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The Dynamic History of the Toy Chemistry Set

The chemistry set is an icon in the toy world. It's ignited entire generations of aspiring scientists, and more than a few experiments gone awry, but it wasn't an instant classic. In its 100 years on the scene, the toy chemistry set has seen its share of ups and downs on the long journey into the hearts and gift boxes of consumers.

The toy actually has purely practical roots. In the 1800s, portable kits containing chemicals, glassware, and various tools were sold for use in the academic world. Stores steadily cranked out the kits for students and professors until the distribution was largely halted by the outbreak of World War I (the kits were mostly assembled in England with chemicals supplied by Germany).

Meanwhile, two American brothers found inspiration in the chemistry kits and the rising popularity of a brand new toy, the Erector Set, which made its debut in 1913. John J. and Harold Mitchell Porter, owners of The Porter Chemical Company in Maryland, took a cue from the DIY spirit of the Erector Set and began manufacturing Chemcraft sets, similar to the English chemistry kits (they contained chemicals, a gas lamp, labware, and instructions), but marketed as a toy. Soon after the Porter Chemcraft set hit store shelves, the company found its first competitor. Alfred Carlton Gilbert, inventor of the Erector Set, caught wind of the brothers’ idea and, in 1920, decided to debut a chemistry set of his own.

By the '30s, chemistry sets were being sold at major retailers like Woolworths, with advertisements emblazoned with “How to be a Boy Chemist!” and “Master the Mysteries of Modern Chemistry!” encouraging kids—mostly  boys—to explore the exciting world of science. Parents were on board, too. These chemistry sets were one of the first widely distributed toys whose advertisements appealed to fresh-from-the-Depression parents, playing on the belief that a chemistry set was not merely a toy, but a valuable first step toward a career in science.

Rosie Cook of the Chemical Heritage Foundation told Smithsonian magazine: “Coming out of the Depression, that was a message that would resonate with a lot of parents who wanted their children to not only have a job that would make them money but to have a career that was stable. And if they could make the world a better place along the way, then even better."

Chemistry sets remained popular throughout the following decades, as new editions were released often to adapt to the changing attitudes toward different scientific disciplines. With the dawn of television came an entertainment-focused set that included a guide to putting on a magic show with chemistry. After World War II and the Manhattan Project, many new chemistry sets had a nuclear tilt. With the Space Race and moon landing around the corner, scientists were becoming a kind of superstar. The field of science was experiencing an unprecedented bump in coolness, and chemistry sets—finally giving kids access to science, actual science—became all the rage.

But the sets weren’t necessarily aimed at making science accessible for everyone—they were largely marketed toward white males. From advertisements to their packaging, the target market was clear.

Kristin Frederick-Frost, curator and collections manager at the Chemical Heritage Museum told WIRED, "The typical historical narrative goes that after the war and after Sputnik there’s this huge push to get more scientists in the field. If it was purely about mobilizing as many scientists as possible, the sets would have been made to be attractive to far more flavors of people than just white boys."

A rare set marketed toward girls from the 1950s. Credit: Chemical Heritage Foundation, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

It wasn't just a narrow focus when it came to the intended user, the intended field was also zeroed in on defense and industrial use. Still, the kits did influence the lives of many. Robert F. Curl, Jr., recipient of the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry, wrote in his Nobel autobiography: “When I was 9 years old, my parents gave me a chemistry set. Within a week, I had decided to become a chemist and never wavered from that choice.”

That golden era gave way to the '70s and '80s, when the public developed a growing mistrust of chemistry and its industries. In the years of Agent Orange, Three Mile Island, and Silent Spring, the American public’s shiny, futuristic perception of science was replaced with suspicion and a fear that chemistry could not only win wars for America, but wage war on its own citizens. Science was no longer exciting and cool, but scary, and chemistry sets declined in popularity. Chemistry sets now came with an emphasis on safety and many changes were inarguably for the better, as the kits of old were fraught with potential dangers. For example, glassblowing kits supplied children with a blowtorch, and some nuclear-focused kits of the '50s contained radioactive uranium ore. A string of consumer protection laws in the 1970s did away with acid in chemistry sets, among several other limitations in the sets’ contents. Chemistry sets never quite reclaimed their mojo—for the most part, today’s sets are tamer, containing smaller amounts of chemicals, and, in some cases, none at all.

