If you haven't seen the reports, the winner of this year's prestigious Intel Science Talent Search for high-school students did a real engineering and science project (unfortunately but not surprising, this Intel Search did not get much attention in the general media; too much competition from American Idol and Anna Nicole Smith, I guess). Mary Masterman built a spectrograph system for several hundred dollars, and the resulting instrument is equivalent to commercial units which cost $20k to $100k. To save cost, she machined parts, aligned optics, and improvised in many ways. (You can read about it here and here.)
I say: good for her! This kind of real engineering improvisation and creativity demonstrates true skill and shows the difference between “users” and “doers” in the world of science and engineering. And while we certainly need both, in the past few years, I found that too much of the science effort is dominated by the users, not enough by the doers who create new devices, instruments, and even products.
It's not the entirely the fault of the practitioners. The fact is that the needed equipment has become so complex, so sophisticated, and so precise that an “amateur” generally can't build anything close in performance. It's a shame, because using commercially available, leading-edge equipment without getting inside it, so to speak, puts the user at a distance from the subject. As a result, I think a lot of personal resonance and insight is lost.
I saw this personally a few years ago, when I judged a local high-school science fair. On one hand, the sophistication of many of the projects was quite high: gene splicing, biotech analysis, computer-based simulations, and more. But these projects were done using equipment in university or commercial labs to which the student conveniently had access. They really didn't understand the “soul of the machine” they were using, to borrow the title of Tracy Kidder's excellent 1981 book (an aside: if you haven't read The Soul of a New Machine , you should).
The students were using big, expensive, mysterious boxes with all sorts of switches, dials, readouts, and displays to do their experiments, but they would not know if an anomaly was due to the instrument's shortcoming or to some scientific factor of interest. They were using the proper scientific approach of hypothesis, test, and verification, but it was supported by garbage-in/garbage-out (GIGO) obliviousness.
This year's Intel winner demonstrates that this situation doesn't have to be the case, and she is following a well-traveled and admired path. As just one example of many, nuclear-physics pioneer E.O.Lawrence built the world's first cyclotron (of course, no one knew if such a thing would actually work) using parts he found around the house and lab, some magnets and power supplies he scrounged up, and other pieces he improvised.
One of the many reasons I try to follow developments in leading-edge physics is not so much because of my personal interest in the subject (string theory does absolutely nothing for me!) but because of my interest in the creative, unique instrumentation the experimenters have to conceive of and actually build. Sure, it may be supported by lots of expensive, standard peripheral test equipment, but at the core is usually something very creative and special. Take a look at this story I did a few years ago on the Gravity Probe B (click here), and you'll see what I mean!