Fine Structure

We're Failing Because We Care

O'Reilly Radar has a post up entitled "Why We're Failing in Math and Science" which details the current attitude of America towards chemistry and chemists who choose to experiment at home. In particular, the plight of one chemist (and author of O'Reilly/Make's Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments) who had his entire home lab confiscated because the local Massachusetts government couldn't comprehend what he would possibly need those chemicals for other than terrorism. The sarcasm should be obvious but it doesn't make this any less of a crime against our good chemist, Robert Thompson.

O'Reilly touches more on the unconstitutionality - which is of utmost importance, but the details are hardly within the domain of your blogger's expertise. Needless to say, I've encountered too many people who use their given power out of fear rather than rationality.

The other important (and relevant!) part is the similarity to the fear surrounding the Large Hadron Collider. A certain set of people think that experiments containing some (perceived) risk should be avoided at all costs. The conservative science here is of the least productive sort and sits squarely behind the blame for the title track; why we fall behind in math and science.

And this isn't even a new problem. While I probably had a couple more chemicals in my kiddie chemistry set then kids have now, I'm sure it doesn't compare to chemistry sets of 40 years ago. Not only are we becoming a culture of warning labels and litigation-expectation but we're rounding every sharp edge and baby-proofing every outlet to the point that I can hardly find a place to plug in anymore.

The effect might be obvious to a reader of this blog but it's cleverly disguised as a good thing for most of the world who are steadfastly trying to protect their children from a (perceived) ever-more-dangerous world, or similar. Who could argue with protecting the children, after all? In reality, the world is likely safer than ever for most of the youth who can afford chemistry sets and, if anything, this is their chance to experiment safely, foster a curious outlook on the world, and yes, blow some shit up from time to time.

Perhaps I glossed over the important point there - foster a curious outlook on the world - which is probably the single most defining characteristic I've observed in those that become scientists and engineers. Wanting, no, needing to know why something happens is so incredibly important, I feel like I just can't overstate it enough. Don't think so? This is why we have a comments section.


I went to school in a very small town in the Philippines. Although we didnt exactly have the type of teacher who encouraged young minds to get into Chemistry, we still loved being in that laboratory room. We probably didnt have as much fancy stuff as you did where you went to school (in the US, i presume?), but it was still fun to play around (when the monster teacher wasnt hovering).
Now, as a new mother, and living in Spain (and highly influenced by the UKs parenting lifestyle --my husbands English), I do sometimes wonder if were too irrationally afraid for our kids, sometimes. There seems to be so many things they cant do now -- all for the reason of safety. We grew up without stair gates. Our uncle made our cot and Im pretty sure he followed no safety standard when he made it. We didnt have those little things you put in sockets either.. And My sisters and I are all fine.

Im not undermining the safety of our kids at all. But where do we stop?

January 2, 2009
10:47 AM

From Samantha

nice article

February 10, 2009
12:30 PM

From greg