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By Jack Ganssle

Home Labs

Summary: Science and technology: It's growing in America's basements.

Several readers alerted me to an interesting article in the New York Times about home laboratories (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/16/technology/personaltech/16basics.html?_r=1&nl=technology&emc=ctb2). The article talks about a growing trend amongst the tech-happy to build small or extensive labs with which they conduct all sorts of experiments, mostly for their own edification rather than for commercial success. People equip their microscopes with USB cameras, do some DNA research, etc. Others outfit a telescope with a camera and electronics to integrate the image over time, and to control the scope in the comfort of their home. I used to do a bit of astrophotography with my 8" Celestron using a film camera. Though the telescope moves sidereally, small errors means one is hunched over an eyepiece, looking at a guide star, punching corrections into the motion controller for an hour or more. That gets old as here in the East the best stargazing is in the frigid winter months.

I complain at times about the lack of scientific engagement of so many Americans, but find it tremendously exciting, and hopeful, that so many people are amateur scientists and techies. A passion about anything is heartening, and one about the sciences even more so.

This is nothing new; there have always been the techies whose spouses contend with basements fill of gear. Ham radio got a lot of people into electronics, and especially in the old days the lure of building the radios was more appealing to many than actually chatting on the airwaves.

The Westinghouse science competitions sucked lots of young folks into a passion for science, and I remember unsuccessfully competing in it in high school.

On the web there are a lot of folks who document their techno-craze. I find Keri Ellsworth's postings (http://www.youtube.com/user/jeriellsworth) to be interesting and lots of fun, even though I dislike watching on-line videos. She's a self-taught engineer who apparently dropped out of high school, and yet has built a successful business. She's very creative and tackles intriguing and odd problems.

Make Magazine has a large following of DIYers (http://makezine.com/). And the Thing-O-Matic (http://blog.makerbot.com/2010/09/25/announcing-makerbots-new-3d-printer-the-thing-o-matic/) will build 3D objects under computer control. A friend has one on order. His basement lab is so compelling he's worried he may never emerge from it.

While we gain a reputation as a nation of couch potatoes, the truth is an awful lot of us are passionate about our hobbies, whether they are technical or not. My wife's bead society is a group whose behavior one might call addictive. except the stream of beautiful projects they create suggests some addictions must be nurtured.

This country has been known for its willingness to invent and explore. Those attributes are manifested publicly in a succession of startups. But they seem a deeper part of our psyche since the hobbies show we're compelled by our passions more than by the pursuit of greenbacks.

And that's pretty cool.

Published December 17, 2010