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As many of you may know, I am teaching my 7 year old son at home, and soon my youngest will be officially home taught as well. For most subjects we follow a more structured approach - and we do read about science - but most of time for us, science involves activities. Being messy, stinky , and even possibly mildly dangerous only adds to the fun. Of course seeing Robert Winston on the front, I could assume this book would be sensible, and of course with everyone so worried about product liability these days , few books are going to offer truly insane experiments for children, so I'm not rating this down for being sensible - but all the same I would really prefer a book of experiments for the budding mad scientist!
This is a large book. It measures 12" high, 10 1/4" wide and over 1/2" thick. Anyone who has ever read a DK book will be familiar with there standard out. DK books feature large, very high quality, full colour photographs on a good thick glossy paper. In general, the photographs make the book, but DK is never short on information either. This book provides step by step details for 85 experiments, as well as information on how each experiment works, and the scientific principles involved.
When this book arrived, my sons both sat down quite happily to look through and help choose which experiments to try first. This is not our first science book, and we do like messy science, so I'm afraid we had already tried a great many of the experiments, but they immediately found one they were both desperate to try. This experiment requires dry ice, as did the next experiment they chose, so I told them I would have to see if we could order any online. I spent hours searching through the net, and the best price I found was £50 + postage. This was out of my price range, so I'm afraid we will never being trying the very best experiments.
The next experiment they wanted to try required pipe cleaners and alum. I believe I have some alum left in an old chemistry set, but I wouldn't class this as an everyday household item, which the materials for these experiments are meant to be. I just have to order some pipe cleaners as we haven't been able to find them locally.
The next experiment was giant bubbles. This requires glycerine, which again I thankfully had on hand, and it is easily available from most chemists, but again, this is something that I suspect many families do not stock on a regular basis. You also use sugar and washing up liquid. I'm afraid I just can't get the mixture right on these though - it works to some extent, but not very well. I believe this is because modern fairy liquid is more concentrated than the older washing up liquids so I need to reduce the ratio - I'm just not sure how much.
We did find a few other experiments to try - some worked some didn't. We tried to copper plate nails using nails, pennies and vinegar. This did not work, but I've done it successfully in the past, and I know it does work. I think the nails we used must not have had enough iron. We did an experiment with efferescent tablets ( co codamol) coloured water and food color which creates a nice lava lamp effect, but it only lasts a few minutes. We tried one which shows different colours in markers by colouring a spot of of paper and setting it in water, and another using plasticine to create shapes that float and others that sink - both worked but were rather boring. We tried an experiment with coloured hot and cold water which shows convection currents. This worked, but not nearly so well as in the book. Still this is to be expected, very much like the photos in Art Attack, you should not expect your finished result to be quite as good as that of the experts.
Of all the experiments we were able to obtain the ingredients for, my boys were the most excited by glow in the dark jelly. This involved the purchase of soda water and a black light, the latter being yet another item that I feel is not really an average household item. The jelly pictured is absolutely brilliant, but I am sure they were using a much more powerful and expensive light. Our results were a bit dismal, and the boys were disappointed, but they perked up when I allowed them to use the jelly for a food fight before bath time. We did learn soda water glows with a black light from this though, which means it might be fun to create Halloween drinks with this, or even ordinary mixed drinks, after telling your mates the news has announced some crates of vodka contaminated by radioactive materials.
We had previously tried several other experiments. I think everyone has done the vinegar and baking soda volcano. It is fun, messy and easy to do. There is an experiment to make butter from cream, which doesn't taste quite like store bought butter in my opinion, but it is quite nice on fresh hot bread. One experiment involves placing a glass jar over a candle in a bowl of coloured water, and this has always been a favourite in our house. We also really enjoyed the one where you heat a can and place it upside down in a bowl of ice water. The difference in air pressure causes it to crush. The simplest of experiments - swinging a bucket of water on a rope to show centrifugal force is always popular too - although best done in warmer weather.
There is one experiment which looks brilliant, in which you throw burning paper into a bottle and place a boiled egg on the top. The fire burns up the oxygen, creating a vacuum which sucks the egg into the bottle. Sounds brilliant, but it is very difficult to get a burning bit of paper into the bottle without the flame going out before you can get the egg on top. After 30 minutes and using up one lighter and a box of matches, one might get the bright idea to use just a tiny drop of petrol. This is very bad idea - trust me.
There are a number of other experiments in this book that we certainly will try at some point. In particular, we just need a wine cork to try making a bottle rocket from a bicycle pump and a lemonade bottle. The hoover powered missile launcher looks great fun too. But there are also a number of experiments we won't be bothering with, such as mixing hydrogen peroxide and washing up liquid to make it foam up and make a big mess. There are a also few, like paper airplanes which I felt were just too simple to take up space in a book like this - especially when they have left dozens of fun easy experiments out. Others are simply too difficult. I'm not saying they are impossible as other reviewers have done - only that I could not do it, and don't expect many children will be able to. The hardest experiment I believe is balancing two forks from a toothpick balanced over the edge of a wine glass. I'm sure it is possible, they have included a photograph of it, but it wasn't working for us.
I have taken one star off the rating on the basis that my sons were very disappointed not to be able to do the dry ice experiments. In retrospect, this book was really not worth the purchase price for us. I was lucky enough to pick this up at £7, but full price is almost £10. The main problem for us though, is that I already know all of these experiments. For families who haven't tried very many scientific experiments at home, for a primary school teacher, or even a scout group leader, this book might well be worth the purchase, or for an older child wanting to try some experiments at home. I would caution though, that many experiments involve heat, and some can be very messy, so I would strongly suggest parental supervision, at least for under 12's. The reading level of this is quite advanced as well, and I would suggest this for ages 8+ if the child will be reading this alone. In all honesty though - I don't think this book would be much fun for a child alone. The real fun in this book is for the whole family to jump in and start experimenting.
In conclusion, we do enjoy the book, and we will continue to use since we have it. It's a nice resource to look through for ideas for a rainy day. But you should be aware that all of the experiments which use easy to find materials are readily available online for free + many much more exciting ones. You should also be aware that not all of these experiments can be done with everyday household items - you will certainly need to splash out on supplies, and will likely find some, as we did, just too expensive. We are currently experimenting on the best way to make stink bombs. Unfortunately we can not find plain old cleaning ammonia anymore - which makes very good ones, but we have some eggs rotting and have sulphur power ordered. Rotting cabbage in sealed up bags is meant to work well too.