Holiday Gift Guide 2010: Chemistry

Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

2399 Articles

By Sean Michael Ragan

I am descended from 5,000 generations of tool-using primates. Also, I went to college and stuff. I am a long-time contributor to MAKE magazine and My work has also appeared in ReadyMade, c't – Magazin für Computertechnik, and The Wall Street Journal.

2399 Articles


Scientists, and especially chemists, are notoriously hard to shop for. Equipment can be hard for others to pick well, and the alternative to something practical is usually something funny. Or something that tries to be funny. In point of fact, good science gag gifts are pretty hard to find, too. Check my recs, below, and you’ll be off to a better-than-average start.


Hoffman tubing clamps, open- and closed-sided ($1.20-$1.30 each from eNasco)

Hoffman clamps are extraordinarily handy bits of lab kit. The screw is turned to compress a piece of flexible tubing between two bars, and may thus be used to completely stop or simply to regulate flow of gas or liquid through such tubing. The screwing action of the Hoffman clamp allows adjustment of the rate of flow infinitesimally, from full open to full stop. In amateur apparatus, a Hoffman clamp can often take the place of a glass or Teflon stopcock, which is a much more sophisticated and expensive bit of apparatus. And they’re cheap!

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Molar beach ball ($7.50 from the American Chemical Society)

A “mole,” in case you don’t know, is the unit used by chemists to enumerate atoms or molecules. One mole is Avogadro’s number (6.02 x 10^23) of individual atoms or molecules. One of the remarkable things a person learns in general chemistry is the huge difference in molar volumes between liquid and gas phases. A mole of liquid water, for instance, takes up 18 mL, whereas the same number of water molecules in the gas phase takes up 22400 mL! Another interesting fact is that, because molecules interact so little with each other in the gas phase, all gases have effectively the same molar volume, which, again, is 22400 mL, or 22.4 L, at average atmospheric temperatures and pressures. The American Chemical Society has designed this cool beach ball to contain 22.4 L, or one mole, of gas. It’s a great teaching aid and a nifty idea in general.


Borosilicate coffee cup ($9.99 from ThinkGeek)

Part of the experience of becoming a chemist is learning to appreciate glass. Glass is totally ubiquitous in our world, but only after working with it under the relatively extreme conditions of the lab, does one really begin to appreciate how truly amazing its properties are. Worked with relative ease, resistant to almost all chemicals, capable of enduring extremes of temperature and pressure, and to top it all off, transparent so you can see what’s going on, borosilicate glass is surely one of the greatest achievements of materials science. Besides these reasons, chemists and other scientists tend to run on coffee (I’ve even gone so far as to suggest that coffee causes scientific thinking, to some extent), and at ten bucks, you’d be hard pressed to find a more cost-effective gift for one than this borosilicate coffee mug from ThinkGeek.


Water aspirator ($16.25 from eNasco)

Every hobby chemist wants a vacuum pump, but many of us can’t afford one, either in terms of absolute cost or available space. Fortunately, there’s a wonderful low-tech way to generate a low vacuum, suitable for filtration and many distillations, using an ordinary sink and this inexpensive bit of kit called an “aspirator.” The aspirator exploits the Venturi effect (Wikipedia) to generate negative air pressure at the sidearm from the flow of water out the bottom. And while it may look like the sort of thing you could build yourself from hardware store bits and pieces, the hydrodynamics of a good aspirator are fairly complicated and it makes much more sense to just buy one. You may have to buy an adapter to make it fit your particular sink, but these can almost always be found at the corner hardware store for a couple of extra bucks.


The xkcd shirt ($20 from the xkcd store)

In point of fact, there are many delightful xkcd shirts to choose from, but this design, based on xkcd #208, is a personal fave and almost certain to be well received by scientists pros and otherwise. And your purchase goes to support what, IMHO, is the funniest dern site on the web.


