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A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

Posted December 01, 2011 9:18 AM

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, many advances were the work of individuals with the leisure to pursue science as a hobby. Now, a blogging chemist is developing not only a home-made scanning tunnelling microscope, but an open source one. With increasing interest in building electronics and equipment by hobbyists, are we looking at a return to the age of amateur scientists? As big-science projects are cut by both governments and corporations, will dedicated fans garner a larger share of the intellectual conversation in the sciences?

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#1

Re: A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

12/01/2011 3:24 PM

That could be useful for those people who want to do gene splicing at home:

http://www.thestreet.com/story/10455112/1/gene-splicing-in-the-comfort-of-your-own-home.html

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#2
In reply to #1

Re: A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

12/01/2011 11:06 PM

Chimeras for fun and profit.

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#3

Re: A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

12/01/2011 11:29 PM

I am not so sure the "Age of the Amateur Scientist" ever went away...

True, when I was a youngster, we had chemistry sets and electronics kits and Radio Shack (the original, not the toy store) and all sorts of other educational toys that don't seem to be available, and the old Ham radio networks that welcomed youngsters. It is harder to find these things these days, but one can still find inexpensive telescopes and microscopes and other such things to tweak the interest of budding scientists...There was even a news story not long ago about some youngster building his own nuclear reactor...

furthermore, the Internet is full of sites of interest to amateur scientists. Perhaps these folks are not making the breakthroughs of a Darwin or a Fleming or any of the other giants of scientific advance, but I suspect that most such giants were far from being amateurs. One would not necessarily expect paradigm-shifting discoveries from our modern amateurs, but it should be noted that these folks are still making astronomic discoveries, and identifying new species, and helping to monitor the environment (as Jefferson and Franklin did in their day).

This doesn't even touch on the "amateur" computer programmers...

I also believe that science is far more accessible to us than it has ever been before, and I think more people are interested in science than at any time in the past.

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#4

Re: A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

12/02/2011 1:23 AM

The access to technologies that enable the proliferation of personal scientific expedition-ism is greater than it has ever been across all scientific fields.

On the other hand, regulation and control over what is and isn't "permitted" is also greater than it has ever been. A relatively new and ubiquitous condition that was not present when our heroes were pealing back the veils of ignorance.

Not safe, not ethical, not qualified, not licensed and not in my backyard are what we hear more of these days.

Experiments have far too little smoke and noise these days. Long sigh.....

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#5

Re: A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

12/02/2011 2:48 AM

I am a member of "windowfarms", (hydroponic vegetables grown in cut up water bottles hung in windows) and even though I have never made a windowfarm, I have contributed to their open source process and been credited for my input. That gives a sense of belonging. They had a happy confluence of events, a ted talk that Britta Riley gave got released just after their kickstarter got going. My friend Eileen even got mentioned in the ted talk. http://www.ted.com/talks/britta_riley_a_garden_in_my_apartment.html and the kickstarter is at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/windowfarms/learn-to-grow-and-share-with-new-windowfarms The neat things about windowfarms is that it seems hokey but there are a whole range of things that can be done or tweaked to optimize it. And anybody can join in and contribute. And people can and do go off on tangent to enlarge and enrich the project. Have they got the balance of science engineering, amateur feedback and marketing savvy right?

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#6
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Re: A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

12/02/2011 4:39 AM

No smoke, no noise, no danger....

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#7
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Re: A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

12/02/2011 8:47 AM

No smoke, no noise, no danger...Where's the fun?

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#10
In reply to #7

Re: A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

12/13/2011 2:51 PM

You can hot wire the holes in the plastic bottles, lots of smoke then (and danger). You can use urine as the fertilizer (pee into a half full can of sea water until it is full and then harvest the crystals from the bottom.) Starts to sound dangerous now? One blast of ammonia from that pee can might change your mind!

People are windowfarming with fish underneath in aquariums. I see lots of danger.

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#8

Technology for the people.

12/08/2011 3:24 PM

The allure of technology, and the science behind it, is an ancient one. It used to be called "magic" or even "angelic." There was power in this knowledge.

But the tradition had been for the rulers to hold tight to their technologies, as these were the keys to their control (or perceived superiority).

On this planet at this time, we are seeing an alternative approach to technology. This is epitomized by the adoption of the personal computer, and made iconic with Apple's "1984" commercial. We were going to try something different this time.

I had left the world of technology in 1980, still struggling to create my own personal computer from a cheap kit and to understand how to program it.

By the time I owned my own PC, almost 15 years later, a lot had changed. I learned DOS, then discovered QBasic and thought that was pretty cool. Today the choices are orders of magnitude greater than they were then.

For example, at the center of this "STM" (besides his laptop) is an Arduino. Arduino started in Italy in 2005 to help students build interactive design projects. As a product, it is targeted at artists. As a concept, it is part of a line that stretches back to the beginnings of open source software, student software, and custom-made embedded software. Without the economy of implementing complex control processes via software, the cost of "personal" technology would have remained prohibitive.

