Day 273: Field Research

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September 29, 2012 by Alex Hoekstra

So if you’ve been paying attention, you might have heard me mention my excitement about the third annual Open Science Summit taking place next month.  If you haven’t, or if perhaps the reasons for my excitement are unclear, I think today’s project serves as a wonderful example of what I think foretells a fundamental shift (and a beneficial one) in the way science is done – in the way we as beings of infinite curiosity and boundless creativity seek answers about our world and everything in it (including ourselves).  Today’s project is for the citizen scientists, and for anyone who’s ever been bold enough to seek answers.  That, I hope, includes you.

Public Lab is a remarkable, unique and powerful resource for DIY science – science at home, or personal science, independent science, rogue science; a place for unstoppable answer-seeking citizens of an age when answers are closer within the reach of any and all of us.  The Public Lab team has cooked up projects to educate, organize and support independent investigators to explore issues like mapping the Gulf oil spill, and has returned with a new endeavor to bring together a grassroots community of environmental scientists (amateur, professional and everything in between) and arm them with the tools needed to identify unwanted and often-unseen contaminants everywhere and anywhere.  Meet the DIY Spectrometer:

A spectrometer may not sound like what you wanted for your birthday, but it’s a ubiquitous tool for scientists to identify unknown materials, like oil spill residue or coal tar in urban waterways. But they cost thousands of dollars and are hard to use — so we’ve designed our own.

The boundaries of what a citizen scientist can do are being crossed everyday.  That truth is the subject of a huge debate amongst scientists and non-scientists – both of whom are mindful, if not wary of the implications of ultra-powerful amateurs working with no one’s permission.  I, too, have spent a lot of time thinking about the newfound power we share and I, too, remain on guard, but a project like this one serves to demonstrate what’s best in this power shift – to turn the willing into the able, and unite their efforts never before possible when they were previously united only by their ideals.  Because of people like you and I and everyone at the heart of the Public Lab community, this project will change the world, a thousand spetrometers at a time.  Back it before October 5.


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