Decline of Amateur Chemists (a.k.a citizen chemists)

  1. Chemists known as citizen chemists are everyday people who perform experiments to gain knowledge but do not work in a laboratory but rather have a kind of "home laboratory."
    So what exactly am I posting? Well, recently I read a post on another scientific forum regarding a decline of citizen chemists (like myself) and describing certain laws that make people like me get nervous about experiments conducted at home. The point here is "if you don't know all the possible combination of a chemical then you may be at risk of the law."

    http://www.sas.org/tcs/weeklyIssues_2005/2005-08-12/backscatter/index.html

    The above is a link that speaks of the topic.
     
  2. jcsd
  3. turbo

    turbo 7,366
    Gold Member

    About the only "citizen chemists" in this neck of the woods are operating meth labs. One was busted a couple of years back, located in an apartment across the road from the entrance to the Maine Criminal Justice Academy that trains state troopers and wardens. Hmm...probably should have rented an old house-trailer out in the boonies, instead.
     
  4. mrjeffy321

    mrjeffy321 882
    Science Advisor

    It is important to make the distinction between those who wish to carry out home chemistry experiments in a responsible and controlled way (“citizen scientists” as this thread calls them), and those who merely use chemicals for their own illegal purposes (for example drug or bomb manufacturing). It is extremely frustrating to 'citizen scientists' to be immediately put under suspicion and / or be lumped in with methamphetamine makers as soon as this topic arises.

    Home chemistry, or other science experimentation can be an extremely rewarding and educational hobby. Like many hobbies it does possess a certain degree of risk when practiced irresponsibly but that alone should be not enough reason to suspect those who practice it of wrong doing or nefarious intentions.
     
  5. What kind of chemical study can one preform in one's own home? Most chemistry experiments require a minimum of equipment, of which one is often a fume hood. Unless experiments are conducted outside, I can see a problem if such experiments are carried out without a way to control, handle and dispose of the chemicals.
     
  6. Drug stores used to sell chemicals for chemistry experiments. ~1950 I occasionally would buy saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal in the right ratios, mix it into a slurry (under water), and dry it in the sun. No more. How sad.
    Bob S
     
  7. mrjeffy321

    mrjeffy321 882
    Science Advisor

    Obviously someone perusing chemistry experimentation as a hobby cannot engage in all the same activities as someone working in a professionally equipped research laboratory. Some experiments are impractical / impossible to perform on the 'hobby' scale due to various limitations, but that does not diminish the benefit, enjoyment, … to those who still pursue to the activity.

    Some people who practice this activity can be quite resourceful and are able to acquire (purchase, make, improvise, …) a lot of the stuff one needs to perform various experiments.

    You make a good point about the proper disposal of waste chemicals. I do not want to speculate about the behavior of all hobbyist, but I do know that legitimate ways do commonly exist to handle chemical waste of this nature. In many areas there exists 'hazardous waste disposal' facilities which people may take chemicals to be properly discarded. For example, there exists one of these facilities in my area which is run by the city and allows anyone to drop of any and all hazardous waste (such as old batteries, motor oil, paint, solvents, ….) free of charge. They take the waste and dispose of it properly so that it does not end up in the environment.

    Also remember that not every hobbyist has access to (quote-unquote) 'dangerous' chemicals. Many hobbyists make due with what they can acquire over-the-counter from various household products. Not to say that these products do not contain chemicals which are totally benign, but it does place a certain limit on just how toxic some of the stuff can be.
     
  8. Ooookey. The only 'home chemists' I have known were interested in fireworks or drug synthesis. What is your interest?
     
  9. The comment about fireworks and drugs is all too honest. I guess a fair many of us fell in love with the idea of making rockets in school, but without proper tools, we didn't stand a chance of making anything decent.
    I had a stretch of time electroplating (and later sputtering), but that leaves the question of how to properly dispose of the waste.

