Thursday, June 01, 2006

Apparently, I'm a Criminal

At least, I would be in Texas, according to Wired Magazine's aptly named article, Don't Try This At Home.

"In the meantime, more than 30 states have passed laws to restrict sales of chemicals and lab equipment associated with meth production, which has resulted in a decline in domestic meth labs, but makes things daunting for an amateur chemist shopping for supplies. It is illegal in Texas, for example, to buy such basic labware as Erlenmeyer flasks or three-necked beakers without first registering with the state’s Department of Public Safety to declare that they will not be used to make drugs. Among the chemicals the Portland, Oregon, police department lists online as “commonly associated with meth labs” are such scientifically useful compounds as liquid iodine, isopropyl alcohol, sulfuric acid, and hydrogen peroxide, along with chemistry glassware and pH strips. Similar lists appear on hundreds of Web sites."

My name is Princess Mom and I own test tubes. And a couple nice Pyrex beakers. And pH strips. And I have rubbing alcohol and peroxide in my dining room, in the "Cabinet of Science!" Am I trying to make meth? No, I'm trying to make scientists.

Wired's article has really opened my eyes to the huge problem of science illiteracy in this country. The Consumer Products Safety Commission is putting people in jail for owning one of the common chemicals used to make illegal fireworks: powdered aluminum, potassium perchlorate or sulfur.

"Popular Science columnist Theodore Gray, who is one of United Nuclear’s regular customers, uses potassium perchlorate to demonstrate the abundance of energy stored in sugar and fat. He chops up Snickers bars, sprinkles in the snowy crystals, and ignites the mixture, which bursts into a tower of flame – the same rapid exothermic reaction that propels model rockets skyward. “Why is it that I can walk into Wal-Mart and buy boxes of bullets and black powder, but I can’t buy potassium perchlorate to do science because it can also be used to make explosives?” he asks. “How many people are injured each year doing extreme sports or playing high school football? But mention mixing up chemicals in your home lab, and people have a much lower index of acceptable risk.”

I think this is fear of the unknown: people understand football but they [meaning the people behind these laws] clearly don't understand science. That, and the fact that the government and insurance companies have convinced the majority of the country we should never do anything unless we are sure it is absolutely safe. I am not alone in this opinion.

"To Bill Nye, the “Science Guy” who hosted an Emmy award-winning series on PBS in the 1990s, unreasonable fears about chemicals and home experimentation reflect a distrust of scientific expertise taking hold in society at large. “People who want to make meth will find ways to do it that don’t require an Erlenmeyer flask. But raising a generation of people who are technically incompetent is a recipe for disaster.”

I understand that meth is a huge problem. Even in my smallish town you can't go to the movies without seeing before and after photos of meth users. But finger-printing me because I want to buy one bottle of Dimetapp for my son's allergies (This actually happened!), and legislating against "practicing science without a PhD" is not going to solve the meth problem. It will, however, keep America from ever again becoming leader in the world of science.

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