Mad Science Forum FAQ

1.0 Mission and Background
    1.1 What is Mad Science?
    1.2 Why Mad Science?
    1.3 Why a Mad Science forum?

2.0 The Forum Itself
    2.1 Forum topics
    2.2 Forum behavior
    2.3 Forum moderation

3.0 Further resources
    3.1 Free (Internet) informational resources
        3.1.1 Reference links
        3.1.2 Usenet
        3.1.3 Other forums
    3.2 Non-free informational resources
        3.2.1 Textbooks
        3.2.2 Journals
        3.2.3 Reference books
    3.3 Inspiration
        3.3.1 Biographical inspiration
        3.3.2 Histories of science and technology
        3.3.3 Fiction

1.1 What is Mad Science?
Mad Science is about monsters, insanity, pitchfork-wielding villagers, and Things Man was Not Meant to Know. More prosaically, Mad Science is about exploring and manipulating aspects of the natural world without the facilities or resources of "sane science" as practiced in academic, industrial, and governmental research settings. Mad Scientists must generally pay for expenses out of their own pockets, which may not be very deep. Because of these financial constraints they must work without the extensive and expensive equipment available in a real lab. As annoying and potentially hazardous as it is, for most Mad Scientists the lab is a shed, basement, bedroom, or garage, and the fumehood is the great outdoors.

As if Mad Science were not already hazardous enough, many Mad Scientists are drawn like moths before a candle to the most dangerous areas of exploration: energetic, corrosive, and bioactive materials. Colorful, explosive, and poisonous materials drove much of chemistry's development for hundreds of years. That triad now repeats in miniature in the hearts of many Mad Scientists. If it's not visually attractive or dangerous it may well fall by the wayside until more exciting things have been exhausted -- or until more exciting things lead to disaster.

1.2 Why Mad Science?
As a child I read many fascinating books of experiments in physics, biology, and above all chemistry that one could perform at home. Much of the time these weren't experiments per se, but rather demonstrations of some interesting scientific principle or specific aspect of the subject matter in question. One could assemble an x-ray generator and mutate insects and plants, digest and analyze mineral samples, or build miniature pyrotechnic devices.  Naturally, these books all dated from the 1960s and earlier.  Somewhere along the line it became difficult for children (and private citizens in general (comments apply to the USA here)) to obtain nitric acid, ionizing radiation sources, and many other laboratory essentials and curiosities. No doubt such concerns saved the world from some number of childhood injuries and three-eyed fish even as they served up steaming plateful after plateful of disappointment in my own life. It was always with chagrin that I would finish skimming a thick, juicy tome full of science fun, only to realize that I could not try for myself the fascinating things the book talked about. I managed to get by thanks to supportive parents (including a father who would once in a while order me chemicals for Christmas and a scientist uncle who could get me apparatus) but I missed out on at least as many activities as I was able to pursue.

Now that I am older and a little sharper I have come to realize that with a little effort many of those essential chemicals or items referred to in older books can be improvised, synthesized, or purchased over the counter. It's just a matter of cleverness and care figuring out how to get the necessary goods in an age when "chemical" is nearly a popular synonym for "evil" and an antonym for "natural." Specialty web retailers can help with those essential items that can't be easily improvised. The Mad Science forum will be your partner as you scale barriers erected to protect you from yourself. Mad Science begins where the baking soda volcanoes end.

If you want to get a first hand look at a variety of chemical phenomena, "amaze your friends and family" (just like the old books said), or retrace the footsteps of famous chemists from ages past, you've come to the right place. You've probably come to the wrong place if you are looking for activities involving nothing more dangerous than table salt and magnets. There are many books already available that make safety the primary concern. Here, safety is important but so is adventure. If you want to push back the frontiers of scientific knowledge, you have probably again come to the wrong place. Mad Scientists as a rule cannot afford the costly facilities or narrow specialization that characterize the cutting edge of scientific research.

