‘Forrest Mims’ Science Experiments’: Good projects for the new or experienced amateur scientist

You don’t need science degrees and big grants to perform useful, meaningful research, says one of America’s foremost amateur scientists, Forrest W. Mims III.

In his well-written new book, Forrest Mims’ Science Experiments: DIY Projects from the Pages of Make:, Mims notes that amateur scientists are continuing to do “what they’ve done for centuries. They’ve discovered significant dinosaur fossils, found new species of plants, and identified many new comets and asteroids. Their discoveries have been published in scientific journals and books. Likewise, thousands of websites detail an enormous variety of amateur science tips, projects, activities, and discoveries.”

He adds: “Today’s amateur scientists have access to sophisticated components, instruments, computers, and software that could not even be imagined back in 1962 when I built my first computer, a primitive analog device….”

His new book shows how to use simple, homemade or purchased devices to study and gather data on a wide array of subjects: heat islands, sunlight, twilight, ultraviolet light, infrared light, airborne particles, vibrations from earth tremors, and more. He even shows how to convert tree ring patterns into musical notes.

Generally, the do-it-yourself hardware and projects he describes are inexpensive and do not require fancy tools. Some are as simple as making a basic pinhole camera and using a small piece of blueprint paper to capture an image, and others require a few inexpensive electronic components or devices. For example, in one chapter, he writes: “For  as little as $20, you can begin tracking the atmosphere’s most important greenhouse gas, water vapor. And you can do so at any time, day or night, so long as the sky directly above you is cloud-free.”

Sometimes, you need a personal computer, too, plus some software and a digital camera. Depending on which experiments you choose to pursue, you may need other items, as well, such as a hobby knife, glue gun, clamps, sandpaper and more.

Mims’ book also contains interesting stories from his own career in electronics, inventing and doing amateur science. And he includes a brief but entertaining look at Thomas Jefferson’s life and accomplishments as an “amateur scientist…who made improvements in the design of clocks, instruments, and the polygraph copying machines that duplicated his letters as he wrote them.”

Si Dunn

Forrest Mims’ Science Experiments

DIY Projects from the Pages of Make:

Forrest M. Mims III

Maker Media, Inc., paperback  (Kindle ebook also available)





Step away from the ‘smartphone’ and try using your hands and mind to make something – #bookreview

The Make: Series of How-to Books

A British scientist made headlines a few years ago when she warned that young people no longer make or repair things. It has become all too easy for them now, she cautioned, to simply throw away old or broken devices and buy new ones.

A key point was that many things currently being discarded could be fixed or refurbished and put to new uses. It would just take a little effort, a little learning, and some imagination.

I ran into some of that “no longer make or repair things” attitude a few years ago while working temporarily as a substitute teacher. If you have ever been a substitute in a public high school or middle school, you likely know that students often view “subs” as an excuse to pay absolutely no attention to anything he or she says.

When I could get no interest or response to the day’s assigned work in a science class, I tried introducing a challenge: Imagine you have become stranded on a desert island in the Pacific Ocean, and you have just a few items with which to try to survive and attract the attention of a passing ship. The items ranged from coconuts and palm fronds to a pocket mirror, a small magnifying glass, a couple of cups, some string and a safety-pin.

I figured the kids might come up with some clever ways to (1) crack open the coconuts for food and liquid, (2) start a fire using a magnifying glass and dried palm fronds, (3) use the string and safety-pin to catch a fish to cook over the fire, (4) use the cups to boil seawater and capture the steam to make a little drinking water, and (5) prepare a separate pile of palm fronds to burn as a rescue signal to a passing ship.

Ha. At first, the students seemed intrigued and engaged by the challenge. They immediately started calling out survival “strategies.” Unfortunately, most of their ideas started with two concepts: “First, I’d go to the mall and buy…” or “First, I’d go online and buy….”

The reality of being stranded in isolation without immediate communication did not even register with them at first. When they did begin to try to imagine surviving without their smartphones, they quickly ran out of ideas and became sullen or antagonistic toward me.

