In an age when man-kind can access information and communicate almost instantaneously using handheld computers, when space travel is no longer solely in the domain of government agencies, and when researchers have paved the way to incredible medical advances through the mapping of the human genome, none of the wondrous technological conveniences enjoyed today would have been possible without the unparalleled scientific advances of the past few hundred years. Today the majority of scientific research and discovery is done by trained professionals working in academia or in conjunction with research laboratories supported by government grants or private enterprise, but this does not exclude the importance of amateurs who work independently purely out of personal interest or love of the subject. There exist numerous individuals within the United States, and, in fact, around the world, who enjoy the practice of self discovery, and through which gain an understanding and appreciation of science greatly exceeding those who merely see the subject as abstract concepts in a text book.
Sadly, however, a few individuals misuse their scientific knowledge and the technology at their disposal in order to manufacture illegal narcotics or produce homemade explosive devices. These individuals, in turn, harm others with their poor choices and misrepresent the activities of legitimate amateur scientists to the public. In response to concerns over the manufacture of illicit drugs and improvised explosives, particularly methamphetamine and homemade fireworks, both state and federal governments have implemented a series of laws which attempt to resolve the problem indirectly by restricting the precursor materials used in such activities. Unfortunately, not only do the laws restrict many of the common chemicals and equipment used by those who wish to break the law, but the laws also restrict access from those who have legitimate reasons to posses the same materials, namely the amateur scientists. Many versatile materials once utilized in amateur science are now on lists which track, restrict, or even outright prohibit their sale to individuals without proper government permits or licenses. Without access to the once common and inexpensive chemical sources and their actions under greater scrutiny than ever before, amateur scientists face immense difficulty pursuing their pastime while those who wish to break the law continue to adapt in ways the hobbyist cannot. Government regulations on the use of certain chemicals and equipment in an attempt to eliminate the actions of only a few misguided individuals who engage in illegal activities unjustly impede many legitimate scientific pursuits and negatively impact society as a whole.
There are many legitimate ways to practice amateur science as a fulfilling hobby and, in the process, gain valuable scientific skills which one can apply to real-life situations. In years past, amateur rocketry and small scale pyrotechnics allowed many young people to experience the thrill of launching their own, homemade, model rockets into sky. For many, their experiences in amateur rocketry or other sciences led them into careers in related fields; such was the case with Homer Hickam. Hickam describes in his book, Rocket Boys (later a movie, October Sky), the adventures he and his friends had in their endeavors to build and launch numerous rockets during the 1950s and ‘60s, at the dawn of the space race . With his experience in rocketry, Hickam went on to win first prize in the National Science Fair, and later worked as an aerospace engineer for the U.S Army and NASA for 27 years .
The cofounder of Intel Corporation, Dr. Gordon Moore, remembers experimenting with a neighbor’s chemistry set in a shed converted into a home lab which Moore kept stocked with various mail-ordered chemicals to supply his experiments . Today, many know Moore for his contributions to the world of microprocessors and for the ‘law’ of computing named after him which describes the doubling of computer processing power every two years. Science need not be limited to merely the realms of chemistry either. Cofounders of Apple Computer, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, first got their start hand-making hundreds of their company’s first computers in Jobs’ garage after Wozniak began designing computers as a hobby.
Not only does amateur science hold great potential in terms of acting as a stepping stone to numerous fulfilling and profitable careers, but amateur scientific activities also provide direct benefits to society. A prime example of the benefits resulting from the home-experimentation is the story of Charles Martin Hall who, at the age of 22 and just 8 months after graduating from college, developed a way to inexpensively refine Aluminum ore. Encouraged by his chemistry professor and after several years of working in the woodshed behind his house, Hall achieved his high school goal of a process to produce Aluminum metal so cheaply as to allow widespread use and application of the material . Before Hall’s breakthrough, Aluminum was considered a precious/semi-precious metal on par with Silver due to the difficulty and expense of the refining process. Today, Aluminum is an invaluable resource used extensively in aerospace engineering, materials packaging, transportation, and anywhere else where a cheap, lightweight, and strong material is needed.
An extremely pressing and valid concern with the practice of amateur science is that of safety, both for the individual performing the experiments as well as for the general public which may also be affected. Whether one is mixing vinegar and baking soda to make a volcano for a school science fair or preparing the highly unstable explosive nitroglycerin, there is always some element of danger no matter the activity. No one wants to allow irresponsible individuals to build bombs out in the woods in order to blow up government buildings, nor does anyone want would-be chemists synthesizing illegal drugs for personal consumption or distribution, quite the contrary in fact. The vast majority of amateur scientists are responsible individuals who practice the necessary safety precautions in order to protect themselves and others. When practicing any potentially dangerous activity the key is to recognize the danger and respond in an appropriate manner. Safety is important, a belief commonly shared by both responsible amateur scientists and the general public, but not at the expense of the activity itself. One must assess the danger and risk level associated with an activity, taking care not to exaggerate the problem or overreact when searching for solutions.
Unfortunately, some people do exaggerate and overreact to dangers, and what is even more unfortunate is that some of these people who overreact are also those who are in charge of governmental policy development. In past decades society considered amateur science a rewarding and wholesome hobby; however, in recent years, a growing negative stigma is often associated with home laboratories, chemical supplies, or even a general interest in science outside of the societal ‘norm’. Although not a universally held view, there are those members of the general public who, for whatever reason, distrust, or even fear, the unknown in regard to the activities of amateur scientists and science in
In the noble pursuit of promoting public safety, many state and federal agencies have imposed numerous laws and regulations on the sale, possession, and use of substances which they define as chemical precursors of illegal drugs and explosives. Over the past 10 years the federal government has passed increasingly aggressive measures to combat the rise in methamphetamine use within the United States, namely the Comprehensive Methamphetamine Control Act of 1996, the Methamphetamine Anti-Proliferation Act of 2000, and most recently the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act of 2005. Under these acts, the federal government regulates the distribution of controlled substances and what it considers chemical precursors used in the manufacture of methamphetamine and other illegal drugs.
Laws intended to prevent the actions of the proportionally few individuals engaging in illegal acts such as drug manufacture or homemade fireworks serve to infringe on the freedoms of the law abiding and well intentioned groups wishing to practice amateur science. The laws reflect a general uneasiness, suspicion, and overreaction to the fears associated with home experimentation and those who practice such activities. As well intentioned as policy makers may be, restrictions on the chemicals and supplies place unnecessary restrictions on ordinary citizens and merchants with no intention of building bombs of cooking drugs. Society will feel the frightful implications of these repressive laws one day if legislators do not take action to refocus the goal on the real criminals and less on the average individual amateur scientist.
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