The Amateur Scientist
Giorgio Carboni, June 2008
Translated by Sarah Pogue
What is an amateur scientist?
WHAT IS AN AMATEUR SCIENTIST?
As you know, this website is aimed at amateur scientists. But
what is an amateur scientist? The following pages attempt to describe this
person and to give tips to those who wish to embark on this “career”.
For a long time, in the magazine "Scientific American" a column called “The Amateur Scientist” was published. This column detailed experiments to be conducted in the home using common and inexpensive materials. The term “amateur” indicates someone who loves science and in particular experimental activities, and not someone who carries out these activities in an inaccurate manner.
An amateur scientist is a person who loves science, or better still, someone who is fascinated by it. Nevertheless, this person does not content themselves with simply reading scientific magazines but wants to conduct experiments, build instruments, carry out observations and even research. To be an amateur scientist, therefore, two principal requirements are necessary: first of all a marked interest in nature and science, and secondly a taste for experimental activities.
When I began this website, the idea that I had
of the amateur scientist was that of a child, however, from the emails that I
received I soon realised that the proposed activities were appreciated by people
of all ages, including retirees.
Thus, the question of whether or not these adults were also to be considered amateur scientists arose. Here the problem becomes complicated because with their superior abilities and with time the adult can go well beyond the horizons of a child and become an expert, can carry out activities for scientific vulgarization, can collaborate with real scientists and, even though they are not scientists within a scientific organisation or enterprise, can even carry out original research activities and contribute to the advancement of science.
For adults, we can still use the term amateur scientist, but on the basis of the level of skill reached we can also use other terms such as: expert, popularizer, collaborator and in certain cases even scientist or researcher. In any case, that which distinguishes the “amateur” from the professional is not the quality of the activities performed, but the fact that the amateur carries out these activities for passion and is not paid while the professional is instead paid for their work. It is necessary, however, to clarify that many professionals love their work and they also do it with passion.
With respect to the amateur scientist, a true scientist normally has a greater level of specialist knowledge and works at a research centre where they can avail of huge funds and costly equipment. Our amateur friend considers the conditions of the true scientist to be enviable. He would also like to work in a research centre, but for some reason he cannot and so must content himself with activities carried out on him own.
In any case, scientific activities carried out for enjoyment at a young age often contribute to directing the person towards a scientific career. Various scientists have said that performing experiments, such as those proposed by some scientific magazines, as children was decisive in their undertaking scientific studies and then working in the scientific field as researchers.
ARE YOU BORN AN AMATEUR SCIENTIST OR DO YOU BECOME ONE?
It isn’t easy to establish with certainty if someone is born an amateur scientist or if they become one. Some children are more curious than others and these often ask many questions and never seem to tire of learning new things. You can say that all children like playing however, while some limit themselves to observing the toys, others take them apart to see how they are made, and others still are fascinated by animals, plants and flowers and love being surrounded by them. I am convinced that the making of an amateur scientist is due in part to an innate curiosity and thirst for knowledge, in part to a capacity to be amazed by the beauty of nature and in part to their first experiences which can in some way satisfy some innate predisposition.
I believe that in order to render the remarks that I am about to make less abstract, it would be useful to describe my own personal experience. I think it is indicative enough of many other cases and can serve to better understand how an interest for science and experimentation can arise in a child.
I remember that I had not yet begun to attend school when I found a red glass lens on the ground that had probably fallen from the pendant of a child’s necklace. It was a hemispherical lens, slightly oval in shape, and I used it to magnify and observe ants. I enjoyed watching insects a lot and it was as I so intently observed these ants that an adult told me of the existence of microscopes. From their description of these instruments I decided that I would definitely buy one of these when I was an adult. In that period, I played in flowering meadows and in the woods every day. I saw animals and beautiful plants and I strongly felt the need for someone to explain something about those marvels to me, but there was nobody that could give me these explanations. There were only my playmates, and they knew as much as I did.