Some people are still championing the chemistry set’s cause, however. A recent Kickstarter campaign aimed at assembling and distributing old-school chemistry sets racked up more than 500 backers and nearly $150,000. The set is designed to match the one sold by the A.C. Gilbert company from the '20s through the '40s, chemicals and all. Taking a more futuristic approach, the Chemical Heritage Foundation released a free app called ChemCrafter, which enables iPad users to “create surprising color changes, encounter fire and smoke, release various gases, and shatter equipment,” all from the safety of the screen. It might not compare to the real thing, but these efforts might just be priming the old-school chemistry set for a comeback. 

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When You Feel "Chemistry" With Someone, What's Actually Going On?
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We know chemistry when we feel it with another person, but we don't always know why we're drawn to one person over another. Is it just a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones conspiring to rush you toward reproduction? Is it attraction borne of a set of shared values? Or is it bonding over specific experiences that create intimacy?

It's probably a combination of all three, plus ineffable qualities that even matchmaking services can't perfectly nail down.

"Scientists now assume, with very few exceptions, that any behavior has features of both genetics and history. It's nature and nurture," Nicole Prause, a sexual psychophysiologist and neuroscientist, tells Mental Floss. She is the founder of Liberos, a Los Angeles-based independent research center that works in collaboration with the University of Georgia and the University of Pittsburgh to study human sexual behavior and develop sexuality-related biotechnology.

Scientists who study attraction take into consideration everything from genetics, psychology, and family history to traumas, which have been shown to impact a person's ability to bond or feel desire.

THE (BRAIN) CHEMISTRY OF LOVE

Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University, Match.com's science advisor, and the author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, breaks down "love" into three distinct stages: lust, attraction, and attachment. In each stage, your body chemistry behaves differently. It turns out that "chemistry" is, at least in part, actual chemistry. Biochemistry, specifically.

In the lust and attraction phases, your body is directing the show, as people can feel desire without knowing anything personal about the object of that desire. Lust, Fisher asserts in a seminal 1997 paper [PDF], is nothing more than the existence of a sex drive, or "the craving for sexual gratification," she writes. It's a sensation driven by estrogens and androgens, the female and male sex hormones, based in the biological drive to reproduce.

Attraction may be influenced less than lust by physiological factors—the appeal of someone's features, or the way they make you laugh—but your body is still calling the shots at this stage, pumping you full of the hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine, effecting your brain in a way that's not unlike the way illicit substances do.

Fisher has collaborated multiple times on the science of attraction with social psychologist Arthur Aron, a research professor at Stony Brook University in New York. Aron and his wife Elaine, who is also a psychologist, are known for studying what makes relationships begin—and last.

In a 2016 study in Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers proposed that "romantic love is a natural (and often positive) addiction that evolved from mammalian antecedents by 4 million years ago as a survival mechanism to encourage hominin pair-bonding and reproduction, seen cross-culturally today."

In the attraction phase, your body produces increased amounts of dopamine, the feel-good chemical that is also responsible for pain relief. Using fMRI brain imaging, Aron's studies have shown that "if you're thinking about a person you're intensely in love with, your brain activates the dopamine reward system, which is the same system that responds to cocaine," he tells Mental Floss.

Earlier, Fisher's 1997 paper found that new couples often show "increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention and exquisite delight in smallest details of this novel relationship."

The attachment phase is characterized by increases in oxytocin and vasopressin; these hormones are thought to promote bonding and positive social behaviors to sustain connections over time in order to fulfill parental duties.

There is no hard and fast timeline for how long each phase lasts, as it can vary widely due to gender, age, and other environmental factors, Fisher writes.

Additionally, while oxytocin has long gotten the credit for being the love hormone, Prause says that scientists are now "kind of over oxytocin," because it has broader functions than simply bonding. It also plays a role in the contraction of the uterus to stimulate birth, instigating lactation, and sexual arousal; low levels have been linked to autism spectrum disorders. 

Now they're focusing on a charmingly named hormone known as kisspeptin (no, really). Produced in the hypothalamus, kisspeptin plays a role in the onset of puberty, and may increase libido, regulate the gonadal steroids that fuel the sex drive, and help the body maintain pregnancy. But Prause says there is a lot more study about the role kisspeptin plays in attraction.

