If you pick up a memoir by a famous scientist, more often than not you'll get a story about how, as a child, he went to the corner drugstore to buy some insanely dangerous chemicals, then nearly blew up the family home. It's a recurring theme, believe me.
Similarly, stroll through a book of chemistry experiments meant for kids in the 1800s and your hair will stand on end. It's a wonder anyone made it into adulthood to practice grown-up chemistry. White phosphorous is great fun (a lethal dose is 0.15 grams, but hey, it glows in the dark) and so is mercury, if you don't know it's rotting your brain. And all of it easily available to anyone.
These days, and especially since 9/11, you can't do that anymore: The pharmacist will not sell you all the ingredients for gunpowder, as he would when I was a kid (and I'm not that old, honest). Many formerly common items, including magnesium ribbon, aluminum powder, even certain kinds of fertilizer, are now restricted; if you go around trying to buy them, questions will be asked.
This may help keep kids (and the Homeland) safe, but there's a cost. We'll never know how many smart
people became accountants instead of scientists because the science they saw in school made accountancy seem thrilling by comparison.
Explosives, though, are not the only kind of exciting science, and I'm here to tell you that today—not 20, not 50, not 150 years ago, but today—is the golden age of access to a vast range of scientific equipment, supplies, chemicals, you name it.
How is this possible?
If you haven't tried it, you absolutely will not believe the range, depth and sophistication of the stuff you can routinely get on eBay, often for pennies on the dollar. Need a fume hood so you can do your experiments more safely? I just got a $2,200 model for $150. Slightly used, of course, but what do I care? Need an $800 vacuum pump for your experiments with vacuum vapor deposition? You can get one any day of the week for maybe a tenth of that, on eBay. And yes, if you need some magnesium ribbon to, um, make your Grignard reagents, you can get that too, no questions asked.
Many universities, government labs and private companies dispose of surplus supplies and equipment by public auction, but going to them is inconvenient, unfamiliar to many people, and often a waste of time if you're looking for something specific. Fortunately there are a bunch of enterprising folks who go to those auctions, then immediately turn around and resell the stuff on eBay: They have in effect made such auctions keyword-searchable and wonderfully easy to buy from.
I think eBay matters. Part of the reason that Japan is the source of such
an incredibly diverse and creative explosion of electronic gadgets is the Akihabara district of Tokyo. It's a rabbit warren of shops, stalls and ven-
dors selling every imaginable kind of
electronic component, in an atmosphere normally reserved for the vegetable market. Looking for some of the latest high-speed integrated circuits? See the man in the third stall on the left.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.