Do you remember your first chemistry set?

Do you remember your first chemistry set? I certainly do - it was a barely used kit picked up for pennies from a church jumble sale. The faded box cover carried the image of a young boy in Sunday best, smugly studying the contents of a test tube. 

The heady thrill of randomly mixing together the set’s contents, Paul Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice ringing in my ears, quickly gave way to a realisation that strategic thinking - or at least following the stained instruction book - could produce much more impressive results. 

Nobel prize-winning chemist Robert Curl, who shared the award with Harry Kroto and Richard Smalley for the discovery of C60, remembers the same excitement. ’When I was nine years old, my parents gave me a chemistry set,’ he recalls. ’Within a week, I had decided to become a chemist and never wavered from that choice.’ 

Similar feelings are expressed by a dozen more Nobel winners in our feature on the history of the chemistry set and are surely shared by thousands of other chemists around the world. 

That’s why, in the prelude to Christmas, Chemistry World  is urging every reader to give the gift of science this year. Buy a chemistry set for your son or daughter, nephew or niece, or a friend’s children. You could even offer to help supervise their first forays into the home laboratory if their parents are nervous about stinks and bangs. 

Earlier this year, our Bench Monkey columnist (Chemistry World, May 2007, p42) lamented that today’s chemistry sets were ’boring’, health and safety regulations having denuded the modern kit of its more explosive components. Others point out the lack of magnesium ribbon; the missing hydrogen peroxide, removed for its potential for making explosive triacetone triperoxide; the absence of potassium nitrate (what if the little tykes make nitroglycerine?); and definitely no sodium, because of the Birch reduction step in the synthesis of methamphetamine. 

The drive to make chemistry sets safe is often seen as a tragedy. But few children are encouraged to study chemistry if early experiments cost them a finger or an eye. As research chemists know well, it doesn’t have to be dangerous to be exciting. And it’s clearly a bad idea to equip a nine-year-old with cyanide salts, which were included in some of A C Gilbert’s early 20th century sets. 

A weekend trip to several local toy shops revealed a vast array of choice for the budding chemist. As well as more traditional set-ups - test tubes, burners and chemical vials all present and correct - themed kits on forensics, perfumes and sticky slime promise to bring DNA extraction, chromatography and polymer chemistry to your kitchen. The growth in home schooling in America also means that there are some extremely comprehensive kits available online. And for the young crystallographer there are numerous opportunities for growing crystals, an activity that Harry Kroto told us he found ’magical’ as a youngster. 

Even though some may not be labelled explicitly as ’chemistry’, these kits can surely appeal to a much wider range of children - both boys and girls - who might otherwise be put off by the image of the prissy young gent on the cover of my own first set. 

So make a trip to the toy store this weekend, or dust off the credit card for some online shopping. Just think how many kids we can turn on to the thrill of chemistry this Christmas.

Mark Peplow, editor