The Amateur Scientist


For many decades the Amateur Scientist column in Scientific American was a glorious outpost of dedicated enthusiasm. Here expensive scientific gear such as early lasers and x-ray machines were first presented in great detail as affordable do-it-yourself hacks. While the current editors of Scientific American stupidly canceled this clearinghouse, the old columns are remarkably timeless, and offer interested buffs the means to make cloud chambers, spectrometers, seismographs, telescopes, microscopes and all manner of cool instruments using only the most basic kind of stuff you’d find in basements or discount mail order venues.

As a service to this community of gear-heads, former Amateur Scientist editor Shawn Carlson and a part-time publisher have put together all the Amateur Scientist columns the magazine published from 1928 till 1999. The good news is that 100% of the clever drawings and notes are here along with a fine index, usable on the Mac as well as PC. The bad news is that it is an extremely clunky CD-Rom with a badly designed interface that awkwardly ties into the web. Yet, with this tool, one can tap into a remarkable treasury of enlightened tinkering and science hacking. Some of the projects are still state-of-art, and the ones that are classics will still make tremendous science fair projects.

Taking a bit of a hint from the extreme passion of do-it-yourselfers, Scientific American is slowly rounding up their best past columns and under the editorship of Shawn Carlson issuing them in subject-specific collections. See the second in this emerging series — The Amateur Biologist — above; it works fine.

The is one alternative to the awkward CD. Scientific America collected their best columns in 1960 and issued them in a single volume called The Scientific American Book of Projects for the Amateur Scientist, edited by C.L. Stong. Copies of this out-of-print book are available via online used book sites. The upside is the handy print form; The down side is that the text is not as searchable, and contains nothing after 1960. A lot has happened in amateur science since then.

Indeed, so much is happening that the best resources for amateur scientists are no longer in magazines or books, but on the web. By far the best site, with the most original material, and the best links, is a site called the Science Hobbyist, run by one Bill Beaty. I’ve never met Mr. Beaty, but I like his style. His site is heavily infested with a ‘just do it’ mentality: magnetic levitation prototypes, ball lightening demos, and “unwise microwave oven experiments.” He specializes in material for science fair projects, cool toys, resources for nerds, and plans for dangerous ‘don’t try this at home’ experiments, plus fringe science links, as well as critical thinking tools. It’s the amateur science site that I’ve been seeking for years. If people are experimenting at home with it, it’s probably linked here.

– KK

Science Hobbyist

The Amateur Scientist on CD-ROM
Bright Science
Ingram SKU #717734
Bright Science
Also from Amazon

The Scientific American Book of Projects for The Amateur Scientist
C.L. Stong
1960, 584 pages
Simon and Schuster
used copy $40 – $250, Amazon
Also from Book Finder

How to make the glass-bead lens of a Leeuwenhoek microscope