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The Return of Amateur Science

Boing Boing's Mark Frauenfelder explains how the natural tinkerers who built the web are starting to hack the world.

Last week, while browsing the Popular Science archives (which has become available on Google), I noticed that the earlier issues of this 138-year-old magazine contained quite a few articles devoted to amateur science. The 1940s and 1950s were a heyday for basement-based research, with experiments such as making hydrogen gas, building a photomicrographic camera out of a stovepipe, constructing a Geiger counter, making a tiny oil refinery, and superheating steam to a temperature high enough to light a cigarette. It's fun to imagine postal clerks, insurance brokers, and aluminum siding salesmen pulling out a microscope to study a sample of the family pet's fur, or going outside to examine the heavens with a handmade telescope.Popular Science wasn't the only magazine encouraging the everyman to learn more about the natural world. For 72 years, Scientific American ran its popular "Amateur Scientist" column, which debuted in 1928. Projects included constructing an electron accelerator, making amino acids, photographing air currents, measuring the metabolic rate of small animals, extracting antibiotics from soil, culturing aquatic insects, tracking satellites, constructing an atom smasher, extracting the growth substances from a cantaloupe, conducting maze experiments with cockroaches, making an electrocardiogram of a water flea, constructing a Foucalt pendulum, and experimenting with geotropism. Who knew you could have so much fun at the kitchen table?

As I sampled different issues of Popular Science through the decades, I found that coverage of amateur science petered out in the 1960s, to be replaced almost exclusively by articles about Big Science, the kind that costs billions of dollars and requires an army of PhDs to oversee. And even though Scientific American continued to run its "Amateur Scientist" column until 2000, the idea of boiling liquids in test tubes or measuring the heartbeat of a goldfish had all but disappeared as a form of recreation. In its place, passive forms of entertainment, such as television, the Web, and video games were absorbing people's free time. In the 1970s, many would-be amateur scientists built or bought personal computers, shifting their attention from the real to the virtual universe. And when the World Wide Web hit in the early 1990s, geeky people flocked to it, eager to discover what could be done with this new and awesomely powerful form of mass media.It appeared that the era of science-as-hobby was over. But then a curious thing happened. In the last few years, some of the folks who had been spending all their time creating the Web, and everything on it, looked up from their monitors and realized that the world itself was the ultimate hackable platform. In other words, for these curious, creative, DIY-types, the internet stopped being an end to itself and became a tool to get things done. And one of those things was amateur science.The internet inspires and speeds along amateur scientific research by making it possible to share reports, videos, blueprints, data, and discussions. Interestingly, amateur scientists are using the internet exactly as the architects of the internet years ago envisioned it 40 years ago-as a scientific research facilitator, replacing snail mail, print versions of peer review papers, and conferences. It's brought far flung researchers together in a shared space where communication is instant and ideas flow fast.I'm certain that Make, the project-based magazine I edit, would never have gotten off the ground had it not been for the resurgence of experimentation spurred on by internet communication. In the four years since Make launched, I've seen the amateur science and technology movement grow beyond my dreams. In 2005, when we held the first Maker Faire, 20,000 people flocked to the San Mateo County Fairgrounds to take part in a giant science-fair-meets-Burning-Man celebration of experimentation and exploration in which amateur scientists and technologists showed off their homemade projects: self-balancing two-wheeled vehicles, computer-controlled Etch-A-Sketches, biodiesel processing units, biologically-inspired multiprocessors, scratch-built RFID readers, wind-powered generators, networked citizen weather stations, ornithology research systems, flying pterosaur replicas, and hundreds of other projects. The most recent Maker Faire, held in 2008, had over 60,000 attendees, and we now face the happy problem of looking for a larger venue to hold next year's Maker Faire.
It turns out that people are natural scientists and tinkerers, and that this 30-year lull we're waking up from was just a quiescent period of incubation. As W.H. Auden said, "We were put on earth to make things."Lately, I've been following a massive, unorganized online science research project to try to find out whether or not an unpowered vehicle can be made to go directly downwind faster than the wind. A good number of people are making wind carts and conducting experiments, and the various designs, videos, plans, and experiments being shared online have the effect of inspiring others to make variations of their own.It's exciting to see people doing science as a hobby again. In these times, when the world's confidence has been shaken, amateur science is the kind of thing that can give us hope.Mark Frauenfelder is the editor-in-chief of Make magazine and the founder of Boing Boing. He is currently writing a book on the do-it-yourself movement for Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin.(Images: From the Modern Mechanix blog.)

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