The road to the laboratory is paved with fizz, slime, messy purple stuff, bad smells, and goo. “Do-it-yourself chemistry has always been the most potent recruiting tool science has to offer,” states an article in Wired magazine. Right on.



 imgres-2 Jennifer Boothroyd’s What Is a Solid? (Lerner Classroom, 2007) is a photo-illustrated explanation for beginners, with simple experiments. Companion books are What Is a Liquid? and What Is a Gas? Basic definitions of crucial terms like solution and evaporation for ages 4-7.
 9780516246635_p0_v1_s260x420 Ginger Garrett’s Solids, Liquids, and Gases (Children’s Press, 2005) is a simple introduction to the three states of matter, illustrated with color photographs. For ages 4-8.
 imgres-3 Kathleen Weidner Zoehfeld’s What Is the World Made of? All About Solids, Liquids, and Gases (HarperCollins, 1998) in the Let’s-Read-and-Find-Out Science series begins “Have you ever seen anyone walk through a wall? Did you ever drink a glass of blocks?” A friendly explanation of the three states of matter with a short appended list of activities. For ages 4-8.
 imgres-4 Lisa Trumbauer’s What Are Atoms? (Children’s Press, 2005) in the Rookie Read-About Science series is a simple large-print explanation for beginners, illustrated with color photos. For ages 5-8.
Other chemistry-related books in this series are Don L. Curry’s What Is Matter? and What Is Mass?; Lisa Trumbauer’s What Is Volume?; and Joanne Barkan’s What Is Density?
 imgres-5 In Eric Braun’s Joe-Joe the Wizard Brews Up Solids, Liquids, and Gases (Picture Window Books, 2012), Joe-Joe, a student at Ms. Tickle’s Academy of Magic, is doing his best to change his homework into chocolate. Knowledgeable Ms. Tickle steps in to explain the three states of matter and how they change from one to another. With zany illustrations by Robin Boyden. For ages 5-8.
 imgres-6 In Michael Elsohn Ross’s What’s the Matter in Mr. Whiskers’ Room? (Candlewick, 2007), Mr. Whiskers – the male counterpart to the Magic School Bus’s Ms. Frizzle – encourages his kids to explore matter through hands-on experiments. The kids make gloop and oobleck (recipes included), melt ice, weigh rocks, and make mud, all the while learning crucial facts about matter. For ages 5-10.
 imgres-7 The Max Axiom, Super Scientist series (Capstone) is a collection of graphic novels starring Max Axiom, who wears a flowing lab coat and a pair of really remarkable glasses that act as both X-ray machine and microscope. Check out The Solid Truth about States of Matter with Max Axiom and The Dynamic World of Chemical Reactions with Max Axiom. For ages 7-10.
 imgres-8 Titles in Richard Spilsbury’s Building Blocks of Matter series (Heineman, 2007) are Atoms and Molecules, Elements and Compounds, Mixtures and Solutions, and Chemical Reactions. Each has explanations and experiments, with catchy facts in “Did you know?” boxes. Illustrated with color photographs. For ages 8-11.
 imgres-9 Ann Newmark’s Chemistry (Dorling Kindersley, 2005) in the Eyewitness series is a gorgeously illustrated overview in which each topic is covered in an intriguing double-page spread. Topics include, for example, Chemistry in the Ancient World, The Elements, Investigating Compounds, The Periodic Table, Chemical Reactions, Acids and Bases, Forming Salts, The Chemistry of Life, and The First Plastics. A lot of the information is conveyed in creative picture captions. For ages 8-12.
 imgres-10 The Why Chemistry Matters series (Crabtree Publishing) is a collection of 32-page books, each covering a different chemistry concept in the context of everyday life. Titles are Atoms and Molecules and Mixtures and Solutions by Molly Aloian, and Elements and Compounds, Chemical Changes, Acids and Bases, and States of Matter by Lynette Brent. See Why Chemistry Matters for a detailed guide with activities, objectives, and discussion topics to accompany the books. For ages 9-12.
