Leave It to the Amateurs

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? (via GOOD Magazine blog)

Writing on the always-stellar GOOD magazine blog, Mark Frauenfelder (of the equally stellar Boing Boing) tracks the rise, decline and resurgence of amateur science with the development of the Internet.

His basic premise is that amateur science was alive and kicking up until the Internet began to take off. Then, the folks who would normally be tinkering with test tubes in their basement began tinkering with HTML and Netscape.

However, Frauenfelder maintains, after the Web went mainstream, those tinkerers returned to their chemistry and erector sets and started making things again. This trend, coupled with a robust Internet, gave rise to a whole new tinkerer class that is now fully connected by the Web and has its own journal, MAKE (which Frauenfelder edits), and trade show, Maker Faire.

So why is this important to conservation?  Well, the majority of these amateur scientists are working on experiments and gadgets aimed at making our world a better place.

The first Maker Faire included biodiesel processing units, wind-powered generators, networked citizen weather stations, ornithology research systems and other home-rolled inventions aimed at studying or conserving our natural world, Fraunfelder notes.

These amateur scientists comprise a vast ecosystem of energy and ingenuity that should be encouraged and harnessed by the professional science community. They are potentially laying the groundwork for the professionally built products we’ll need to solve the world’s energy crisis, curb climate change and discover and preserve new and endangered species.

It’s time for the science community to open up the lab doors, get better connected to the ‘Net and start using that open-source knowledge platform better known as “the rest of the world.”

In short, it’s time for Scientific American to rekindle the Amateur Scientist column.

If you believe in the work we’re doing, please lend a hand.

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