A few years later, after having extended my range of action, every now and again I hung about in front of the windows of optics shops admiring the microscopes and telescopes. For a small price, an optician loaned me a microscope pen. It was very nice, but I had to give it back after a few days. Then I bought a small microscope composed of a single lens that gave me a magnification of approximately 20 times. It allowed the use of slides, but it was little more than a toy and it only made me want a real microscope even more. At the age of nine I began to put aside all the money I could and, with the help of my brother, after a year I managed to buy a microscope equipped with achromatic lenses. With this instrument we carried out enthusiastic observations that regarded above all protozoa, but also insects and many other natural subjects.
Observations using the microscope never failed to amaze me, but it’s clear that they weren’t enough because I also got the idea of building myself a telescope. Real telescopes cost so much for me that the idea of buying one never even entered my mind. So, I searched for the lenses to construct one, only I didn’t have the faintest idea how an instrument like this worked and consequently I didn’t even know which lenses were needed.
Every Friday I went to the Piazzola, the flea market in Bologna, to visit the stall of Mr. Pastelli, a hawker who, besides antiques and old knick-knacks, also dealt in war relics. Often, amongst these objects there were optical instruments such as pointing systems. In reality, I couldn’t purchase even these, but I looked at them with great interest trying to understand how they were made. At his stall, Pastelli also had the helmet of a German soldier, inside of which he kept some gears, various pairs of pince-nez glasses and a charcoal iron.
Every week I went to Pastelli to try to get some information on how telescopes were made out of him, but he told me that he was busy with customers, that in that moment he had things to do and he never told me anything that could be useful to me. It was only after some years that I understood that he didn’t have any idea how those instruments worked either, therefore he wasn’t able to tell me. But I didn’t give up and I continued to insist. One day Mr. Pastelli, in despair, picked up a pair of opera glasses to show them to me and, while he handed them to me, the eyepieces fell to the ground. In this way, I was able to see that in each tube of the binoculars there was a convergent lens in front and a divergent lens behind (the fallen eyepiece). Thus, I immediately purchased two eyeglass lenses similar in strength to those of the binoculars, choosing from amongst those that Pastelli kept in the helmet, amongst the gears and under the iron.
This is how my first telescope was created. That instrument was made of a cardboard tube, in one of whose extremities I fixed a convergent lens from a pair of pince-nez eyeglasses and another divergent lens of the “glass-bottom” type. That telescope magnified greatly, but the field of vision was so limited that framing anything with it was a real challenge.
All the same, I managed to see the craters on the Moon and Jupiter with its satellites, but I was not satisfied because the useful field of the telescope was too small and poorly defined. Even in a pirate film that I had seen the telescope that the captain used gave a wide circular field with sharp borders. Therefore, I returned one more time to Mr. Pastelli. However, this time I only needed to glance at a pair of normal binoculars to understand that the eyepieces were also formed of magnifying lenses. So, I bought a sufficiently strong positive lens and I returned home.
The new telescope worked much better than the first. The field was much wider, the magnification was greater, but I saw colours at the edges of the objects that made the image less sharp. In order to remedy this problem, I inserted a piece of card with a hole of approximately 15 mm in diameter in front of the objective of the telescope and the situation improved drastically. Observing the craters of the Moon and Jupiter with its satellites was truly exciting. I also used that telescope for terrestrial observations, to see distant birds and other things, but I saw everything upside down. With plywood and two mirrors silver-plated with a silver nitrate-based solution I made a system to turn the images the right way up. It worked!
In the same period, I built a camera obscura, photographic cameras (into which light entered from all directions such that I had to rapidly use up the roll of film, otherwise the photos were misty), I made gelatine emulsions, I tried home-made films and other indescribable contraptions. I also tried to construct microscopes using wood and cardboard tubes for the body. To make them magnify more, I used a tube that was sometimes even a metre long. To look through these microscopes, I had to stand on a chair. Every so often, under its own weight the tube fell and made the objective fall onto the slide, breaking it and provoking a catastrophe in the miniscule world that I was observing.