1.3 Why a Mad Science forum?
There are a number of other electronic forums for chemistry discussion, but none of them address the needs of Mad Scientists very well. Usenet has a whole sci.chem hierarchy but the chemistry discussions that take place there are not the sort that build up an electronic community. Questions about performing interesting activity X at home are likely to be met with directions taken straight from standard references and/or journals (and thus totally unadapted to limited home facilities) and/or exclamations of "activity X is so dangerous that you are crazy to even consider performing it at home!" If you are lucky, this last comment regarding danger will spark a long thread on individual versus communal rights and turn into a gun control flamewar. The groups alt.engr.explosives and rec.pyrotechnics also frequently discuss chemistry but tend to be hostile to beginners interested in the chemistry of fire and loud noises. To be fair, they get a large number of visits from lazy and destructive idiots, which is probably why they are hostile by default to the uninitiated. The lazy and destructive idiots have their own small (and in some cases fairly large) forums scattered throughout the Internet. They are a waste of time and a health hazard. There was one fairly good independent forum already in existence for the specific pursuit of fires and loud noises, but it historically discouraged general chemistry discussion. There was also The Hive, which had many active amateur and professional chemists, but was confined to the discussion of mind-altering compounds. It seemed that the time was ripe for a forum that would be gentle with beginners, would assume that people were working with limited resources, and would welcome a variety of chemistry/science topics.

2.1 Board topics
The Mad Science forum is focused on chemistry, since the founders and moderators are most interested in this area. It is conceivable that additional sections regarding biology, physics, electronics, etc. could be added should demand arise. As of this writing there are several board sections:


Chemistry in General: this is for chemistry related topics that are not specific enough for another area; inorganic chemistry goes here too
Organic Chemistry: the chemistry of carbon compounds
Reagents and Apparatus equipment: ask/share how to obtain/make general lab equipment and where/how to acquire chemicals
Beginnings: schoolwork help and beginner questions
Miscellaneous: science/chemistry topics that don't fit elsewhere

Special topics:
Technochemistry: chemistry using microwaves, electric arcs, tube furnaces, electrochemical cells, or any other sort of specialized equipment; pseudoindustrial processes
Energetic Materials: discuss chemicals that suddenly produce lots of heat or loud noises.
Biochemistry: life and living systems, at the chemical level (also biologically-derived chemicals)
Prepublication: a staging area for member-written articles on topics, where works can be collaboratively edited and refined.

Forum Matters: discussion and announcements about the forum itself.
Legal and Societal Issues: discussions about popular perceptions of amateur science and legal issues that impair its pursuit.
Whimsy: absolutely any sort of discussion, apart from flaming or politics (which by hard experience is an invitation to flaming)
Detritus: locked and/or worthless threads are preserved here in a sort of electronic wax museum

It is okay to be ignorant when first arriving and posting. However, you must be willing to make an effort to learn. If you are unable to cite references in support of an idea or as background to your question, the post belongs in Beginnings. Questions that provide background information and show effort are more likely to receive good responses.

If an existing thread covers the topic you're about to post about, post in that thread instead of a new one. It makes it easier for members to keep up with topics of interest. You may need to search before posting if you're unsure whether or not a thread already exists. The search engine is not very powerful and may miss relevant threads, but please make at least a cursory effort.

Do not request spoonfeeding of information for clandestine drug manufacture. However, every sort of chemistry is a permissible topic of discussion if you discuss it like a scientist. If someone is asking about obtaining chemicals used in drug manufacture and using the vocabulary of a SWIM—"someone who isn't me"—-mer more than a chemist, report it and the thread will be dealt with after a moderator has confirmed your findings. Similarly, if someone is asking for help with a synthetic "recipe" for a known street drug, report that too. Don't bother to berate the cooks in the thread itself instead; that doesn't bring the mods any faster. In truth the mods and most members dislike any thread where someone is seeking or using a "recipe" and doesn't show any deeper interest in chemistry, but this has been mostly a problem with drug synthesis because of the many people who want to quickly get rich or high.

Certain topics are unwelcome no matter what section they are posted in. The discussion of criminal enterprises or weapons production is inappropriate.

