Amateur scientists study microscopy in basement nanolabs

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June 4, 2004 – It was a time of wonder, a heyday of natural history.

In the 17th century, no privileged person’s parlor was complete without a cabinet of curiosities housing an artfully arranged collection of natural and man-made artifacts — plant and mineral specimens from distant lands, unusual artwork from primitive cultures, weird weapons, skeletons of human monsters, seashells with uncannily lifelike patterns.

By Victorian times, formal dinners often culminated around a gilt bronze microscope where the mysteries of everyday objects were revealed to the amazement of all. The science that microscopy enabled was no longer something that could just be studied at home; it could now be done there.

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As esteemed astronomer George E. Hale wrote in 1913, an amateur is “one who works because he cannot help it.”

To this day, amateur scientists continue to satisfy their insatiable curiosity through kitchen chemistry, backyard stargazing and garage physics. And science is better because of it. Consider, for example, the multitude of supernovae discovered by amateur astronomers.

But much of today’s most engaging and potentially world-changing research –nanoscience and genetics, in particular — is tough to democratize. The barriers to entry for amateur molecular biologists or materials scientists are not trivial. But they’re not insurmountable either.

Shortly after the human genome was decoded, my friend Steve decided he wanted to sequence his own DNA. A brilliant computer hacker-turned-stock analyst, he was well positioned to build his own wet lab.

A few grand later, Steve had all the gear he needed, including a sequencing system he scored secondhand on eBay for $500. (“Retailed for 40 grand before the company got acquired out of bankruptcy,” he pointed out.)

Steve spent many late nights aspirating, incubating, re-hydrating and hybridizing precisely as the recipe book instructed until he finally got some results. The data didn’t make any sense, he said, but it sure was a blast to crack open his own book of life.

Recently, basic biotech has been packaged for students and hobbyists eager to play gene jockey. For example, Science Kit and Boreal Laboratories sell a DNA fingerprinting system  for $82 and a tricked-out dual gel electrophoresis chamber for $179. (“The interlocking safety lid prevents students from opening the chamber during electrophoresis.”)

Hopeful, I ran a quick search on the company’s Web catalog for “nanotechnology.” Unfortunately, all that came back was a dismal “we’re sorry, we were unable to find any matches for your query” and the suggestion that I might enjoy a classic dissecting set instead.

A few Google queries later, I realized amateur nanoscientists are indeed busy in their basement laboratories. It’s just that their home-brew efforts are too premature to package at this point.

Since Eric Drexler’s “Engines of Creation” popularized the notion of nanotechnology, curious cats around the world have tinkered away at developing home-brew scanning tunneling microscopes (STMs).

Used primarily to study matter at the atomic scale, an STM is perhaps the most basic tool of nanoscience. A low-end commercial STM will set you back upwards of $8,000, far too pricey for most amateur material scientists. Even university researchers, constrained by limited grants or in need of special functionality, commonly construct their own STMs.

Unlike the lens of an optical microscope, an STM has an extremely sharp tip as its probe. As the stylus scans across a sample, the amount of electrical current flowing between the tip and surface is measured. This enables a profile of the sample to be generated and visualized with atomic-scale resolution.

In 1986, Gerd Binnig and Heinrich Rohrer of the IBM Zurich Research Laboratory shared the Nobel Prize in physics for their design of the STM.

Building an STM in your basement is quite a bit more challenging than dissecting a frog or cultivating a carnivorous plant, though. In 1996, just a decade after Binnig and Rohrer won their Nobel, Jim Rice wrote the seminal “Homebrew STM Page.” Rice went on to co-found a company, Angstrom Tools, to bring inexpensive STMs to the masses.

Three years later Rice announced on a nanotech newsgroup that the company wasn’t able to land funding (“niche product” equals “small market”) and generously offered to donate “100 pounds of piezo tubes, waveform generators, high-voltage amplifiers” and other STM gear to someone prepared to go the distance.

More recently, software consultant James Logajan posted an annotated survey of home-brew nanotech documents and guides he found helpful in his own efforts, not yet successful, to “play with individual molecules.”

But he hasn’t given up. After all, what home-brew STM obsessives lack in numbers, they make up for in ingenuity and dedication. For example, John D. Alexander — a senior systems engineer at Molecular Imaging — devised in his spare time a “simple STM that can resolve atoms, with a cost of materials less than $100, excluding oscilloscope.”

Of course, it was an STM, albeit a more “professional” model, that Don Eigler used in 1989 to spell out “IBM” in xenon atoms.

I wonder if the next-next-generation home-brew nanotools could enable a dedicated amateur to fashion a nano Etch A Sketch. Forget about my name on a grain of rice. “Pescovitz” written in quantum dots — now that would make a great addition to my cabinet of curiosities.


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