Post by Bob
Then perhaps you should call us experimenters.
When Worlds of Creation and Destruction Collide
By MALCOLM W. BROWNE
New York Times 5v99
His diary entry for one day in 1898 read: "Fired cannon, pop and
day. in evening had five sky rockets, three Roman candles, one large
and a Japanese match which I made."
The words were not those of a vengeful delinquent planning a
massacre; they were written by a 15-year-old Robert Hutchings Goddard,
later inventions - liquid rocket fuel, multistage vehicles and rocket
among them - opened the way to space travel.
One wonders what would have befallen space science if Goddard and a
youthful experimenters had been denied access to the very things
and others these days are seeking to ban. The fact is, many young
been drawn to careers in science and engineering partly by spectacular
reactions, especially explosions.
Recent school killings have prompted calls for banning almost every
weapon from flint knives to nuclear bombs. (Somehow the automobile is
included.) But to ban all dangerous substances would be a tall order.
There has never been any lack of explosive materials, and explosives
proliferated at a tremendous rate over the years. A dictionary of
1900 contained 1,091 entries, whereas the current tally of
explosives (according to an expert at Los Alamos National Laboratory)
There are those who would favor outlawing all 20,000 of them if it
children safe. But it's worth remembering that at least some
explosives are vital
to modern civilization; explosives are needed for mining, building
foundations, welding pipelines and railroad tracks, actuating
automobile air bags,
sending rockets to Mars and simulating conditions deep within the
of giant planets, among countless other thmigs.
During my own childhood in the 1930's and 1940's, dangerous chemicals
including explosives and poisons were easy to come by, and yet I
remember a single incident comparable to the disaster in Littleton,
other recent killings.
Not that kids didn't experiment and play dangerous tricks.
Firearms and explosives (including fireworks) invite mischief, but in
the past it
was usually of a fairly harmless kind. Farm children of a more relaxed
than the present one used to annoy dairymen by detonating sticks of
under empty 20-gallon milk cans, sending the cans sailing into the
students delighted in flushing lighted firecrackers down dormitory
fountains to erupt from toilets on lower floors. Mild but startling
caused by ammonia-moistened iodine crystals scattered around lab
enlivened many a chemistry class.
Recreational explosions are not necessarily dangerous. Since 1912,
Conestoga Company of Bethlehem, Pa., has been making and selling
cannons that delight children with satisfying bangs free of any risk
But fireworks containing explosive or propellant charges are not
year children lose fingers or eyes by holding lighted firecrackers or
Moreover, fireworks can be put to criminal purposes. Most of the pipe
have figured in recent terror incidents have been filled with aluminum
and oxidizers extracted from ordinary firecrackers.
Naturally, people are eager to prevent massacres. The response has
effort to prevent the trafficking in explosives and guns, and to
reprogram children with violent proclivities.
Snuffing out the fire of genius for fear of a few psychopaths.
Fireworks are banned (or limited to relatively innocuous pyrotechnic
sparklers) in 16 states, and each year sees new legislation to
substances like ammonium nitrate fertilizer from falling into
felonious hands. The
sale of old-fashioned black powder, the propellant needed for firing
weapons, has been sharply curtailed because it has been used in
As the trend continues, government agencies have also constrained the
chemicals so tightly that it is difficult or impossible for most young
Until 1957, when it moved to New Jersey to provide chemicals and
exclusively to manufacturers, the Ace Scientific Supply Company on
Manhattan, used to count many neighborhood high school students among
customers. A thicket of regulations eventually blocked such sales, but
pany's president, Robert L. Lowenstein, remembered his student
"Many of those young customers made important contributions to science
are now research directors," Mr. Lowenstein said. "I wish something
done to make chemicals and apparatus more available to students, but I
Similar regrets are often expressed by older teachers.
Dr. David Weitzman, a professor of biochemistry at the University of
England, wrote in the New Scientist nearly two decades ago that
had accepted the chairmanship of his university's safety panel, the
laboratory risks had had its down side.
"In the laboratories, we forbid this, don't allow that, and prevent
the other ... and
we're all safer and less at risk of harm and hazard. Most
wrote. "But have we, at the same time, removed some of the fun and
of laboratory life, the thrill of experimenting with the unknown?"
Dr. Weitzman described some of the risky experiments and procedures
common in student laboratories, including a very hazardous method for
flasks by filling them with an explosive mixture of nitric acid and
"These encounters conveyed a sense of intimacy with one's chemical
he wrote. "One saw reagents and reactions at their most angry and
having done so, one learnt to tame them and discipline them to do
He concluded that "perhaps just a little bit of danger might bring a
lot more fun
and lead to more insight and understanding."
Banning several thousand chemicals as well as timers, pipes, epoxy
other items that can be combined as bombs would be one approach to
bombs to potential criminals. Another would be the reprogramming of
violence-prone people to eliminate aggressive impulses; it might be
psychotherapy, chemical castration or brain surgery.
By selective breeding or gene manipulation, traits associated with
behavior and the creation of sociopaths might be reduced throughout
spawning the most well-behaved human race the world has ever seen. A
result has been achieved in Siberia, where fur breeders have invented
pletely docile breed of silver fox -one that licks its keepers' faces
prepared for slaughter.
But must we really squelch all the things that can contribute to anti-
behavior to protect ourselves from a handful of sociopaths?
Could an aggression-free race produce a Jefferson or Beethoven or
we race to eliminate aggressors and their weapons, should we not take
avoid throwing out the baby with the bath water?
In Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare,
terror, murder, bloodshed -- and they produced
Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Resaissance. In
Switzerland they had brotherly love, five hundred yeas of
democracy and peace, and what did they produce?
The cuckoo clock!
(George) Orson Wells, 1915-1985
Speech added to Graham Greene's script for
The Third Man, 1949