Good: The return of amateur science

I wrote for an essay for Good magazine's blog about the rebirth of amateur science. Here's an except:
Chemcraft-Amateur-Science 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?
Good: The Return of Amateur Science


  1. Good? GREAT!!!

    I don’t know what idiot’s idea it was to discourage science learning and experimentation at home anyway. Bring it (back) on.

  2. My Dad encouraged this kind of stuff, and the SciAm amateur science projects in particular, but — for some reason — refused to let me build a liquid mercury rotating mirror.

  3. Bravo, Mark! Great Essay. And that Chemcraft ad… It made me almost swoon to see it. My brother had that very kit back in the ancient past. Wish it were still around.

  4. It’s because of popular science articles, then books, then Boing Boing, then MAKE that despite my diffidence and lifelong aversion to the sciences (frankly I always thought I was just too stupid) I have not only wound up studying neuroscience in college but have decided to tinker at home, too.

    Amateur science has made my life and the life of anyone who’ll tolerate my rambling more profound, or at the very least more interesting.

    The ratio of “Isn’t this neat?” to “Isn’t this frustrating?” conversations in my life increases every week, and I doubt it’s at the expense of laboring toward the solutions I’m interested in finding.

    So thanks be to amateur science, and to general nerdliness for everyone!

  5. OMG, were there smaller versions of these kits? They were metallic, with a beige background and red and black lettering? My heart stopped a beat when I saw this image. I am sure I had a smaller version.

    I never really tinkered with it, other than looked at it. I tinkered more with art, although I always loved science and math (good skills for a digital artist, or someone who has to digitize her photos).

    Every once in awhile there’s an image from my childhood on this site, I gasp and memories flood out, followed by tears of joy. First, I haven’t thought nor seen many of these images in ages and secondly, I never knew anyone else into what I was into.

    I wonder if that’s the way people feel about my punk photos. Memories and all that, whether you were there or missed it. Collective memories we share.

    What a joy. And that is why boing boing is my fave site. I only wish I had more hours to read EVERY post.

    Bless you all. Happy holidaze.

  6. I made my first gun powder with a Gilbert chemistry set. Soon I was into making hydrogen gas for balloons with lye and foil.
    John T. Frye wrote his “Carl and Jerry stories for Popular Electronics and they were my introduction to electronics.
    Then there were those hilarious adventures of Scratchi in CQ magazine.

  7. thanks for that ( I already knew you could buy them but was hoping someone had posted them for the world) It bothers me that they didn’t make them free since it is kids that get inspired from them. I was.

  8. I seem to remember getting a chemistry set as a gift at a young age. Of course, I had no concept of chemistry, but I liked the idea of stuff that would blow up, or at least react in such a way to create a big mess.

    My father refused to give me permission to conduct any process that involved a flame. Perhaps smart on his part, but seriously inhibiting any serious scientific research on my part.

    So, I had to learn the hard way, building pipe bombs in my friend’s basement.

    I still have two eyes and ten fingers. Rare.

  9. I think lawsuits slowly killed amateur science. No manufacturer wanted to be responsible for any of the chemicals and subsequent concoctions that could be produced from a science kit.

    Science kits were so lame by the seventies and eighties. I loved looking through the manual that went with my dad’s Gilbert kit in the fifties. Experiments often resembled this: “Grind the supplied U238 to a powder, heat the hexafluorine to a gas and warm the liquid mercury in the palm of your hand. Need more? Contact your local chemistry supply house or order from us!”

    Good times, good times.

  10. Sadly, the average parent now would look at this and go “ZOMG Junior has a meth lab.” Treasure the memory of our lost golden age, lads.

  11. @18:

    …Yeahhh, the political climate of the past decade is what’s responsible for the death of these types of science kits BEFORE I WAS BORN.

    I hear GWB is also responsible for the death of Lawn Darts, too.

    Seriously, though. The restrictions on these things have been occuring gradually over the last two or three decades; we stopped being cavalier about even mild amounts of radiation in the 60s and 70s, and it’s not as though the restrictions on materials for home-made pyrotechnics was invented by the WoT in 2001. Most of that stuff was already on the books and enforced to stop other forms of bomb-making way back when it was domestic, not international, terrorism that everyone was worried about.

  12. Good gravy, but I miss this. I miss my (child-resistant) blue bottles and my xx-in-one electronics kits. Those things kept me fascinated for tens of minutes when I was a child, much to my parents’ relief.

    Sadly, the (special) interests of safety have triumphed over my nonessential liberties in this regard. Legislation and regulation have combined to frustrate the curious home experimenter (such as myself) in efforts to stamp out more serious threats. If only there were a sort of amateur license I could acquire that would allow my curiosity to satisfy itself.



  13. The Amateur Scientist collection that was republished on CD is a joke. Its database is basically a proprietary homebrew hack job that has to be viewed in a Web browser.

    I happen to know where a nice, clean, fully-OCR’ed .PDF of the original C. L. Stong book can be found, unencumbered by DRM or some moron’s idea of NIH nirvana. Anyone looking for it should email for, um, a hint.

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