What lessons do we learn from the case of Kiera Wilmot?

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This week, the internet has been abuzz with the story of Kiera Wilmot, a 16-year-old high school student in Bartow, Polk County, Florida, who was arrested by police after performing an unauthorized chemistry experiment that resulted in a small — essentially harmless — explosion. Many science-minded folk have been outraged, accusing the school and the police of grossly overreacting; a number of online petitions have been spawned. In this post, I’d like to gauge the reaction from Canada’s chemistry community, and see what lessons we might learn from this unfortunate incident.

First, the facts of the case, as near as I can make them out (the police report is available here.)  On Monday, April 22, 2013, Wilmot came to school with a plastic water bottle that contained a brand of toilet bowl cleaner called “The Works.” This particular product contains hydrochloric acid. Near a gazebo outside the school, Wilmot then dropped in a small piece of aluminum foil, which initiated the following chemical reaction:

6 HCl(aq) + 4 Al(s) → 2 Al2Cl3(aq) + 3 H2(g)
It was the hydrogen gas that created enough pressure to pop the top off the bottle, resulting in a loud bang and a small amount of smoke. Nobody was hurt and no property was damaged.  Nonetheless, the school’s principal, Ron Pritchard, heard the bang, brought Wilmot to the office and called police, who subsequently arrested and charged her with two felonies: “possessing or discharging weapons or firearms at a school sponsored event or on school property” and “making, possessing, throwing, projecting, placing, or discharging any descructive device.”

As many — including my fellow Canadian chemistry blogger Marc Leger — have pointed out, saying that Wilmot was “arrested for doing science” may be oversimplifying the case.  Hydrochloric acid is corrosive and can burn skin.  Hydrogen gas is highly flammable. While Wilmot did the experiment in a well-ventilated area, she was not supervised by a suitable professional, and was not wearing proper Personal Protective Equipment (PPE.) In large enough quantities, the same ingredients used in Wilmot’s explosion can indeed cause serious damage.

The incident raises so many questions, but I’m going to try and focus the responses on just a few. Most obvious are those about whether the response to this incident was appropriate (most science folk appear to think it wasn’t) and if not, what an appropriate response would look like.  More interesting to me are the questions about whether such incidents will truly discourage curiosity and exploration.  Over at his blog on Scientific American, Ashutosh Jogalekar answers in the affirmative; Marc Leger is less convinced. Finally, there are questions about whether this counts as an incident of chemophobia, a subject about which I’ve written before. Let the debate — conducted as always in a considered, civil and scientific manner — begin.

Please post your thoughts (along with your affiliation) in the comments below.

[Update - 2013-05-17: The Huffington Post is reporting that the charges against Kiera Wilmot have been dropped. Scientific American blogger DNLee is overjoyed.]

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What lessons do we learn from the case of Kiera Wilmot? — 6 Comments

  1. Pingback: Will Kiera Wilmot’s arrest turn kids away from science? | Atoms and Numbers

  2. i appreciate the step back you’ve taken. All I saw all over my facebook was people outraged about this young lady being ‘arrested for doing science.’

    She may have been curious, yes. But it appears she knew what she was doing yes? She did this experiment because she, perhaps, read what the result was going to be. I’m speculating, but she didn’t just add these two ingredients for no reason. She knew there would be a reaction. (no pun intended)

    either way, I think discipline is important. She knowingly created dangerous combination of chemicals. However, she is a child, and she deserves a chance to not let this define the course of her life. Two felony’s, expulsion, and no longer allowed to complete highschool with her friends seems harsh.

    You pointed out that in large enough quantities this could have created serious harm. How much more would have been required for that?

    • Just wanted to add a comment I received on Twitter from a chemistry prof at UPEI:

      @jpearson_upei: Is any publicity good publicity? Will some be drawn to chem because of the attention, albeit bad? Safety should be the message.

      To answer Jesse’s question; it really depends on what’s used to contain the pressurized gas. There are lots of videos of this reaction on YouTube, some of which would be obviously dangerous if people were standing too close.

  3. I am a bit concerned that in defending so vehemently what she did as “doing science”, some scientists are propagating the myth of the absent-minded scientist. It makes it sound like every time we wonder about something, we just do an experiment, no matter how dangerous it might be. “Gee, why aren’t we allowed to smoke at a gas station? I’ll just put a match next to this gas pump and I’ll see what happ…”

    I mentioned in my post (thanks for linking to it!) that I wonder what the attitudes are in that school towards students who really want to go beyond classroom material. If she was a student who was known to be curious, could she have found a teacher to mentor her? Would she have felt comfortable going to a chemistry teacher and saying “I’ve heard about this reaction, can I try it under a hood? Can you explain to me why this reaction happens?” Or does her school see any kind of attempted learning outside of curriculum as an annoyance?

  4. I agree with taking a step back here and looking at the situation for what it is – an untrained, unprepared, high-school student created a chemical reaction that is known to release heat/gas.

    As a chemist with years of training, I would undoubtedly be reprimanded if I was to stroll somewhere on my university campus in street clothes and do the same reaction with the same outcome outside of a fume hood. So yes, if a high-school student does the same, there should be some punishment.

    The problem with this story is the involvement of police. Given the available information, it seems clear that the student wasn’t trying to do anything malicious or create a “weapon”. Marc’s comment hit the nail on the head – could she have found a teacher to mentor her? Was that an outlet that was available?

    I believe the real tragedy of this story is the decision of the school’s principal to involve the police, and the subsequent course of action the police decided to pursue. I’m not sure I see the incident as chemophobia, but it does indicate a lack of science education and hypersensitivity to the definition of a “bomb”.

  5. Without minimizing the dangers of doing unsupervised chemistry experiments, there are also dangers in unsupervised administration of the Rule of Law.

    Just as the harsh or poisonous chemicals in Drano (or cheaper brands like “The Works”) can be physically harmful, so too can the machinations of the criminal law be toxic to the well-being of those haphazardly subjected to these bureaucratic systems.

    In this case, the public reaction reflects the well-justified concern that Kiera is being subjected to harsh and ruthless treatment at the hands of an insensitive and erratic criminal justice system.

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