Reading old books of science experiments for children, it's easy to become nostalgic for the days when you could buy jugs of sulfur and mercury at the corner drugstore. But what you may not realize is that we are living in an unprecedented golden age of easy access to science supplies and tools, and there is one simple reason for this: eBay.
What started out as a bazaar for Beanie Baby collectors, eBay has now become the universal marketplace through which a large portion of the world's surplus and odd-lot industrial, medical, scientific, and just plain weird stuff gets sold.
My book The Elements contains something like five or six hundred photographs of objects representing the chemical elements and their applications, and there are over 2,300 on my website, periodictable.com. At least 90% of these objects came from eBay. It simply would not have been practical to create The Elements without it (as evidenced by the fact that no book like it has been done before).
It's not just odd samples of elements you can find on eBay. You can buy complete working scientific instruments, lab equipment, and not a small number of chemicals, supplies, reagents, and exotic tools. This gives anyone, anywhere who has a shipping address and a PayPal account the same access to the tools of discovery as someone living in New York, London, or Tokyo ever had, now or in the past.
And this matters. Great civilizations are built on the backs of tinkerers and dabblers who grow into scientists and entrepreneurs. Half a century ago, a child living in a major city could buy just about anything he needed to experiment in chemistry or demolitions. Such interest and experimentation might easily lead to a career in science. But such opportunities gradually became few and far between, as safety concerns, a general shift away from manufacturing, and finally terrorism paranoia clamped down on the availability of non-consumer items. I watched with mounting dismay as the Army-Navy surplus store in my town drifted steadily away from selling motors, relays, timing mechanisms and other genuine items of military surplus. Sometime in the 1980s the last hard-core mechanical components were replaced with camping gear, and today there's just one counter left that sells military campaign buttons, the rest of the store is filled with designer sporting goods and expensive shoes.
A kid growing up in the 1990s had a very hard time finding the stuff you need to be a kid. How can you make gunpowder if no one will sell you saltpeter? (And you don't know the trick that stump remover is pure potassium nitrate.) How can you build a death ray if all the high-voltage transformers at the corner surplus shop have turned into hiking boots?
But now we have eBay! A kid with an eBay account (and their parent's PayPal password) has at their disposal the richest collection of serious tools for play and discovery that has ever been available to anyone at any time in history. eBay is the Google of stuff. And while it's not free like Google, it's often possible to get fabulous deals on very nice items.
You may read about fraud on eBay, but that's almost entirely restricted to people selling plasma TVs for $18.99. In all the thousands of eBay transactions I've made, I have only once run into a fraudulent seller of weird stuff, and I'm completely reckless in my level of trust. (The fraud was a Minuteman missile thruster that turned out to be stolen rather than surplus as the seller had represented. I had to give it back to the FBI when they came calling.) More common is my experience when I bought an emerald from some guy in South America and the envelope arrived empty. He immediately refunded my money and asked only that I file a report with the post office (the envelope had been cut open and resealed with some kind of postal inspection tape, proving that eBay sellers in Bolivia are more honest than their post office).
I suppose this sounds like a commercial for eBay, but I really feel strongly about it. Especially for young people who want to explore the world of scientific discovery, it's just that good.
In tomorrow's blog post I will flip out on one of my pet peeves: The nonsense that people believe in if they didn't get enough science when they were growing up.
A rocket thruster with a niobium-alloy nozzle. Purchased on eBay and later confiscated by the FBI because it turned out stolen, but much more interesting for that.
An astonishingly beautiful golden chip carrier from eBay.
A lead pipe of a different sort. This smoking pipe made of lead arrived from the eBay seller in Thailand still smelling of hashish.