In his delightful memoir “Uncle Tungsten”, the eminent neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks recounts the swashbuckling chemical adventures of his teenage years, sparked when a sympathetic uncle got him hooked on to the wonders of chemistry. For me the most memorable image from that book is one of the young Sacks standing on a bridge on a river and successively dropping a few grams of the alkali metals – from lithium to cesium – in the water to observe their reaction. Lithium causes little reaction, sodium dances on the surface with a flame while cesium roars like a beast with much sound and fury. Sacks says that after that incident he never forgot the trends in reactivity of the alkali metals, an important principle that’s often taught in high school and college. Many prominent scientists, some of whom later won Nobel Prizes, remember similar exciting adventures with chemistry sets as teenagers.
It’s a sad commentary on our alarmist society that a similar deed would probably land a modern day budding Oliver Sacks in jail. That is exactly what it has done to a young aspiring scientist named Kiera Wilmot from Bartow High School in Florida, and in the process it has almost certainly deprived this country of exactly the kind of scientist whose shortage its politicians and educators are so fond of lamenting. The student conducted a common experiment mixing Drano and aluminum foil on the grounds of a school. The exact details are unknown but the incident led to a minor explosion, hurt nobody and damaged no property. This relatively harmless bit of curiosity led to Ms. Wilmot being handcuffed, arrested and expelled from the school. Irrational State Overreach: 1, The Much Touted American Edge in Science: 0. Whatever else the school was trying to achieve, it definitely succeeded in squelching independent scientific curiosity in its students.
Now let’s get one thing straight. The student was playing with a potentially hazardous mix and she was not using proper protective equipment. She definitely deserved to be reprimanded and perhaps even punished in some way, maybe by putting her on probation. But when you arrest and expel students for slaking their scientific curiosity, whatever the other consequences of that action, be advised that you are almost certainly sacrificing a valuable scientist at the altar of arbitrarily wielded state and school power.
The latest incident however is only a reflection of, on one hand, the draconian measures that our educational and political institutions are taking to achieve the ostensible goal of “disciplining” American children, and on the other hand, the public obsession with chemophobia and “chemicals”. The absurdly named “chemical free” chemistry sets are already depriving students of the joy of chemistry. When I was growing up my chemistry set had a lot of potentially harmful chemicals like copper sulfate and potassium ferricyanide. On every bottle there were clear labels advising us of the hazards of that particular chemical, antidotes against poisoning and the phone number of the poison center. None of these labels deterred me or my parents, and the set opened up the wonderful world of chemistry to me.
I made colorful dyes, generated nasty smells in a test tube and yes, caused minor explosions. Some of these explosions resulted from experimenting with protocols outside those recommended in the set. One time I mixed potassium permanganate with glycerol to spark a bright burning fire (the reaction is highly exothermic), another time I dissolved mom’s safety pins in nitric acid to generate copious amounts of nitrogen dioxide; it was only later that I came to know about the potential toxicity of the greenish-blue gas. Yes, I could have hurt myself, perhaps seriously, but the pleasure of finding things out far outweighed the potential harm that I could have caused myself. There is no doubt that performing chemical experiments exposes you to potential risks, but that is true of every single activity that you indulge in every day. In addition this has always been true of knowledge acquisition, and in my opinion the history of science amply demonstrates that the general ratio of harmful consequences to knowledge gained has been quite low.
Yet we as a society are grabbing on to the Precautionary Principle at every opportunity. We seem to believe that ignorance is better than knowledge since ignorance involves doing nothing and always erring on the side of safety. We think this is ostensibly the safest state of affairs, but it is one which is very much illusory since it’s that same ignorance that unfavorably impacts our long-term security and progress. Time and time again it has been demonstrated that knowledge is better than ignorance even when that knowledge can lead to potential harm, and it’s every inch worth the price we have to pay for accumulating its benefits. This hard won knowledge is now under attack from those who seek to proclaim the safety of their fellow citizens and their children as their highest priority.
Society’s ardent wish to enforce this principle of maximum precaution – whether it involves reacting to terrorism or to school pranks – is turning schools into straitjacketed environments with armed guards and law enforcement where misdemeanors, pranks and honest mistakes that would have gotten a student detention twenty years ago are leading instead to arrests and expulsions. The school environment in many states has turned into an overactive immune system. Any school like Bartow High School which believes that it is setting a good example and improving the safety environment for its students is fooling itself. The New York Times reported that over the years the proportion of harsh punishments for relatively minor misdemeanors has significantly increased. Even pranks like flying paper airplanes in the classroom or using threatening words in front of a fellow student – incidents which would regularly land students into detention or lead to a parent-teacher meeting before – can now get kids expelled or arrested. The current incident falls into the same category. The one goal this kind of excessive disciplinary action achieves is that it leads to a plethora of disgruntled, frightened and disillusioned students who are more likely to engage in criminal behavior. As the Times put it in 2011:
“Schools are right to expel students who pose a threat to others. But suspensions for less serious, nonthreatening behavior have become routine in recent decades, with disastrous consequences. Children who are removed from school are at far greater risk of being held back, dropping out or ending up in the juvenile justice system.”
It does not take much imagination to consider the effects of this environment of handcuffs and arrests on the psychology of young children who are trying to learn and have fun. Schools are already faced with a chorus of hyperactive teenagers who are trying to find their purpose and direction in life. The only way they can do this is by experimenting and they will do this regardless of whether it’s encouraged or not. The last thing the school should be doing is to discourage such experimentation by doling out harsh punishments and cultivating an atmosphere of fear and retribution. Creating an environment for controlled experimentation involves both setting the parameters for that experimentation and creating mechanisms to bring students who might stray from the status quo back into the fold.
Finally, these kinds of punishments are completely self-defeating in a period when lawmakers and educators are urging the country to focus more on science education. What are the chances that Ms. Wilmot will now consider a career as a chemist or even as a scientist? What are the chances of Bartow High School understanding that it has just consigned the career of a potentially promising African-American scientist to the ashes because of its overreaction and overuse of disciplinary power? Is the temporary fear that is put into the minds of students who want to experiment worth killing their interest in science, the same science that countless high school teachers have harnessed as a force for elevating this country’s profile and character over the decades? Bartow High School may have gotten rid of Ms. Wilmot but it will never be able to escape these questions.
I will end by slightly rephrasing a quote from a Founding Father of this country who would have undoubtedly shaken his head at this sad state of affairs. Ben Franklin who did so much to raise the status of science in the public’s consciousness might easily have said that “They who can give up essential knowledge to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither”.
And to Kiera Wilmot I say, please don’t give up on yourself because the system failed. Remember the deeds of George Washington Carver and Percy Julian who came before you; both of them rose to prominence in spite of the system and not because of it. Scientific curiosity is too big a deal to be abandoned at the whim of institutional inertia and shortsightedness. In rejecting you this school has rejected its own ideals. You will undoubtedly find another which is more receptive to your curiosity and aspirations. I urge you to carry on.