Meanwhile, time passed rapidly, I continued to grow and every day I learned new things. It was in this way that, on the occasion of the total eclipse of the Sun of 1961, when I had not yet reached 17 years of age, that I already had a nice self-built telescope equipped with a 60 mm achromatic lens, an orthoscopic eyepiece, a device with a roof prism to turn the image the right way up, a focusing device with a pinion and rack, all assembled with brass tubes and fixed on a camera tripod.
I knew well that I couldn’t watch the eclipse directly using the eyepiece as I would have burned my retina, so I used the telescope to project the image of the eclipse onto a wall of the dining room. To darken the room, I fixed a dark cover over the window and under this I placed the telescope. In this way I saw an unforgettable spectacle: the discs of the Sun and Moon as they slowly overlapped. When there was totality, the room was plunged into darkness, but I clearly saw the disc of the eclipse which had a diameter of approximately a metre on the wall and from which two bright orange protuberances emerged. One of these fell back on the Sun forming a parabola. Surrounding the eclipse, the sky was a deep blue with some lateral white clouds. There were also swallows in flight and from their different dimensions it was possible to understand that they were at different altitudes. I called my mother who was working in the kitchen to come and see the spectacle and she was enchanted.
THE AMATEUR SCIENTIST AND SCHOOL
During elementary and junior high school I had problems paying attention and I tended to get distracted. At a certain point, I decided to do something to improve my grades. In the first year of the technical institute, to better understand the explanations in the books, I carefully examined the diagrams, sometimes I studied repeating the paragraphs out loud and I tried to do practical examples. In class, I sat in the front row to better follow the lessons. In maths, I often volunteered to go to the blackboard to do problems and to stay more attentive. My grades improved greatly and I became convinced of the importance of practical activities in learning the lessons. Probably, those that have problems with language learn better if they integrate what little they can manage to hear and study with practical activities. For these people, practice is an alternative to language for understanding things. In any case, those that have difficulties with language will advance in their studies using means other than listening and reading. Practical activities have a beneficial effect also for normal children, increasing their interest in school and improving their grades.
Carrying out practical activities is useful for students that have problems paying attention. Some teachers know this and attempt to introduce concrete cases, examples and small experiments into their lessons. With time, the success achieved through practical activities creates a trust in the children in acting concretely. In them, acting concretely becomes an important path of knowledge, capable of effectively integrating learning through a linguistic path. Normally, practical-experimental activities are also perceived by the students as pleasant and gratifying, therefore as a true means of expression as well as a means of learning.
We can better understand how with these premises, from interest in scientific theoretical knowledge and from trust in practical activities, a person can form in whom the spheres of saying and doing are well integrated and who knows how to pass easily from projects to their realisation. Instead, those that limit themselves to an abstract approach to things, tend to have difficulties in relating solidly to reality.
All children enjoy working with their hands, so much so that at school it is difficult to make them concentrate on purely verbal activities. The school should seize all opportunities to allow their students to conduct practical-experimental activities because these are seen as a game and arouse great interest in the students towards the subjects dealt with and motivate a more in-depth examination of these topics. Finally, to be successful with practical activities improves their self esteem.
A young amateur scientist must avoid the paradox of dedicating themselves to amateur activities to the point of neglecting their schoolwork. Today, in order to carry out scientific research in any research institution, public or private, a degree is indispensable. Therefore, the young amateur scientist, in carrying out their amateur activities, should keep in mind that their priority is to obtain that degree. Their observations and achievements can be important for their preparation, but they should not occupy so much time and energy that they jeopardize scholastic success. I am not saying these things at random. In fact, as a boy, I was so interested in constructing telescopes, microscopes and missiles that I missed a couple of years of junior high school.
After junior high school, I enrolled in an industrial technical institute precisely to learn to design and build instruments and machines. That school was fantastic. For half of the time we were busy in the laboratories or in the workshops of the institute, where we learned to melt metals, to work steel bars with hammer and anvil after making them red hot in the forge, to carry out the fundamental mechanical tasks such as working metals with files, squares, calipers, gauges, to trace the pieces to be worked, to use the lathe and the milling machine, to design gears and build them with the appropriate hobbing machines etc. We also attended physics, chemistry and electronics laboratories etc. From the theoretical point of view, maths, physics, mechanical design and metallurgy took up an important part of the course that, however, did not neglect the humanistic subjects such as literature and history.
