? When you are done with that, try:

In Search of Sungudogo by Greg Laden, now in Kindle or Paperback
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9 thoughts on “Home Chemistry: A New Guide for Hobbyists and Home Schoolers

  1. I used to have a chemistry set like that as a kid. Didn’t have anyone to really show me how to get the most out of it, though. I was probably too young (8 or so). Apparently there’s lots of chemistry in the anarchists cookbook. Not that I’ve tried any of them.

  2. I had that exact chemistry set as a child. Setting on top of my computers hutch, setting my microscope from that kit. It use used to reminding me that the humble tool I had a child, out preformed the 1st microscopes.

    Today’s children seem to be lost in a maze of technology that we old farts would stand an drool over when we were young.

    I stood in line once for 6 hours. (I was about 11 years old) to get Quick Four minutes at a “big” scope on Mt Hamilton to make a quick sketch. This was the 12 inch refractor built for Henry Draper. Since I was near the end of the line the operator gave me a few more minutes to finish my sketch. When I was done one of the other operators remarked it was well done and I had managed to sketch just what I could see. I guess I was lucky my school instructor knew someone that was nice enough to let a small group of school children visit.

    I glad to see people writing books for use with these basic tools. There is nothing wrong with being self taught. I taught myself how to do many things over the years.

  3. I had one of these sets and the advance microscopy set and an electonics lab. I had hours of fun and learning. And I went way beyond them with additions from stores and the kitchen. I ‘macGivered’ a lot of stuff. Guess what? I’m still here, did not blow up the house (my dad would not get the stuff needed for nitroglycern), and I did not harm or kill anyone. The ‘sue’ nature of America is a disgrace. The kits were my 1st steps into my present world of failure mode analysis and material analysis for various companies around the world. I still have the materials of these kits in the form of a very large lab, where I get paid to play with my chemistry set.

  4. Jealousy! My parents got me one of those home electronics kits (with the 80 different included projects and a slew of copper wires and springs to attach them to), instead, figuring I was less likely to blow up the dog. They were probably right. Though I took great pleasure in wiring up the tweeter to make noise at random intervals.

    Saw a USB microscope on ThinkGeek the other day — if it wasn’t so bloody expensive I might get one just to toy with. http://www.thinkgeek.com/gadgets/electronic/9955/

  5. Used chemistry texts should be ok. Chemistry the Central Science is ok, but there is little new in the newer editions. On bookfinder.com I find 22 offers of old editions for less than $5 including shipping Check your local Salvation Army store (or other used stuff store) for copies of any general chemistry book. The ones that are 20 years old should be just as useful as new ones.

  6. When I was 11, I asked my parents for a nice microscope like the ones we used at school. Instead, I ended up with a cheap crappy one. Since I never used it, my parents assumed I just wasn’t interested and I never got a better one.

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