Saturday, May 22, 2010

Amateur science prices dropping...

One amazing and often-overlooked aspect of the information explosion is how it is bringing down the price of stuff needed for experiments, while enormously increasing the availability of knowledge useful to backyard tinkerers.

I remember sending off for bizarre catalogs from ads in the back pages of Popular Science, and evn then finding it hard to buy electronic components for my gadgets.  Much of that is due to living in the country, of course, and not knowing older nerds who could tell me where to buy transformers, for example. (Not the toys - the heavy electronic things).

One time I needed a way to cast clear plastic to enfold a circuit board for a pretty silly science project I saw in some electronics magazine.  I must have worked on finding someplace to source that for months.  Anyhoo, things are looking up today.
The DIY movement in science and technology is demonstrating that it can do inexpensively what large companies and even Big Science have spent millions doing. I call them "make-offs," low-budget knock-offs of scientific and industrial technology built with off-the-shelf components. It is a version of what China has been doing to America, benefiting from the R&D that goes into refining the specifications, developing prototypes and building a finished product. Only now, with new digital fabrication techniques and open source hardware and software, individuals and small companies are in a position to compete globally with a distinctly DIY approach to innovation. It's a new independent source of creative work, similar to what indie films are to Hollywood films developed in-house. It's open, collaborative and done on the cheap. And almost anyone can play, as you can see this weekend at the 5th Annual Maker Faire Bay Area.
In Mountain View, Calif. last September, Greg Klein, who was about to go off to college, designed and built a high-altitude space balloon with two other students. Like a lot of Silicon Valley startups, the idea was first sketched out on a napkin. Named Apteryx, the balloon was launched with a 4-lb. payload consisting of sensors, an open-source microcontroller called Arduino and consumer-grade cameras. After about five hours, the balloon had reach 90,000 feet, which is considered near-space. The team used an amateur radio to send telemetry data and later tried using a prepaid cellphone as a tracking device. They were successful in locating the payload when it returned to earth. The bill for the project's materials was about $800, a bit high for college students but a lot less than you might expect for something so amazing. [More]
Ah - the smell of resin-core solder on a cold morning...

(No, I didn't date much in high school - why do you ask?)

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