That school gave me the training that I was looking for. I worked for a few years in a technical office as a designer of automatic machines. After that, I was hired by a research centre. I wanted to continue my studies and enrol in university, but I liked the work very much and I didn’t manage to find the time to prepare for exams. I attended lessons for natural sciences and sat only a few exams.
The type of education that I had received to this point was essentially technical and consequently I felt the need for knowledge of the humanistic type. So I attended paid lessons from a high school teacher who every week for four years taught me the history of philosophy. This type of knowledge helped me greatly in seeing things in a more general way, in observing the world from different points of view. It also helped me to better formulate my problems and to confront them more effectively. This subject, extremely important for our spiritual development, should be taught in all schools and not only in high school. I also bought books about the history of literature of different countries which I read and I also read various books that these texts indicated as important.
For work and for many years, I built scientific instruments, I used high vacuum systems and above all I carried out metallurgy research on special steels. Meanwhile, in my free time I constructed a panoramic photographic camera and other instruments.
An amateur scientist should have two types of education, a theoretical preparation on the subject on which he wish to work and a practical training regarding certain construction techniques. To obtain the best results, our friend should not neglect to equip themselves with an adequate theoretical preparation. In fact, without knowledge, the amateur would be confined to a very restricted sphere, to a purely aesthetic observation of nature or to a simple pseudo-scientific craft. The ability to observe nature depends very strongly on the knowledge that one possesses. One of the most important abilities that an amateur must possess is that of knowing how to take care of their basic education and of knowing how to find the specialised information that they need. There are amateurs in certain fields that have achieved a high level of knowledge. A famous case is that of an inmate of the American prison Alcatraz sentenced to life in prison for murder who befriended a bird that posed on his windowsill. He began to raise birds and to study ornithology and became a recognised expert in that field.
For his theoretical education, an amateur scientist can begin with studying high school texts and can then progress to university textbooks. In order to do this, they can buy a “Student’s Guide to the … Faculty”. In these guides, the various lecturers indicate the study programmes for their discipline and the necessary texts, often commenting on these. For many research activities, even amateur, a knowledge of maths and the processing of experimental data or statistics is important.
Although extremely important, theoretical preparation is not sufficient. As I have said, if you do not want to remain chained to abstract activities, you must also possess a technical ability which at least permits you to interact with reality. For example, if you want to build telescopes and other optical instruments, you will need a certain theoretical knowledge of optics, but you must also know the measuring instruments and fundamental metalworking techniques.
Many times I have helped friends to construct microscopes. Some of them knew how to use the principal tools for mechanical work while others, instead, were terribly inexperienced and highlighted the importance of knowing how to use these. For example, if you want to cut a steel bar, you must know how to direct the iron saw otherwise the cut will be crooked and then you will have a hard job removing the excess material with a file. Furthermore, you must avoid holding the saw in a direction different to that of the initiated cut as you will bend the “Z” blade and you will need to use an enormous amount of energy to make the blade move, also risking breaking it and injuring yourself. Filing a piece of steel to obtain a plane is a difficult job for those not trained, but it is also one of the most common operations to carry out.
How can you learn metalworking techniques? If you know a retired worker with experience in mechanics, ask them to give you some lessons, they will be happy to do it. You could also ask a blacksmith to give you some lessons on forging and workbench skills with the saw, file, square, callipers, drill etc. Another way is to refer yourself to a technical institute to find a teacher willing to give you paid private lessons on the principals of workbench skills, how to make measurements in mechanics, how to trace the pieces to work, what the principal characteristics of metals are, how to use the lathe, how to plan in mechanics, how to make designs (by hand, with a ruler and square, with a CAD programme).
Dexterity is a gift that some people possess in uncommon measure. I remember a friend of mine that didn’t do very well at school, but was a magician with mopeds. Often, he repaired mine and I remember that while he worked and he told me what to do to assist him, I asked myself how he knew the job of mechanic so well since nobody had ever taught it to him.
