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Scientific R&D At Home? 398

An anonymous reader writes "I'm currently on the cusp of getting myself a new hobby and making some investments. There are a few areas that interest me greatly, from playing with EEG/ECG and trying to put together a DIY sleep lab, to astronomy, etc. I'm somewhat hesitant to get into these fields because (despite the potentially short-lived enjoyment factor) I'm not convinced they are areas that would lend themselves to making new discoveries in the home and with home equipment, which is what I'd really like to do. I've also read quite a number of articles on 'bio hacking,' and the subject seems interesting, but it also seems futile without an expensive lab (not to mention years of experience). What R&D hobbies do Slashdotters have that provide them with opportunities to make interesting discoveries and potentially chart new territory in the home? Do such hobbies exist?"
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Scientific R&D At Home?

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  • by FlyByPC ( 841016 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @01:26PM (#32315274) Homepage
    Robotics is always interesting. Servo motors are pretty easy to control, once you learn a little microcontroller programming. All you need is a basic understanding of algebra; write a few timing loops and angle-to-pulse-width conversion routines and you're there. (I've been using PIC16 microcontrollers, which do this sort of thing nicely.)

    Besides, that way, you'd have a good chance of being among the first to officially welcome our new robotic overlords!
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Robots is interesting with a bit of AI thrown in too.

      But also have a look at [] for some biology related projects

    • by zero0ne ( 1309517 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @01:52PM (#32315484) Journal

      Phidgets [] If you would like a bit of an easier ride.

      Version 2.0 of their Phidgets SBC is going to be really slick, but don't expect it anytime soon.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I can't say for certain that this is applicable to robotics, but I've found in my personal projects as a software engineer that escaping the naive approach is what has brought my work into the realm of possible importance (academically and technologically). For me that meant reading a shitload of math books (and engineering books that are just slightly-more-rambling math books.) I suspect that it's the same for most fields, even ones heavy in hardware experimentation and field research -- going into it with

    • by imag0 ( 605684 )

      I started hacking away with an Arduino a few weeks ago and have loved it. Sensors, motors, potentiometer's, MUX/DEMUX, programming, soldering, it's all there.

      You don't even have to be particularly interested in robotics. For example, my first project is a analog drum machine that fires off MIDI messages to my DAW. Lots of pots, wires, understanding low-level MIDI interfacing, it's a blast. So anyway, yeah. I can't recommend electronics hacking / robotics enough.


  • Absolutely (Score:5, Insightful)

    by b4upoo ( 166390 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @01:29PM (#32315296)

    The prime frontier is in software. New concepts and applications based upon scientific discoveries are all over the world of software.

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      Yes, indeed, there is a huge untapped frontier in software, both for making discoveries (programs that find and fix their own bugs, for example), and for doing interesting research in other areas. One place to look is computational economics - building complex market scenarios and figuring out how they work. As far as I know, nobody did that before the big mess in California's energy market in 2000. See the Trading Agent Competition [] or Leigh Tesfatsion's summary of Agent-Based Computational Economics [].
  • Astronomy! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Colonel Korn ( 1258968 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @01:30PM (#32315306)

    Only a few hundred planets outside the solar system have been discovered. Some of those were found from backyards by amateurs.

    Check out The Sky is Your Laboratory by Robert Buckheim. It's a ~$30 book that will show you how you can participate in meaningful astro research with no equipment beyond a stopwatch for the simplest stuff. Later chapters get increasingly complex and show you how to do things that be pretty big contributions to the field.

    • Re:Astronomy! (Score:5, Informative)

      by Random Walk ( 252043 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @01:54PM (#32315498)

      In all fairness, if you want to make a contribution that is worth co-authorship of a paper, you might need at least a good amateur telescope (maybe on the order of 10 inch aperture) and a CCD camera.

      With such equipment, and clear skies, you can do photometric monitoring of stars (e.g. for outbursts, or planet transits). Asronomers always have the problem that big observatories focus on big telescopes, and it's difficult to do things that require small telescopes, but long-term monitoring.

      One example would be monitoring of the transits of extrasolar planets, to detect timing anomalies (which could be caused by undetected additional planets). Or monitoring stars with planets detected by radial velocity variations, to discover eventual transits. Or monitoring of ongoing gravitational lens events... there are quite a few oportunities for amateurs.

    • by MadMorf ( 118601 )

      Seconded...This is a great book and convinced me to get back into astonomy after a 25 year break...

      Last thing I did before this was photograph Halley's Comet back in '85/'86, with my 6" reflector and Minolta 35mm SLR...

      Now, I've got a 150mm Mak-Cass and a Canon 20Da...Gonna do me some Variable Star Asronomy...

  • Homemade science (Score:3, Interesting)

    by thms ( 1339227 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @01:34PM (#32315332)
    Now that I think about it, doing "real science" at home would be quite an interesting, nay, awesome hobby. A hobby community doing (anonymous) peer review and mutual reproduction of results. Maybe putting a few urban myths to rest.

