Bio Hacking Resources

I’ve been expecting tools for basement bio hacks any day now for about 20 years. They are getting real close, although most of what you can do with this stuff so far is elementary, trivial and not very useful. Still, here are a few do-it-yourself gene hacking resources finally emerging. The prime users are artists and students. Not a bad start really.

Creative Biotechnology

Not yet at the level of a dummies’ guides, this book supplies explicit instructions for executing basic genetic procedures with a minimum equipment. The couple of hacks sketched out (cloning a tree, starting a culture of your own skin) are enough to get your enthusiasm going. I wish the material was better organized, and I wish there was more of it. The book is handy, but the PDF of the book is free and immediate.

Creative Biotechnology: A user’s manual
By Natalie Jermijenko & Eugene Thacker
20 pounds
Locus +17, 3rd Floor
Wards Building
31-39 High Bridge
Newcastle upon Tyne

Creative Biotechnology, PDF


-- KK  

Rough Science

A very cool BBC series wherein the crafty producers take a bunch of scientists and technicians to a remote location and have them recreate sophisticated tools and inventions using only the primitive materials on hand. Vines, wood, bits of metal, shells. Here: make a clock (with bell), or a device to record sounds, or how about a camera, microscope, soap and sunblock?; or go survey and map the island — using tools of your own construction. You don’t know science until you can roll your own. This 10-part program is highly instructional because you get to see technology reduced to its essence — and because not everything works. The DVDs are expensive; fire up your TiVo to catch them on PBS; another new series begins this fall.

Rough Science
Directed by Sarah Topalian & David Shulman
2002, 90 min
$79 (3 disk, 10-part series)
Bullfrog Films


Rough Science
Directed by Sarah Topalian & David Shulman
2002, 90 min
$79 (3 disk, 10-part series)
Bullfrog Films

Crystal Set Projects

Pulling music and human speech out of thin air using some wire remains pure magic. I found the home-brew crystal radio projects in this book to be even simpler and easier to understand than those in the venerable Radios that Work for Free. The contest run by the publishers, The Xtal Set Society, seems to be to see who can build a working radio with the least number of parts. For kids it’s a wonderful antidote to their usual plug-and-play mode.

— KK

Crystal Radio Bonanza
2003, 222 pages
The Xtal Set Society
Midnight Science


Crystal set radios pick up AM radio without batteries or electricity. In simplest terms, the broadcast station puts out enough power in the form of a radio signal to be picked up by a crystal set. The set’s antenna captures this electromagnetic energy, and the signal then passes through the crystal detector and comes out as audio in the earphones. This mysterious process first intrigued great inventors such as Braun, Marconi, and Pickard, and it continues to fascinate electronics buffs, amateur radio operators, and engineers today.

The hobby of building and listening to crystal radio had its first and biggest craze in the 1920s. Once radio stations began broadcasting all over the country, people began buying and building crystal radio kits. At that time a true mineral crystal was used as the detector. The most popular crystal was galena, and a fine piece of wire called a “cat’s whisker” was used to touch the crystal and find the “hot spot” on the rock where a station would come in. These days, many hobbyists use the modern-day diode instead of a crystal, but there are still experimenters who strive for the thrill of getting Radio Japan on a rock.

From “Low Budget Xtal Set,” by WIlliam Simes. Bill’s neighbor testing out the set she helped build.

The completed high performance crystal set with IN34A diode installed in detector clips for testing operation.

Diagram for low-budget xtal set using foil-lined paper protectors.


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


The Amateur Biologist


I go along with the received wisdom these days that this dawning era won’t be remembered as the computer century, but the biological century. What has been missing from this upcoming bio-revolution is the hands-on access of garage science. When it is as easy to program DNA in your bedroom as it is to program a chip, that’s when we’ll be swept off our feet in innovations. No reporting or speculative essay has given as much of a glimpse of this future than this how-to book of basement biology. Edited by former Amateur Scientist columnist Shawn Carlson (who also wrote many of the reprinted columns) this text tackles such old-time skills as cultivating pond scum (one source of commercially valuable microorganisms), or hacking up a video microscope, or measuring the heartbeats of insects. In the last section Carlson gets into how to extract DNA from cells using kitchen utensils. It’s wide open from there.

-- KK  

Scientific Americans’s the Amateur Biologist
2002, 228 pages
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Available from Amazon

Sample Excerpts:

A kitchen laboratory includes most of the items needed to isolate DNA. A drinking straw, for example can be used to add alcohol to the solutions (a) and a coffee stirrer serves to spool the DNA (b).


