Monday, January 05, 2009


Anybody who knew me back when I was in sixth grade could probably have figured out that I was a Dangerous Nutjob... or at least, someone with the potential to become one.

The kind of person who would keep dangerous chemical reagents in his college dorm room, for example. Substances like concentrated nitric acid (for dissolving coins) and 30% hydrogen peroxide. What was I thinking?

But well before college, there were signs. Signs of an overactive, perverse mind.

Sixth grade saw a lot of my Expressed Weirdness... probably because the hormones were just beginning to kick in, but hadn’t really grabbed hold of me yet.

At what other time of your life would it be remotely acceptable to have a girlfriend with whom you did nothing but vivisect anesthetized mice? Idiot that I am, I didn’t even try to get a little Bare Tit between mouse-heart extractions. All this to determine how mice reacted to diets deficient in specific nutrients... and to being carved up with scalpels. Great project.

The best - and weirdest - Science Project I ever worked on, though, had to be the one we cobbled together using the Kenner Hydro-Dynamic Building Set, one of the wonderful Educational Toys available back then, in an era when real Educational Playthings were not only available... but actually coveted by kids.

Kenner Hydrodynamic Building Set
The Kenner Hydro-Dynamic Building Set. [Click to embiggen.]

Yes, I grew up in a time when kids actually owned things like Gilbert Chemistry Sets, Physics Sets, and Erector Sets with which the enterprising child could conduct actual chemistry and physics experiments - with real chemicals - and build real Mechanical Devices. I would stink up the house by melting elemental sulfur in a test tube in the kitchen, using an alcohol burner... and making Prussian blue dye (which pretty much is permanent... don’t ask me how I know this). And then Kenner, one of the major toy manufacturers of the day (and, incidentally, creator of the Easy-Bake Oven) came out with some interesting new items. One was a Girder and Panel™ Building Set, another a Bridge and Tunnel™ Building Set - both clearly intended to appeal to the budding civil engineers among us - and a Hydro-Dynamic™ Building Set, for us nascent chemical engineers. This last was a sort of Erector Set for fluids, and consisted of a whole mess of transparent tanks, tubes, and pumps. The set included convenient water-soluble dye tablets, so you could squirt pretty colored water all over the rec room carpet. Nice.

I can remember constructing buildings with the Girder and Panel set, with its little molded girders and thermoformed plastic panels. But the Hydro-Dynamic set was way cooler. It had, in addition to the girders that you would use to build a supporting framework, clear plastic tanks of various shapes, along with valves, flexible tubes, and pumps. Years later, when I was designing real chemical plants - the kind made with real steel, tanks, pumps, and pipes - I would realize that the Kenner Hydro-Dynamic set was a spot-on kiddie version. All it was missing was the thousands of gallons of toxic, flammable chemical reagents that a real-life plant would have. Instead, we used colored water.

The project? Knew you’d ask.

The Human Digestive System!

We came up with a plastic simulacrum of the human GI tract, from the mouth (in which we would place a spherical bolus of sodium bicarbonate by way of food), to the stomach (which contained vinegar, creating an impressive fizzy reaction when the bicarb hit), to the intestines. We also mapped out everything in appropriate colors, which combined in such a way that the final product... the Pseudo-Diarrheal Crap that dripped out the final valve... was a rich brown.

Well, we all thought it was hysterical. The classroom roared with laughter as we demonstrated our Human Digestive Tract. The teacher? Not so much.

But - my memory is a bit vague on this point, forty-five years later - I do believe we scored an “A.” And the seeds of a future chemical engineering career were planted in a fertile, febrile brain.

Too bad they don’t make toys like that any more...

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