    And you could include schools in that, there is probably a lot of stuff out to discover which requires keep observation, measurement and then perhaps the help of a statistician to help sort the data. Counting number of animals and species in different kinds of gardens (all kept clean, lot of exotic plants, with a fish(less) pond etc.), dental caries vs. preferred school meal/drink, oh, and repeating the rats on drug experiment Rat Park [] - providing free heroin to rats has a remarkably unintuitive outcome. And schools collaborating nationwide and thus getting a large enough sample size could probably dig up something really remarkable. To say nothing of the large term effects wrt. science literacy.
  • by ThreeGigs ( 239452 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @01:34PM (#32315336)

    Einstein didn't have a lab. His lab was his brain, and his "thought experiments" were obviously productive.

    • by sillybilly ( 668960 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @03:15PM (#32316086)
      Einstein's lab was a remote lab across the Atlantic from Switzerland, at Case Western Reserve University, more specifically the Michelson-Morley experiment on a pool of liquid mercury, coming up with the interferometry experimental measurement/conclusion that the Earth is not moving through the aether. Therefore the concept of aether was a superfluous one as far as science and Occam's razor was concerned and was abandoned. Theoretical researchers still ultimately rely on experiment. Michelson Morley did not come up with the theory of relativity, but they did a wonderful job as objective experimental scientists, trying to measure our planet's speed through aether, and "failing" so wonderfully at it. What a waste of money on setting up the whole rig? All that liquid mercury? Not really. Sometimes a failure to obtain a measurement result is the greatest success, and they published their "failure" objectively, without fear. Most of the great scientific advances are in the perplexing details of unexpected, "erroneous" results.

      However their result was not totally unexpected, as the Maxwell equations themselves already predicted such a thing, paradoxically, by containing a velocity term c. In the Newton/Galileo worldview, x and dx/dt, position and speed are undetectable, relative (even though Newton did talk about moving through "absolute space" when spinning a bucket of water, but Galileo did not, when telling about the flies not gathering aft in a ship, or his measurements of dropping feathers in a vacuum, or from the leaning tower of Pisa, countering Aristotle's claim that motion, dx/dt is consumed, and correctly ascribing that to friction, to external forces.) Only d2x/dt2, acceleration is revealed by the Universe, as a (inertial) force. Newtons mechanics, his laws, is all about forces, about d2x/dt2. All Einstein did was incorporate the Maxwell equations with this previous idea of Galileo about the relativity of inertial reference frames, that still did check out through the Michelson experiment, force a system where even with c present there is still inertial relativity and only acceleration manifests itself, and show that the classical Newton/Galileo system was a special limiting case of the old one. It's all really simple if you're willing to give up your prior convictions based on new experimental facts, even if those convictions were related to the most basic of basic things in your image of the world around you, to x and t.
      • The term c appears in electromagnetic space. All the Universe we know is mainly electromagnetic, you and I are chemistry, interactions of atoms through electrons, electromagnetic. So is the light that we see, and all electromagnetic ways to measure time and distance, including atomic clocks up in outer space orbit. However, nonelectromagnetic things may not obey the constant c. One major thing up in the air still is gravity waves, if they exist at all, and what speed they propagate with. The hard nuclear in
  • by taoboy ( 118003 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @01:34PM (#32315344)

    ...that you're more interested in the recognition than the achievement. Most folks I know who make real breakthroughs in a discipline are genuinely interested in the discipline.

    I occasionally teach and mentor in a doctorate program, and my essential observation is that those who are interested in the topic have a higher probability of finishing than those who are "chasing the paper". Even those of the latter category who finish the program eventually find such a perspective catches up with them in the workplace or in academia.

    I don't mean to sound trollish here, but you need to search your motivations and go for the thing that really interests you. That'll render reward far past achieving 'just something, anything' And that motivation will overcome obstacles such as home-based, etc. You'll find a way, if it interests you...

    • by Z8 ( 1602647 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @03:09PM (#32316050)

      you're more interested in the recognition than the achievement.

      You're being uncharitable. All the OP asked was for an "to make interesting discoveries and potentially chart new territory"; he never mentioned wanting fame and fortune.

      As you mentioned, some people love just love research for its own sake, and they may enjoy spending the rest of their life putzing around in their home even if they just "discover" something everyone in the field has known for years. But others want to make a positive contribution to society—they want to further humanity's knowledge, not just their own.

      I think that's what the OP meant by "the potentially short-lived enjoyment factor". Hobbies can be interesting, but to many they become empty if you can't share them with the rest of the world.

      • by ceoyoyo ( 59147 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @04:07PM (#32316494)

        The GP may have put it badly, but he does have a point: you don't go out looking for something to do to "make a significant discovery." You try a few things, find something you like, and do it. If you do it really well, maybe you'll find something novel.

        The amateur planet and supernova finders didn't go out and buy a telescope because they wanted to find planets and get their names in journals, they were already accomplished amateur astronomers and started looking for planets or supernovae for the challenge.

        • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

          by taoboy ( 118003 )

          That's what I get for posting before morning coffee... :)

          Yes, the post was probably a bit hard-nosed, but I'm glad you recognized my point: it's what interests you that takes you to interesting places. There are two kinds of achievers: 1) Those that work hard at something, and 2) those that work hard as something that interests them. The latter benefit from the leverage of intrinsic motivation.

          For my situation, I modify #2 slightly: Those that work hard at what comes easy to them. I am definitely a poste

  • by vlm ( 69642 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @01:37PM (#32315372)

    ... lab, to astronomy, etc....