    Now, my daughter has a friend that wanted access to a PCR machine and electrophoresis equipment. Not what you'd expect from a girl that's a sophomore in high school.

    In any case, I worry that we'll squelch the inventiveness of youth by denying them access to materials. It's bad enough that they get sucked into wasting their time on PC's. How would the group feel if electronic parts are to be placed on the controlled list?

    - Mike
     
  10. Borek

    Staff: Mentor

    Most actions taken against home labs are typical case of throwing kid with a bath. This is sad. Even Mentors on PF are not free from prejudicion, I remember at least one, IMHO innocent and honest post about setting a home lab which was closed almost immediately for no reason other then "home labs are bad".
     
  11. I feel for these guys. Some if us have a natural inquisitiveness. My main love is designing and building electronics. I'd really hate to give up something that gives so much pleasure just because someone else perceives of a bad way to use it.

    And, as to the amateur aspect, I've had well paying jobs, been a contributing member of society, and I owe this in part to what I learned doing my amateur work.

    - Mike
     
  12. mrjeffy321

    mrjeffy321 882
    Science Advisor

    That is very true of me as well. I know that my home experimentation has taught me a great deal about chemistry and has directly befitted my research in 'real' academic laboratories. I even go so far as to include the activity (and especially the “outreach” aspects which has spun out of it) on my CV and fellowship applications. I have never received a negative reaction when discussing this activity with anyone in an academic research setting, but when talking with someone in the general public one must be more careful as one never knows if they will react with fear / suspicion, paranoia.

    This is, unfortunately, also very true and I think it is a poor way to run these, otherwise high quality, forums.
     
  13. I think this stems from public misconceptions of the nature of science as a whole. Most people think along the lines of, "if this person was smart enough to do real, valuable science, they would have a job in a 'real' lab and not need to do these things at home."

    In high school I used to have an hour and a half of lab time each week, and having a strong interest in chemistry, naturally I experimented at home. Most of the things I did involved solubility and reactions in solution, using harmless chemicals I got from Wal Mart. In retrospect, most of the "don't blow up the house" jokes weren't jokes at all. This kind of issue is just one more reason for members of the scientific community to push for a greater public understanding of science.
     
  14. I got really interested in organic chem, but I was too scared to seek out the equipment necessary for conducting such experiments because I did not want to arouse suspicions related to illegal substance manufacture.
     
  15. DrDu

    DrDu 4,460
    Science Advisor

    You only have to read the rules of this forum which even forbid to discuss e.g. the synthesis of Iodine to understand this decline.
     
  16. Borek

    Staff: Mentor

    That's not exactly problem with forums - iodine is listed in CFR, so we just play it safe. But in a way you are right.
     
  17. By chance, I came across an anecdote regarding the value of home experimentation. Charles Hall made the breakthrough which made the mass production of aluminum possible - while experimenting in a woodshed at his home.
    - Mike
     
  18. mrjeffy321

    mrjeffy321 882
    Science Advisor

    There are numerous examples of people who experiment at home on their own and discover something significant (like in the Charles Hall case and refining aluminum), or whose experimentation gave them an early start in science and who later went onto become someone important in the science/tech industry.

    Wired magazine has a very good article a few year ago about the decline of amateur science,
    http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.06/chemistry.html
     
  19. vanesch

    vanesch 6,236
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    I started my home chemistry lab at the age of 10. By the time I was 18, I didn't do much with it anymore. I had a room in the basement of my parent's home, had quite a lot of glassware but didn't have anything like fume extraction or whatever. I didn't do anything special there, I just did experiments as they were described in simple lab manuals, and then did some variants on them, just for the fun of it. I had a few minor explosions with no harm. In fact, chemistry got me interested in science.
     
  20. vanesch

    vanesch 6,236
    Staff Emeritus
    Science Advisor
    Gold Member

    huh ? :bugeye:

    I did this several times as a kid. You could find it in kid's laboratory books!
     
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