When I was in junior high school I brought a bomb to school.
Hang on! Hang on! Before you call the police, let me explain!
This was 1985 (maybe 1986) and as I mentioned before, I was in jr. high. For years I had been a chemistry nerd, plus like every other boy my age, I liked firecrackers, particularly if they allowed me to launch green plastic army men into the air.
I had been burning through the experiments listed in simple chemistry sets, most of which no longer piqued my interest, as they mainly involved baking soda volcanos or turning water red to white with phenolphthalein. I was curious and eager to try something bigger.
Naturally, I set out to make my own firecrackers.
During the 80s you could still buy reagents at the corner pharmacy, as this was long before Breaking Bad and meth-banned chemicals. Burning some household sugar in a spoon gave me some carbon; I had sulfur from an aforementioned chemistry set. I added to that a bottle of saltpeter from Stump Drug and – vóila! – I had created gunpowder.
Gunpowder is cool, but I wanted a bigger bang still. A stack of books later (this was pre-internet) and I had my *EUREKA!* moment: a process for the distillation of nitroglycerine.
Nitroglycerine, if you aren’t familiar, is the active ingredient in the manufacture of dynamite. It is highly combustible, unstable, and difficult to handle. To shake it, drop it, rattle it, or look at it wrong, is inviting limb loss. In short, it’s the substance that necessitated the “DANGER: EXPLOSIVES” signs.
Nitroglycerine is a oily liquid and heavy, so it drops to the bottom as a distillate, and in all honesty, my friends and I were just kids so I don’t recall us being able to produce more than a few grams of it, and I’m certain it had questionable purity.
But golly were we proud of what we had accomplished. So proud that I tucked it into my backpack and took it to school so I could show it off to Mr. Pack, my favorite science teacher.
Yeah, I brought homemade nitorglycerine to school.
Proud of our chemical capability we presented the nitroglycerine to Mr. Pack like an enthusiastic Golden Retriever would present a dead duck to his master. Mr. Pack–calm as a cucumber–tenderly took our science experiment from us. He then explained gently – yet firmly – that he would be holding on to it, noting that while he appreciated our budding scientific experimentation, we were several leagues out of our depth.
So there’s my story, and I suspect you now have me profiled as dangerous and lawless perpetrator. But the inverse is true actually. I was raised by a saint of a mother and never had a pattern of trouble then or now. I was simply a naive little science nerd, who at age 12 was slow on the uptake when it came to thinking through potential consequences.
Of course, I recalled this moment when I saw the news that 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed was arrested for bringing a homemade clock to school and it was mistaken for a bomb. I don’t want to get into the details of that specific case, but I did feel a certain kinship with Ahmed as his story reminded me of my story, albeit set in a vastly different time and context. Which brings me to my point.
Science is awesome.
I hope that we can still somehow foster curiosity and interest in the sciences. Nerds are curious and creative. Nerds experiment and hypothesize. And the world needs nerds. Particularly in an age of anti-vaxxers and climate change denialists, we need a strong interest in science, engineering, and mathematics. Again, irrespective of the details of my story or Ahmed’s, the world needs science nerds.
So be makers. Be tinkerers. Be inventors. Be curious and creative.
And take it from me: be smart about what you bring to school. Yet, don’t stop being a big ‘ole science nerd, ’cause we need more of those.