This experience also became the straw that finally broke the back of my desire to continue as a substitute teacher. I had grown up at a time when making, tinkering, building, and repairing all were noble pursuits for a teenager interested in science, electronics, space and engineering. If I wanted a shortwave radio or a new type of model airplane or a small rocket I could launch in my back yard, I built them from scratch or combined pieces of previous projects. None of this experience registered with my students. And my next attempts to stir up enthusiasm for making and repairing things similarly fell flat.

Make It So?

Do you worry that your kids are growing up not knowing how to make things or fix things? Do you fret that you no longer remember how to make things or fix things?

Working with your hands, eyes and brain – and not just mindlessly swiping an index finger across a tiny screen – can be both physically and mentally rewarding.

Of course, the web is alive with “how to” information for making or repairing almost anything. And I make occasional pilgrimages to public libraries and bookstores to find reference materials and instruction books related to specific projects.

I am an unabashed fan of the “Make:” series of books from Maker Media. I don’t build all of their projects, but I do try out some of them. And I enjoy reading about zany, yet sometimes practical, stuff such as (1) how to use a magnet to tell if money is counterfeit, (2) how to create artwork that actually does something, using just a handful of electronic components, (3) how to generate electric power with several lemons connected in series, or (4) how to make some really good paper airplanes and paper helicopters. The “Make:” books consistently feature clear, well-organized instructional text, illustrations and photographs of how things go together.

Books such as Tinkering: Kids Learn by Making Stuff (2nd edition), Easy 1+2+3 Projects, and Planes, Gliders, and Paper Rockets can appeal to parents and children who are in elementary school or older. For older kids and their parents, or for would-be engineers, Make: books such as Bluetooth, Getting Started with Intel Edison, and 3D Printing Projects can be helpful and enlightening how-to guides. Books on numerous other topics also are offered.

Do your kids (and/or you) seem unhealthily addicted now to clutching and staring at smartphones all day? You may want to try putting the devices aside and seeing what you can create with your hands, your mind, some household materials and a few readily available gadgets that don’t require pricey data plans and contracts.

You can do it! Power off now! (Okay, for just a few minutes at first if you insist and if you have a really bad case of smartphone withdrawal.)

— Si Dunn

Make: Paper Inventions – A fun how-to book for kids and their adults




Make: Paper Inventions

Kathy Ceceri

Maker Media, Inc. – paperback

Don’t just hand this book to your kids, say “Have fun,” and then go off to play with your computer. Get out the glue, scissors and paper and join in.

You might enjoy seeing what happens  when you (1) cut all the way around a Möbius strip or (2) fold a single strip of paper into a versatile and surprising trihexaflexagon, or (3) try your hand at quilling. That, the author writes, is “the art of creating 2-D and 3-D designs out of thin paper spirals and curls.”

Make: Paper Inventions opens with a nice, succinct overview of the history of paper and the fact that it was not made from the hard interior of trees until the mid-19th century. Before then, paper was made from many other materials, such as linen, cotton, the inside of certain tree barks, and the flattened stalks of papyrus plants.

The first project in the book is the messiest, and you may not want to use your favorite blender. But it will provide good teaching moments for kids (and their adults). The text and photographs show how to make new paper from several sheets of recycled copy paper. You will not want to run the homemade paper through your laser printer, but it can be used for art projects.

Kids can handle some of the paper projects in this book by themselves. However, the more complicated ones, such as building a large geodesic dome from newspaper pages, definitely will need adult guidance and encouragement. And certain materials may need to be ordered.

Meanwhile, the final chapters of this fine book offer projects that mostly involve folding pieces of paper. And they provide some focus on mathematics, such as how to fold paper in such a way that just one diagonal cut will result in a five-pointed star.

Make: Paper Inventions can help put more STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) into the lives of your kids–and into your life, as well.