    You totally picked the wrong optical hobby dude. Unless you live in some sort of paradise, its either going to be too cold, too hot, too rainy, too buggy, too cloudy, too windy for lightweight mounts, or bad temp inversions, about 99% of the time. Now, a microscope, on the other hand, maybe with a cam attachment hooked up to a PC, with some image analysis software, that could be big fun under any weather condition. And they both cost about the same, less than a car payment for junk, about a single monthly mortgage payment for the good stuff, and about one decent used car for used pro-grade hardware.

    Also, we all look at the same sky. That means intense competition. But we all have different dirt and ponds. Yet another vote for microscope.

    I'm not convinced they are areas that would lend themselves to making new discoveries in the home and with home equipment, which is what I'd really like to do.

    Yeah well you're about to learn the hard part is not deciding what to buy, or even whipping out a credit card, the hard part is figuring out how you'll determine its something new. Pretty easy if you want to discover something new to you, look, an algae species I've never photographed before. Pretty hard if you want to darn near prove a negative, prove no human being has ever photographed that particular species of algae before.

    Something New is not necessarily discovering a new individual thing. Something New might be using yer computer and some homemade software that emulates a red blood cell counter to chart the population of algae per sample vs ... something, to make interesting predictions, or discover a new effect. Or turning your computer-microscope into the worlds weirdest spectrophotometer, to measure ... something.

    What R&D hobbies do Slashdotters have that provide them with opportunities to make interesting discoveries and potentially chart new territory in the home? Do such hobbies exist?

    On the other hand, one good thing about the astronomy hobby is the AAVSO, American Association of Variable Star Observers. You'd never guess that their URL happens to be: []

  • by skids ( 119237 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @01:37PM (#32315376) Homepage

    ...building a "museum" of silly "perpetual motion" machines from designs on the web.

    As far as serious "science" might I suggest this -- while groundbreaking research is mostly hi-tech requiring expensive equipment, one thing that doesn't get done much anymore is well within reach: verifying or debunking claims about various products. This can range from, say, taking time lapse photos of -- oh, I don't know, the progress of competing wart removers -- to basic qualitative chemical analysis of product ingredients (is that fish oil actually mercury-free).

    Another idea might be designing coffee table doodads that show off scientific phenomena or engineering tricks.

    • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @02:21PM (#32315702) Journal

      I don't know, the progress of competing wart removers

      I really like your idea, but I want to make a comment on the difficulty of this one. I had three warts that I wanted to remove, but I wasn't sure how well the salicylic acid would work, so I only tried it on one of them. Weird thing is, as soon as it worked on one, the other two warts disappeared on their own, without anything. So to be sure, you would want to apply the treatments on different people. Maybe you could do an internet request to find people who have warts, want to get rid of them, and are willing to go along with the experiment.

      Incidentally, compound-w freeze off actually made my warts bigger. Stay away from that stuff. (YMMV)

  • by Mindcontrolled ( 1388007 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @01:37PM (#32315380)
    The probability of you making a significant discovery at home is close to zero. That is not meant to disencourage you. I spent enough time in professional labs myself to know that you can work for years on end on a scientific topic professionally without making any significant discoveries. However, home science is fun, so, by all means, go ahead with it! Just don't choose your field on the vague possibility of discovering something of greater meaning, just pick something that is actually FUN to you.
    • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @01:50PM (#32315476) Homepage Journal

      The probability of a scientists making a significant discovery in his lab isn't much better than zero. The Flemming "Gee this moldy stuff might kill germs" is not even a once-in-a-career moment for the vast majority of scientists. Scientists work in a community, and the majority of them advance that community by applying tiny deltas to the scientific consensus.

      I think if you want to be an amateur scientist, you might find it most rewarding to choose a branch of science with an enthusiastic amateur community, such as comet hunting or meteorology.

      • by pete-wilko ( 628329 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @04:21PM (#32316606)
        That's actually a really excellent point about being a part of a community. One of the crucial parts of being a scientist is being aware of what has come before, and what others are doing - aka literature reviews and reading. Things like are great resources for being able to access this material without having to pay the traditional expenses with getting access to various journals etc.
  • community colleges (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Takichi ( 1053302 )
    I suggest signing up for a course or two at a local community college. Even if you already know most of the stuff they'll teach, you'll get access to all their equipment and labs. You'll also meet some people that are interested in similar things as you. I've known people that take the same course for years for this exact reason.
  • I would suggest you check with your local university or public research institution to see who is involved in fields that interest you. You may be able to catch a talk where they say something like "I have found XYZ but I don't have a way to monitor or experiment on BCD", where you may be able to find an angle that you can assist with.

    If you read into the history of Medtronic (and the pacemaker itself) you'll find that their beginnings weren't too far from what I just described - an inventor with an interest working with a physician researcher with a need.
  • by Faizdog ( 243703 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @01:41PM (#32315414)

    It's great that you'd like to tinker around and play with stuff at home. You may learn some things, and it will definitely present with some interesting engineering problems. But true scientific R&D, where you discover something new, forget about it for the most part.

    The only domains where a lone tinkerer can still make an impact and "discover" something new is in pure math, or algorithmic research. And even there, it's a rare thing.

