[hackerspaces] Fwd: Article: Home Labs on the Rise for the Fun of Science (2010-12-16)
kanzure at gmail.com
Sat Dec 18 18:02:23 CET 2010
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From: Bryan Bishop <kanzure at gmail.com>
Date: Thu, Dec 16, 2010 at 10:35 AM
Subject: Article: Home Labs on the Rise for the Fun of Science (2010-12-16)
To: diybio at googlegroups.com, openmanufacturing at googlegroups.com, Bryan
Bishop <kanzure at gmail.com>
Home Labs on the Rise for the Fun of Science
One day Kathy Ceceri noticed a tick on her arm and started to worry that it
was the kind that carried Lyme disease. So she went to her home lab, put the
tiny arachnid under her microscope, which is connected to her computer
through a U.S.B. cable, and studied the image.
“It was,” she said. “Then of course I Googled what to do when you’ve been
bitten by a deer tick.”
Ms. Ceceri’s microscope, a Digital Blue QX5, is one of several pieces of
scientific equipment that make up her home lab, which she has set up on her
dining room table in Schuylerville, N.Y. Home labs like hers are becoming
more feasible as the scientific devices that stock them become more
computerized, cheaper and easier to use.
Ms. Ceceri has several microscopes and a telescope. Other home laboratories
have tools like infrared thermometers, which can be used in the kitchen, and
kits to analyze DNA at home.
Many of these tools work closely with home computers and come with software
that enhances their power. Others mix low-cost computers into the hardware
to deliver more precise control.
Some people who set up home laboratories are serious hobbyists in search of
better tools; others are home-schooling parents equipping their children;
and others are just curious.
Ms. Ceceri, a writer, seems to fall into all three camps because she teaches
her sons Anthony, 15, and John, 18, at home, and then she writes about some
of their discoveries for a number of blogs like geekdad.com, geekmom.com and
“This year we’re doing integrated science,” she said of her home science
curriculum. “Anything we were looking at, we put under the microscope.”
She explained that she and her children raised triops, tiny crustaceans, and
examined the eggs under the microscope. “We took a really nice video of the
paramecium and nematodes swimming around just holding a digital camera up to
a microscope,” she said.
Brian Haddock, a software developer from south of Fort Worth, who also
writes about science topics on his blog, Reeko’s Mad Scientist Lab,
particularly enjoys using a microscope with a computer.
“Those U.S.B. microscopes are pretty cool,” he said. “They don’t magnify as
much as one of those optical scopes would, but you can look at it on your
computer screen. It’s got a big picture on your screen that’s easier to see
instead of those little tiny images you squint at.”
“Personally, I like the Carson zPix,” he said.
The growth in home labs is helped by manufacturers who are building tools at
ThinkGeek.com, an online store that sells items for home laboratories, among
other things, offers three models of microscopes at various prices, said
Scott Smith, a co-founder of the site.
Prices begin at $99, with models that offer 20x to 200x digital enlargements
of whatever is being examined. The store’s high-end model costs $349, and it
delivers what Mr. Smith characterized as sharper, better quality images for
both hobbyists and businesses like jewelry shops.
Adding a computer interface to a telescope makes it possible to collect more
detail than might appear to the eye looking through the optics. The computer
can collect multiple images over time and combine the results, enhancing the
appearance of the faintest items.
“It isn’t just about capturing video or still images. It actually allows you
to stack a whole bunch of still images to get those really beautiful,
spectacular pictures of the night sky,” explained Timothy Burns, the
director of marketing at Edmund Scientific, the scientific supplier, which
stocks a wide range of telescopes for the casual and professional scientist.
“It gets the really deep color,” he said. “You could probably get a pretty
cool still picture of the moon, but if you’re looking at a deep space object
like a nebula, it brings out the colors and the definition of the whole star
The telescopes come with computerized controls, which Mr. Burns said makes
them easier for children to control. The computer helps find particular
objects in the sea of billions of stars.
Edmund Scientific also supplies a digital camera, the Moticam 1000, which
fits over the eyepiece of many standard telescopes and microscopes to
Home scientists who want to study animals may be interested in a digital
camera that can be activated by motion sensors. Cabela’s, the outdoor
recreation merchant, stocks dozens of models at prices that begin just under
$100 and rise to above $500. The cameras can take pictures during the day or
even at night, adding time stamps. There is no requirement that the
photographer return to hunt the animals.
Infrared thermometers, which range from $20 to more than $100, are another
tool home scientists can enjoy. These thermometers measure the temperature
of objects without touching them, by reading the energy of the infrared
light given off by the object. Cooks might use one of these to measure the
temperature of a pan; I have used mine to look for poorly insulated sections
of walls and to estimate the performance of my heating system by taking the
temperature of the water returning from the heating loops.
John Baichtal, a contributing writer for Make magazine, said he liked the
Extech EX210 Multimeter, an infrared thermometer with the ability to measure
voltage, resistance and other properties of electricity for just under $70.
“It would be helpful for homeowners,” he said. “Let’s say there’s something
that you can’t reach. A little laser pointer helps you aim accurately.”
The tool is also ideal for helping children understand the flow of heat.
Many exterior walls, for instance, have hot and cold spots that correspond
to the amount of insulation, and the infrared thermometer helps spot energy
leaks in the winter.
Not everyone is content to fill their labs with centuries-old technology.
Samara Rubenstein, the manager of the Sackler Educational Laboratory for
Comparative Genomics and Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural
History, said home scientists could extract their DNA by rinsing their mouth
with salt water, breaking apart the sloughed-off cheek cells with dish
detergent, and then rinsing out the DNA with rubbing alcohol. “It’s really
cool,” she said.
Other experiments for home labs can be found at Ology, a corner of the
museum’s Web site.
After the DNA is extracted, more options are becoming available for
identifying the organism using a technique known as PCR, or polymerase chain
reaction. A new project, OpenPCR, is designing new home tools for DNA
analysis. Tito Jankowski, who founded the project with Josh Perfetto, said
the kit would give anyone the chance to analyze DNA.
Mr. Jankowski said one possible experiment for home scientists would be to
test for their reactions to certain food. Only some people, for instance,
taste the bitterness in brussels sprouts, a trait that has been linked to a
part of our genome that the kit can identify.
Eri Gentry, an entrepreneur in San Francisco, said she had already tested
herself for this gene, using a $200 kit from Carolina Biological Supply,
which sells to school science labs.
“Some of these things you do not because it’s the quickest way to do it, but
because you learn a lot,” she said.
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