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:
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.