A chemistry set can be bang on for a potential innovator

Experimenting with a chemistry set could have a long-term effect

Chemistry set: the ideal gift that will make the recipient an innovator

Chemistry set: the ideal gift that will make the recipient an innovator

 

Christmas has officially arrived. The street decorations are up in many towns and cities, and a few home-owners decided to jump early and got their lights and window displays up last week in the closing days of November. (Is this a record?) And the 100 per cent seasonal music station ChristmasFM is broadcasting it you want to get even deeper into the holiday mood.

The next thing that strikes when you see the twinkling lights beginning to multiply is “yikes! I haven’t even thought about my Christmas shopping, let alone made a purchase”.

There must be any number of meta-analysis studies that prove that the potent mix of jolly lights and corny old carols triggers a subset of genes, releasing proteins that make you more willing to hand over money.

We buy more, eat more and drink more at this time of year whether it is good for our personal finances or not.

January hovers just below the horizon, with all its fiscal rectitude and austerity, but many of us blithely ignore it, deciding to worry about such things when the carols stop playing.

But back to the shopping and the big question that arises for this column at this time of year – what gift can you buy that will make the recipient an innovator?

Is there a present with the magical capacity to encourage a person to become a research scientist or an entrepreneur who can convert research discoveries into viable products or even a company?

In our house when we were children that gift was a chemistry set, given to my eldest brother. He was always a science geek, so it was a natural fit for him even as a youngster. He dug into it, carrying out all the experiments, and then graduating to an even bigger set.

He was afforded exclusive access to a tiny storage room in the basement where he mixed chemicals, caused minor fizzles and pops, and learned all the formulas.

Such was his enthusiasm for the subject that he quickly ran out of experiments and – as happened in those days before the internet and wiki and dozens of online sites – he took off to the local library to see what else he could do with his supply of chemicals.

The potential for the manufacture of fireworks and explosive caught his eye, perhaps not surprising given his age, and he started the clandestine manufacture of flash powder, gunpowder and other mysterious compounds.

Shopping list

He soon became an expert in the production of very powerful firecrackers and curious things that looked not unlike a grenade wrapped in string and neatly finished off in orange paint.

By this stage he had added a padlock to the door, an extra layer of security to keep younger brothers at bay but also overly curious parents.

It wasn’t long before the quiet of our suburban neighbourhood began to reverberate with the sound of distant explosions, events usually heard when my brother was not at home. Word also began to filter down through the younger siblings not to squeal if asked anything about these “chemistry experiments”. Our ready agreement was usually rewarded with some secret information from the lab, including the fact that he had learned how to make nitro-glycerine, quite a simple formula actually.

Minor explosion

However, all this chemistry did have a long-term effect, delivering up not one but two recruits to the pursuit of science. My brother abandoned the chemistry, choosing physics instead, and ending up with a PhD.

Having been wowed with the wonders of science and what could be done with a chemistry set, this columnist also signed up for physics when it came time to start third level. No PhD here, unfortunately, but a useful blend of science and literature that delivered a BA and went on to provide a career spent writing about science.

So you could do worse than buying a chemistry set if you want to encourage an interest in the sciences.

Just make certain no padlocks follow.

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