THE AMATEUR SCIENTIST AND SOCIAL LIFE
Unfortunately, passion for experimental activities is not very diffuse among people, therefore, an amateur scientist usually carries out his activities alone. In this way, he tends to isolate himself and, given our sociable nature, ends up suffering as a result of this situation. It is necessary for him to maintain good relations with friends and family, keeping an important but not excessive space for their experimental activities.
An amateur scientist tends to speak to others about what he is doing, but the majority of his friends and colleagues are interested neither in its experiments nor in scientific subjects in general. Their principal interests are their career, sport, women and little else. For this reason, our friend often finds himself in difficulty because he is bored by the conversations of others and cannot speak about its own projects and problems because others are not interested and also because they would be made fun of. When he happens to find a friend that shares the same interests, he can finally begin a profitable collaboration and friendship.
After the advent of the internet, it is easier to find people that share our interests and to communicate with them. Newsgroups are places where you can discuss your preferred topic with tens or hundreds of other people. Mailing lists are organised around a list of email addresses and each one includes numerous people that share a certain interest.
THE AMATEUR SCIENTIST AND THE FAMILY
Often, the amateur scientist is opposed by their own family that doesn’t like to see them wasting their time with useless experiments or worse still throwing away the money needed to buy costly equipment. Of historical fame was Xanthippe, the wife of Socrates, noted for being a real pain, but who was very probably a practical person like the majority of women and didn’t like the fact that her husband spent all his time in the town square having odd conversation with the Athenians instead of taking care of his family.
What is there to say about the materials and tools lying all over the house? On this subject, a war often breaks out during which these materials are regularly made to disappear to keep the house presentable in case guests come over. When our friend looks for them, he don’t find them anymore, or he find them well hidden under the stairs or in the broom closet.
THE AMATEUR SCIENTIST AND THE NEIGHBOURHOOD
The life of the amateur scientist is hindered not only by the lack of understanding of the family, but also by difficulties encountered in the neighbourhood. That guy that makes those strange contraptions and puts them in the garden is normally seen by the neighbours as an eccentric person, if not with a few screws loose. When there is a power cut in the neighbourhood, everybody looks at them suspiciously. Imagine that you are fond of amphibians and that you have dug a little pond to offer these charming animals a refuge and a place where they can reproduce in peace. Knowing that some amphibian species love to move around amongst the grass looking for insects, you let the grass grow. This is also useful for having insects and flowers to observe under the microscope. While you observe your garden, full of flowers and tall grass, comparing it to a natural oasis and considering it to be very close to a Paradise on Earth, you realise that your next-door neighbour is also observing it, but not with a very good-natured expression.
Your neighbour’s lawn? It looks like a carpet! The ground has been so well levelled that it looks like a snooker table. The grass is all of the same species and it is all of the same height. There isn’t a flower or a different plant to be seen. In fact, if a foreign plant (coming from my jungle) dares to invade that garden, it is immediately uprooted. If a frog should happen to cross over into that garden, you would see it walk on tip-toe.
Every so often, especially in the evening, I see my neighbour use a dustpan to throw something into my pond. I know that it is a “frightening” newt or a “horrible” salamander that got lost in their basement. The important thing is that those amphibians that risked dying found safety in my pond.
THE AMATEUR SCIENTIST IS NOT ALWAYS A CHILD
Usually one imagines that the amateur scientist is a child, but this isn’t true: the number of adults that carry out amateur activities in the scientific field is far greater than the number of children. For example, a relatively low number of children conduct astronomical observations, whilst numerous adults dedicate themselves to this activity.
I have noted that the activities of the amateur scientist do not involve only children but also adults, some of whom have children or grandchildren to whom they can give the instruments they make as gifts, others love constructing something for themselves. A friend of mine who is close to retirement has constructed with great care a stereoscopic microscope based on one of my projects and at the end he attached a plate to the instrument engraved with his name and the date of completion.