 imgres-11 For real chemistry with a sense of humor, see Simon Basher and Dan Green’s 128-page Chemistry: Getting a Big Reaction (Kingfisher, 2010). The book is illustrated with great little cartoon characters and information is delivered in the first-person. In the “Basic States” chapter, for example, Liquid – a blue blobby character in a beret and sunglasses – says “Nothing much bothers me, man. Like an old-school beatnik, I’m easygoing and just go with the flow.” Highly recommended. Memorable, clever, and thorough for ages 9-14.
 imgres-12 Chemist Simon Quellen Field and teenager Alexa Coelho are the authors of Why Is Milk White? & 200 Other Curious Chemistry Questions (Chicago Review Press, 2012), a fascinating compilation of good questions (Alexa) and chemistry-savvy answers (Simon). Questions are grouped into ten general categories, among them People and Animals, Plants, Household Chemistry, Things That Catch Fire or Go Bang,Things That Stink, and Color. Among the questions: “How does superglue work?” “How do we make different colored fireworks?” “Why do skunks smell bad?” “Why is water clear?” “What is the strongest kind of acid?” and “Can you really change lead into gold?” Included are a handful of better-than-ordinary experiments to try at home, among them “Smoking Hands” (yes, really), “Making Oxygen,” “Butane Balloon,” and – I love this one – “Hollow Pennies.” These are the sorts of science questions real kids ask. For ages 9 and up.
 imgres-13 Larry Gonick’s Cartoon Guide to Chemistry (HarperResource, 2005) is serious chemistry presented through Gonick’s clever, funny, and knowledgeable little cartoons. The book is divided into twelve chapters, among them “Hidden Ingredients,” “Chemical Reactions,” “Acid Basics,” “Chemical Thermodynamics,” and “Organic Chemistry.” A good pick for the text-shy. For ages 13 and up.
 imgres-14 Chem4Kids is a nicely presented general overview of chemistry for kids, varioiusly covering matter, elements, atoms, chemical reactions, and biochemistry. Under “Activities,” there’s a long list of 10-question quizzes.
See the NeoK12 homepage for a long list of topics, for each of which there’s a large selection of short educational videos. Chemistry topics, for example, include Acids and Bases, Chemical Reactions, Organic Chemistry, Periodic Table, and Radioactivity.
 imgres-15 By (Dr.) Joe Schwartz, Radar, Hula Hoops, and Playful Pigs (Holt Paperbacks, 2001) is a collection of 67 “digestible commentaries on the fascinating chemistry of everyday life.” These are short (about four pages) essays on a wide array of chemistry-related topics: for example, readers learn about limelight, chocolate, champagne, tomato flavor, the forensics of blue jeans, and skunks. There are several chemistry-centered sequels along the same lines, among them The Genie in the Bottle, That’s the Way the Cookie Crumbles, and The Fly in the Ointment. For teenagers and adults.
 imgres-20 John Emsley’s Molecules at an Exhibition (Oxford University Press, 1999) is an eccentric overview of molecules in everyday life, among them oxalic acid (“Rhubarb Pie”), methyl mercaptan (“The Worse Smell in the World”), sulfur dioxide (“Acid Rain, Vintage Wine and White Potatoes”), and many more. For teenagers and adults.
 imgres-17 By Penny Le Couteur and Jay Burreson, Napoleon’s Buttons: How 17 Molecules Changed History (Jeremy P. Tarcher, 2004) is a thoroughly interesting read, with chapters covering ascorbic acid (and scurvy), glucose (and sweeteners), cellulose (and an exciting exploding apron), dyes, wonder drugs, rubber, “Molecules of Witchcraft,” and more. An introductory chapter covers (very nicely) chemical structures. For teenagers and adults.
 imgres-18 By neurologist Oliver Sacks, Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (Vintage, 2002) is a wonderful memoir of Sacks’s childhood in England during the 1930s and 40s, intertwined with his fascination with chemistry.  (Chapter titles include “Stinks and Bangs,” “Mendeleev’s Garden,” and “Madame Curie’s Element.”) The Uncle Tungsten of the title is Sacks’s Uncle Dave – so-named because he manufactured lightbulbs with tungsten filaments – who also had a passion for chemistry. For teenagers and adults.
 imgres-19 Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (Schocken, 1995) – written by an Italian Jewish chemist, who spent World War II in Auschwitz – is a highly original memoir told through the elements of the Periodic Table. Each chapter title is the name of a different element, and in each, the element is used as a jumping-off point to discuss Levi’s experiences both as a chemist and as a man dealing with life in a Fascist state. For teenagers and adults.