Si Dunn

Tinsley Harrison, M.D., Teacher of Medicine: An inspiring biography of a dedicated physician – #bookreview

Tinsley Harrison, M.D.: Teacher of Medicine

James A. Pittman Jr., M.D.

(NewSouth Books – hardback, Kindle)

Dr. Tinsley Randolph Harrison is an important figure in 20th-century American medicine, and both his legacy and his influence live on in 21st-century health care.

Before his death in 1978, Dr. Harrison taught medicine for 54 years and was fond of telling medical students and other doctors: “Learning is more a matter of the heart than the brain.”

Dr. Harrison also was a medical researcher, and he wrote and edited the first five editions of Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine, which, by some estimates, has been the best-selling medical book of all time. During his long career, Dr. Harrison served as dean at three medical schools: Bowman Gray School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C., Southwestern Medical College in Dallas, Tex., and the University of Alabama School of Medicine.

This well-written and inspiring biography not only traces Dr. Harrison’s young life and his rise to prominence as a seventh-generation physician. It also presents sometimes shocking looks at the state and practice of medicine in the Deep South during the racially segregated 1950s and 1960s, as well as some of the significant improvements that have occurred in recent decades.

Tinsley Harrison, M.D.: Teacher of Medicine can be enjoyed by physicians, medical researchers, medical administrators and medical students, as well as by fans of biographies in general. The book gives good insights into how some successful people choose their careers and how they work their way to success and prominence in their field.

Si Dunn

Computing with Quantum Cats – Strange and exciting times are ahead – #science #bookreview

Computing with Quantum Cats

From Colossus to Qubits

John Gribbin

(Prometheus Books – hardcover, Kindle)

John Gribbin’s new book, Computing with Quantum Cats, is an entertaining, informative and definitely eye-opening look at quantum computing’s recent progress, as well as its exciting near-future possibilities.

The “conventional” (a.k.a. “classical”) computers currently on our desktops, in our briefcases, and in our pockets and purses keep getting smaller and faster, yet laden with more features, memory and processing power. “But,” cautions John Gribbin, a veteran science writer, “the process cannot go on indefinitely; there are limits to how powerful, fast and cheap a ‘classical’ computer can be.”CompwithQuantumCats

Already we are cramming a billion transistors into tiny chips and moving much of our data and programs out to the “cloud,” because we are running out of both physical space and memory space on our shrunken devices.

So what’s next, if the end of Moore’s Law is here?

Gribbin predicts that “within a decade the computer world will be turned upside down”–by quantum computers that  “will enable physicists to come to grips with the nature of quantum reality, where communication can occur faster than the speed of light, teleportation is possible, and particles can be in two places at once. The implications are as yet unknowable,” he concedes, “but it is fair to say that the quantum computer represents an advance as far beyond the conventional computer as the conventional computer is beyond the abacus.”

For now, quantum computers are functioning  at a level somewhat equivalent to the early classical computers that, nearly 70 years ago, could perform only rudimentary calculations, yet filled large rooms and required 25 kilowatts or more of electrical power to light up hundreds or thousands of  vacuum tubes. It may be decades or perhaps just a few years until quantum desktop PCs or quantum smartphones become a reality.

What makes quantum computing such a big deal? 

Classical computers, Gribbin writes, “store and manipulate information consisting of “binary digits, or bits. These are like ordinary switches that can be in one of two positions, on or off, up or down. The state of a switch is represented by the numbers 0 and 1, and all the activity of a computer involves changing the settings on those switches in an appropriate way.”

He notes that two “classical” bits can represent any of the four numbers from 0 to 3 (00,01, 10, and 11). But once you start using quantum bits–qubits (pronounced “cubits”)–the scale of possibilities quickly becomes astronomical.

The “quantum switches can be in both states, on and off, at the same time, like Schrodinger’s ‘dead and alive’ cat. In other words, they can store 0 and 1 simultaneously.” Or both can be off or both can be on, creating three possibilities.