    The days of the lone researcher are long since past, if they ever really existed in modern history. Sure during the Renaissance and through the 1800s and early 1900s a lone researcher could discover/invent something new. However, even during the latter part of the aforementioned time period, the individuals in questions (Maxwell, Faraday, Watt, Bell, etc) often had years/decades of experience and/or education in the fields they made discoveries in. And the myth of the lone inventor during this latter part wasn't really true, for example Edison had a large lab full of employees for his research.

    In the contemporary time period, it's HIGHLY unlikely (I'm just reluctant to say impossible). All the low level hanging fruit in most fields has been mined. There's a reason that PhDs take a long time, there's a lot to learn and catch up on. Also, most discoveries, especially in basic science ( Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Astronomy) require lots of expensive capital equipment and labs to do. And often, it's not just one scientist, but an entire team of collaborators working on a problem from many different angles.

    Now, there may be some interesting inventions/engineering solutions a lone inventor can PERHAPS come up with, but they wouldn't be new scientific discoveries. Also, as another refinement of my point, there are some things an individual can still do, like say perhaps discover a new species, but not in their backyard (unless you live in Brazil). Even then, you need a commitment of resources and time to explore the still hidden parts of the world, in the rainforest, or deep under the sea.

    So, while the concept of the lone scientist is romantic, exciting and inspiring, in the modern era it's unrealistic in my opinion.

    • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @02:38PM (#32315820) Journal
      That's only partially true. Your chances of doing something interesting in physics are probably ~0, unless you have an untapped well of mathematical genius that you've failed to notice. On the other hand, biology and astronomy are fields that suffer from having truly enormous research targets. There are plenty of expensive astronomy devices pointed at objects suspected of being particularly interesting; but astronomy as a field could really use a full-sky, all-night, all-year, survey in the "dedicated amateur" range of hardware quality. You aren't going to score a nobel for elucidating the physics of novel ultradistant pulsars; but being the only person with a 10-inch reflector focused on that bit of the sky is totally doable. Whether that bit of the sky does anything useful, of course, is a matter of luck.

      In Bio, you can probably discover a dozen novel microorganisms is just about any pool of slimy water large enough to drown in. You'll have to do a lot of slogging to learn enough about it to publish(if there were a faster way, grad students would be graduating faster), and you probably won't be lucky enough to find one that does anything wildly cool; but simply finding one should be doable enough. Even larger stuff like insects is pretty under-cataloged in many locations. Again, your odds of finding a particularly notable bug aren't huge; but enough slogging will almost certainly yield pictures and specimens of something that nobody has ever come up with a latinate name for. Whether this motivates you is another question; but the sample set is just so enormous that, as long as you have a decent microscope/camera, and perhaps a budget for ordering genetic sequences of stuff, a novel organism should just be a matter of effort.

      Assuming you have some requisite talent, and enough budget for a decent tinkering shop, you can probably do some novel applied science/engineering(albeit probably not based on novel principles), as long as you stay away from areas of commercial interest. The field of "best approximation, for ~$100, of Thing X that normally starts at ~$20,00" has been a tinker's classic for ages. Your work won't exactly represent an advance(the usual price tag isn't just because the commercial guys are price gouging); but it may well be novel and creative. In certain cases, often being pursued by deeply underfunded NGOs, such work could even be of humanitarian significance(think solar ovens, for instance, the field of solar power is overwhelmingly dominated by semiconductor guys doing stuff with novel quantum-well fabrication in order to eke out that extra .5% theoretical max efficiency, or old school thermodynamics/hardcore plumbing and engineering outfits who know how to integrate thousands of meters of high pressure steam tubes in an efficient and reliable way. However, if you can come up with a better design for something that will cook dinner for under $10 in plywood, paint, and tinfoil, there's about a billion people who could stop burning down their ecosystems for charcoal...).
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      All the low level hanging fruit in most fields has been mined.

      I find it rude that you think so little of the ability of amateur scientists, but I'll chalk it up to you having a bad day.

      The fruits of scientific discovery has never been low, not even when Archimedes took a bath, but what has changed is the size of the scientific community and the entrenchment of traditions. If I discover something that boggles my mind and I'm unable to quantify it to write a formal paper about it, no matter how keen my intuition or observational skills are I'll be marginalized. You find

    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      That's exactly what they told the guy who went on to invent....the wheel, the candle, the lightbulb, the home computer, etc. The "lone" scientist has never really been alone. He stands on the shoulders of giants and simply looks at what exists through a different set of eyes. Breakthroughs are an entirely different animal than refinements. It is generally expensive, lots of hard work, and the worker is ridiculed and chided by those around him as a "waste of time". They are told that only "real scientists" a

  • Ask A Radio Ham (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Ganty ( 1223066 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @01:44PM (#32315426)

    I do research into high IP3 HF receiver front ends, other radio hams are working with software defined radios, recovering digital signals from noise, DSP chips and even the way the brain perceives sound.

    Ganty HA5RXZ

  • Plasma Physics (Score:4, Interesting)

    by gyrogeerloose ( 849181 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @01:45PM (#32315428) Journal

    No, seriously, you can do it at home--get a ham radio license and start doing some experiments aimed at better understanding the behavior of the ionosphere (which is a plasma) and it's effects on radio wave propagation. No only could you make a significant contribution to science, you could have some fun in the process.

    Here's the first in a series of articles [] on the topic. You might find it interesting.

