How do you Kill Science?

Picture of a Chemistry SetI grew up with science.  I grew up doing science.  I got, as gifts from my parents, a chemistry set, erector sets, do-it-yourself weather stations, and even assembled a three-bit binary processing computer.  Since this was long before “new math,” it took my Dad all afternoon to explain “binary” to me.  This story, posted by Tim O’Reilly, via Dave Farber’s Interesting People mailing list, describes a world that would have seemed quite disturbing to us in 1962.  Tim writes… [Image ((Trotman, Kevin. “Ah, My Old Friend, Mr. Wizard!.” The Rocketeer’s Photostream. 5 Jan 2007. 13 Aug 2008 <http://flickr.com/photos/kt/346681395/>. ))]

I grew up with a chemistry set.  You could get them in every corner hobby store. But as liability fears grew, the experimental ethic that built  the US as a science and technology powerhouse faded, and such “dangerous” toys became much harder to find.

So, in April, Make Magazine‘s Make:Books series (a service of O’Reilly) published Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments, “For students, DIY hobbyists, and science buffs, who can no longer get real chemistry sets…” ((“Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments.” Amazon. Amazon.com. 13 Aug 2008 <http://www.amazon.com/Illustrated-Guide-Home-Chemistry-Experiments/dp/0596514921>. ))

On Monday (11 Aug 2008), the following article was posted to the Make blog by Illustrated Guide.. author, Robert Thompson:

The Worcester Telegram & Gazette reports [link] that Victor Deeb, a retired chemist who lives in Marlboro, has finally been allowed to return to his Fremont Street home, after Massachusetts authorities spent three days ransacking his basement lab and making off with its contents.

Deeb is not accused of making methamphetamine or other illegal drugs. He’s not accused of aiding terrorists, synthesizing explosives, nor even of making illegal fireworks. Deeb fell afoul of the Massachusetts authorities for … doing experiments.

Authorities concede that the chemicals found in Deeb’s basement lab were no more hazardous than typical household cleaning products. Despite that, authorities confiscated ?all potentially hazardous chemicals? (which is to say the chemicals in Deeb’s lab) from his home, and called in a hazardous waste cleanup company to test the chemicals and clean up the lab.

Pamela Wilderman, the code enforcement officer for Marlboro, stated, ?I think Mr. Deeb has crossed a line somewhere. This is not what we would consider to be a customary home occupation.?

Now I think I understand both sides of this issue.  We, as a country, are threatened.  But the method of our response either moves us forward, or it moves us backward.  What would terrorists rather see?

O’Reilly continues,

Allow me to translate Ms. Wilderman’s words into plain English: “Mr. Deeb hasn’t actually violated any law or regulation that I can find, but I don’t like what he’s doing because I’m ignorant and irrationally afraid of chemicals, so I’ll abuse my power to steal his property and shut him down.”