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FUN WITH CHEMISTRY—FIVE DECADES AGO

HOW TIMES change. Fun with Chemistry: Easy Experiments for Young People was originally published in 1944. A revised edition appeared in 1962, with additional printings up through 1973. However, were there a further revision today, it would be a drastically different book. Not that science has changed, but society has.

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Fun With Chemistry: Easy Experiments for Young People, by Mae and Ira Freeman, Random House, 1962. This copy, from friend Andrea, had been in the Polson Grade School Library, Polson, Montana.

The Freemans were prolific in writing “Beginner Books” intended for elementary school kids. There are plenty of Fun with titles, including Astronomy, Ballet, Cooking, Figures, Geometry, Light, Science, Scientific Experiments and Your Camera.

Fun with Chemistry begins with four pages of making supplies. Part of a coat hanger twisted around a wooden stick provides a test-tube holder. A small cardboard box, artfully cut, forms a rack for test tubes. The only lab equipment not home-made are the test tubes themselves. Note: Henry (and apparently never his sister Henrietta) does all the experimenting, without supervision, sans safety goggles or hand protection of any sort. And he knows how to be careful with the candle.

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Above, making a test-tube holder. Below, several other bits of lab equipment. These and other images from Fun with Chemistry.

Equipment

The science is appropriate for an elementary school level, at least in the book’s era. One assumes Henry can read “every kind of material is made of very tiny specks called MOLECULES.” It’s also assumed that the home medicine chest contains magnesium sulfate (aka Epson Salts), hydrogen peroxide and tincture of iodine. Mom’s kitchen can also be scoured for vinegar, oil and sugar. Lots of sugar.

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Forming crystals of sugar.

Full disclosure: I gave up on forming sugar crystals when the Freemans said “Keep adding sugar slowly until no more will dissolve. This may take two or three cups of sugar.” I don’t think we have three cups of the stuff in the house, and doubt that faux sweetener will work.

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Invisible writing.

For invisible writing, I suspect the trick today is finding a classic pen, the kind that you dip in an inkwell. (What’s an inkwell, Grandpa?)

Vinegar is used instead of ink, and a candle flame warms the paper to make the writing visible. The Freemans give an excellent description of why this works: It’s one of their examples of “the chemistry of fire,” this one “where oxygen hooks up with a material so slowly that there is no smoke or flame.”

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Bubbles form as sugar and yeast change to carbon dioxide and alcohol.

If Mom still has any sugar left and some yeast, Henry can learn about fermentation, “when sugar changes into alcohol and carbon dioxide.” On the other hand, what with Neighborhood Watch and all, this one may not be a good idea.

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How soap works.

The soap experiment is rather more PC. And again the Freemans’ explanation is exemplary: “Most dirt sticks to clothes and skin because a thin layer of oil or grease holds it there. Soap is able to break up this layer so that the dirt can be floated away.” That is, the experiment shows how oil and water don’t mix until soap forms an emulsion.

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Getting oxygen from a growing plant.

My favorite experiment demonstrates how plants breath in carbon dioxide from the air and exhale oxygen into it. Put leaves of an ivy plant in an inverted test tube filled with water and place it all in the sun. “The growing ivy takes up carbon dioxide and water and builds them into starch and sugar. When this happens, oxygen is set free and comes out of the leaves. In your experiment, you caught the oxygen that came out of the leaves inside the test tube.”

The Freemans’ concluding comment on this experiment is a cogent one, especially today when carbon dioxide has been demonized through climate change. “As you watch this chemical change happen, remember that there could be no life on earth without it. That is because everything that lives is either a plant or an animal that needs plants for food.”

Another Freemans title that tantalizes me is You Will Go to the Moon, published in 1959 and then revised in 1971. The period in between had upheaval of the 1960s, emergence of environmental awareness and consumer protection, feminism and political correctness.

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You WIll Go to the Moon, by Mae and Ira Freeman, Beginner, 1959.

In the 1959 edition of You Will Go to the Moon, the last mention of women was when Mom cheerily wished you a safe lunar trip. Also, it’s clear that the “You” of the title refers to boys, not girls. Text and illustrations were 1950’s sci-fi, though the 1959 edition did mention retrorockets and a space station (with a Diner staffed by soda jerks). Mom, Dad and earthbound Sis got to watch it all on a flat-screen TV.

By 1971, much of the book’s science was derived from Projects Gemini and Apollo, including the latter’s 1969 moon landing. And the book had female astronauts. You go, Sis! ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2015

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