    • by Ceriel Nosforit ( 682174 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @02:00PM (#32315550)

      Or get a bunch of old microwave ovens and see what you can plasmify at what distance. Electricity is cheap and your utility company will thank you!

      Atomic power is a good source for X-rays and all sorts of fun can be had with radiation. Even ultraviolet is enough to increase the mutation rate of bacteria. Mutants! Need I say more? *wink-wink nudge-nudge*

      You can also build your own lasers, and tesla coils are always impressive. Don't bother with rockets because the cheapest/best rocket engines are solid explosives that fit nicely in the hands of pros.

      When I'm established I'll have a bunch of high-density flywheels built to deliver impulses of power befitting my megalomania. Then, superconductors!

  • Seriously, they have some great biological modules to investigate ;)

  • Arrest! (Score:5, Informative)

    by michaelmalak ( 91262 ) <> on Sunday May 23, 2010 @01:47PM (#32315452) Homepage
    Sorry, home science is now an arrestable [] offense [].
    • Re:Arrest! (Score:4, Interesting)

      by fuzzyfuzzyfungus ( 1223518 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @02:43PM (#32315858) Journal
      Amusingly, Texas is particularly bad. In addition to "controlled substances", they have "controlled glassware". You need the permission of the state to own such sinister items as Erlenmeyer flasks.

      Luckily, they can still wave "don't tread on me" flags with impunity, so it's ok...
      • by Lehk228 ( 705449 )
        while it's not ideal, i like that form better than the 'wait and see if you get raided for buying this time' approach in some jurisdiction. especially after whatever department processes those forms gets used to seeing your name and address on stuff you at least have some protection against a suspicious supplier calling you in the first time you order from them and having the local cops show up and "holy shit look at all this he must be making meth"
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by WebSorcerer ( 889656 )

      The Texas Department of Public Safety - Narcotics Service requires a form to be filled out before one starts a chemistry lab at home (or anywhere else). []

    • Re:Arrest! (Score:5, Interesting)

      by BetterSense ( 1398915 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @02:49PM (#32315900)
      Even if science isn't illegal by itself, good luck not getting arrested for buying lab glassware, which is illegal in TX (you might make a meth lab), and good luck getting any chemical companies to sell you anything but table salt unless your a big company (sodium sulfite is so dangerous afterall), and good luck not having the BATF break down your door and shoot your children and dog because you violated some obscure bullshit 'manufacturing a weapon/bomb/scary looking thing that we don't know what it is/flyswatter' law.

      I have tons of lab glassware, scary sounding chemicals like potassium ferricyanide and benzotriazole, lots of white powder and digital scales to measure them, high powered power supplies, RF and electronics equipment, lasers, casks of gunpowder and stockpiles of lead and bullets, and more stuff that would make for damn fine TV on the evening news--"Potential terrorist killed in struggle with police--an arsenal of weapons, dangerous chemicals that could be used for chemical weapons, bomb making materials, and communications equipment for communicating with terrorists across the globe were siezed....

      My hobbies are photography, shooting/reloading, robotics, and radio.

      It's a dangerous world for people that do anything interesting or innovative. In complete seriousness, be careful.
      • Have you developed your own commonsense protocols for working in your home lab environment or do you follow established protocols from professional labs. I live in a high density metropolitan area and don't own anything other than a bbq that could create unpleasant externalities for my neighbours, and, I find working in a necessarily protocol heavy lab environment tiring YMMV. I prefer to maybe murder cats in gedenken gas chambers.
  • Plus sharks; there are quite a few rather small species, you can start with those.

  • What R&D hobbies do Slashdotters have that provide them with opportunities to make interesting discoveries and potentially chart new territory in the home?

    Chatroulette and Remote Web Cam Control are really big right now.

  • Not really into the money part but the hybridization of cannabis is an enjoyable past-time. And working out new analogues of common drugs is fun too.
  • Get your hands on some smoke detectors: []

    I'm not a fan of solar energy . . . the sun doesn't always shine . . . and wind? Think tornadoes. Water power? Take a look at Poland right now; that's what water will get you.

    Actually, I'm a big fan of the underdog geothermal energy. Just drill down deep enough, and it gets mighty hot there. But I guess geothermal isn't fashionable enough . . . unless you live in Iceland.

  • Make your sleep lab (Score:5, Informative)

    by Simonetta ( 207550 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @02:01PM (#32315556)

    In the late 1980s I worked for a biomedical company (BMSI) in Silicon Valley that made EEG equipment. They stored the EEG waveforms on a video tape. The image on the video tape had the EEG waveforms from 16 head sensors on the left of the screen and an image of the patient on the right. Patients would try to get 100% disability checks for life by claiming to be epileptic. They would spend a night in a monitored sleep lab, and then do a little horizontal dance while pretending to be asleep. Our equipment matched the brainwave recording to the image of the patient twitching to verify or disprove nocturnal epilepsy.

        It doesn't really matter that you can or can't do real high-level research at home on DIY equipment. It only matters that you can build calibrated and reliable medical equipment that delivers accurate results at a small fraction of the cost of the equipment used in American hospitals. As we all know, the US medical health care system is collapsing. The recent legal reforms are basically meaningless and consist mostly of administrative and billing changes. If you can do a $1500 sleep apnea test or overnight EEG recording on DIY equipment for $50, then you are a welcome and honored member of the new health care system that is self-generating now underneath the bloated, corrupt, and crumbling official health care system.

