In DIY science, eBay offers amazing access to gear, supplies, chemicals?a whole universe beyond Pez dispensers.

by Theodore Gray May 2004

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?