Bring Back Stinks and Bangs! Children's Scientific Curiosity Is Being Stifled by Teachers' Fear of Safety Regulations and Court Action. but without Risk There Can Be No Discovery, Argues Robin McKie
McKie, Robin, New Statesman (1996)
The blast that wrecked my family's Sunday morning 40 years ago remains my most spectacular, and certainly most memorable, involvement in chemical research. At around 8am, as the first weak rays of Glaswegian sunshine stole across my room and illuminated the walk-in cupboard that acted as my laboratory, there was a detonation of Verdun-like proportions. A cloud of ammonia-rich chemicals whipped across my room, spraying out pieces of laboratory glassware. My mother shrieked across the hall; my father raced into my room, cursing with unsuspected fluency; and I leapt from my bed as glittering fragments tinkled around me.
"Tri-nitrogen iodide," I gabbled. "I was drying it out and sunlight must have ignited it. It's used as a detonating agent, you know." I could tell that my father was unimpressed with this information, because he merely repeated a number of quite specific threats to my physical well-being before he returned, muttering, to his bed.
My chemical "shenanigans" were well known, and were usually indulged, both at home and school. At the end of term, my friends and I would set off magnesium-weedkiller firecrackers; dump potassium permanganate into the school's hot-water tank so that purple solutions would emerge, rather satisfyingly, from main-block toilet taps; or drop pieces of sodium metal--bought from a local chemicals warehouse--into drains, thus generating clouds of hydrogen that would ignite and send geysers of steam and water across the playground. Our teachers were amused, and occasionally impressed.
We were mere energetic amateur chemists, of course--though no one, ourselves included, was ever harmed by our antics. We also learned a great deal, because chemistry not only lets youthful practitioners make stinks and bangs, it lets them test things and record conclusions with instant--usually gratifying--results. It satisfies youthful inquisitiveness in a spectacular manner.
Or at least it used to, for thanks to a host of health and safety measures that have been introduced over the past decade, the nation's youth is now denied such stimulation. It has become taboo to allow young people access to anything more harmful than a piece of litmus paper: the chemist who sold us sodium would be jailed and the teacher who turned a blind eye to our petty pilfering of his stock would be sacked. And jolly good, too, you might think. Can't have our kids blowing themselves up. It's common sense, isn't it?
Well no, it isn't, a point that has been made recently by a growing number of researchers--such as Sir Alec Jeffreys, the Leicester geneticist who discovered DNA fingerprinting. "I am a scientist today only because I was allowed to go through a period of significant danger to myself," he says. "I had to grow a beard in later life because I burned my face with acid while mucking about with chemicals as a lad. But it was a risk I was willing to take. Doing these things let me satisfy my interest in the world around me. Children simply cannot do that now."
Nor is the problem confined to chemistry. Take that great college perennial: the geology field trip. Students used to hike into the wilderness, armed only with a hammer (for breaking up samples) and a tent. Then it was decreed they must wear hard hats. "So we set off with some building-site helmets in our minibus," says the geologist Ted Nield, a lecturer at University College Swansea at the time the decree was imposed. "Then the bus went round a bend, and the helmets fell off their rack and gashed three students' heads. We hadn't had an injury until then."
Or consider an article I wrote recently for the Observer about preparations to celebrate Einstein Year by sending students to this summer's Glastonbury Festival, where they plan, among other things, to set off rockets powered by Alka-Seltzers. (Mix them with water and use the power of the fizz. Simple.) I was deluged with e-mails from local officials demanding to know more about possible missile hazards to festival-goers. …