Tubes and Wires and Careful Notes

🏠 We all seem to be recovering. Yay!

In the wake of the Geek-is-chic fad and the popularity of the Big Bang Theory (where search engines first try to take me when I want to look up stuff about the big bang) a number of geek-kitch mail-resellers have emerged featuring products like bacon soap and Star Fleet onesies and zombie plushies. Some of their products have actually been interesting, like a showerhead that lit blue or red when the flowing water was uncomfortably cold or hot (respectively) or caffeine soap which a lathering was the dose of a Jolt cola.

Months ago I encountered an offering of a set of beaker shotglasses. Not the Muppet assistant of Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, but the glass container oft used in chemistry laboratories. A set of four such shots was $30 in this catalog. A caveat advised against using the glasses for actual lab work, by which I felt compelled to compare and contrast the cost of actual, similar sized laboratory-grade beakers.

The first Google-suggested laboratory supplier I came across sold 50ml beakers for $3 each. (A small shot is one ounce or 30ml) So $12 for four such beakers. It would have been cheaper by the party, since the supplier intended bulk purchases and reduced the per-unit cost further with bulk orders. And this glassware featured tested measuring gradients and were crafted of borosillicate glass (favored in chemistry and cooking for being able to withstand thermal shock — that is rapid temperature change — more so than common soda lime glass).*

The other day, when I was in a brick-and-mortar housewares vendor perusing its 2016 Hallowe’en lineup, beakers and flasks and were part of the lineup. Not real lab-grade glassware, but stuff, I guess, for a mad science diorama. Oddly, the display-only glass was even more expensive than its lab-grade counterparts.

This just may be a matter of pervasive ignorance. People who buy or sell Hallowe’en merchandise don’t often consider whether real versions of their props might be comparably priced, which can be done so more often if the gear is obtained used. As an additional peculiarity to my experience, the Hallowe’en display glassware did refract yellow the way borosillicate does rather than blue-green typical of soda-lime. I suspect they got the blown glass from a manufacturer that usually produces labware, and then sought out a cheap contractor to slap on the gradient markings.

But a couple of beakers and flasks is not going to make you an adequate science lab, even for Hallowe’en. If I already got you looking at laboratory suppliers, there are a few other pieces that might fill out your set by which to conduct mad chemistry:

A glass retort fills out a nineteenth-century gentleman’s desk elegantly and is the hallmark of a classic chemist, possibly even an alchemist. A retort is a small tabletop still, and yes, you can totally distill the boo from your booze and drink it directly. (Goggles and gloves, please, when doing real science.) An Alembic is the alchemy-rooted chalumeau to the retort’s clarinet.

A Schlenk flask is what you need to keep the air from getting into your reaction process. It can also be validly used to keep your reaction from getting out. Think of it as your very basic incubation tank / containment unit. A whole array of tubes and shunts are usually required to get your compounds into the Schlenk flask to do their thing.

The king of mad chemistry / alchemy kitsch is the Kipp’s Apparatus. Kipp’s Apparatus is used to extract gases for experimental purposes. And it totally looks like some kind of genie-bottle contraption (or magic hookah). This is often how you get your gasses by which to make your monstrosity into your Schlenk flask (above.) Sadly (for the aesthetics of labs) Kipp Apparati are falling out of use since companies just manufacture gasses in volume and pack them into cheap prefab bottles with which to inflate balloons or infuse cream. Incidentally, if you encounter such a bottle, make sure you know what the gas is before you try to inflate a balloon or infuse cream with it.

Goggles and gloves!

* This actually led me to making a contrast between ordinary pint glasses vs. 500 ml Berzelius (tall form) beakers. The supplier would sell a lot of six of the latter for about $22 compared to $14 for six barroom pints at Amazon. But I think the lesson here is to purchase from suppliers, not from end-consumer resellers. And definitely not from niche enthusiast boutiques.


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