CONTRIBUTING TO SCIENTIFIC PROGRESS
Another preconception is that which sees the amateur scientists as a figure eternally in the background, someone who never does anything useful. Instead, some amateurs have made important contributions to scientific progress. For example, Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1723) was an ordinary person, without any scientific training, but he had a bizarre passion for microscopes, bizarre above all for those times. He was one of the first to construct and use microscopes and with these instruments he was the first to see and describe microbes, protozoa, etc. He communicated his observations to the “Royal Society of England” and to the “French Academy”. He constructed tens of microscopes and his contribution to the science of the time can well be described as exceptional. We could ask ourselves what professional scientists were doing in the meantime.
Another famous amateur scientist was Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), passionate about phenomena linked to electromagnetism and ended up inventing the wireless telegraph. That device was immediately decisive in communicating with distant ships and for saving human lives during shipwrecks. This important discovery led the way for the invention of the radio, which was however achieved by one of his collaborators.
I don’t know if Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) can be considered an amateur scientist, it is a fact that he initially had to work at home as he wasn’t well accepted in the academic circles of his time. He conducted numerous physics experiments and first used the telescope for astronomical observations. He founded the experimental method in a time in which they were limited to interpreting the writings of the ancient writers and he supported the necessity of expressing the laws of physics in mathematical form, happily uniting theory and practice.
The list of amateur scientists (or non-professionals) who have become famous would be extensive. The important thing is to understand that, even without having attained academic qualifications and without working in a scientific structure, it is possible to carry out research activities that can reach very high levels. From all this, we certainly can’t conclude that within every amateur scientist there is a true scientist, only misunderstood. Neither can we conclude that scientific progress is due exclusively to amateurs. We know well that it is instead due in large part to the work of innumerable scientists and only in a small but not unimportant part to some good and fortunate amateurs.
Even though they are not zero, the probability of an amateur making an important discovery is extremely low. It is therefore better to avoid setting objectives that are too ambitious as these would only give rise to frustration. The majority of amateurs are content with activities through which they can express their interests, that gratify them and with which they can broaden their horizons. The knowledge that they gain can also be useful at the local level, by means of small conferences or lessons at school. As we will see further on, amateur scientists can also contribute to true scientific research.
REAL SCIENTISTS AND AMATEUR SCIENTISTS
Can a real scientist, one that works in a research laboratory, be an amateur scientist? If we compare the term amateur with the term professional, this would not be possible. However, the majority of scientists love their work and they delight in carrying it out. Furthermore, many authentic scientists are passionate about didactics, the communication of science and even about scientific games. Famous is the photograph that pictures two great scientists: Wolfgang Pauli and Niels Bohr as they make a spinning top turn and amusedly observe it. Many scientists have a deep love for scientific research and they carry this out as though it were an exciting game. They share a delight for research and knowledge with amateur scientists. Therefore, there is normally comprehension on the part of real scientists for amateurs and they often help them.
The activities of the amateur scientist can be an introduction to becoming a true scientist. In fact, as I have said, many scientists remember approaching scientific studies thanks to the amateur activities offered by scientific magazines.
THE DIFFICULT FATE OF THE AMATEUR SCIENTIST
Fate dictates that the amateur scientists are always searching for materials that they can’t find anywhere, or for the way to carry out a certain very expensive activity, but without having the necessary equipment and without spending any money, or at least very little money.
For example, a child that wants to build a telescope must procure an achromatic objective, an eyepiece, aluminium or brass tubes, a focusing device, a device for turning the image the right way up etc. Unfortunately, to buy these components they cannot go to the first shop they happen across. It will not even be sufficient to go to a hardware store. Not even optics shops that sell telescopes sell the lenses for constructing them. It could happen that we see them going around some flea market in the hope of finding a stall that deals in optical components. It will be easier for them to find something in a rare photography market, or in an even rarer astronomy fair.
Another mode for procuring the necessary components is to buy them by correspondence from a retailer whose address can be found in astronomy magazines. Beginning with these magazines, our friend can approach a group of astrophiles and can obtain a lot of information regarding retailers of optical components.
As I have said, whoever wants to construct an instrument often finds that they need to carry out some task that requires specialised and expensive equipment. For example, if you want to build a telescope, it is necessary to make joins between the objective and the main tube and between the main tube and the eyepiece tube. These tasks require the use of a lathe. You could go to a lathe turner, but this will be very expensive. Not everybody has a lathe, but if you are interested in building equipment often, having a lathe is important. There are smaller lathes available and second-hand lathes that cost little.
