Holiday chemistry shopping on a budget.

I was marveling at the Chemistry gift guide at MAKE. It has lots of cool items for your budding chemist/mad scientist of any age looking to equip his or her basement/garage/treehouse laboratory. (It's pretty hard to get fume-hoods installed in a treehouse, but who are we kidding? Most people who dabble in chemistry at home don't have fume-hoods either.)

The glassware in the pictures is so bright and shiny. (Flashback to the "breakage book" in my high school chemistry class. Also to the hours upon hours of washing glassware in grad school. Still: shiny!) The kids in the pictures from vintage chemistry sets and manuals look so happy and alert. (Also, white and mostly male. And where the hell are their safety goggles?!) The bunsen burners and alcohol lamps look like they could really get something started. (Fire!) The pretty solutions in the pictures (mostly blue, but some yellow and orange) present aqueous-phase chemistry as a wonderland in Technicolor.

If one were rolling in money, one could really go to town here. However, at last check, the economy's vital signs seemed ... zombie-like. Shambling zombie, not lighting-fast rage-virus-infected zombie. Which is to say, it might also be cool to find some ways to celebrate and encourage an interest in chemistry that are somewhat more cost-effective.

First, it's worth noting some of the items in MAKE's chemistry gift guide that are budget-friendly:

Illustrated Guide to Home Chemistry Experiments ($25.99)

Golden Book of Chemistry Experiments (PDF) (FREE to download, print)

Periodic Table Playing Cards ($15.99) -- it's actually a double-deck of cards with information about each of the elements that you could also play cards with, in the event that you didn't get totally sucked into the chemical content.

The basic chemistry lab equipment kit. ($39.95)

Some other options you might consider:

As far as books of chemistry experiments, you might see what you can find at used book stores. You may happen upon a manual that has gone out of print (possibly because the experiments they describe are now judged TOO DANGEROUS to perform at home).

You should also see what your public library has. Sure, they'll have a record that you borrowed a chemistry manual, but they also have a record that you borrowed that Twilight book -- really, which is the bigger red flag? (Besides, the American Library Association has been very good about protecting the privacy of patron borrowing records. And you will only be using these books for good, not evil.)

Or, check out the various activities on the Science for Kids page maintained by the American Chemical Society. These have a more "modern" sensibility in terms of what sorts of activities are safe to do at home, and are likely to use mostly materials you already have on hand.

For slightly older home chemists, some of the online resources from The Journal of Chemical Education are worth a look.

As far as the chemicals (the heart of the classic chemistry set), what you can buy nowadays may not live up to your expectations or memories. (I've discussed this before.)

Not to worry. Ordinary household materials provide at least a good starting place for chemical exploration. You can play around with solubility, use the contents of your crisper drawer to prepare indicators, even do a little paper chromatography. With baking soda and lemon juice or vinegar, you can witness a very enthusiastic acid-base reaction, even if you don't have a papier-mache volcano handy. In the event that you have one of those whipped cream makers, you can load it with a CO2 charger (of the sort used in seltzer bottles) and prepare micro-quantities of dry ice.

It would also be worth looking at the growing body of green chemistry experiments, since some of those make use of items like radishes and sweet potatoes.

In our experience, most home experiments don't require fancy glassware. Pyrex measuring cups may be as fancy as you need.

If I were going to buy a kid a single chemistry laboratory item, it would probably be a pair of safety glasses. Eyes are hard to replace. For home use, you should be able to find adequate safety glasses in your local hardware or home improvement store.

Of course, if you want to buy the fancy glassware and burners and scales and chemicals, you could scare up £1 million (currently around $1.5 million U.S.) by delivering to the Royal Society of Chemistry 100% chemical free matter. (Would a vial of neutrons work?)

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