Felony Science

Making stuff explode is a seductive way to become a scientist.

Pupils watch the effect produced by liquid nitrogen during a demonstration at a local grammar school in Russia's Siberian city of Krasnoyarsk, Russia on November 21, 2012.
Doing chemistry that pushes beyond the boundaries of the classroom can be the catalyst that turns a student into a scientist

Photo by Ilya Naymushin/Reuters

Sixteen-year-old Kiera Wilmot’s curiosity was apparently piqued when a friend told her that if you mixed hydrochloric acid and aluminum, an exciting reaction happened. So she did what countless amateur chemists before her have done: She went ahead and tried it. She mixed toilet bowl cleaner—essentially colored hydrochloric acid—and balls of aluminum foil in a small water bottle. The top of the bottle blew off with a satisfying bang, and there was even a puff of smoke.

Unfortunately, Kiera got more excitement than she bargained for. When a teenage Oliver Sacks experimented with explosive reactions of aluminum in his basement 60 odd years ago, he got a life-long love of science and a best-selling book, Uncle Tungsten, out of it. Kiera Wilmot? She was expelled from school and now faces felony charges.

One key difference between Kiera Wilmot and Oliver Sacks lies in Wilmot’s choice of location and timing for her chemical investigations. She didn’t try this in a London basement safely tucked away in a previous century, but on her high school campus a week after another teenager set off an explosion in Boston with catastrophic results. We may worry whether she was really driven by scientific curiosity, or whether this was an attempt to wreak havoc—or worse—at her high school. Is Wilmot a nascent Oliver Sacks or another Dzhokhar Tsarnaev?

I don’t pretend to have any insight into Wilmot’s motivations in this particular instance, but having once been a 16-year-old girl passionate about science, I can tell you that doing chemistry that pushes beyond the boundaries of the classroom can be the catalyst that turns a science student into a scientist. It’s much like the difference between playing at a recital and getting a chance to perform your latest composition in a local jazz club, an experience that marks the shift from music student to musician. One fiery, albeit small, explosion in the basement sink might have singed half of my brother’s eyebrows, but it also taught me that I could design and build an apparatus that would let me determine for myself that water was composed of hydrogen and oxygen. I wasn’t learning science by following a teacher’s recipe; I was doing science, unprompted and unscripted, with exhilarating results I could see and hear. And yes, in retrospect, we were really lucky nothing worse happened.

Things that go bang are undeniably exciting. How many of us enjoy popping bubble wrap, in no small part for the little frisson of adrenaline we get when a snap is louder than we expect? Though it’s been a while since I was 16 and my research specialty these days is purely theoretical, I will admit that I still enjoy the occasional spectacular chemistry experiment. After looking into Kiera Wilmot’s case, I know how to make six different kinds of exploding water bottles using household chemicals, and on a gorgeous spring day the temptation to head out to the courtyard below my office and give one a whirl is nearly irresistible. (Not one that produces hydrogen gas, though; I did learn something from that earlier explosion with my brother.)

They are also undeniably dangerous. The notion that you can control such dangerous forces is seductive. Oliver Sacks writes of his own experience with aluminum chemistry, “Huge energies, plutonic forces, were being unleashed, and I had a thrilling, but precarious sense of being in control—sometimes just.” Some 16-year-olds ride skateboards on impossible edges for the adrenaline rush, others run highly energetic reactions. Both are risky business.

As a society, we send mixed messages to kids about doing science outside of a laboratory or classroom. On one hand, we laud the accomplishments of 17-year-old Adam Bowman, who earned third place in this year’s Intel Science talent search by building a plasma gun in his garage. Meanwhile, 18-year-old chemistry student Lewis Casey sets up a lab in his garage and gets arrested. Chemistry kits have been stripped of anything that might produce what Sacks called “stinks and bangs,” but you can buy The Book of Totally Irresponsible Science, whose back cover promises “experiments that snap, crackle, pop, ooze, crash, boom and stink.” (For the record, they aren’t quite as exciting as all that.)

It is without a doubt risky to let kids try unsupervised science, but we already let kids do hazardous things such as ride bicycles and play baseball, and even encourage them to do so with a chaperone. You don’t get better at fielding unless you throw a ball around outside of regular team practices. We accept the idea that accidents might happen in the course of enthusiastic practice. So while throwing a baseball around in an open grassy area behind the cafeteria before school is a really bad idea, it is not a felony—even if you have the misfortune to accidentally hit someone in the head. We accept these risks in order to get better ball players.

Would we accept a similar risk if it would get us more and better scientists? Unlike the science lab exercises I did in school, the experiments I tried in my makeshift basement lab didn’t always get the results I wanted the first, or even the 10th time. What I did get by working with awkwardly improvised equipment and without a teacher to smoothly direct me to the right approach was patience and tenacity. These are conditions that are difficult to replicate in a school lab, but that develop what are inarguably essential qualities for a scientist to have. On top of that, the reward for this painstaking work was not a good grade, but the joy of discovering something that was (at least to me) new. We want top-notch scientists—there is no dearth of critical scientific problems facing us—but have mixed feelings about wanting to let them practice along the way. It’s as if we only drafted Major League Baseball players who had never fielded a ball except at official practices and for whom showing up for games is just a job.

Playing with chemistry on a small scale, particularly with reactions that “snap, crackle and pop,” also fosters a sense of respect for the unexpected results that can happen when you mix things. Adults who have such formative experiences as kids might be less likely to contribute to the hundreds of non-drug related domestic chemical incidents each year. Note: Mixing bleach with almost anything is a bad idea. In a test tube it might send you scrambling for fresh air, in bucket quantities, it can kill you.

I don’t envy the school board or the judge who will have to sort out Kiera Wilmot’s motivations and rule on this case. Given her statement to police and her choice of location—not the center of the school but the grassy area in the back—it feels to me more like a case of out of control curiosity. Was it science done in the wrong place at the wrong time or malevolence? If they find it was the former, I hope that in spite of its zero tolerance policy, the Polk County school board will look at this incident in the context of Wilmot’s whole record. Then they might ask themselves if two of the junior varsity baseball players with similar records throwing a ball around outside school in the morning hit a window (and didn’t even break it), would they be expelled? Baseballs can be used as a weapon. Would they be charged with a felony? Perhaps the authorities should apply the same standards to Kiera Wilmot.