      Just be discreet at the present time.

      By the way, instead of digitizing and storing the EEG waveforms directly, do a FFT on 1024 samples. The EEG waveform is basically sinusoidal so it can be recreated mathematically. Determine the formula that will regenerate the recorded waveform sample, and only store the offsets and co-efficients of the sine wave formula that will recreate that segment of the waveform accurately. You will get a 1000-to-1 data compression and be able to get all the circuitry into a hand-held small package.

  • First: Look up Forest Mims III [] and research his life story and the things he tells people. He is totally encouraging. Don't let his creationist thinking scare you. (I'm not a creationist either, but if you want to learn things in the world, you have to be able to work with difference.)

    Second: Unless you're a natural, you're going to need some personal (re-)training, most likely, about how to think about acting, creativity, invention, business, and so on; Be on the lookout for it. Investigate different

  • by phantomfive ( 622387 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @02:03PM (#32315570) Journal
    CS is an awesome field for this because you don't need expensive equipment, you can run all your experiments on a single computer. Not only that, it's a young field, so you can get to the cutting edge of the field really easily (compared to something like antiquities studies, where you have to go 8 years post-doc before you're likely to come up with something new, they've been working on it for thousands of years, after all).

    For example, for me, for the past few years I've been focusing on artificial intelligence, as in, figuring out the algorithm for how the brain works.
    Another thing I've wanted to work on is figuring out if P=NP or not.
    Another thing is figuring out the best way to teach programming to beginners (I even have my name on a paper in that field, for whatever it's worth)
    Another thing that is relatively easy to do, and likely to get you published (which is kind of fun), is a wordprinting program on Shakespeare's works or some other works of disputed authorship.
    On the more programming side, there are a number of things to do, for example, build a program to display all the temperatures taken in the world, along with pictures of the thermometers (apparently some guy went around and took pictures of them all). Show visually how the global temperature is taken.

    Some of these are obviously really hard, but sometimes it's better to go for something hard that you really want to do. As the quote says, "shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you'll have landed among the stars." Even if you don't figure it out, you'll have learned something and pushed your limits.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      More generally, mathematics is an excellent field for amateurs, with tons and tons of accessible problems that can be solved with persistence. Check out some of Martin Gardner's books.

      Brian Hayes has some similar explorations (

  • by petes_PoV ( 912422 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @02:08PM (#32315610)
    Basically astronomy and biology are your two best bets, if you want your name to live on. Though whether you'd like your name to be associated with a disease is debatable. Sadly astronomy is getting away from the amateur, as the americans have pretty much automated the hell out of asteroid discoveries (at least in the northern hemisphere) with huge automated "discovery factories". You might strike lucky and discover a comet, though.

    Biology is more promising, with many opportunities to discover new types of insect in your neighbourhood - or even in your garden. The hours are long, but any discovery has to be earned.

  • If you're mainly interested in learning new stuff for fun I would strongly advise you to try macrophotography. It does not have to be that expensive, and it is very fascinating to look or document insects and small things in a way that very few people actually get to experience.

    You can get some really nice setups for very little money if you look at some diy projects.

    Depending on where you live/travel you might even contribute to scientific discoveries :)

  • Seriously, aerodynamics lends itself well to this. Especially if you're going to do model airplanes. It's not all that expensive to get setup, and you're working with really low reynolds numbers, which is something that'll interest many people because of the search for small flying machines (drones, messenger bots, etc). Couple that with research for an autopilot mechanism and you've got a serious hobby that'll take time and lead to new discoveries without taking all that much money to get new results.
  • by bhima ( 46039 ) * <Bhima.Pandava@g m a i l . com> on Sunday May 23, 2010 @02:15PM (#32315656) Journal

    Everyone who is a close friend of mine has these sorts of hobbies. My closest friend has built a complete sleep lab in his home, complete with a sensory isolation tank. This is just part of an extended effort on his part to more fully understand and explore his dreaming and other alternate states of mind.

    In my opinion the most interesting things going on now are in biology and that's sort of home lab I am building.

  • by Okian Warrior ( 537106 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @02:18PM (#32315672) Homepage Journal

    First of all, everything previous posted about doing what you love is true. Figure out what you love first.

    And the way to do that is to put yourself in a situation where you can't do anything for long periods. Take a 2-week vacation somewhere w/o internet access and little interaction with others - camping, for instance. It takes a couple of days for your mind to finish processing your daily routine and calm down, but once that's over your mind will naturally start to think about things you enjoy.

    (Note: This is hard. You have to force yourself to not go off to get mental stimulation somewhere.)

    Some specific suggesitons:

    1) I strongly believe that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in the subject of AI.

    2) If you live near mountains, find an isolated ecological niche and catalog the species there. For instance, find a tall vertical rock cliff with niches which have captured trees and plants fallen from the top. Being essentially isolated from the larger ecology, speciation occurs at these places. Catalog the new species.

    3) Go into the woods and find some sort of overhanging rock shelter - of the sort that a hunter-gatherer society might take refuge in during a thunderstorm. Do an archaeological excavation at that spot: Divide it up into rectangles using string, dig down an inch at a time and put the dirt through a sieve and see what you can find. Get any fireplace remains carbon dated.

