Underground Chemistry


"I don't tell anyone about what I do at home," writes one anonymous high schooler….."A lot of ignorant people at my school will just spread rumors about me…The teacher will hear about them and I will get into legal trouble…I have so much [*********] at my house, any excuse will not cut it. So I keep my mouth shut."

What do the nine letters I've redacted from a Wired article spell?

Neither "pot plants" nor "child porn," but….glassware.

The article is an overview of where the federal war on terror meets the Bush administration's vaunted war on science and war on drugs: the fight against equipment and chemicals that can be used for making either explosives or drugs. As the article points out:

The lure of do-it-ourself chemistry has always been the most potent recruiting tool science has to offer. Many kids attracted by the promise of filling the garage with clouds of ammonium sulfide–the proverbial stink bomb–went on to brilliant careers in mathematics, biology, programming, and medicine……"There's no question that stinks and bangs and crystals and colors are what drew kids–particularly boys–to science," says Roald Hoffmann of Cornell University, who won the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1981. "Now the potential for stinks and bangs has been legislated out."

The article is worth reading in full. It begins with a full-on M-16-loaded two-dozen officer raid on a seller of home chemistry kits, and goes on to detail the sad death of old-fashioned kid's chemistry sets and hands-on lab work in high schools. But for the good news, the article also touches on the irrepressible rise of an information-about-cool-stuff-wants-to-be-free underground keeping the glories of backyard booms and home lab fun times–even with a soupcon of danger–alive against the odds.

As someone with a deep and abiding interest in colorful and intense explosions from nonprofessionals, I wrote back in May 2005 in Reason about a Consumer Product Safety Commission ongoing crackdown on sellers of things that could become fireworks.