The hardware being used by this do-it-yourselfer is fairly simple, and not totally representative of the full range of hardware being used in the world today. But with the popularization of robotics, less expensive hardware that can do real work has also been developed.

I don't see DIY steel smelters in our future. But the willingness to make more "lightweight" technologies widely available to artists, students and hobbyists has made technology a part of popular culture in a unique new way. And that empowers the amateur scientist the way electronics empowered amateur radio in the near past.

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#9
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Re: Technology for the people.

12/13/2011 12:38 PM

"And that empowers the amateur scientist the way electronics empowered amateur radio in the near past."

And empowered a small coffee shop in Huntingdon, PA, the Standing Stone Coffee Company, to completely automate the process of preparing coffee beans from green coffee berries, with only human overwatch of the process. But everything from cooking to ash cleanout to grinding is done under the control of an automated system developed on-site by the owner(s).

So, why NOT do-it-yourself production smelting? I can see the usefulness, if sufficient production is needed.

And usefulness (necessity, in another framework) is what drives the innovation and development.

In fact, most of our really useful ideas have been first developed as an "I needed it, so I built it, and my neighbor wanted one, so I built two more, and now I have to figure out how to meet a burgeoning demand", instead of "How can I make some money and start a business? I know, I'll build a ..."

So, I'd say, the sky is the limit. And the Arduino REALLY empowers us to make use of the technology around us in great ways. As do many other μC's that are currently available.

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#19
In reply to #9

Re: Technology for the people.

12/21/2011 11:05 AM

Regarding smelting. I have often wondered if it would be worthwhile to buy or build a small aluminum smelter. Aluminum recyclers pay very poorly for it. I would think that it could be easily poured into molds to make useful objects. Or just into ingots that could be saved up until you have enough to take to a buyer that would pay you a better price.

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#20
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Re: Technology for the people.

12/21/2011 7:47 PM

There are a number of designs on the web for small smelters that could handle aluminum (and lead, copper, most likely bronze) that can be built rather cheaply from easily acquired materials. You might have a look at Instructables for some ideas. Also search Instructables for "Forge". I do not recommend trying the microwave oven smelter...

The real issue is making molds for the "useful objects". Melting metal is easy.

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#11

Re: A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

12/13/2011 3:27 PM

I think there is a lot of "noise" in the amateur conversation. Far too much talk is devoted to free energy machines. By all means let half of one percent work away on that stuff but it is such a waste of human resources if every disaffected science fail comes out of school and gets deluded by one of those HOO talkers.

And every other one of them wants to be in some "sexy" field. Solar PV where entry level research needs a half million budget. Lots of the UN sexy areas are bottle necks that need to be solved.

I think something is needed (some sort of oversight) to direct people to under researched areas. I did some solar cooking research (as scientific as I could manage on a tiny budget). Using free animation software (Art of Illusion) to model different solar cooker shapes, and using a laser to represent the sun while designing a solar reflector. The results surprised me and were different that current thinking but nobody seemed interested in changing based on results! (basically I was trying to design something for specific "unattended cooking" times). This is not parabolic and needs work (not as much work as people realize) but nobody is interested in doing the work or repeating experiments that try to do that work.

People are weird, Nobody jumped in from the software end to promote their software to a whole new audience, and nobody copied the "solar design t-square" method for design OR tested my recommendations. Chief recommendation for current solar cookers was align cookits with the path of the sun(instead of pointing straight at it). Nobody even tested this, which is very easy to do. Some of the solar cooking fanatics have 5 or more solar cookers all ready to go at any given time but actually testing different configurations is too much trouble.

I have worked as a lab technician so I know that sometimes the important stuff is boring but most amateurs don't.

Recently I went on a tour of a permaculture garden in Victoria and suggested they try "good king henry" (Mercury) and Scorzonera and something else in their rotation. The invasive plant argument came out and it was like a witches cackle at the idea. They had never heard of either plant (both of which are perennials and which have been grown here for at least 20 years and probably a whole lot longer) .

It seems if their guru has not mentioned it, they get scared and rebel. Breathtaking ignorance.

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#12
In reply to #11

Re: A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

12/13/2011 10:09 PM

"I think something is needed (some sort of oversight) to direct people to under researched areas."

If you mean by this "tell people where they have to do their research", PAY THEM FIRST.

This is the biggest reason I am an amateur when it comes to research. Who do you think you are trying to tell me how to spend my free time?

I AM assuming, of course, that this is how you meant it. If not, my apologies, and would you please explain?

You see, much of the reason students don't like science is because they are required (With good reason. They ARE students, and as such, they don't get to decide what they wish to learn.) to study things that are of no interest to them.

