Don’t know what to buy for Christmas this year?

Every so often I spend some time paging through old issues of Chemistry World not only for the ‘guilty pleasure’ of seeing how much the publication has changed and evolved through the years (which incidentally is a lot), but also looking for inspiration and ideas. In particular, on this occasion, I was after interesting Christmas-related content that I could refer to in my December editorial and struck it lucky when I stumbled upon the December 2007 issue. In it I found the wonderful feature ‘The chemistry set generation’, which I strongly recommend you read, especially if the proximity of Christmas has encouraged a certain nostalgic disposition and you would like to reminisce. 

I’m addressing those of a certain age as chemistry sets had their heyday during the 1940s and 50s but rapidly went out of fashion in the 1960s, so for many of us they were not the ‘toys of choice’ when we were growing up. As a result, I never got a chemistry set as a Christmas present or otherwise. However, I was interested to learn that the earliest sets date back to the 18th century and the first to be targeted at children appeared in the 1830s. Early manufacturers drew parallels between chemistry and magic to inspire children, using terms such as ‘chemical magic’ in the marketing literature. I’m sure many scientists around the world remember theirs well and I’d even go as far as to say that we owe many a successful career in chemistry to these sets. It was probably the thrill of mixing together the set’s contents following the detailed instructions from the manual that got many hooked on chemistry. 

Nobel prize winner Robert Curl recalls: ‘When I was nine years old, my parents gave me a chemistry set. Within a week, I had decided to become a chemist.’ A familiar story? I’m sure it is. Indeed, we only have to go as far as this month’s Chemistry World Jobs profile on Peter Wothers (soon to be made available online but if you have a print copy it’s on page 80) to see an example of this. He’s been obsessed with chemistry ever since playing with magnets and iron filings as an eight year old and admits: ‘I rapidly got through three different chemistry sets carrying out experiments in my bedroom.’ Nowadays, he tours the world giving his demonstration lectures to a wide audience and has been invited to give the traditional Royal Institution Christmas lectures televised on BBC Four and sponsored for the first time by the RSC. 

In his editorial of 2007, my predecessor urged every reader to ‘give the gift of science [for Christmas] this year’. A chemistry set would be wonderful but failing that here are some other options. As is usual, we have prepared a selection of excellent stocking fillers in the Reviews section that we’d like to recommend if you are thinking of getting a loved one a chemistry-related treat. Better still, for the first time ever, we will be launching an online shop at the beginning of December where you’ll be able to buy Chemistry World branded T-shirts so you can kit yourself out and show everyone you are a loyal reader and follower. And if you are brave enough to model it for us and send us a picture we’ll broadcast it to the world. 

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