National security issues and laws aimed at thwarting the production of crystal meth are threatening to put an end to home laboratories. In schools, rising liability concerns are making teachers wary of allowing students to perform their own experiments. Some educators even speculate that a lack of chem lab experience is contributing to the declining interest in science careers among young people.
. . . The lure of do-it-yourself chemistry has always been the most potent recruiting tool science has to offer. Many kids attracted by the promise of filling the garage with clouds of ammonium sulfide – the proverbial stink bomb – went on to brilliant careers in mathematics, biology, programming, and medicine.
Examples of junior boom makers who made good include Intel cofounder Gordon Moore, Internet architect Vint Cerf, Hewlett-Packard cofounder David Packard and neurologist Oliver Sacks.
Update: At Pharyngula, P.Z. Myers notes the gender gap in chemical mayhem:
The kids who built on this experience were almost all boys. There were significant exceptions; my wife-to-one-day-be, for instance, was the only girl in a short-lived science club we were in as kids, one of our dates was spent classifying and dissecting crustaceans, and I was jealous to discover that she owned a nicer microscope than I did. Perhaps one way to end the gender gap in the sciences more quickly is to give little girls kits that let them blow stuff up in interesting ways rather than those horrible Easy Bake ovens.
My husband-to-be had an Easy Bake oven in his youth, figuring the best way to get as many cupcakes as he wanted was to make them himself. I think he also fooled around with model rockets, before focusing on electrical engineering. He decided that the best way to get control of a stereo and access to a color TV was to build them himself.
At any rate, Pharyngula has lots of comments from former experimenters with a taste for stinks and bangs.
Update II: Also read First Things on the science boys of the pre-computer era and the series of books on the Mad Scientist Club.