Amateur chemistry or home chemistry is the pursuit of chemistry as a private hobby. It should not be confused with clandestine chemistry, which involves the illicit production of controlled drugs.[a] Notable amateur chemists include Oliver Sacks and Sir Edward Elgar.
Amateur chemistry shares its early history with that of chemistry in general. Pioneers of modern chemistry such as Robert Boyle and Antoine Lavoisier were gentleman scientists who pursued their research independently from their source of income. Only with the coming of the industrial era, and the rise of universities as research institutions, did any significant distinction between amateurs and professionals emerge. Nevertheless, amateur progress lasted well into the 19th century. For example, in 1886, Charles Martin Hall co-invented the Hall-Héroult process for extracting aluminium from its oxide whilst working in a woodshed behind his family home.
Chemistry as a hobby
Throughout much of the 20th century, amateur chemistry was an unexceptional hobby, with high-quality chemistry sets readily available, and laboratory suppliers freely selling to hobbyists. For example, Linus Pauling had no difficulty in procuring potassium cyanide at the age of eleven. However, due to increasing concerns about terrorism, drugs, and safety, suppliers became increasingly reluctant to sell to amateurs, and chemistry sets were steadily toned down. This trend has gradually continued, leaving hobbyists in many parts of the world without access to most reagents.
Notable amateur chemists
- Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore, and Hewlett Packard co-founder David Packard all used to practice amateur chemistry.
- British neurologist Oliver Sacks was a keen amateur chemist in his youth, as described in his memoir Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood.
- Nobel Prize winning chemist Linus Pauling practised amateur chemistry in his youth.
- Wolfram Research co-founder Theodore Gray is a keen amateur chemist and element collector. His exploits (most notably the construction of a wooden table in the shape of the periodic table, having compartments holding real samples of each element) earned him the 2002 Ig Nobel prize for chemistry, which he accepted as a great honor. He writes a column for Popular Science magazine, featuring his home experiments.
- Amateur rocketeer (and later NASA engineer) Homer Hickham, together with his fellow Rocket Boys, experimented with a range of home-made rocket propellants. These included "Rocket Candy" made from potassium nitrate and sugar, and "Zincoshine" made from zinc and sulfur held together with moonshine alcohol.
- Composer Sir Edward Elgar practised amateur chemistry from a laboratory erected in his back garden. The original manuscript of the prelude to The Kingdom is stained with chemicals.
Whilst the hobby is probably legal in most jurisdictions,[b] the relationship between amateur chemists and law enforcement agencies is often fraught. Hobbyists are often affected by laws intended to fight drugs and terrorism. Furthermore, many chemical supply houses refuse to sell to amateurs, with such policies sometimes being stated openly.
In the United States, some regions have stringent regulations concerning the ownership of chemicals and equipment. For example, Texas requires the registration of even the most basic laboratory glassware.
United Nuclear, an amateur science supplier based in New Mexico was raided on behest of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, and subsequently fined $7,500 for "Selling Illegal Fireworks Components".
- a. ^ The terms "amateur chemistry" and "clandestine chemistry" are not rigidly defined, and may depend upon context. For clarity, this article defines "amateur chemistry" to be the practice of chemistry as a hobby, and not as the means to an illegal end.
- b. ^ The legal status of amateur chemistry per se is somewhat ambiguous. Whilst there appears to be no legislation explicitly banning the activity, there is also little evidence to confirm its legality.
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- Sacks, Oliver (2001), Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood, Vintage Books, ISBN 0-375-40448-1
- Weintraub, Stanley, "Shaws’s Musician: Edward Elgar", Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies (Requires subscription), retrieved 2008-07-21
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- Hickam, Homer (1998), Rocket Boys: A Memoir, Delacorte Press, ISBN 0-385-33320-X
- Sir Edward William Elgar; Amateur Chemist-Composer, retrieved 2008-08-10
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- Texas Administrative Code: Title 37, Public Safety And Corrections; Part 1, Texas Department Of Public Safety; Chapter 13, Controlled Substances; Subchapter E, Precursors And Apparatus, retrieved 2008-07-19
- "New Mexico Company Fined, Ordered To Stop Selling Illegal Fireworks Components" (Press release). Consumer Product Safety Commission. 2007-07-20. Retrieved 2006-07-18.