 imgres-21 Jill Frankel Hauser’s Super Science Concoctions (Williamson, 2007) is a nicely organized collection of “50 Mysterious Mixtures for Fabulous Fun.” Kids begin with “Strange-But-True Brews,” in the course of which they learn about molecules and solutions, then proceed through the phases of matter, chemical reactions, “Go With the Flow,” in which they explore viscosity, density, and immiscibility, and finally “Goo Globs of Fun,” in which they experiment with polymers, colloids, and gels. For ages 6-12.
 imgres-22 Vicki Cobb’s Science Experiments You Can Eat (HarperCollins, 1984) variously covers Solutions (with rock candy and red-cabbage pH indicator); Suspensions, Colloids, and Emulsions (with mayonnaise and strawberry bombe); Carbohydrates and Fats (with syrup, grape jelly, and butter); Proteins (meringues, custard, and biscuits); and much more. It’s all hands-on fun, with reader-friendly explanations. A great pick for ages 7-12.
The American Chemical Society’s The Best of WonderScience – available for purchase as a book; sample activities on the website – has literally hundreds of chemistry-based activities for ages 7 and up.
 51ZlAJ9lGjL._SL500_SY300_ Vicki Cobb’s Chemically Active! (Lippincott, 1987) has much better than average experiments, clear instructions, and reader-friendly background information. For example, kids isolate carbon dioxide, “split” water, make iron sulfate and test compounds for iron, electroplate a penny, and make a galvanometer and test solutions for their ability to conduct an electric current. Kids may need some help, depending on their ages. This is – for no conceivable reason – out of print, but is available in inexpensive used editions. Well worth tracking down for chemists ages 9 and up.
 imgres-23 Steve Spangler’s Naked Eggs and Flying Potatoes (Greenleaf Books, 2010) – along with the famous mentos geyser experiment – has a section on Kitchen Chemistry.  Make Taco Sauce, Penny Cleaner, a Seven-Layer Density Column, and Color Changing Milk. Illustrated with great photos of experimenting kids. For ages 9 and up.
 imgres-24 Joe Rhatigan’s Cool Chemistry Concoctions (Lark Books, 2007) contains 50 different experiments, all with catchy titles, each neatly arranged in three sections: “What You Need,” “What You Do,” and “Why It Works.” (Included are nifty directions for making a geyser with a bottle of soda pop and a package of lifesavers – in our experience, it works better with Mentos, but it’s still a wow.) For ages 8-12.
 imgres-25 Cynthia Light Brown’s Amazing Kitchen Chemistry (Nomad Press, 2008) is a 10-chapter overview of chemistry, with background information, Words to Know lists, catchy fact boxes, and a lot of appealing hands-on projects and experiments. For example, kids made a buckyball, an alka-seltzer rocket, crystals, invisible ink, and oobleck. For ages 9-12.
 imgres-26 Anita Brandolini’s Fizz, Bubble & Flash! (Williamson, 2003) is a solid and cleverly presented introduction to chemistry, beginning with a comprehensive explanation of atoms, elements, and the Periodic Table. The book includes plenty of hands-on activities and presents fascinating facts and supplementary information in boxes and sidebars. Illustrated with humorous cartoons and photographs. For ages 9-13.
 imgres-27 By Cathy Cobb and Monty L. Fetterolf, The Joy of Chemistry (Prometheus Books, 2010) is a hands-on introduction to chemistry. (The book begins with a “Shopping List” of all the supplies you’ll need to buy or make to complete the experiments.) First experiments (a bang and a splat) are a bottle rocket and a batch of oobleck, just to get the book off to an exciting start – but this is more than just a bunch of catchy demos; it’s a serious introduction to chemistry in 390 pages, well-written, and using lots of quotations and readily understandable references to things encountered in everyday life. Like pizza cheese. For ages 14 and up.