  • The problem with doing R&D at home isn't that you might not get results, it is then what to do with them. It takes a large team of lawyers to defend discoveries and such. Patents are expensive, etc. Really, you might end up having to put more money and time in it than the actual R&D if you decide to share your results.

    There is a reason why R&D projects generally are taken by large businesses: they have time and money to defend them. The days of buying the newest "toy" and making lots of scie
  • There are all sorts of fantastic contributions you can make simply through daily observation. Wherever you live, nature is happening all around you, and if you are so disciplined as to make daily observations about anything over a significant length of time, you WILL contribute. There are so many factors for which there simply isn't enough solid information. Even the freaking TEMPERATURE can vary ridiculously across short distances. If you have a stellar thermometer and the resources to record that regularl

  • A few years ago there was something on Nova about a New Mexico company that would rent out telescopes you can robotically control. []

    I'm guessing you'll get better observing conditions than where you are.

  • Do maths : Paper, a whiteboard, a computer and there you go. The number of unsolved problems is staggering. The problems in maths are routinely solved by determined indivduals. Good luck.
  • by ynotds ( 318243 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @02:36PM (#32315804) Homepage Journal

    While Conway's Life has been studied to death for 40 years and some wider categories of simple rules have been studied exhaustively by others, Golly [] enables you to explore much wider rule sets in the quest of some that are significantly more productive that Life.

    For the past 18 months I've been using it to study just one of the Generations rules which were initially surveyed, especially by Mirek Wojtowicz [], around 2000. I'm focused almost entirely on Generations 345/3/6, running it on 3 machines including one added just for that purpose. But I've recently noted [] that 345/2/4 may be even more productive in terms of novel phenomena, although I'm not planning to switch my own research which is nowhere near finished, let alone properly reported.

    Beyond that, Golly also supports RuleTable and RuleTree algorithms which allow you to try an unlimited number of new rules, a few more of which are sure to be a lot more interesting than LIfe itself.

  • As part of Galaxy Zoo, I am leading a project looking at Irregular galaxies. There is masses of data available on the net under SDSS, Galex, Hubble and others. All it takes is a methodical approach to finding a data set then analysing it. We have 18,000 irregular galaxies - the biggest study to date looked at 137 of them, we have rather more. The first paper just needs some time to bring the results together. More papers will follow.
  • Get Ahead! (Score:3, Funny)

    by rueger ( 210566 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @02:49PM (#32315902) Homepage
    Try self-trepanning [] and see what's on your mind!
  • Alternative energy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Smoke2Joints ( 915787 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @03:08PM (#32316044) Homepage

    The alternative energy movement was started at the grass roots, and continues to be led by backyard intentors. See youtube for micro hydro, solar concentrators, stirling engines, tesla turbines, and more. Fascinating area of science.

  • My meta-suggestion would be to look for an area that has gone out of fashion. My actual suggestion (and it's not my area at all) would be relatively long wavelength radio science. Understanding the ionosphere and it's impact on short-wave radio and so on was a big deal 50 years ago, but is now fairly irrelevant. With modern digital equipment and some electronics skills you should be able to record and analyze a huge amount of data -- measure signal strengths and delays, deconvolve the signal to work out the

  • You know, it seems that you could pick any area of study almost at random, and if you keep a good attitude about it all, keep it up, take good notes and above all retain a "beginner's mind" you'll stumble upon something at least semi-interesting sooner or later.

    So forget about the nay-sayers, buy yourself a microscope or bunsen burner or tesla coil telescope or tig welder or co2 laser or whatever and have at it. Have fun! And good luck!

  • by Sowelu ( 713889 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @03:40PM (#32316264)
    New discoveries are hard to make. They require a ton of specialized knowledge these days. A lot of scientific fields go pretty deep these days, and you'll have to follow them all the way down to compete.

    Engineering on the other hand--coming up with a new way to use new tools--well, that's a very broad field, and the technologies are always so new that a novice can get in SOMEwhere. Some people say software engineering; if it was me, I'd look into the Makerbot project. If you can find ways to improve the production of Makerbots, or reduce the cost of their expensive components, you can help make them more ubiquitous in homes nationwide...and THAT will probably change the world a lot more than a fair number of scientific endeavors. Alternately, things like that protein folding game (Foldit?) that was mentioned on Slashdot a day or two ago could be a place to start.

    Associate yourself with a team that can find a job for amateurs. Even if it's a very loose association, you'll need a support network in your field of choice...and, well, you need people to tell you when you're barking up the wrong tree. For example, if even half the backyard geniuses who try to expand on Tesla's creations had someone telling them which parts of their work had already been duplicated long, long ago, chasing them out of that line of questioning and onto another, we'd probably have mars colonies by now...
  • I have a home lab that I tinker in and make things that have been thought of but not quite been made. Try making a magic mirror or something for your kids using a LCD screen, or a automatic door opener that is triggered by voice command, object recognition or RFID. Technology exists but there isn't anything that you can by as yet to do the same thing.

