When I was a kid, my mom was a fan of educational toys. She never described them as such, and so I didn’t think of them that way until years later. Even the comic books she brought home were likely to be Classic Illustrated, a brand that adapted famous novels. Thumbing her nose at Dr. Wertham’s anti-comic book crusade, she thought reading was reading and that if comics inspired it they were a good thing. Her plan worked. The first full-length adult novel I ever read was The Lost World by Arthur Conan Doyle; I opened it after having been inspired by the Classics Illustrated version. (That very 1959 edition hardback copy of The Lost World is still on my shelf.) She had less success with the art supplies and with science kits such as a chemistry set and a microscope. I played with them to be sure – dabbing paint, examining droplets of pond water, mixing powders in potentially dangerous combinations, and so on – but didn’t develop into an eccentric artist or a mad scientist. Too bad. Either persona might have worked for me, but at grammar school age I didn’t know.
Amazon’s website brought all this to mind a short time ago by listing chemistry sets under “Recommended for you.” My only explanation for this is the batch of oddball presents I buy for the Saturnalia event at my house in December. Somehow from these purchases Amazon’s algorithm decided “you might also like” a kids’ chemistry set. Well, maybe I would like one of those. But, I do notice from the description how much is not included compared to what was in my antique set. In that less safety conscious (or perhaps more parent-trusting) era, the bottled samples in my kit, if used properly, could have wreaked a modest degree of havoc. With the new kits one scarcely can blow up anything.
Of course, the manufacturers at the time were not completely reckless. My old set omitted most of the elements even then. This irked me as a kid because the set came with a periodic table that identified the 92 naturally occurring elements, and yet provided samples only of about two dozen – plus a few compounds useful for simple experiments. I figured the set should come with a majority of the elements anyway. I understood reasons for leaving off some: arsenic and thallium for two, which are too easily applied to the removal of inconvenient people. I grudgingly understood the omission of radium which I knew was radioactive, though I wasn’t aware how insanely expensive it is also. I also figured there was probably good reason to leave out uranium, given its utility in bomb making.
As it happens I was wrong about the uranium. It was then and is now perfectly legal for a private individual to own up to 15 pounds (7kg) of natural uranium. There are companies out there that will sell it to you, though don’t be surprised if some federal agency makes a note of it. You might already own some since one of the more mundane uses of the material is to glaze ceramics. Fiestaware dinnerware made before 1942 has uranium glazing; the plates turn up frequently on eBay. A large proportion of false teeth made before 1980 also flash uranium glazes. Radiation is not a cause for concern in either case – you’ll get more exposure from your granite kitchen countertops. Natural uranium is pretty safe because it contains only 0.71% U235, which is the usefully unstable isotope that powers fuel rods (enriched to 3% U235) or bombs (at more than 90% pure U235). More than 99% of natural uranium is tame U238, which has a half-life of four and one half billion years and therefore emits negligible radiation. If you want to be extra-safe you could opt for depleted uranium, which is uranium with U235 removed, though it is harder to come by since it is in high demand. The stuff makes great armor-piercing ammunition thanks to its density and its tendency to catch fire when it hits the target. Nonetheless, it probably is just as well I didn’t play with uranium as a kid. It was probably just as well I didn’t have the other 67 missing elements at my fingertips, either. I otherwise might have pursued a career as a chemist, and that can have a downside: I saw the last episode of Breaking Bad.
Those childhood kits, sets, and (alas) comics are long gone. A rummage through the attic, closets, and basement convinces me the microscope has vanished somewhere, too, though now I'm tempted to buy another one. In one dusty corner I did find one of those Magic 8-Balls, which still are manufactured as they have been since 1950; the ball will give one of 20 random answers when you ask it a question. I suppose using this device doesn’t quite count as science though.
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