Category Archives: Science

Maker Faires and the BIYSL

The Annotated Build It Yourself Science Laboratory

This month I’ll be traveling to Maker Faires in Portland, Oregon, and New York City to sign and talk about my book, The Annotated Build It Yourself Science Laboratory. That, of course, is the new, updated version of Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory, the classic 1960’s hands-on science book by Raymond E. Barrett.

The Portland Mini Maker Faire is being held September 12-13 at OMSI, the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. I’ll be speaking on the Innovation stage at 11 AM on September 12. This is a bit of a homecoming for the book: Raymond Barrett was the Education Director at OMSI when he originally wrote the book.

The World Maker Faire is September 26 and 27 at the New York Hall of Science in Queens, New York. I’ll be speaking on the DIY stage on both days.

Bonus: During O’Reilly’s Back to School sale (through September 17), you can get the E-book version of The Annotated Build It Yourself Science Laboratory for 50% off using discount code B2S5.

Evil Mad Engineers

Every month or two since 2009, someone has sent me a copy of a particular comic from the webcomic Cowbirds in Love.  Here is today’s example, from @benk_at_work on twitter:

@benk_at_work tweets...

evil mad engineers @ cowbirds in love



There is, of course, only one appropriate way to respond in a situation like this: with another comic.

Back in 2011, I wrote an era-appropriate semi-autobiographical rage comic, that I could use as a standard response when people sent me that comic.


Joking aside, we really do spend a lot of our time engineering— and many of our friends and colleagues are bona fide engineers. On the other hand, I love to cook, but that doesn’t make me a chef either.

Geek Tourism: Biosphere 2


Biosphere 2 is an enormous earth science laboratory, originally built as an attempt to create a closed ecosystem. The goals were to study long term viability of an isolated human habitat, such as might be needed for long term space travel or colonization.


The results of the initial experiments were a (fascinating) mixed bag. The goal of a strictly closed ecosystem was not met for a variety of reasons. However, some of the results have improved our understanding of the effects of climate change, such as how increased CO2 levels lead to acidification of the ocean habitat and coral bleaching.


The facility is now being used both for education and for research. The enormous agricultural greenhouses have been transformed by the University of Arizona into the Landscape Evolutionary Observatory, a large-scale carefully-controlled long-term study of soil processes. It serves as an experimental bridge between computer models, small-scale laboratory experiments, and the real world.


Some of the original biomes are relatively unchanged and have been growing since the project started in 1991. It is striking to have all hint of surrounding desert obscured by the vines of the rainforest.


One of the most fascinating engineering aspects of the facility are the “lungs,” which are accessed through long narrow tunnels branching off of the main facility.


The lungs were used to compensate for the changes in pressure and temperature. The two domed buildings have flexible inner liners that can expand and contract. A weight attached to the center of the liner makes them look toroidal inside of the dome.

Biosphere 2

The facility was built outside of Tucson, and is strikingly beautiful, surrounded by wildlife including lizards, snakes, tarantulas, jack rabbits, coyotes, gila monsters, and an incredible variety of birds and insects. We’ve put a few more pictures from our visit in albums on flickr here and here. Tours are available to the public daily, and it’s worth the drive and ticket price if you’re nearby.

GeekMom reviews Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory

Sam over at GeekMom just posted a thoughtful and kind review, Bringing Science Home Again: ‘The Annotated Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory’.

This is exactly what was needed. So much of home-based experimentation right now is focused on technology and making. While there is nothing wrong with that, traditional sciences are just as important. Labs are important. The Annotated Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory brings the magic of science home again.

A Diamagnetic Demonstration


Our friends stopped by with a simple apparatus to demonstrate the diamagnetic properties of bismuth metal. Diamagnetism is a extremely weak magnetic effect — generally orders of magnitude weaker than everyday permanent magnets, which exhibit ferromagnetism. However it is also an extremely interesting effect because diamagnetic materials are repelled by magnetic fields. This is different than the case with ferromagnets, where one pole of a magnet repels another — rather, the entire material is (weakly) repelled by any magnetic pole.

Now, how might one observe such a weak effect? One way is to build a magnetic levitation rig, but the field configurations there are a little less obvious. With a simple but sensitive balance, we can see the repulsion directly. The balance above has a long wooden beam, a central pivot on two blocks of plastic, and a couple of coins on the far end for counterbalance.


At the business end of the scale, there is a cylinder of bismuth metal about 1 cm in diameter, held in place by a rubber band. We also have a larger rectangular block, which is our test magnet, made of grade N50 NdFeB and painted black. And finally, the Lego Astronaut Twins are here helping out as a scale and position reference.

Moving the block magnet beneath the bismuth, we can see what happens in an animated GIF:

After the balance settles, the resting position of the end with the bismuth is considerably higher. With some calibration in terms of weights and/or positions, one could even measure the exerted force with some precision.

A slight improvement to this apparatus would be to reverse the roles of the bismuth and the block magnet. That is, to affix the magnet to the arm of the balance, and to slide the bismuth beneath it instead. You could then use a nearby block of aluminum to damp the motion of the beam through magnetic (eddy current) damping. Many commercial balance-beam type scales already use magnetic damping so that they settle down to their final values faster.


Build It Yourself Science on the Make Blog

Book excerpt on Polarized Light Filters

The Make Blog is featuring some excerpts from The Annotated Build It Yourself Science Laboratory.

In modern times, our contemporary Maker and Maker education movements have helped to rekindle our cultural interest in hands-on education, especially in the STEM and STEAM fields, in a way that hasn’t been seen since the 1960s — which is why it’s such a good time to bring this book back.

The Annotated Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory

The Annotated Build It Yourself Science Laboratory

We have a book coming out!

Coming soon: The Annotated Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory is a new, updated version of Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory, the classic 1960’s hands-on science book by Raymond E. Barrett.

The book is scheduled to make its debut at Maker Faire next week, where I’ll be speaking about it. It’s also available for pre-order now from and other sellers of books, as well as from our store.

We’ll be writing much more about the book once it’s out— about what’s in the book, the process of updating and annotating it, and about the hundreds of project ideas spanning biology, geology, chemistry, physics and more.

However, since we’re already in teaser mode, here are some photos of the original version from the 1960’s:




Fine print: “You can build these and many other experimental items with materials from your home, garage, or local hardware store. Build-It-Yourself Science Laboratory will show you how!”

The Annotated Build It Yourself Science Laboratory