Armchair biologists

30 12 2008

Can armchair biology work?

Armchair science is where science began. Before organised and well funded institutes were about, a lot of scientists were self funded home-based ventures.

Science at home has suffered a few setbacks. They took the fun stuff out of chemistry kits. And even if you do find a decent kit, you might be arrested for making drugs and/or explosives under terrorism laws.

So chemistry as a hobby is expensive, hazardous and possibly illegal.

What about biology?

There is a little discussion at the sci-borg collective about recent news that people are attempting molecular biology (cloning, design-your-own organisms) at home.

Pure Pedantry thinks it won’t end the world. Which is fair to say. But Discovering Biology in a Digital World points out some of the real dangers. Namely, cloning usually involves potential pathogenic organisms and antibiotic resistance – not the best things to be playing around in your kitchen.

While it’s cool that people are enthusiastic about science and wanting to engage in future technologies, it’s good to remember there was a reason further than mere regulation and technophobia over why chemistry kits got dumbed down. Some science stuff isn’t safe to be messing about with at home. Particularly in your kitchen where you prepare your food.

Science that deals with microbes, carcinogens and cold storage really needs a dedicated space. That’s why I like the idea of Community Centers with lab-rooms and storage for hire, along with amateur training courses. This sort of activity should definitely be encouraged.

The best thing about future technology though is that these days biology can be done on a computer over the internet. Bioinformatics at home is a very safe, low labour activity that really only needs a computer and an internet connection.

While I too am skeptical of amatuers making “new vaccines”. I do think some more “simple” breakthroughs are possible –  bio-based tools such as biofuels, indicators and environmental solutions – remember that Canadian kid who developed bacteria that break down plastic bag polymers.

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