CHEMICAL AND PERSONAL BONDS

Biology may explain our initial attraction and the "honeymoon" phase of a relationship, but it doesn't necessarily explain why a person's love of obscure movies or joy of hiking tickles your fancy, or what makes you want to settle down.

The Arons' numerous studies on this subject have found connection boils down to something quite simple: "What makes people attracted to the point of falling in love—presuming the person is reasonably appropriate for them—is that they feel the other person likes them," he says. 

In the process of doing research for her book How To Fall in Love With Anyone, writer Mandy Len Catron of Vancouver became her own test subject when she came across the research the Arons are most well-known for: their 36 questions, which promote bonding.

The questions were originally designed to "generate intimacy, a sense of feeling similar, and the sense that the other person likes you," Aron explains. Romantic love wasn't the goal. "It was a way of creating closeness between strangers."

The Arons first tested their questions by pairing up students during a regular class section of a large psychology course, as they related in a paper in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Some students were paired with someone of the same sex, while others were matched with someone of the opposite sex. Each partner then answered a series of 36 increasingly personal questions, which took about 45 minutes each. (Question 2: "Would you like to be famous? In what way?" Question 35: "Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?") Small talk during class hadn't made them bond, but the questions made the students feel closer.

In another version of the study, heterosexual, opposite-sex pairs follow the 36-question session with four minutes of staring deeply into each other's eyes.

Catron decided to test these methods out with a casual acquaintance, Mark, over beers at a local bar one night. They were both dating other people at the time, and no one exclusively. As she answered the questions and listened to Mark's answers, "I felt totally absorbed by the conversation in a way that was unlike any of the other first dates I was having at the time with people I met online," Catron tells Mental Floss.

She was ready to skip the four minutes of soulful eye gazing, but Mark thought they should try it. "It was deeply uncomfortable, but it was also an important part of the experience," she recalls. "It's so intimate, it requires you to let your guard down."

The process instilled in Catron a deep feeling of trust in Mark and a desire to know him better. Within three months, they began dating in earnest. Now, more than three years later, they live together in a condo they bought.

The Arons' questions offer "accelerated intimacy," she says, in a time of increasingly online-driven dating experiences.

A LITTLE MYSTERY, A LOT OF SHARED VALUES

Despite all that we’ve learned, scientists may only ever be able to brush up against the edge of a true understanding of "chemistry." “We understand a fair amount about what happens when [attraction has] already occurred, but we're really bad at predicting when it will happen," Prause says. "People who try to claim magical matchmaking, or that they're going to somehow chemically manipulate an aphrodisiac or something—well good luck! Because we can't figure it out.”

And anyway, what's romance without a little mystery?

If you must have a definitive answer to the puzzle of interpersonal chemistry, Prause says to keep this in mind: "The best predictor of long-term outcomes is shared values."

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The Thermodynamic Genius of the Classic Drinking Bird Toy
David Monniaux, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
David Monniaux, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

If you're familiar with the drinking bird toy, you know it as a cheesy knickknack that's adorned office desktops for decades. But anyone with a background in thermodynamics knows that the novelty item deserves more credit. In his video spotted by Sploid, Bill Hammack—a.k.a. engineerguy—explains the impressive science at work every time the toy takes a sip.

To pull off its famous trick, a drinking bird toy must contain a special chemical compound called methylene chloride. When stored inside the toy it looks like colored water, but its properties are unique: It can transition easily from a liquid to a gas by essentially boiling at room temperature. Evaporated methylene chloride fills the bird's head while liquid methylene chloride fills the base of its body. Pressure differences caused by the condensing gas in the head encourage the liquid in the base to rise to the top of the toy, shifting the weight so its upper half topples forward into the glass in front of it. The liquid methylene chloride drains out in this new position and the balance of gas and liquid is restored. As long as the bird has enough room-temperature water to drink, the water will cool the methylene chloride vapor and start the whole process over again.

The result is a seemingly simple toy whose principles were actually complicated enough to baffle Albert Einstein. You can watch Hammack give a more detailed explanation of the science at work in the video below.

[h/t Sploid]

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