Book review

Mad Science 2:  Experiments You Can Do at Home But Still Probably Shouldn’t

by Theodore Gray, 2013,  184 pages, hardcover, Workman Publishing. ISBN-13: 978-1-57912-932-3 US$24.95

If you are a chemistry teacher in search of a new demo, or perhaps looking for just the perfect teaching hook to start a lesson, or maybe something just a little zany, then Mad Science 2 is the book for you.

Theodore Gray writes for the magazine Popular Science, and he has compiled over 30 of his columns into his second book. Each deals with a different demonstration, which is annotated beautifully by numerous full-page photographs of the demonstrations in action. In addition, each comes with a section entitled “How I did it”. However, as Gray clearly states on a number of occasions, there is not enough information provided to allow a novice to perform these demonstrations. The descriptions are not intended to be recipes.

While he may be a little crazy himself, Gray is also hyper-careful and safety conscious. For these reasons, I suspect, he does not want to give out complete details. However, if a teacher wanted to attempt these demonstrations or something similar, instructions and safety considerations could be found in books by Shakhashiri,1 Alyea,2 Humphreys3 or Talesnick4  among a slew of others — even Chem 13 News.5 Gray considers safety critical. He is clear in advising against trying any demonstration without practice and guidance. His suggestion to work with someone with experience, in order to gain it, should be heeded. His photo of the demonstration on the importance of safety glasses is worth the price of admission. All too often, accidents occur when demos go bad and in many cases, students are hurt in the process. Diligence and safety consideration along with training and practice can help eliminate many of these accidents.

As a book, Mad Science 2 is interesting and very easy to read. Gray is engaging and informative — offering background and historical information with each brief demo. The thirty-four individual demos are divided into loose groupings such as light, practical and impractical knowledge, practical and impractical fire and chemical power. You can even learn, literally, how to endanger life and limb. In the realm of learning, there is the back-ground to the miner’s safety lamp (the Davy lamp), why metals spark, and fake gold that would fool even Archimedes. Gray also uses a demo to explain why older Pyrex dishes are safer than the newer ones.

With plenty of excitement, Gray demonstrates the flaming results of burning large bubbles and “firing” up your turkey. Gray presents an explanation for the contact explosive in a “magicube,” a novel dust explosion, and takes on demonstrations on gunpowder, stump burning and other explosive standbys.

As for links to curriculum, there is a twist to the carbide–water demo, an excellent demonstration for pressure and temperature in gases, and a chemiluminescence demo that works nicely into organic chemistry. Students can learn to make esters while producing a “bath bomb” — and then learn how to package the product so one could “market” it. Based on Gray’s lightstick demo and some dyes, students can produce their own glowing version to demonstrate this reaction.

While a vast majority of demonstrations can lend themselves nicely to your classroom, certain ones fall under the category of unlimited budget and are potentially dangerous. Although these are not the type many of us would ever attempt, the appeal of Mad Science 2 is that one can actually see the end result. With this, it is possible to imagine how a demonstration could be tweaked to suit you and your classes.

If you have the passion to excite your students while they learn, and the wish to be labelled somewhat crazy, Mad Science 2 can provide you with the formula for success.


  1. Bassam Z. Shakhashiri, Chemical Demonstrations, A Handbook for Teachers of Chemistry, Volumes 1-5, University of Wisconsin Press, 1983 – 2011.
  2. Hubert Alyea and Fredric Dutton, Tested Demonstrations in Chemistry. Division of Chemical Education of the American Chemical Society, 1965.
  3. D.A. Humphreys, Demonstrating Chemistry, McMaster University, 1983.
  4. Irwin Talesnick, Idea Bank Collation, A Handbook for Science Teachers, S17 Science Supplies and Services, 1984.
  5. Chem 13 News CD Sampler University of Waterloo, 1968 – 2006.