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The Amateur Scientist was a column in the Scientific American, and was the definitive "how-to" resource for citizen-scientists for over 72 years (1928–2001), making it the longest running column in Scientific American's history. The column was highly regarded for revealing the brass-tacks secrets of research and showing home-based experimenters how to make original discoveries using only inexpensive materials. Since its début in 1928, "The Amateur Scientist" was a primary resource for science fair projects. It also inspired innumerable amateur experimenters, launched careers in science, and enjoyed a place of honor in classrooms and school libraries all over the world.
Although always accessible to an amateur's budget, projects from "The Amateur Scientist" were often elegant and quite sophisticated. Some designs were so innovative that they set new standards in a field. Indeed, professionals continue to borrow from "The Amateur Scientist" to find low-cost solutions to real-world research problems.
"The Amateur Scientist" traces its pedigree to May 1928, when Albert G. Ingalls began the column as "The Back Yard Astronomer." Ingalls told amateurs how they could get personally involved in astronomy by building professional-quality instruments and carrying out cutting-edge observations. The first sentence in the new column stated: "Here we amateur telescope makers are, more than 3000 of us, gathered together in our own back yard at last." The name of the column changed several times, to "The Amateur Astronomer", "The Amateur Telescope Maker", and "Telescoptics." Much of the information from these articles was eventually published by Ingalls and Scientific American in the books Amateur Telescope Making. The articles and the books are credited with helping to expand the hobby of amateur telescope making. In April 1952, Ingalls chose to broaden the column's scope to include "how-to's" from all fields of science. When he did, he also changed the department's name to "The Amateur Scientist."
Ingalls wrote his column for almost 30 years, until his retirement in May 1955. In that year the publisher selected C.L. Stong to continue the feature. Stong was an electrical engineer from 1926 to 1962 for Westinghouse. He extended the column, frequently peppering it with extremely sophisticated projects including home-built lasers and atom smashers. Many working professional scientists say that they first got hooked on science through Stong's amazing columns. One of the activities Strong promoted during the International Geophysical Year was a program for amateur astronomers called Operation Moonwatch. It involved the tracking of satellites by amateurs.
In 1960 Stong compiled a book titled The Amateur Scientist, (Simon and Schuster) the only collection of articles that has ever been published from this column prior to Carlson's complete CD-collection (see below). However, limited to paper and ink, Stong could only fit in 57 projects. Despite being only a partial anthology, never being advertised in Scientific American, and appearing long before the rise of home schooling, Stong's book was reviewed in New Scientist as "most fascinating" and sold well. It went out of print in 1972 and is much sought-after today by amateur scientists and collectors.
Stong ran the department for over 20 years until he died in 1977. In 1978, Scientific American hired Jearl Walker, Ph.D. to take over. Walker had caught the publisher's attention thanks to The Flying Circus of Physics, Answers, a book Walker wrote which highlighted the fascinating physics of the everyday world. Under Walker's stewardship "The Amateur Scientist" presented fewer how-to projects, and instead focused on the physics of common phenomena. Walker's columns are still frequently consulted by educators and students alike.
Walker resigned from Scientific American in 1990 after 12 years. Collectively, Ingalls, Stong and Walker account for 90 percent of all articles.
After Walker left, Scientific American decided to rededicate the column to hands-on projects and so they hired Forrest Mims III, a renowned writer of books for Radio Shack and an amateur scientist. However, during a conversation between Mims and the publisher, it came up that Mims was an evangelical Christian who rejects Darwinian evolution and advocated a creationist or intelligent design view of origins. Mims was later asked his views on abortion, and he replied that he was against it. Not wanting to be perceived as supporting Creationism, which is universally regarded as unscientific, Scientific American fired Mims. Mims charged religious discrimination, without success. In total three of Mims' columns were published, along with several letters to the editor (concerning his firing).
Although the incident didn't diminish Scientific American's commitment to the column, it did make them reluctant to hire another amateur scientist to write it. The publisher invited many potential columnists to submit individual articles, and some of these were published under "The Amateur Scientist." But the magazine was unable to find anyone with both professional credentials and the breadth of scientific interests necessary to recapture the popularity the column enjoyed under Stong and Ingalls. And without a regular columnist, the department languished, appearing only sporadically between 1990 and 1995.
In 1995 Scientific American discovered the Society for Amateur Scientists. Its founder and Executive Director, Shawn Carlson, Ph. D, was a physicist and established science writer who had left academe a year earlier to devote his career to helping amateur scientists. Dr. Carlson took over the column in November of that year and immediately returned its focus to cutting-edge science projects that amateurs can do inexpensively at home. Over 1 million Scientific American readers turned to "The Amateur Scientist" every month. In 1999, Carlson became the first person to ever win a MacArthur Fellowship for science education. (A distinction that he still holds in 2008.) Carlson won the award in part for the innovative projects he developed and published in "The Amateur Scientist".
In 2001, Scientific American came under new management. As part of a "face lift" of the magazine, all of the long-running columns were retired, including "The Amateur Scientist". March 2001 was the last time the column ran in Scientific American. Archive versions of the column remained available to Scientific American paid subscribers via their website.
Sometime after 2007 the Scientific American removed the subscriber-only requirement for certain years of the magazine, making The Amateur Scientist column for 1999-2001 available online.
The Amateur Scientist on CD-ROM has been released, as has The Scientific American Book of Projects for The Amateur Scientist by Stong, based on the series.