2.2 Forum behavior
The anonymous and remote nature of the Internet makes rude and stupid behavior even easier and more common than it is in other social settings. Please resist the urge to devolve into a feces-hurling Internet Monkey just because nobody can see your face. Do not start or perpetuate flame wars. The odd burst of profanity can emphasize a point but you should sound more like a scientist than a sailor.

Clear and precise language is especially valuable in a technical setting. Try to use technically correct grammar, punctuation, and spelling. If English is not your first language the moderators will be understanding. Be especially careful with chemical names and formulas. There is only a single letter's difference between sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite, but they are not the same thing.

Please acknowledge the authors of good information that you have drawn from sources other than personal experience. Whether it be a journal article, patent, encyclopedia, or web site, say where information came from (if it's not trivial). This allows people to verify claims that you may make and to learn more on their own later. If you draw information from personal experience, say so. This site exists to promote hands-on learning. If you are just speculating, definitely say so! It is aggravating to have a procedure fail only to later learn that the person who suggested it had never tried it.

2.3 Forum moderation
The moderators are not here to experience the thrill of power over people. They are here to discuss Mad Science and to maintain an atmosphere conducive to that discussion. They have the power to move misplaced threads, lock or delete inappropriate threads, and (as a last resort) delete/ban existing accounts.

3.1.1 Reference links
The FAQ for the Usenet group sci.chem contains a good deal of chemistry information.
The International Order of Nitrogen , a group of  students from Oregon, has a page on starting out with a home lab. Read it before you ask where to get common chemicals or equipment.
If you are looking for chemicals from/in common consumer products, the Readily Available Chemicals page has considerable information.
Our own Sciencemadness library has a healthy and growing collection of scientific and technical books, as well as a smaller collection of short articles.
You can search the Organic Syntheses website to learn about many lab scale synthetic processes for organic chemicals.
You can search for information on specific chemicals at Chemfinder. If you run more than a couple of searches per day you will need to register a free account or disable cookies from their site.
Here's a small mountain of chemistry links covering just about every topic you could wonder about.

3.1.2 Usenet
Usenet is a distributed hierarchical discussion system that predates the World Wide Web. It bears some resemblence to an electronic mailing list. Most large ISPs provide Usenet access. If you do not have Usenet access through your ISP and wish to read articles, you can read current articles and a large archive of old ones via Google Groups . If you wish to read and post to Usenet but your ISP does not provide a connection, you can get a free account to both read and post to Usenet from Freie Universität in Berlin.

The sci.chem.* hierarchy is a good source of chemistry information. For fireworks information rec.pyrotechnics is hard to beat, and explosives of all sorts get discussed in alt.engr.explosives. Be sure to take advantage of the 20 years of archived material stored on Google's servers. Searching Usenet will often yield better results for specific queries than searching the web.

3.1.2 Other forums
Megalomania's Explosives and Weapons Forum was a place to indulge your destructive urges more freely, with discussion of all aspects of explosives. It has been mysteriously offline since summer 2009. The Amateur Pyrotechnics and Chemistry Forum is a bit more gentle with beginners but is still a decent place to discuss practical aspects of pyrochemistry.
The Hive was your destination if you want to tweak your own brain chemistry. It is currently offline, but the diaspora of displaced users has shown up at Wetdreams and elsewhere. Practicing and aspirational psychonauts may find The Vespiary to their liking (free registration required). The Russian HyperLab is another fine resource in this vein, and now accepts English-language posts everywhere.

3.2.1 Textbooks
Textbooks are handy collections of basic information of all sorts. They can be obtained at low cost from thrift stores, especially stores located near universities, or from used book stores (you are likely to pay higher prices at the used book stores). Abebooks is a great place to look for chemistry texts and references if you don't have a university and thrift store conveniently located side by side. Try to obtain books that are written for university level courses. Books that target a high school level won't be much easier for a beginner to understand and they will generally have less information. One or more books on general chemistry, organic chemistry, analytical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, and (for the brave) physical chemistry would be useful. If you are new to doing hands-on chemistry you may also wish to obtain a lab manual or manuals covering basic techniques. The third edition of Vogel's Practical Organic Chemistry and A Course in Iorganic Preparations are somewhat dated but very valuable introductions to laboratory work and preparations. As a general rule, practical (lab-oriented, as opposed to descriptive or theoretical) books from the 1970s and earlier are superior to modern books for Mad Science purposes, since they are less reliant on expensive instruments and reagents.

