The Royal Society and Garage Science

This is the first in a series of posts about natural allies of Garage Science, organizations who care about the same things as us and may help us grow.

Founded in 1660, the Royal Society is the oldest scientific academy in existence. Its main body is its fellowship, comprising 1,450 leading scientists and engineers from the UK and the Commonwealth. Every year the Society elects 44 new fellows from about 700 candidates who have substantially contributed to scientific knowledge. New candidates are proposed by current fellows, maintaining the exceptional character of the Society.

The Royal Society is supported by endowments, by charitable contributions and by a Parliamentary Grant. The Society uses these funds to

expand the frontiers of knowledge by championing the development and use of science, mathematics, engineering and medicine for the benefit of humanity and the good of the planet.

The Royal Society’s activities focus on five priorities:

  • Invest in future scientific leaders and in innovation
  • Influence policy making with the best scientific advice
  • Invigorate science and mathematics education
  • Increase access to the best science internationally
  • Inspire an interest in the joy, wonder and excitement of scientific discovery

Invigorating science education, increasing access to the best science, and, most importantly, inspiring an interest in scientific discovery, are exactly the things Garage Science is all about! This should not come as much of a surprise. After all, the Royal Society started as a little Science Garage, with Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, John Wilkins and others tinkering away at Gresham College, London in the mid-1640s. I wonder what Garage Science might look like, 350 years from now…

If you want to learn more about the Royal Society, you can follow their policy blog, like them on facebook, or follow them on twitter.

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Khan Academy and Garage Science

This is the third in a series of posts on the inspirations for Garage Science. Of the many organizations setting out to revolutionize education, the Khan Academy stands out. Bill Gates agrees, as do TED. The Khan Academy’s mission is clear:

A free world-class education for anyone, anywhere.

To find out what the hype was all about, I had a look at their FAQ, their blog, and then  picked a random lesson from the list of over 2,100. For twelve minutes this morning I watched Salman Khan prove that sin(a+b)=(cos a)(sin b) + (sin a)(cos b). It was fun. It was clear. It felt like a good use of twelve minutes.

The Khan Academy’s secret is the use of short videos. Thus, your vision can focus on the visual elements (diagram, equation) of the lesson. Because visual elements develop in-place, you see differences clearly and don’t lose attention switching between diagrams. Add to this the fact that with a laptop, a smartphone or a tablet, you can learn anywhere and you have a good thing going. Besides, you are not taking up anyone’s time. There is no need to feel bad if you don’t understand something. Just press replay.

This means the Khan Academy way of teaching will probably become more and more widespread, which is great, but does have some limitations. Let’s focus on science teaching. Veritasium has pointed out one problem with the effectiveness of science videos: people’s misconceptions about science just get strengthened by videos, unless they are addressed directly.

Another problem with science teaching through videos is that it is limited to two senses: vision and sound. Many chemical reactions are exciting because of the smells they produce, and many materials and organisms are exciting because of their textures. In addition, advanced science practice involves very delicate techniques, and part of learning science is learning to master those techniques.

Videos can serve a crucial role in learning a new technique, but only if you can actually carry out the technique being shown while (or shortly after) the video is playing. TED’s curator Chris Anderson has an inspiring talk on this topic. With skills like dancing or DIY, all you need is a computer, an internet connection, and household items. However, if you want to acquire cutting-edge scientific skills, you need a lab. Or a Science Garage.

How is Garage Science like the Khan Academy? Well, it:

  • Aims to reach people all over the world
  • Uses videos to teach new skills
  • Tracks progress using sophisticated, dedicated software
  • Interfaces with well-known web platforms

How is Garage Science different from the Khan Academy?

  • Khan focuses on broader education. We focus on cutting-edge science.
  • Khan’s videos are accompanied with web-based exercises. Our videos are accompanied with doing, in the lab, what is being taught
  • Khan’s videos are based on his general knowledge. Our videos, at least in part, will be generated in the process of creating new knowledge, blurring the distinction between documentation and teaching
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From Popular Science to Research Project – Part 2

In the last part we found an interesting popular science story, and traced it back to the original scientific article.

