The Return of Amateur Science

The Return of Amateur Science

Popular Science2
Mark’s article on GOOD! The Return of Amateur Science

Last week, while browsing the Popular Science archives (which recently became 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?

18 thoughts on “The Return of Amateur Science

  1. subatomic says:

    pop sci and sci am should each publish a book with all the amature scientist articles in them!! I’d buy for myself and for friends! coolest present ever!

  2. Dave Bell says:

    “For 72 years, Scientific American ran its popular “Amateur Scientist” column, which debuted in 1928.”

    And with the retirement of C. L. Stong, it rapidly went into a death spiral, with one after another less worthy writers attempting to carry the torch.

    The am-sci and Maker community on the ‘net help, but I’m still saddened by the demise of amateur innovation and the inspiration for upcoming generations.

  3. Anonymous says:

    the big issue isnt the sicence but the fact that now kids want to do outher stuff and think sicence is for losers

  4. Anonymous says:

    You can get a CD with all of the Amateur Scientist columns from Scientific American through the Society for Amateur Scientists – .

    It’s not easy to find on the web site, but if you send them an email they’ll send details. It runs $27.

  5. T says:

    The Scientific American columns were collected onto a CD a few years back, but sales were poor so it was discontinued. They’re still floating around and I think Shawn Carlson may offer it for sale on his website.

  6. Janus Cook says:

    Sadly, these times will never return.

    Not as long as rocket enthusiasts are being treated like terrorists and chemistry enthusiasts are being treated like they are drugdealers. Etc. etc.

  7. Janus Cook says:

    Also, I think comparing the DIY spirit of MAKE and instructables of knitting your own socks, and painting your Ipod is a far cry from the kind of experiments in those old vintage magazines.

    I agree that occasionally you guys post up a little gem of true amateur science, but mostly it’s a little lame, like building an idea closet and not using the default screws, or buying and assembling some kind of pre-made kit. Cute in it’s own way, but not really about discovery like in the old days.

  8. Michael says:

    This CD is available for $27 (CD only) or $57 (with extra material) at

    Scientific American got taken over by PC liberals and is not worth the cover price any more – they are agenda driven, not science.

  9. Anonymous says:

    While I agree that maybe there’s a little too much agenda at Sci Am these days, there’s still much interesting material left. Maybe I’m biased because I agree with a lot of the slant, even if I think there’s too much.

    I recently bought the SciAm Amateur Scientist CD (with another related CD that I haven’t examined) from

    I’m amazed that they left in things like how to make your own linear accelerator!

    Much of this material was put in a book in the ’60s. Our library had it, and it became an ambition of mine, recently accomplished, to make a van de Graaff generator. If you throw parties and they are dull, one of these will fix it. In fact, a VDG may CAUSE a party. Mine did.

    I’ve helped judge a statewide science fair competition a couple of times. There are still some really talented kids out there. THe one that stuck in my mind the most concerned oxygen levels in sea water, but it’s been a couple of years and I’ve forgotten some of the details.

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