Mad Science: Experiments You Can Do at Home — But Probably Shouldn't

  • Theodore Gray
Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers: 2009. 240 pp. $24.95.

At a time when there seems to be a decline in interest in the physical sciences it is essential that children are encouraged and excited to investigate science by our teachers, mentors and science geeks. Theodore Gray is one such science geek. His writings and visual extravaganzas, in both photographic and video format, have been exciting people, young and old, for many years. His Mad Science book very successfully continues the trend.

Mad Science is a wonderful read and a joyful experience for the eyes. The meshing together of stunning images with explanations that are detailed but not confusing, sprinkled with a generous dose of good humour, makes this book consumable by anyone who can read. This will be a coffee table book to some, a reference book to others who want to try some of the experiments themselves, and hopefully a catalyst — pun intended — for young scientists everywhere.

To clarify, this book is called Mad Science for a reason. The book's subtitle, Experiments You Can Do at Home — But Probably Shouldn't, speaks volumes about the nature of some of the experiments that are discussed and photographed. But Theo Gray has done these experiments; they are his hands and his eyes (or his children's) shielded by safety glasses or goggles in every image. He is obsessive about safety and points out that most of these experiments are conducted in a remote location far away from his nearest neighbour. Theo clearly communicates the dangers associated with a particular experiment. For example, he annotates the 'Making Salt the Hard Way' experiment very clearly by stating that “This is the most dangerous experiment in this book”, and clarifies that combining sodium and chlorine “borders on lunacy”. That said, there are a series of experiments in the book that you can certainly perform in your kitchen with the youngest of children and encourage them to experience the joys of chemistry.

It turns out that Theo is quite the 'chemical chef' and he provides two ways to make ice cream — one using liquid nitrogen and the other from the collected emissions of a fire extinguisher. He probably had a full fire extinguisher sitting around when he used a Snickers bar to power a rocket. His hunger for chemistry is not only for the food that results: he'll use chemistry for little luxuries too, including using 500 lbs of quicklime to produce a “Hillbilly hot tub”, one that he was then photographed sitting in with his kids.

There are a whole series of experiments, many of them in fact, that are simply out of reach for the home scientist. One of the experiments uses magnetic force to physically shrink coins. Truly amazing and no wonder: it requires a 600 lb bank of 12,000 V capacitors and a thick blast shield. Not many of us have access to that type of equipment. He also uses arc welding rigs and plasma cutters, and had to visit a Dynamitron to capture electron tracks in pieces of acrylic. A Dynamitron is a four-storey-tall, 5 MV particle accelerator! Clearly access to this sort of equipment is not going to be possible for most of us. Don't let this discourage you at all, however, because he conveys contagious excitement about what executing these experiments would be like and the imagery does it justice.


I personally conducted three of these experiments with our seven-year-old twins during a weekend, and they keep pointing to the next chapters that they want to turn their hand too. Pouring sodium acetate connected us to saturated solutions; burning iron wool (pictured) started a conversation about “What's the air made of?”; and dissolving coins to make 'foils' was enough of a demonstration to encourage safety about chemicals. A liquid that can dissolve metal, although magical for children, does get their grey matter tingling about how dangerous that liquid must be. Next up, and awaiting the delivery of chemicals, is 'Making Nylon', an experiment that will take us into the world of polymers. The thought of casting silver bullets, as described in 'Calling Van Helsing', urged them to prepare for their potential encounters with a werewolf at this years' Halloween and is far too tempting. That experiment remains incomplete. My personal favourite in the book is the article about Prince Rupert's glass drops and its relationship to the tempered glass we find in car windshields. I couldn't repeat this particular experience as I don't have a glass-maker's furnace but I hope, some day, to see this experiment conducted.

In his acknowledgements, Theodore Gray gives praise and acknowledgement to the design team and photographers that contributed to the book. They certainly deserve his praise and I'll add my thanks for a job well done. It is beautifully put together. The team worked hard to provide online supplementary materials of the highest quality, with the images and, in many cases, accompanying videos being made available through the website at

In the interests of full disclosure, I have had the privilege of meeting Theodore Gray on two separate occasions. He is as much of a joy in person as he emotes through his books. Full of fascinating stories with a mind that is always curious and with a wry sense of humour, I await the results of his next project to immerse us all in the world of, and I mean this in the most complimentary of ways, a scientific geek.