Once you have access to the article, jump straight to the conclusion section. Here is a quote from it:

Skin cream changed the properties of the skin surface. The presence of the cream film caused an increase in the surface film thickness; this led to an increase in the adhesive force and friction force. The skin cream also reduced the surface roughness, increased the hydrophilic properties of the skin, and softened the skin surface.

On the basis of the surface and friction properties, the synthetic skins were good simulations of rat skin. After treatment with skin cream, the trends of the properties of the two synthetic skins and rat skin were comparable. The methodology presented here can act as a good reference for researchers to evaluate the surface, frictional, and mechanical properties of synthetic skins.

And here is your research project. If you get the equipment and follow the methods describe in the other parts of the paper, you could find various physical properties of synthetic skins. You could also find out how different creams, and other materials (including many household products) physically affect these skins. Since these researchers showed synthetic skins behave in a similar way to real skin, this will teach you about how household products physically alter your skin. This seems pretty cool to me, but if you want more ideas:

  • combine this method with other papers that tell you how to make synthetic skins, so you can test skins you make yourself.
  • experiment with modifying household substances and test them on synthetic skins.
  • choose the synthetic skins that work best with the household products you own, and then put them on your robots.

The greatest thing about this method is that you know it can be done, but it is still exciting.

I look forward to reading your own research ideas, your suggestions for how to come up with projects, and general comments.

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From Popular Science to Research Project – Part 1

Some of our loyal readers have asked which projects would run in a Science Garage. This post is dedicated to them.

The short answer is that I don’t know which projects will run in the Garages.  Ideas will come from the participants and will be discussed by the Garage Science community.

However, coming up with a cool, doable, research project isn’t easy. It’s hard if you are a practising scientist, and even harder if you aren’t. After all, you learn about the cutting edge from scientific literature, which takes years of training to get immersed in. However, popular science can provide a shortcut right to the cutting edge.

Start with your favorite news website. Mine happens to be Slashdot, where I read this story, about scientists comparing the effects of skin cream on synthetic and real skin. Next, follow the link to the full story. Still interested in the topic? Great!

The next step will separate you from the majority of readers: finding the scientific paper. The journal (Journal of Applied Polymer Science) and the issue (June 5), are mentioned in the story, and there is even a link. Follow the link and find the right issue, then find the paper. Titles can get technical, so search for authors instead (Bhushan and Tang in this case). This will get you to the abstract. The abstract is the equivalent of the news story in the scientific literature; it is the way Bhushan and Tang chose to present their research to other scientists.

An abstract, however, is not enough. Click the link to “view full article”. Unfortunately, it has restricted access. You have a few options:

  • Ask someone with institutional access to send you a copy. Usually any scientist or student would do.
  • Look for a version of the paper in a free-access, pre-print archive, such as In this case I couldn’t find one, but sometimes you get lucky. Remember to search by authors, as titles change in the publication process.
  • Look for a copy of the journal at a local university library.
  • Complain that research carried out in a state university has restricted access, then give up.

In the next part we’ll discuss what happens when we finally get access to the article.

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Mozilla Foundation and Garage Science

This is the second in a series of posts on the inspirations for Garage Science, and what we can learn from them to make Garage Science awesome.

There is a good (29%) chance that you are reading this post using Mozilla Firefox. Unlike other popular browsers, Firefox was not developed by a software company. Firefox exists thanks to a community of volunteers, who contributed their time and experience to create a product that competes with the best in the industry.

The Mozilla Foundation provides support and leadership for Firefox, and other open-source projects. Its mission is to promote openness, innovation and opportunity on the web. Its history begins in 1998, with the release of the Netscape browser suite source code. It is a non-profit organization, supported by individuals and a variety of companies. Oh, and they also have a blog.