Whatever your field of activity is, it is almost always necessary to possess the fundamental tools, without which you can’t do anything. For example, if you are interested in pottery, you will need at least a potter’s wheel and a kiln. If you dedicate yourself to electronics, an oscilloscope can be indispensable, and so on.
This fundamental equipment will help you on many occasions, but there will always be some particular task that will require an instrument that you do not have. At this point, your search for a friend or a craftsman who possesses that tool will begin. For example, you need a nice graduated scale? You should refer yourself to a metallic plate workshop that will make one for you. You need to aluminium-coat the parabolic mirror that you have just finished polishing and that is destined for your telescope? You should go to someone that has a high vacuum system, and it won’t be convenient for you to equip yourself with this tool only to use it a couple of times in your lifetime.
THE ADDRESS BOOK OF SUPPLIERS
To be constantly searching for materials or components that are difficult to find, for special equipment, for particular workings is thus the eternal fate of the amateur scientist. Asking around, especially of friends that share your interest or of amateur associations, you can find the shop or craftsman that can be useful to you. Obviously, keep note of these addresses in case you need them again. The address book of suppliers, compiled over the years, is one of the most precious tools of the amateur scientist. How many times have I gone to look for sheet metal, bars, steel, brass, aluminium and plastic tubes. Sometimes the shop wasn’t there anymore or it had moved, but nobody could tell me where. Old craftsmen die and with their death the activity that they carried on disappears. Even the rare shops capable of producing chemical substances at a certain point disappear, leaving us orphaned and in the grip of anguish (“now where do I find another shop like that?”).
You will soon discover with a certain sense of relief that you are not the only one to have compiled such an address book, but that some of your friends also have one. One of the most fruitful activities is the exchange of these address with other amateurs. More than once I have done this exchange with friends, obtaining a precious integration of my address book. Besides an address book of suppliers you should also keep one detailing which friends share your interests, of experts, of consultants and of websites. You should also keep note of the procedures that you have carried out to resolve certain technical problems, for future reference.
Those that know mechanics know that only mechanisms well-conceived from the kinematic point of view work well, therefore the ability to conceive simple and effective structures and mechanisms is important. Usually, you learn this skill in technical institutes with a mechanical orientation. For other subjects, you must identify other types of school. Another important source of mechanical solutions consists of analogous instruments built today or, better still, of past instruments that are often the fruit of simpler and more accessible manufacturing techniques. There are also textbooks, rare to tell the truth, that gather designs of mechanical devices and gadgets. As nobody looks for these, there are out of print and sometimes they can be found on the internet on sites that deal in used books.
The majority of self-built instruments don’t work on the first try, and often not even on the second! Not even the single pieces of which these devices are made usually work at the first attempt. This is due to planning errors, errors in the definition of the working procedure of each piece, inaccuracies in their construction, modifications of the initial project etc.
Often, the working of a piece must be done together with the working of the piece upon which it is to be mounted. If, for example, you want to join two plates with screws and you make the screw holes in each of these plates separately, it will be difficult to assemble the pieces as the holes will not match. You should first make a hole in the two pieces, mount one on the other, tighten the first screw, orientate the pieces, fix them, and then make the second hole in both pieces and only at this point should you fix the second screw. If you make a mistake, you will have to throw away one or both pieces. Unfortunately, errors have the habit of showing themselves only after they have been made. Sooner or later, you will realise that inanimate things have a kind of life of their own and that they are also spiteful!
Even the simplest mechanical tasks are dangerous. If you are not careful the saw can slip, the screwdriver can get away from you, the hammer can miss the nail. In all these cases, you risk being injured. If you use a lathe, the risks are much greater and the care that you use should be proportionate. The use of chemical substances can be extremely dangerous. An amateur scientist should be neither unprepared nor rash, but should always know how to avoid hurting themselves or others and how to avoid provoking damage. One of the principal precautions is that of avoiding using substances that you are not familiar with, of avoiding using tools that you don’t know how to use. Whenever necessary, you must get help from an adult expert. Even the most harmless things can reveal themselves to be damaging if they are not used with the necessary caution. An amateur scientist is not irresponsible, but is a person that always knows how to control the situation, taking all necessary precautions.
