The do-it-yourself (DIY) movement, which has been steadily gathering momentum over the past decade, was on full display this weekend in New York City. The World Maker Faire—New York, held at the New York Hall of Science, was a celebration of makers—individuals and teams that embody the scrappy inventiveness of DIY culture.
Makers make things, obviously. But more importantly, makers make do. They may not have the resources for expensive projects, but they take advantage of their circumstances and maximize available resources to achieve their goals. A maker tinkers, collaborates and improvises.
Take the lab where Jeff Allen, a PhD student at New York University (N.Y.U.), studies cosmic rays. Allen described one of his lab's latest projects—the construction of a networked array of particle detectors that takes advantage of New York City's dense population of building-top water tanks—at a panel discussion entitled "Scientist-Makers in Action". The talk, organized by Scientific American, took place on the Maker Faire's center stage Saturday, September 25.
Earth is under constant bombardment by ultrahigh-energy cosmic rays coming from all directions. Comprised mainly of atomic nuclei particles, such as protons and neutrons, they contain hundreds of millions times more energy than what scientists can produce in modern particle accelerators such as the Large Hadron Collider. They are also poorly understood. But it turns out a networked series of water tanks equipped with photosensitive electronics are ideal cosmic-ray detectors.
"If you want to build a cosmic-ray air-shower detector, the best idea humans have figured out is to create a large array of detectors on the ground," Allen said. But this setup comes at no small cost. When Allen's advisor, N.Y.U. physics professor Glennys Farrar, was considering constructing a detector array, she looked into Argentina's Pierre Auger Cosmic Ray Observatory, a 50-kilometer by 50-kilometer network of water tank detectors. "They had to build all their water tanks and distribute them," Allen said, "and that was a big chuck of their budget." One day, he said, Farrar was looking out her office window, "and she said, 'Oh there's a water tank right there!'"
That initial inspiration grew into the New York Schools Cosmic Particle Telescope project, which takes advantage of two important resources area schools can offer cosmic-ray research: water tanks and students. Students get the opportunity to participate in hands-on science by helping turn their school's water tank into a particle detector—and Allen and Farrar's lab gets research help while avoiding a hefty expense for a detector array. "We're on a shoestring budget," Allen said, "All of our equipment is either off the shelf, pretty cheap, or borrowed, so we're trying to figure out how you can build a detector with little cost."
Another panelist and scientist-maker, Columbia University's John Mutter, wants to empower people in African nations to become makers of transportation—specifically, bamboo bicycles.
Bicycle transportation is crucial in Africa, Mutter said, because it is the only way most Africans have to go see a doctor, look for jobs and take goods to sell at local and regional markets. But virtually all bikes in Africa come from China, are cheaply made and are based on an outdated design. "Bicycle technology has left Africa behind," he added, "They need better bikes."
Bamboo is a ready-made solution to this problem, according to Mutter. "It grows locally, it is stronger and lighter than most forms of steel, it doesn't need welding, and it grows in tubes." So a team from Columbia's Earth Institute has joined forces with bamboo bike designers to develop a program to produce bamboo bikes on a large scale in Africa, and to train Africans to make them. The team has established roots in Ghana, where they are planning to build their first factory—a facility they hope will be capable of producing 20,000 bicycles a year.
Although the weekend's festivities put a heavy emphasis on amateur inventors and do-it-yourself enthusiasts, the panelists were quick to remind the audience that making things is essential to scientific research and progress, even if those things are not physical objects. "We make knowledge," said Joy Reidenberg, a panelist and comparative anatomist at The Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York, "And we give it away for free."