Mozilla’s volunteers create shiny working products. This is no piece of cake! Volunteers come in with different amounts of experience and time to contribute. Experienced hackers often have different (legitimate) ideas about the project. While diversity is great for innovation, it needs to be managed. Mozilla’s solutions are its governance and policies. For example, members of the community get the right to resolve conflicts based on their contributions, by becoming Module Owners, Super-Reviewers, and even Benevolent Dictators.

How is Garage Science like the Mozilla Foundation? Well, it:

  • Has passionate volunteers
  • Gets tangible results
  • Benefits a wide public
  • Promotes openness, innovation and opportunity
  • Is governed as a meritocracy
  • has a non-profit nature

How is Garage Science different from Mozilla?

  • Mozilla does web. We do science.
  • Most Mozilla volunteers work from their home or office. We work together in Science Garages.
  • Mozilla promotes innovation by competing with industry. We promote science by supplementing academic research.
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Hackerspaces and Garage Science

This is the first in a series of posts about the inspirations for Garage Science, and what we can learn from them to make Garage Science awesome.

If you never heard of hackerspaces before, and you are interested in Garage Science, then you are seriously missing out!

Hackerspaces are locations, out there in the real world, where like-minded people come together to work on projects and socialize. There can be many different projects running simultaneously in a hackerspace. A few examples:

  • developing open source projects
  • testing the security of various IT setups (hacking into machines)
  • building robots
  • crafting tools
  • picking locks
  • making electronics circuits

At the moment there are 440 hackerspaces worldwide, as listed on, which is a must-visit portal for all things hackerspace (and they even have a blog). In the UK, the Hackspace Foundation coordinates many of the activities of hackerspaces. It is also the parent organization of the highly successful London Hackspace, which runs (among other things) Arduino workshops, lockpicking sessions and biohacking meetups.

How is a Science Garage like a Hackerspace? It has:

  • A physical space
  • Highly motivated people
  • Great social atmosphere
  • Strong technological orientation
  • Extensive use of the internet for everyday activities, communication and outreach
  • A non-profit nature

How is a Science Garage different from a Hackerspace?

  • In a hackerspace you mostly work on your own project, with a little help from other expert hackers. In a Science Garage we all work on a few joint projects.
  • Ideas for projects in hackerspaces come from the hackers themselves, and are chosen for their inherent appeal (to hackers). In a Science Garage we create  projects out of academic papers.
  • Because projects are communal, and the equipment is highly specialized, a Science Garage places much more emphasis on training than a hackerspace does.
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What is Garage Science? (Version 0.1)

Garage Science is an idea.

Imagine, 10 years from now, a “Science Garage” in every major city. A large industrial space with second-hand, recycled and custom built scientific equipment. A place where everyone can come and do science.

Doing science is fun. Running experiments, logging data, fixing machines, growing plants, programming models, tinkering, pondering, simply put – creating new knowledge. Being a Garage Scientist for a couple of hours every week lets you take part in the fun without making science your life. Nowadays, you can either do science as a career or not at all. Garage Science will change that.

Published experimental papers in scientific journals push the boundaries of knowledge. They often take the form:

Everyone thought that X is true, but our cool experiment suggests this may not be true. Perhaps Y is true. We need to do A, B and C to find out more.

The problem is that there are never enough resources (both time and money) to do B and C at the university lab. But we can do it in the Garage, without any time constraints, and make a worthwhile contribution.

Creating new knowledge is not easy. It takes training, resources, planning, time and discipline. It requires a dedicated community. Garage Science sees these demands as challenges, not problems. Technology and organizational structures exist for meeting many of these challenges – this will be the focus of later posts. Whatever can’t be done with today’s technology we will create ourselves.

Excited? Get involved.

Garage Science is an idea. Lets make it a movement.

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May we live in interesting times!

Welcome to the Garage Science blog. This is where we will explore the vision of making relevant, cutting-edge science in your free time, in a dedicated space, with like-minded people.

This is a space to explore a new idea. Be creative. Take part. Tell your friends. This is going to be awesome.

Actual content will follow soon. I promise.

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