This month, after 72 years of columns, Scientific American is dropping "The Amateur Scientist" from the magazine. Here is a letter I sent them. At the end there's an offer for "Every Amateur Scientist Column Ever Written!" on CD. Don't miss it!
Dear Scientific American,
I read today in the New York Times that next month you will cease publication of "The Amateur Scientist" column, which has been running since 1928.
Like Shawn Carlson, the current columnist, I'm saddened by the loss of this unique part American science. I never built the "tunable dye laser" or many of the other items that caught my imagination growing up, but I did take a stab at the Miller-Urey apparatus and played with a hydrophone I wired to my stereo and dangled in the bathtub. The important thing was that the columns fired my imagination and contributed to what I became when I did grow up. Or when I finish growing up, should that actually happen.
I'm not a scientist, though I've played one in company reports. I've worked with many and have respect and affection for them and I speak "Science" reasonably well, so I've enjoyed acting as translator from time to time.
I have a bit of sympathy for professional scientists. I've never stopped being an amateur scientist, and as the root of the word suggests, I've never given up my love of inquiry and hope for science as a tool for shaping a better tomorrow. Professionals always run the risk of work becoming a job, and both academic and industrial science is hobbled by market forces that have nothing to do with a sense of wonder or curiosity..
I'm not writing to tell you to keep running the column. I'm sure your decision reflects an accurate understanding of the world you are selling to. More's the pity. I could go on at length about how it's a poorer world to grow up in when all you can learn about a clock by taking it apart is that it has a chip and a battery, but I'll spare you that as well.
What am I writing for? To say thank you for all the Amateur Scientist columns you have published over the years on behalf of all my friends who have shared a bond through the dreams they fueled.
One thing, more and then I'll go.
Who was the best columnist? I don't know all the names that have penned the column, even in my reading lifetime, which spans the last 30 years, much to my surprise. The question reminds me of the contests about the best Star Trek captain (Riker, by the way, if only for an episode or two.) or for the more esoteric, the best Dr. Who (Tom Baker, no contest.).
For The Amateur Scientist, I'd have to vote for C.L.Strong, and I feel strongly about it. Not that I haven't appreciated others, but Strong was in a class by himself. Reading that man, you believed that you could build a radar telescope in you backyard on your allowance, or make a real contribution to some branch of science that most folks take government grants for. Some folks did build those things, and some of use let them build our dreams on. Both are richer for it.
Still, it's sometimes a simple idea that lasts the longest. Every time I pour cold milk into hot coffee, I think of columnist Jearl Walker's discussion of a convection lab in a coffee cup and watch the clearly defined cells swarm through the cup in myriad patterns. (The same physics in this process are those that create a layer of air known as a Gust Front, the title of John Ringos's next novel, by the way.)
I hope the spirit of the amateur scientist never dies, no matter what country it's in. The image of the lone tinkerer in a garage has been replaced by ranks of corporate researchers in glass buildings, but the reality remains that some of the best ideas still come from from a loner with a compelling vision.
Science is often misunderstood by the public, which is tragic since it robs them of the ability to accurately assess risks in their lives and leaves them at the mercy of genuine propagandists and crackpots. The spirit of the amateur scientist should be fanned in everyone so that when amateur and professional meet, they speak in a language both comprehend, and both should strive to listen.
Our future depends on a cooperative effort between laypeople and scientists, and if only professionals do science it's spirit will be diminished.
Thank you for the column. Good luck with whatever you do next.
Ernest D. Lilley
The Amateur Scientist- The Complete 20th Century Collection is here at last! Every article that ever appeared in "The Amateur Scientist" back to when it all started in 1928. Over 1000 projects including all of the classic articles from C. L. Stong. Indexed and fully text-searchable. All on a browser-based CD ROM. For more info, surf over to www.tinkersguild.com. SAS members can get a $10 rebate! If you're not already a member, you can take your rebate and join at the same time from the Tinkers Guild web site.
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