“Looking further into the future,” Gribbin continues, “a quantum computer based on a 30-qubit processor would have the equivalent computing power of a conventional machine running at 10 teraflops (trillions of floating-point operations per second)–ten thousand times faster than conventional desktop computers today….” 

His new book presents an enlightening, engrossing blend of facts and speculations about quantum computing, as well as short biographical sketches of key people who have helped quantum computing become a reality.  These range from Alan Turing and John Von Neumann to more recent researchers such as Nobel Prize recipients Tony Leggett and Brian Josephson, to name a few. Their key research efforts also are explored.

The author notes that “the enormous challenge remains of constructing a quantum computer on a scale large enough to beat classical computers at a range of tasks….” He also observes that “many competing approaches are being tried out in an attempt to find the one that works on the scale required.” And he concedes that in a research field now changing very fast, “I’ve no idea what will seem the best bet by the time you read these words, so I shall simply set out a selection of the various [techniques] to give you a flavor of what is going.”

John Gribbin’s other books include In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat, Erwin Schrodinger and the Quantum Revolution, and In Search of the Multiverse.

The need to break enemy codes in World War II gave us classical computers, Gribbin points out. In a curious twist, it may be the need to create truly unbreakable codes that will help usher in quantum computing as a practical reality.

Si Dunn

Make: Volume 32 – Zany and practical projects and articles for DIY builders – #bookreview

Make: Volume 32
(O’Reilly, paperback)

Make: is a science, technology, and do-it-yourself (DIY) projects magazine published quarterly in paperback book format. Volume 32 not only has intriguing articles about private rocketeers, flying motorcycles, and human-size replicas of videogame costumes and weapons. It also has about two dozen “complete plans” for a wide array of useful and zany projects.

One of the projects in Volume 32 is “The Awesome Button,” a big red desktop button that you can hit when you can’t think of a synonym for the totally overused word “awesome” while you’re composing email or a letter or a manuscript. The project uses a $16 Teensy USB Development Board made by PJRC, plus some downloaded code. When your fist hammers down on the big red button, the board generates random synonyms for “awesome” and sends them to your computer so you can quickly accept or reject them in your document.

Another project is a catapult launcher that will send a tiny balsa wood glider zooming 150 feet into the air. Beats the heck out of a rubber band looped around a Popsicle stick.

And another DIY article focuses on the joys of salvaging perfectly good electronic and mechanical parts from discarded laser printers, so you can use the parts in other projects.

Make: Volume 33 is due to appear in January. In the meantime, Volume 32 is full of fun reading and intriguing projects, such as how to transform data files into synthesized music.

Si Dunn

What Makes You Tick? – Do we exist only inside our brains, or does the mind have a longer reach? – #bookreview

What Makes You Tick? A New Paradigm for Neuroscience
Gerard Verschuuren
(Solas Press, paperback)

What is the connection between the mind and the brain? Does the mind exist independent of the brain? And does the human mind communicate with something—or someone–beyond its “biological substrata and physics”?

Gerard Verschuuren tackles these and other mystery-laden questions in his book that proposes a “new paradigm for neuroscience.” While he hopes to expand the thinking of neuroscientists—to look beyond the brain for answers to what and who and how we are—he also has written What Makes You Tick? with general readers in mind.

Verschuuren contends: “Science can’t possibly explain all of what we are . Apparently , it is not just a clockwork mechanism that makes us tick; there is so much more to it.”

The author is a human geneticist with a doctorate in the philosophy of science. He also is a computer specialist who has published several other works. As writer, speaker, and consultant, he works “at the interface of science, philosophy, and religion.”

He brings all of these aspects together in his new book, and he draws from notable scientists and others who believe that the mind has connections and workings that reach beyond the complex processes at work inside our skulls.

You may not agree with all of Dr. Verschuuren’s assertions, conclusions and evidence. But his book is well written, and his points are well argued. What Makes Us Tick? likely will stir up some new debates and possibly some expanded thinking, too, about where the mind actually resides within – and beyond? – the human body.

Si Dunn