3.2.2 Journals
There are many journals published all over the world covering every aspect of chemistry. They are still stuck in the limited and expensive mold of the 20th century when it comes to publication, for the most part. Journals arrive as expensive bound paper or as expensive database lookups/electronic subscriptions. You will be stuck reading free abstracts unless you can visit a university library or personally pay for subscriptions to these rather costly materials. The American Chemical Society publishes a number of journals under its banner. They are available in both paper and electronic format. The research journals of today cover such narrow and specialized topics that you are unlikely to find much of interest just browsing through their pages (with the possible exception of Chemical Reviews). The Journal of Chemical Education tends to have more easily digested materials since it aims to aid instructors in teaching students. Older editions of the journals are far more fun to look through and more easily understood. In addition, they are bound into massive, weighty collections that would look great with your pickled human brains and hunchbacked lab assistant.

3.2.3 Reference books
There are so many reference books available that it is difficult to suggest any few as particularly valuable. The Kirk-Othmer Encyclopedia of Chemical Technology is a wonderful (and wonderfully expensive) reference on chemical processes and products. The concise edition of the same work is far less expensive and far less comprehensive. Ullman's Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry is a similar work, perhaps superior. The Merck Index is a handy reference for the properties of many common (and some slightly uncommon) chemicals. The paper edition is bulky and rather costly. The searchable electronic edition is far more expensive and has less information. Lange's Handbook of Chemistry has a good deal of valuable information at a reasonable price. The CRC Handbook of Chemistry and Physics is similarly useful, though its contents will vary considerably depending on which edition you use.

3.3.1 Biographical inspiration
For inspiration you can do much worse than to read about inventors and chemists from the early 20th century or even older times. It was an age when a single dedicated individual really could make important scientific or technical advances sans the backing of a major institution. Marie Curie, Sir Humphrey Davy, Charles Hall, and dozens of others worked in such a fashion.

There are some more modern inspirations available as well. Homer Hickam's Rocket Boys is a story of a particular kind of Mad Science - rocketry - that took him from a poor coal mining town in West Virginia to the National Science Fair and ultimately to the Apollo project at NASA. His tale was also the basis for the movie October Sky.

Oliver Sacks's book Uncle Tungsten is a lovely portrait of amateur chemistry as practiced in earlier, less paranoid times.

3.3.2 Histories of science and technology
Historical overviews of science and technology can grow very lengthy, or ploddingly dull, and they may share some overlap with biographies. They are however a good way to see the "big picture" of historical scientific development and its acceleration toward the present day. One of the best ways of learning about science in ages past is just to read or browse old scientific books. The Sciencemadness library and many of our forum users work to make the old books free for all in digital format. After this site started, the Internet Archive started offering access to millions of scanned public domain publications, including many in chemistry. It is an excellent source for pre-1923 reading material.

3.3.3 Fiction
Classic science fiction ala Jules Verne was potent inspiration for generations past and it can still release the imagination today. As a child I went through old "Tom Swift" novels like popcorn. These books deal with extraordinary inventor Tom Swift and his marvelous adventures and creations. They will never win any literary achivement awards but they were very inspirational. Jules Verne and Tom Swift books are now falling into the public domain so they may be found on free electronic text archives such as Project Gutenberg.

The Mad Scientists' Club tales by Bertrand R. Brinley are also highly recommended, assuming that time has not distorted my recollection of the books. The Mad Scientists of Mammoth Falls lived the life that I dreamed about, one filled with wacky adventures, creative problem-solving, and (of course) Mad Science.