Clear plastic graduated cylinders, set of 6($23.95 from AIMS Education Foundation store)

Beautiful, practical, and inexpensive. Chemist or not, once you have a set of these around the house, you’ll never want to do without them. Good for the garage, the kitchen, the garden, the aquarium, the studio, or the lab. If you only want to buy one, the 1000 mL size is likely to be most appreciated.

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Robert Bruce Thompson’s Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments ($29.99 from The Maker Shed)

Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments is absolutely the best guide to hobby chemistry that I have ever encountered. In 22 chapters across 413 pages, Bob takes his readers through the basics of keeping a notebook and safely storing chemicals to the subtleties of organic synthesis and forensic analysis, and all with a ferociously independent, hands on, less-is-more DIY style. I really love this book.


Photographic periodic table poster ($45 from Theodore Gray)

There are lots and lots and lots of periodic table posters out there, but mad garage chem-hacker Theodore Gray’s is the most beautiful I’ve seen. It’s printed on both sides—one has just the pretty pictures, and the other slightly smaller pictures and all the standard reference data for each element.


MyWeigh i201 electronic tabletop balance ($89.99 from Quick Supply)

A good balance is a totally indispensable tool for quantitative chemistry of almost any type. The important figures of merit for a balance, in rough order from most to least vital, are resolution (the number of zeroes after the decimal point), capacity (the maximum upper mass limit), precision (the consistency of repeated measurements of the same mass), accuracy (how close it reads to the “true” value, which is easily corrected by calibration), and linearity (how well precision and accuracy are maintained across the balance’s mass capacity). The better each of these figures, the more the balance will cost. Professional “analytical” balances, capable of weighing to a milligram (0.001 g) or less, cost thousands of dollars and include an enclosed glass cabinet over the weighing pan to prevent interference from air currents, which they are sensitive enough to detect. Hobby chemists generally have to compromise, but good centigram (0.01 g) balances are quite accessible and are adequate for most purposes. This My-Weigh iBalance 201 digital balance has centigram resolution and a capacity of 200 g, and was recommended to us by Robert Bruce Thompson, author of our Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments.

Atomic emission spectrum scarf ($110 and up from Sternlab)

Our very own inimitable Becky Stern makes and sells these beautiful custom scarves featuring the atomic emission spectrum of your favorite element. Shown above is the “silicon” version, but you can choose whichever element/spectrum you like. And here’s a handy-dandy Java applet from The University of Oregon that makes it easy to browse for your selection. Minimalists may prefer hydrogen or helium, but for my money it’s hard to pass up the rainbow-y goodness of, say, iron or tantalum. Want!


Museum-quality chemical element samples ($40-225 each from RGB Research, Ltd.)

Safely and attractively packaged by embedment in Lucite, available in 50 mm and 100 mm sizes. They’ll even sell you a complete set if you want to go all out. It ain’t cheap, but you wouldn’t want it in the house if it were, and if you’re in the market for a high-end gift that will absolutely blow your favorite chemist away, it’s hard to imagine anything better than a complete set of the naturally-occurring elements.

In the Maker Shed:



Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments


Want more? Stop by the Maker Shed. We’ve got all sorts of great holiday gift ideas, Arduino & Arduino accessories, electronic kits, science kits, smart stuff for kids, back issues of MAKE & CRAFT, box sets, books, robots, kits from Japan and more.

Holiday Shipping Deadlines in December:

15 (Wed) – Postal shipping deadline
14 (Mon) – Ground shipping deadline
18 (Sat) – 3-day shipping deadline
20 (Mon) – 2-day shipping deadline
21 (Tue) – Overnight shipping deadline

*Orders placed after these dates using these shipping methods may arrive on time; however, the dates listed are what we consider likely “safe dates.”

United States Postal Service (USPS):
Due to the high volume of mail that the postal service deals with around the holidays, please order by Dec 15 if you intend to select this method. However, we have had increased reports of packages sent via USPS lost or delayed in transit during this high-volume period. Since we do not replace or refund any order placed using this shipping method, we strongly encourage you not to use this method in December.

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