The most wonderful private garden I have ever seen is tucked away behind a modest house in La Jolla, California, not far from where I live. The gardener is a British-born psychology professor and dear friend who sends me home with fruit and flowers each time I visit. Recently I noticed that two of his plants, though very different in shape, produced flowers the exact same shade of purple. This observation made me wonder whether the two species might be related.


One normally traces evolutionary connections by identifying physical similarities between species. So I decided to extract and isolate the pigments in the two flowers so that I could compare them in detail. That process is actually much easier than it sounds. In fact, using a simple technique called electrophoresis, I could carry out the experiment in about an hour for very little money.


DNA is the largest molecule known. A single, unbroken strand of it can contain many millions of atoms. When released from a cell, DNA typically breaks up into countless fragments. In solution, these strands have a slight negative electric charge, a fact that makes for some fascinating chemistry. For example, salt ions are attracted to the negative charges on DNA, effectively neutralizing them, and this phenomenon prevents the many separate fragments of DNA from adhering to one another. So by controlling the salt concentration, biologists can make DNA fragments either disperse or glom together. And therein lies the secret of separating DNA from cells.


The detergent actually does double duty. It breaks down cell walls and helps to fracture large proteins so they don’t come out with the DNA. The people at Edvotek recommend using pure table salt and distilled water, but I have used iodized salt and bottled water successfully, and once I even forgot to add the baking soda and still got good results. In any case, try to avoid using tap water. To slow the rate at which the DNA degrades, it’s best to chill the buffer in a bath of crushed ice and water before proceeding.


For a source of DNA, try the pantry. I got great results with an onion, and the folks at Edvotek also recommend garlic, bananas, and tomatoes. But it’s your experiment: choose your favorite fruit, vegetable, or legume. Dice it and put the material into a blender, then add a litter water and mix things well by pulsing the blades in 10-second bursts. Or, even simpler, just pass the pieces through a garlic press. These treatments will break apart some of the cells right away and expose many cell walls to attack by the detergent.

An amateur s apparatus for measuring the metabolism of mice.

Science Toys You Can Make With Your Kids


Probably the coolest source of educational science demonstrations I’ve encountered is this very book-like website written and run by Simon Field. Field has 30 nifty toys and gadgets that can be made quickly, cheaply and will amaze adults as well as kids. This is the only place I’ve seen that tells you how to make a magnetic linear accelerator, also known as a Gauss Rifle – it uses magnetism to shoot tiny steel balls. The secret to Field’s method is that his demos are very small, requiring small amounts of material, energy, or money. Most of his experiments can be assembled – even if you buy the stuff – for a few dollars, and can fit in your palm. His instructions and visuals are simply the best I’ve seen in any how-to-book. Most wonderful of all, it’s entirely up on the web for free. Hats off to you, Mr. Field. (He does sell kits, and parts, which may help pay for his server, I guess.)

— KK

Science Toys You Can Make With Your Kids (more…)


Brock Magiscope

The trouble with most optical equipment is that it won’t get used unless it is out of the case, opened up, and powered on. But if it is open and lying around, it will get highly abused. I buy my cameras, spectacles, binocs, etc. assuming they’ll be dropped and splattered, and they should hold up to this misuse. But until now I haven’t been able to find a microscope strong enough to do its job yet sturdy enough to be left on the kitchen table ready for inspections by toddlers and teenagers. Now after several years of looking for an everyday microscope suitable for a busy family I found one.

The Brock Magiscope #70 is exactly what I had wanted. It has a single moving part that my five-year old can handle. He can put a leaf in and focus it right. Rubber bands hold the slide. For light the scope uses a fat fiber optic bent pipe which channels ambient room light to the underside of the objective lens (no electricity). There is no fussing, no adjustments. The viewing field is amazingly bright and clear, with a choice of 100x magnification, good enough for high school work. We’ve discovered we can press the lens of a digital camera to its eyepiece, focus on the digital screen and get pretty good microphotography shots.

And best of all it is practically indestructible. The thing is simple and rugged as a hammer. In fact it was built for the abuse of K-12 classrooms, which is probably as grating as a war. Brock offers a “lifetime replacement warranty, including accidents.” If it breaks, ever, they replace it. And they do. (Some visiting kids manage to break the light optic — I have no idea how — but Brock replaced it with no questions asked.)

This tool is always on, always out (it sits next to the fruit bowl); we use it.


The Brock Magiscope
#70 with x4 and x10 objective
and x5 and x10 eyepieces
Brock Optical Inc.