Igniting An Interest In Science

SATURDAY'S HERO

July 04, 1992|By ROB KASPER

My kids spotted the fireworks stand right away. We passed it as we rode to the beach. We were in Chincoteague, Va, where fireworks are legal.

And after much pleading, we stopped at the stand. My wife and I agreed to let our children experience the patriotic joy of combustion. We put on a family fireworks show one night in Virginia in June. Pinwheels spun. Fountains flared. And "snakes" crawled, although it took considerable effort and a flaming newspaper to get the carbon snakes going.

The kids wrote a program for the show, thereby ensuring that each of them ignited an equal number of devices. My wife served as the appreciative audience, applauding each display from her perch on the porch.

I was in charge of safety, carrying a bucket of water and overseeing all ignitions.

While the kids had seen plenty of fireworks displays run by pyrotechnic pros, this was the first they had participated in.

The pinwheels, secured to a fence with a nail, were a big hit. The kids had never ignited a spinning multicolored device before, even at the ripe ages of 11 and 7.

The dud, a part of any fireworks effort I have been associated with, stirred their anger. The 11-year-old remembered its name, "The Liberty," and promised never to buy it again. The 7-year-old thought we should rush back to the fireworks stand to get a refund.

The Liberty was supposed to fill the yard with a shower of spectacular color. It never showered, it didn't even sputter. It sat there until I doused it with water.

The cherry bomb made the kids laugh. I was in charge of lighting it and had sternly warned everyone to stay 50 yards away from the cherry-shaped device. I lighted the fuse and sprinted 30 yards to take cover behind a tree. This potent cherry bomb turned out be a mild-mannered smoke bomb. Instead of exploding, it merely smoldered.

Cherry bombs, I learned later, have been virtually extinct for years.

James A. Conkling told me about the demise of the cherry bomb. He was happy to see it go, along with the M-80 devices he considered dangerous. He is a fan of fireworks, safe ones.

And he contends that when kids, with adult supervision, ignite well-made fireworks they can light up more than gunpowder. They can, he said, ignite scientific curiosity.

I spoke to him this week when he was in Washington fielding questions on a fireworks hot line operated by the National Council on Fireworks Safety, an industry group. He is executive director of the American Pyrotechnics Association.

I called Conkling because I was intrigued by his statement made in Scientific American and repeated in the New York Times that "many science careers were stimulated by early experience in pyrotechnics."

Conkling, who is an adjunct professor of chemistry at Washington College in Chestertown, and who holds a doctorate from Johns Hopkins, said his interest in science began with a Saturday morning experiment in his home in Govans.

"I would go down in the basement to my chemistry set and, in addition to making things like ink, I would try to make a mixture that would burn," he said.

This interest in combustibles continued when Conkling became a Boy Scout, he said. His scout leader, Carl Zapffe, was a scientist and supervised the troop in laboratory investigations into the chemical mysteries of smoke and fire.

Conkling said that when he tells his story at professional meetings, other scientists have told him that as children, their curiosity was also first stirred by fireworks.

Conkling was quick to say that as child he wasn't only interested in combustion. He also collected rocks, and turtles and snakes. But he said fireworks offer great opportunity for kids to be introduced to mysteries of materials.

I let Conkling explain to me what he sees when he sees fireworks.

The sparks in a sparkler, he said, are iron filings burning at very high temperature. A snake is a pellet of carbon ash that expands as it smokes. Fountains are containers of oxygen-rich chemicals with a gum base.

When he sees the color red he sees strontium. Blue is evidence of copper chlorides.

It was an interesting perspective. Nonetheless, this Fourth of July weekend I won't be shooting off fireworks in my back yard. We live in the city where it is not safe to set fireworks off, nor is it legal.

But next time we go to the relatively wide open spaces of rural Virginia, I'm sure the kids will want to put on another fireworks show. And after the giving the kids my lecture about safety, I will probably comply with their wishes.

Letting the kids light fireworks is a risk. But a big part of this PTC parent business is risk assessment. And I figure that not only will the fireworks show feed my kids' endless appetite for sound and fury, it might also spark a little curiosity.

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