I’ve been thinking about chemistry lately, what with mercerization and soap — you did notice that both require the use of sodium hydroxide, didn’t you? — and preparing a nice chemistry exhibit for the homeschool curriculum fair. We also had a caller asking for potassium oxide. Having been thinking about soap, I naturally wondered whether she meant potassium hydroxide, but no, there is such a thing as potassium oxide, and it is quite dangerous. Should a person who calls a bookstore in search of viciously toxic chemicals be allowed to use them in her homeschooling? I am afraid that we unwittingly sell chemistry equipment to people who want it for their meth labs, so we can hardly fault a nice lady who made us her first call when she was searching for a chemical which she might not have realized was a questionable choice for use with children. I suppose the real question is: who is going to allow or disallow it?

The Poster Queen and I had a bizarre experience along those lines the other day. A couple came in asking for homeschool materials for their ninth grader. The Poster Queen attempted to help them for a bit, and then asked me to trade off with her, and I could easily see why she found these folks challenging. As we asked them questions, their story changed. They appeared to be lying. About what? Hard to tell. When we offered them state history materials, they said they wouldn’t need them, as they lived in a different state. Then they said they lived in an apartment complex a few miles away. Then, when we recommended going to their local school superintendent for some papers, they said they had already been to the one in the next town to the north. The entire discussion went like this — they were teaching their son algebra — no, geometry — no, algebra, but they didn’t like their book so they needed a new one. Once we had both given up, the woman had a very loud conversation on her cell phone in which she assured someone that you didn’t have to prove to anyone that you were really homeschooling. We could only conclude that these folks had neglected their child’s education all year and were now trying to fake ninth grade. Why were they bothering to lie to us? I don’t know. A custody case, perhaps? I’ve been called in such cases before.

The Poster Queen felt that this was evidence that someone ought to oversee homeschooling — but who? The public schools aren’t successful enough right now to be a reasonable choice. For myself, I figure that a kid with problem parents will have equal problems whether he is in school or at home. Having been a homeschooler myself, though, and having great respect for our homeschool families, I hate to see people like this representing themselves publicly as examples of homeschooling.

In any case, I have noticed something chemical that makes me wonder. Sodium lauryl sulfate and sodium laureth sulfate are detergents used to make bubbles. There is some question about how safe they are, but that is not what I am wondering about at the moment. The thing that is furrowing my brow is the fact that virtually all bottles of foaming things start off with the same two ingredients: water, and then SLS or SLES. Senteurs de Provence, Badedas, fancy cleansing lotions, cheapest shampoo, all begin with those two ingredients. Now, those who argue that SLS/SLES are safe point out that they are used in very small quantities. Water is about 60% of any of these liquid preparations, and then next in quantity is SLS or SLES or sometimes both. Following that comes a list of stuff which, with the chemical names decoded, often kicks off with table salt, oil, colors and fragrances, or citric acid. All things I have in my kitchen cupboard. You know what kinds of quantities of these things are being used. So by the time you get down to that tincture of chamomile or oat bran extract, the quantities are negligible.

Could it then be the case that we could all just mix up a spoonful of SLS  in water and use it for all the different purposes? It is a detergent, and therefore a surfactant, a thing that breaks up oil and moves it around, but its main purpose is to create bubbles. It is a petrochemical, and very cheap ($5 a pound retail at the link I’ve given you). Water is also pretty cheap. So what exactly are we paying for? Dish soap, facial cleansers, wool wash, bubble bath, shampoo — we have all these separate things in our cupboards, but perhaps we are being deceived. It is as though every item in your pantry were made out of modified food starch and flavorings. And you were paying all different prices for the different shapes and colors manufacturers came up with. And the marketing campaigns, of course.

What do you think? By the way, if you want to learn more about chemistry, here is a very cool link: Caveman Chemistry.

If, on the other hand, you want to see my knitting, here it is:

I put the hem at the top this time to give the illusion of different-ness. It seems to me that Sinfonia is inclined to knit up unevenly, but it may be that I am just inclined to knit unevenly at the moment. However, if you are considering Sinfonia, I will say that it is nice and drapey rather than elastic.

I have a surprise day off from work today, and while I intend to clean my house thoroughly, I expect I will also be able to get in a bit of knitting. And possibly some further chemistry.