 imgres-34 From the American Chemical Society (ACS), ChemMatters magazine is wonderful educational magazine filled with fascinating articles about chemistry in everyday life, plus hands-on activities, puzzles, and detailed teacher’s guides. Back issues (for the last three years) are available in print; and the ChemMatters CD has all issues and teachers’ guides from 1983-2008 ($30). A print subscription to ChemMatters costs $16 annually. Highly recommended. For ages 12 and up.
 imgres-29 The ACS also sponsors a pair of innovative chemistry textbooks for high-school- and early-college-level students, both interestingly centered around the chemistry of various important social, political, economic, and ethical issues. These books do not, some textbook reviewers caution, substitute for conventional chemistry texts – for example, they don’t cover the history of chemistry – but they’re extremely well written, heavily hands-on-based, and dedicated to demonstrating how essential a knowledge of chemistry is to major problems in the real world. The high-school text, Chemistry in the Community (W. H. Freeman, 2006) consists of seven detailed study units, variously covering water, materials, petroleum, air, industry, nuclear energy, and food, each with chemical concepts, laboratory exercises, data analysis explanations of crucial problems, and supplementary challenges.
The unit on water, for example, begins with a pair of newspaper articles detailing a fish kill and accompanying water emergency in the imaginary community of Riverwood. Kids then investigate water properties, water purification techniques, household and national water usage, and Earth’s hydrologic cycle. Here’s one supplementary sample challenge: You’re marooned on an island in the ocean. The only available water on the island is a murky stagnant pond. Your survival kit contains a nylon jacket, a plastic cup, two plastic bags, rubber tubing, a knife, a bottle of liquid bleach, an empty glass bottle, and a bag of salted peanuts. How are you going to produce drinkable water?
 imgres-30 Robert Bruce Thompson’s 400+-page Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments (All Lab, No Lecture) (Make Books, 2008) is a serious, detailed, and beautifully designed and organized volume, intended for do-it-yourself chemists, homeschoolers, and conventionally schooled kids looking for a hands-on supplement to at-school mostly-lecture chemistry courses. The first few (very thorough) chapters are devoted to the basics of supplying and using a home chemistry lab, with detailed lists of necessary glassware, equipment, and chemicals, safety precautions, and instruction in such essential laboratory skills as maintaining a lab notebook, making accurate measurements, handling chemicals properly, using a balance and an alcohol lamp, bending glass tubing, and titration and filtration.
 imgres-30 The remaining 17 chapters – which comprise about two years’ worth of high-school-level chemistry labs – each include multiple lab exercises centered around a specific chemical topic, variously appropriate for a range of expertise, from beginner to advanced. Topics were selected to ensure that kids get a thorough grounding in chemistry, and run the gamut from Separating Mixtures, Solubility and Solutions, and Acid-Base Chemistry to Chemical Equilibrium, Gas Chemistry, Colloids and Suspensions, Quantitative and Qualitative Analysis, Synthesis of Useful Compounds (kids make rayon and oil of wintergreen), and Forensic Chemistry.
Each lab has well-presented background information and explanations, a list of equipment and supplies, very detailed step by step instructions illustrated with color photographs, charts and tables to be filled in with student data, and review questions. Helpful boxes provide additional information and definitions, suggested modifications and extension activities, comments and hints from scientists, and disposal instructions.
 images Visitors to the web site can purchase kits of chemicals and lab equipment to accompany the book, and can subscribe to HomeChemLab online which, for an annual $18, gets you a downloadable answer guide, a monthly newsletter of chemical news, articles, and additional experiments, and access to the HomeChemLab discussion forums. An excellent resource for a time when serious opportunities for hands-on home chemistry are in shamefully short supply.
 imgres-31 Theodore Gray’s MAD SCIENCE: Experiments You Can Do at Home – But Probably Shouldn’t (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc., 2009) inevitably brings to mind Jean Shepherd’s A Christmas Story, in which nine-year-old Ralphie wants a Red Ryder B-B gun for Christmas, but is balked by all adults, on grounds of “You’ll shoot your eye out!” MAD SCIENCE is the Red Ryder B-B gun of chemistry, the stuff all proto-scientists crave as kids. Some of it is – yes – dangerous. It’s also a wonderful read. The book is 200+ pages long, every one of them illustrated with gorgeous and dramatic color photographs, and crammed with fascinating information and step-by-step instructions for carrying out truly spectacular experiments. Who wouldn’t want to make titanium in a flowerpot? Lightning in a can? Use your barbecue grill to turn sand into glass? This is great stuff. Just use commonsense.
