Make: Holiday Gift Guide 2009: Science and Chemistry

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.

illustrated guide to home chemistry experiments.jpg

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.

16 thoughts on “Make: Holiday Gift Guide 2009: Science and Chemistry

  1. Dave Bell says:

    Nice collection of toys!
    Thanks for gathering and posting it.

    One suggestion, to make the water aspirator entry more clear – rotate the image 90 left, so the water exit and sidearm vacuum port directions agree with the text…

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      Done! Good suggestion. Thank you!

  2. Carlos van Borken says:

    I own a copy of Theo Gray’s Mad Science. It doesn’t float my boat. Mr. Gray is just a show off, writing how great he is, and what great friends he has (who have just happen to have written books).

    There is constant shameless advertising for his website “Find resources at …”, and shameless advertising like

    “A few month ago I created a batch of these prank spoon for my friend and fellow element buff Oliver Sacks (author of Awakening and Unkle Tungsteen).”. F***, I didn’t pay for advertising.

    And there is constant exaggeration. What on earth is dangerous on creating pencils from wood and graphite? Or buying a Wimshurst machine and turning the crank?

    This book is a coffee table book. You place it on your coffee table to demonstrate to visitors how geeky you are.

    1. Theodore Gray says:

      Sorry if I come off like a showoff, but believe me, it’s not me who’s pumping up the danger aspect of some of the experiments. I have tried my best not to exaggerate dangers or make them up where they are not present, but there is constant pressure from the lawyers to list every possible hazard no matter how trivial.

      As for name-dropping, well, sorry again, maybe I am a bit of a showoff, but I think it’s actually more a case of being star struck. Maybe Oliver Sacks is just another author to you, but he’s been a mythical figure to me since childhood and to actually meet him and be able to show him things he thought were cool was one of the high points of my life. And I wrote about it, so sue me. (I’d much rather be sued about that than about someone claiming I failed to adequately warn about some danger.)

  3. Sean Michael Ragan says:

    I’m not sure I agree that what you describe is really “advertising” per se (I’m sure Sacks didn’t pay to be name-dropped, for instance). And I certainly don’t agree that the book tends to exaggerate the dangers associated with some of the experiments included. If anything, Theo’s approach to safety is notably liberal compared to the typical “overstate all dangers so you don’t get sued” paradigm. And while it may, in fact, be fairly described as a “coffee table book,” the pleasure of which is largely in browsing and looking at the pretty pictures, I don’t really think it ever pretended to be anything else. What were you expecting that you didn’t get?

  4. voodoo says:

    I find it strange that they went with 22.4L. The volume a mole of an ideal gas takes up varies with atmospheric pressure and temperature. The volume they have gone for ONLY holds true for NTP (0C and 101.325kPa).

    Perhaps this is to cash in with the ‘white christmas crowd’! :)

    Personally, I would have gone with a 24.5L beach ball, because then you wouldn’t have to go out in the snow for it to be accurate – and indeed could have used it at the beach!

  5. Wilson! says:

    I’m pretty sure most of this stuff is illegal in Texas. You know, because there’s really no other reason to have scientific glassware, a balance, or a stir plate, except to make illegal drugs.

    Sure, it’s only “technically” illegal (isn’t anything on the books “technically” illegal?) and they’re not going to bust you _just_ for having distilling glassware. Well, not yet at least. But if, say, you’re driving home from the post office with your package from Maker Shed, that you just couldn’t wait to open, so it’s sitting open in the back seat. Cop pulls you over for a minor traffic infraction. Sees your stuff in the back seat – this becomes probable cause for a search of your person, passengers, and vehicle. And if they find anything illegal, they’ll tack on charges for the illegal items.

    So, check your local laws and ordinances, to understand that the risks of doing science in your garage aren’t just from stuff blowing up.

    1. Sean Michael Ragan says:

      None of it is illegal per se, in Texas, but the following items technically require a permit before purchasing for a “legitimate” purpose:

      Distilling apparatus
      Separatory funnel

      There are two types of permits issued by the Texas DPS. There’s a business permit, and a “One-Time” purchase permit, which is form NAR-120. You can view it on the TDPS website here:

      The form also includes the complete list of controlled apparatus, although only the two items listed above are in the gift guide.

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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.

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