When it comes to science projects, I’m hardly a shrinking violet. Testing parabolic motion with ball bearings in high school was boring: why not roll a bowling ball out a second story window instead? I was sequencing DNA in college before PCR and automation made it easy, and by grad school I’d graduated to designing and building my own experimental equipment. And since I’ve had kids, I’ve made maple syrup in my backyard (4 days to boil down; tasted like woodsmoke), soldered together robots and built a catapult (tho’ just a small one). But I’m not about to try most of the projects in Theodore Gray’s new book, Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do At Home, But Probably Shouldn’t (Black Dog and Leventhal).
That’s not to say they aren’t fascinating. The book is a collection of 54 projects from Gray’s column for Popular Science magazine, divided roughly into 7 broad topics: Experimental Cuisine (projects involving food, though you might not want to eat the results), Doomsday DIY, Raw Power (energy in all its forms), Playing with Fire (burn, baby, burn), Heavy Metal, Natural Wonders, and Twisted Shop Class. They’re not prosaic “science experiments you can do at home” by any means – even the simplest of them require care and forethought, and they’re interspersed with things you would have to be insane (or very very skilled – which Gray clearly is) to try yourself. How insane? Gray starts the book off with a bang – literally – with a demonstration of making salt “the hard way.” That’s right: in what he describes as the most dangerous experiment in the book, he combines highly explosive pure sodium (Na+) with exceedingly toxic chlorine gas (Cl-) to create NaCl -- table salt.
A few of the projects (like burning steel) are actually relatively simple, but most are far beyond my abilities. I may have worked with liquid nitrogen enough to consider attempting his ice cream recipe, but I don’t plan to ever make glass in my barbeque or mix up my own thermite.
But the book is meant to be more inspirational than aspirational. Gray says up front that he doesn’t include enough information to do all the experiments safely, and he marks all of the really dangerous ones with a handy skull-and-explosion icon. They may not be beginner experiments, but each project illustrates basic principles of chemistry, elecromagnetism, or thermodynamics in the most attention-grabbing way, with beautiful color photographs to help you imagine the mayhem. And if your imagination isn’t good enough, videos of some of the more -- erm -- dramatic experiments are available at graysci.com. All in all, it's quite an education.
Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do At Home, But Probably Shouldn’t by Theodore Gray (Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. 2009); hardcover, $24.95