    Unfortunately for the real hard scientific research as in labs and universities, it would be far to costly and would take a minimum of a PhD. And if you did

  • There are companies that sell time on telescopes - Slooh and LightBuckets come to mind. Typically their scopes are well-sited and at least as big/capable as anything you're likely to have as an amateur. The CEO of LightBuckets (who isn't by any means a professional astronomer - he used to work for Norton/Symantec) was a classmate of mine in an astronomy class last year, and just for kicks, he used one of his company's telescopes to do a survey (14 hours of imaging over the course of a week) using a 24-inc

  • Just pick something you want to work on and do it. Doesn't matter what it is.

    Build your own equipment (you might discover something along the way); or, troll through trash and scrap from "tech" companies, go to auction houses, online auctions, flea markets, and so on. I built my own furnace by starting with a $20 refurbished toaster oven and modifying it. I got a vacuum pump by acquiring a turbo pump station from trash (with permission of the company) and then salvaging and repairing the roughing pump.

  • Cold. Fusion.
  • by syousef ( 465911 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @05:03PM (#32316962) Journal

    After about a year Hubble data is available online. So is data from a bunch of world class instruments. Learning to reduce and data mine that data will allow you to potentially contribute. You have to be good enough to pick up on something that the experts have missed or haven't had time to analyse. Even the basic reduction isn't an easy thing to learn, especially on your own and unsupported by an institution.

    If you want to collect original data you can always get into variable star observing. Chances are you will not make a discovery (though again you can go data mining) but if you collect data points they may be used to make a discovery. I don't know how long this will be relevant until nightly whole sky surveys take over but for now it's a good way to get involved. Start here []

    I agree with others who've stated that if your motivation is to get famous you're probably barking up the wrong tree. You may get lucky but your chances of winning lotto are better. That doesn't mean you can't contribute.

  • by ghostlibrary ( 450718 ) on Sunday May 23, 2010 @07:48PM (#32318224) Homepage Journal

    If you want to go the mad scientist route, build a satellite in your basement. It's about the same cost as buying a motorcycle ($8K including launch) and, as far as mid-life crises go, a lot cooler. I'm doing it ( [] ), and blogging about how it goes at []

    You get to learn neat stuff about electronics, Arduino-level programming, and HAM radio.

    It's worth it just for when people ask what I do for fun...

  • After spending the last several months learning about and experimenting with EEG in an informal environment, I would say the largest hurdles you will encounter which are likely to apply to any field of science are:
    • Lack of access to high quality, peer-reviewed research - Unlike Open Source where one can simply download large and complex software (such as the Linux kernel) to examine in depth how it all works, or search large online repositories to discover discussions and explanations around key areas, scientific research papers typically have restricted access. You can find most papers online, but expect to pay upwards of $35-$50 USD per paper with only a brief paragraph-long abstract to help you determine if the information within is relevant or useful.
    • The "easy" discoveries have already been made - EEG research specifically goes back to at least 1875, though many of the major discoveries still referenced today occurred in the 1960's and 1970's as the equipment got better and more sensitive. All of the classical realms of science have been around much longer of course.
    • Lack of access to research-grade equipment - One way to push the boundaries of the known is with improved equipment which can take more accurate readings, thus providing information which may not have been previously explored. Again referring to EEG specifically, although various consumer-grade hardware [] has been released recently, the quantity and location of sensors does not match locations used by current research and the signal-to-noise ratios of the sensors themselves are quite low by comparison.
    • Lack of access to large, unbiased test groups - If you lack the equipment to explore new depths, you might be able to explore new applications of known phenomena instead. However this requires access to statistically significant test groups, or in other words you can't simply do all of your experimenting on yourself or family and friends (and pets!). You need unbiased subjects and for all tests to be carried out in a carefully controlled environment if you want your results taken seriously. Which brings up the final point:
    • Difficultly in presenting your results - If you don't have a PhD in your field of research, chances are you will have difficulty being taken seriously, especially if your work leapfrogs or even contradicts established work in the field. You will likely need to find another party with credentials who is willing to review your work and possibly attach their name to any publications which result. Setting the barrier to entry somewhat high does help to keep out the "kooks" after all.

    All that said, don't be discouraged and best of luck with your chosen field of research. If you do decide to turn to EEG feel free to contact me directly for more information or perhaps even to collaborate.


  • Lighting (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Khyber ( 864651 ) <> on Sunday May 23, 2010 @11:10PM (#32319518) Homepage Journal

    Just playing around with lights and plants got me one sweet job designing LED panels for growing stuff. Hopefully I get it ultra-efficient and get to put it in space one day!

  • ham radio (Score:3, Informative)

    by viridari ( 1138635 ) on Monday May 24, 2010 @08:40AM (#32322012)
    Amateur radio encourages this sort of Ben Franklin level home lab discovery. Advances in RF science come out of ham shacks all the time.
  • by Ambitwistor ( 1041236 ) on Monday May 24, 2010 @09:52AM (#32322652)

    Be careful with DIY ECG/EKG. You don't want to mess up and accidentally run too much current through your heart. Be sure that you use an optical decoupler to isolate the power source from the detector. (The way this works, IIRC, is you turn the electrical signal into light using an LED, then use a photodetector to convert that back into electricity, so there is no direct path of conduction between your heart and the ECG.)

Real Programmers don't write in PL/I. PL/I is for programmers who can't decide whether to write in COBOL or FORTRAN.