As adults, with EARNED free time to do what we wish with it, NO ONE has a right to tell us what we MUST do with our free time, even when it is scientific research.

My "Soap Box" input. Done with rant.

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#13
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Re: A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

12/14/2011 1:25 AM

Well, I didn't get any money for the stuff I did. PAY THEM FIRST didn't get anything done. What part of Amateur means you have to be paid? I got put in Wikipedia for one of my things. And all I did was try to figure out a very mundane problem that nobody cared about and just followed the experimental results to wherever they led.

Other amateurs have verified what I did (pulser pump) but as yet nobody knows how it works on a bigger scale. (Because professional researchers and their political funders couldn't be bothered). So if they cannot be bothered to expand the data about something that is already proven, how are you going to get them to pay amateurs to research something mundane BEFORE it is proven?

With the other solar stuff, it just takes one amateur or professional researcher to copy what I did and either prove or disprove it and it is a different world. I cannot pay them because that can affect the result and it also effects the credibility of the result.

That is called the Piper tune effect. (+ it will make me poorer, which I do not want)

"My "Soap Box" input. Done with rant." Honestly I think you are being wrong headed.

Nobody is going to pay me, Nobody paid Matt in Cornwall (who was first to clearly verify what I did). But someone or maybe a committee could point amateurs to problems which have not been solved or to results that have not been verified. Then if they solve something or verify something (even if it is some mundane bottleneck) they can go on some scientific honor roll. Maybe a national or international one.

That might be carrot enough for a lot of people. I worked as a lab tech. Very little science is exciting stuff. There is a lot of boring repetitive crap needed to discover something. In my case, I didn't chase my dream, instead identified a goal and worked towards it. With the pulser pump, it is up to other people now, with the solar, I get closer every year but not there yet.

Until Matt verified with video that the pulser pump worked, I was a laughing stock for a hell of a lot of people from all sides. Not just ill informed ones either. Almost everybody.

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#14
In reply to #13

Re: A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

12/14/2011 12:43 PM

I understand, and thanks for the clarification. Note that I WASN'T suggesting paying amateurs for the work. I was only pointing out that telling unpaid amateurs WHERE to work is going to take out of the amateur field an awful lot of enthusiasm engendered by "But this is what I WANT to study, because it is what I'M interested in. I don't WANT to study that idea over there." And paying them (where that possible, or even desirable) would remove the fun of exercising their curiosity, and make it "just one more humdrum job".

After all. Barnes Wallis (you can Google him) solved a perplexing problem in WWII in his own backyard because he WANTED to. And in fact, many others DID NOT WANT HIM TO. He was interested (to the point of "driven", if you watch the movie about him) so much that he overcame all obstacles to solve the problem he found.

And no one paid him.

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#15
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Re: A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

12/14/2011 1:42 PM

Thanks, it is a hard problem. I think many people get attracted to high profile fields because of the patent illusion. And they hide their results so that nobody else can "steal" the idea. And this slows everything down. As far as I am concerned, the only people who make money from patents are big companies, lawyers and brilliant people with money already. So we would all be better off if we called bullshit on it, and did our experiments and shared data as never before.

I am in a yahoo group called simply solar. People in that group are amateur solar heating guys. The sharing is amazing. And I think it was someone in that group who discovered that ordinary mosquito net is a fantastic solar heat collector! So a bunch of them tested it and now they have data on how much, do we double it up, etc. Compared to any other collector idea, it is dirt cheap, really simple, super low tech and they only discovered it a year or 2 ago. They have shared it right through the group and collected a bunch of really useful comparison data. The guy who made the group is in Maryland and group members found his software page (he was/is a software enginneer) and donated as a thankyou for this Christmas. But really it should go much further than that. The guy and whoever discovered the mosquito mesh idea should be recognized as US and world environmental heros for this work.

Really, it is like they discovered mini oil wells in their back yards.

Brian

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#16
In reply to #15

Re: A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

12/14/2011 10:47 PM

Good stuff. Can you post me the name of the group, so I can join? I love using Yahoo Groups for details that I can't get elsewhere. In fact, I can't remember whether I found CR4 from a Yahoo Group or vice versa, but they go hand-in-glove.

And I agree that patents are so abused now that we'd be better off as a society if we got rid of all of them. I like the Open Source Consortium's use of the Open Source License as a means of stopping patent scabs from taking over a wonderful software package. It would be good if we had something as good for patents. It certainly encourages development in the Open Source software world.

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#17
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Re: A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

12/14/2011 11:57 PM

http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/SimplySolar

There are many groups (I am in 37 of them) but for me, that is the most useful one.

They just seem to feed off each other very well and it is very active most of the time.

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#18
In reply to #17

Re: A Resurgence of Amateur Scientists?

12/16/2011 6:54 AM

Thank you. You'll see me there, soon. I'm mostly learning, at present, but hope to do some experimenting/developing later.

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