Make: Holiday Gift Guide 2009: Science and Chemistry


Those of you who know me will know I’m slightly biased toward chemistry, the discipline in which I’m trained, so it’s hard for me to resist the natural temptation to focus on gifts that I might like for myself. So, if you astronomers, physicists, biologists, geologists, mathematicians, ecologists, computer scientists (and anybody else I may have accidentally left out) have suggestions for those in your own disciplines, please feel free to submit them in the comments! Chemists, too, of course!


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 1023) 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 ($19.90 from Science Kit)
Every hobby chemist wants a vacuum pump, but many of us can’t afford one, either in terms of absolute cost or in terms of 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, in point of fact 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.


Theo Gray’s Mad Science ($24.95 from The Maker Shed)
I reviewed Theo Gray’s newest book for MAKE, Volume 19, and had this to say about it:

If you’ve ever thrilled to a chemistry demonstration, Mad Science will bring you great joy. If, like me, you’ve ever wiled away an evening (or eight) figuring out just how hard it would really be to construct your own 3 MeV linear accelerator for making Lichtenberg figures, you may be unable to put it down. My review copy is dog-eared at nearly half of the fifty chemical wonders included: Investigate this. Build that. Would it be possible to…?. In the week since I got it, I’ve already been to the shop more than once to fan some spark that struck while leafing through its pages.

The book has beautiful photos of those experiments that are too dangerous for most of us to try on our own, and plenty of safer fare for those who want to play along at home.

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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.

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1000 mL separatory funnel ($39.95 from The Science Company)
The dedicated amateur or hobby chemist can achieve amazing things using old jelly jars and coffee pots, but there are several pieces of “professional” laboratory glass that are difficult to improvise from common materials, and the most useful of these is probably the separatory funnel. A good sep funnel, with a teflon stopcock and a ground-glass joint and stopper, is essential to perform the liquid-liquid extractions that are a routine part of even the most basic isolations and syntheses. And you can almost never have too many. This 1000 mL version from The Science Company is large enough for nearly any purpose. A ring stand and 4″ support ring to hold it in place makes a nice afterthought.

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Distilling apparatus ($49.95 from The Maker Shed)
The Maker Shed offers this really beautiful borosilicate glass distillation kit, including a 1000 mL sidearm flask with stopper and a 200 mm spiral “Graham” condenser, all at the truly astounding price of $49.95. All the joints are easily demountable gas/liquid-tight ground glass, so there’s no monkeying around with rubber stoppers or bits of glass or rubber tubing to make the connections. Distillation is used for separating mixtures of liquids having different boiling points, and the most common use, of course, is in making liquors like whiskey or brandy from beer, wine, or mash. Again, you might want to throw in a couple of ring stands and utility clamps.

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Electronic tabletop balance ($117.00 from The Maker Shed)
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 from The Maker Shed 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.

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Laboratory hotplate / stirrer ($149.95 from The Maker Shed)
After using a stirring hotplate for awhile, you’ll start to get annoyed that your kitchen stove doesn’t include a magnetic stirrer. And for $150 new, you’d be hard-pressed to beat this combination unit from The Maker Shed, which includes a built-in ring stand support, rod, and thermometer clamp. Don’t forget a couple of teflon stir bars to actually do the stirring.


For many more chemistry and science-related gift ideas, check out the Science Room in the Maker Shed.

The Maker Shed has all sorts of other 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:

04 (Fri) – Deadline for microscope shipping
11 (Fri) – postal shipping deadline
14 (Mon) – ground shipping deadline
18 (Fri) – FedEx 3-day shipping deadline
21 (Mon) – FedEx 2-day shipping deadline
22 (Tue) – FedEx overnight shipping deadline

*Customers experiences on orders with these ship methods placed after these dates may vary, the dates listed are what we call “safe dates”

USPS (Any Method):
Due to the high volume of mail that the postal service deals with around the holidays, order by Dec. 10th, however, many packages are lost or delayed in transit and we do not replace or refund any orders lost using this ship method, we strongly encourage you to not use this method in December.


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.

View more articles by Sean Michael Ragan