 imgres-32 Scientific American magazine’s “Amateur Scientist” column was for decades a prime source for bright hands-on science hobbyists of high-school age and up. Though the column has since been discontinued, its entire content is now available on CD-ROM for Windows, Mac OS, Linux, and UNIX. This contains over 1000 challenging projects from all fields of science, categorized by discipline, cost, difficulty, and danger (on a scale of 1 to 4, 1 being “no hazard” and 4 being “possibly lethal”). Chemistry projects include “How To Blow Soap Bubbles That Last for Months or Even Years,” “Making a Refractometer for the Identification of Liquids,” “How to Build a Gas Chromatograph,” “Chemical Systems That Oscillate Between One Color and Another” (also known as a “chemical clock” and very cool), and many more. Mind-expanding for the scientifically curious (and great for science fairs). About $30.


The day of the chemistry set is over, according to an article (Don’t Try This At Home) in the June 2006 issue of Wired magazine. A combination of governmental safety regulations, Homeland Security edicts, liability issues, and popular nervousness – Wired calls it chemophobia – has put curious kids, science-supportive parents, and home-style scientists flatly out of luck. Even the public schools are now turning away from hands-on chemistry labs in favor of teacher (or video) demonstrations.

Admittedly chemistry, misused, can be dangerous – but then so can lots of other things, including football, baseball bats, gas-fueled ovens, and plastic wading pools. Included in the article are three splashy and superb hands-on chemistry experiments. You’ll love them. Just be sure to wear your safety glasses, follow directions, and don’t do anything silly.

 imgres-35 Most modern chemistry sets are feeble imitations of their former selves, barely worthy of the name – common ingredients nowadays are clay, balloons, laundry starch, and table salt. A last hold-out is Thames & Kosmos  which sells a range of well-designed science kits and chemistry sets, among them the Chem C3000 (“2400 cubic inches of pure chemistry”) which includes a substantial complement of chemicals and laboratory equipment, and a detailed 178-page instruction manual outlining some 360 experiments. It costs about $200 and is recommended for ages 12 and up.
 images Large science supply companies that variously sell lab equipment, kits, and chemicals include the Carolina Biological Supply Company, Edmund Scientific, NASCO, and Ward’s Natural Science Establishment.
 images American Science and Surplus (“incredible stuff, unbelievable prices”) is a good source for lab supplies and equipment, as well as all sorts of other scientific gadgets, kits, and dohickeys.
 images Home Science Tools is also a source for lab equipment, lab glassware and plasticware, alcohol burners, and chemicals.


 imgres-36 In Laurie Halse Anderson’s Catalyst (Speak, 2002), main character Kate is a chemistry whiz who wants only to get into MIT. She lives with her father, a minister, and younger brother Toby, who has asthma; her mother died years ago of pneumonia. Then the house next door, occupied by the awful Litch family, burns, and Kate’s father takes in Teri Litch, Kate’s age, and her two-year-old brother Mikey. Then Kate’s life begins to fall apart: MIT rejects Kate and she has no backup plan; her relationship with her boyfriend is iffy; Mikey – who turns out to be Teri’s son, following rape by her father – is killed. All the chapter titles are based on chemistry concepts, and the story is told through chemistry metaphors. For ages 13 and up.
 imgres-37 By Alan Bradley, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Bantam, 2010) is the first of the Flavia de Luce mysteries, a growing series featuring eleven-year-old Flavia, a self-taught chemist, growing up in the 1950s in the crumbling British mansion of Buckshaw, with her eccentric postage-stamp-obsessed father and two interfering older sisters. In times of trouble, Flavia asks “What would Antoine Lavoisier do?” Addictive reads for ages 13 and up.
This entry was posted in Science and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Post a comment or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>