Projects for the construction of an instrument or for the realisation of an experiment or the carrying out of research are very important for the amateur scientist.
YOUR OWN PROJECTS
Sometimes the amateur has their own idea and also develops the project. We’ll take the usual case of the telescope. Often, astrophiles plan on their own, adapting the project to fit their needs. Once the first project has been carried out, it is possible that our friend wants to realise others. On this subject, every new idea is welcome. It is necessary however to say that it is not easy for one person to have many ideas and to develop many projects. Therefore, you can refer to projects already done.
PROJECTS DEVELOPED BY OTHERS
By now, there are numerous sources of projects for amateur scientists. First of all, I will cite those that at times are found in specialist publications, such as astronomy magazines, where it is possible to find projects for the construction of sundials, how to attach a photographic camera to a telescope, how to photograph falling stars etc. There are innumerable projects for electronic circuits proposed by electronics magazines. Books on physics, chemistry and biology experiments for children are important. Some of these books are aimed at teachers and in certain cases they supply projects that are integrated with the school curriculum. In Anglo-Saxon countries it is possible to find hundreds of texts of this kind. Recently, on the Internet, tens of sites dedicated to amateur activities in the scientific field have appeared. As you know, this very site was created with the aim of supplying projects to amateur scientists.
Projects developed by others are not always to be followed to the letter, but are to be redeveloped to take into account the materials and components that you manage to find and your particular needs. Realising projects of this type you will learn many techniques that will give you new skills. Often, these experiences will open the door to new techniques, new fields of knowledge and new dimensions.
WORKING IN A GROUP
On many occasions an amateur can help a researcher in his work. There are many research activities that require the collaboration of volunteers. In astronomy, volunteers are sought for the SETI project aimed at the identification of any possible signal of extraterrestrial civilisation. For amateur astronomers there are opportunities to collaborate in the identification of asteroids and comets that could threaten the Earth. Numerous astrophiles scan the sky to be the first to sight an approaching comet and to be able to name it. Many archaeologists, anthropologists and palaeontologists avail of the help of volunteers. In the environmental field, the monitoring activities of threatened species carried out by volunteers is very useful. Working in a group is very useful for exchanging information on methods and techniques and for learning from others. Often, the relationship between parents and children is rather hostile. Carrying out a project with your children is a precious occasion for spending time together, for sharing an interest, for collaborating and interacting in a way that is peaceful and gratifying for everyone.
SHARING YOUR INTERESTS
It’s perfectly normal to want other people to participate in the activities that give us pleasure and that enrich us. It is very gratifying to mix with a group of people that share our interests. Displaying your achievements in expositions and fairs is a way to let many other people know your achievements and to communicate your interests. In certain fairs, it is also possible to sell your products. In many cases, your amateur activities can be useful for writing an article to submit to a magazine or for giving lessons in schools. Whoever works in a youth centre can propose experimental activities, arousing great interest and a high level of participation on the part of the young people. It can happen that a young person in the neighbourhood, learning of your activities, asks to take part. In this case, it is important to obtain the consent, and also possibly the participation, of one of the parents. After this, you can help the child with projects in the field where they show greatest curiosity and skill.
The definition of “Amateur Scientist” as a person who loves science and who seeks to carry out experimental activities or to build instruments, now appears in a fuller meaning. I have not described the potential fields in which it is possible to operate at the amateur level, but you can understand that they are innumerable and each one has endless possibilities. Those that see in themselves the figure of amateur scientist can find in the “FUN SCIENCE GALLERY” a series of experiments aimed at them. These are projects like those that I would like to have had as a boy, when I had a great desire to carry out scientific activities, without however having anyone to tell me what to do and how to do it. I hope that these activities can also be useful in schools to raise the interest and improve the grades of students in the scientific disciplines.