Scientist or Terrorist?

Picture the scene: you glance out of your kitchen window to see your neighbour making his way towards his shed. He opens the door, turns on a light and instantly a rudimentary laboratory is revealed. On a table, a jumble of wires, powders and liquids lie in anticipation and even from this distance, the ominous icon of a biohazard symbol shimmers in the fluorescent light. He returns into view, clutching a timer; its display casts a green pall across his features.

Should you call the police?

Just 50 years ago, this description might have conjured up the idea of a DIY scientist at work in his garden shed, but in a post-9/11 world, it’s much more likely the man would be accused of terrorism. This dramatic change in attitude has led to increasingly restrictive laws governing chemicals and scientific equipment. In Texas, for example, it’s now necessary to have a licence just to purchase beakers and conical flasks. While such barriers might simply inconvenience someone determined to cause havoc, they will be incredibly effective at discouraging potential amateur scientists.

An obvious example is the rise and fall of the home chemistry set. At their peak in the mid-20th century, chemistry sets could include all manner of chemicals, from sodium and lithium, to sulfur and potassium nitrate. Now the closest children can get to real chemistry is a set designed to make sweets or perfumes; sodium and lithium are restricted due to their use in methamphetamine production, while potassium nitrate and sulfur can be used to make explosives. If this trend continues, children will become so far removed from science that they will lose all interest in it.

In fact, evidence suggests this change is already happening. In 2000, the Journal of Chemical Education published a study into ‘chemistry anxiety’ amongst American high school students. Having so little hands-on scientific experience, huge numbers of children reported having a fear of “chemicals” and “lighting the Bunsen burner”. This apparent chemophobia translates into less scientifically-literate university students; one lecturer suggested his students had become “more passive” and “less versatile in the lab” over the years. Some potential consequences could also go unreported; many famous scientists – among them Mario Molina, who probed the link between CFCs and the ozone hole – were inspired to take up science by their home chemistry sets.

Of course, there is a legitimate element of health and safety in these choices; most people would agree that the radioactive uranium powder once found in chemistry sets should continue to be banned. And this can extend to adult DIY scientists: some restrictions are necessary to keep them (and the surrounding public) safe. In 2011, a man named Paul Moran was jailed after he accidentally set light to his block of flats; he  had been trying to turn his faeces into gold when his experiment caught light.

But at the same time we must be careful not to stifle a source of innovation. We owe much of our modern world to DIY scientists.

Take Charles Goodyear. He spent over a decade of his life working in his kitchen, trying to improve on the process for making rubber; brittle in cold weather and sticky in the heat, the material was unsuitable for any large-scale applications. But following Goodyear’s discovery of vulcanization, the success of the automobile industry, today worth over $5bn annually, was possible.

Or James Spangler, a janitor in an Ohio department store, who was fed up of choking whenever he used his mechanised carpet sweeper. He attached a fan, and a pillowcase as a dust collector, and invented the modern-day portable vacuum cleaner.

Had regulations been much stricter, these men might not have made the innovations they did, changing the world we know entirely. But denying access to equipment can also have a worrying knock-on effect: it implies that DIY scientists are suspicious and untrustworthy – a message that causes problems for even the most law-abiding scientists.

In August 2008, the fire brigade was called to the house of Victor Deeb, a DIY scientist in a small town in Massachusetts. Although the fire was quickly extinguished, when the firemen examined the rest of his house, they immediately called for backup. In Deeb’s
basement they had found hundreds of bottles of chemicals and suspected the worst. In fact, he had been developing an alternative to BPA – a chemical, commonly found in beverage cans, that’s suspected of causing hormonal disruption in humans – and none of his chemicals was more dangerous than a typical household cleaning product. Despite this, the police launched an investigation and confiscated his work. When they were unable to find anything incriminating, they not only left his notes out in the rain, but also proceeded to sue him for the cost of the removal.

If regulations continue as they are, incidents like this are only going to become more common. The Internet has created a surge in people joining DIY science communities, with groups like biohackers (amateur synthetic biologists) and makers (engineering and technology enthusiasts) suddenly able to collaborate on a global scale. This makes the call for a change in strategy ever more urgent. We can’t have millions of people unwittingly become criminals because they want a better understanding of chemistry.

A final mention should go to perhaps the most important DIY scientist of all: Edward Jenner. His interest in a variety of sciences, from geology to ornithology, could merit him a place amongst the modern day DIY scientists, but it was his contribution to medicine that made him remarkable. He pioneered the concept of vaccination, a process that has since saved millions of lives, after noticing that milkmaids who caught cowpox were generally immune to smallpox. Despite his medical training, this idea was not developed in a lab, or purely through theoretical discussions with other intellectuals (in fact, many of his peers ignored or ridiculed his idea), but in his village surgery. Jenner’s DIY science has made the world an immeasurably better place – surely that’s worth the risk?

IMAGE: Nerd Alert by hackerfriendly (CC BY-SA 2.0 Licence)

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