Today is a big day! Not only does it celebrate my 100th post on the website, it also celebrates my 20 years, month-to-month, anniversary of the start of my science lab at home.
For the occasion, I will share some of the big moments and answer as many question I can about being a home scientist. If you are reading this, you might already be one yourself, want to become one or are the parent or teacher of a kid who is doing crazy experiments in the backyard. I hope the following FAQ will answer some of your questions and give you pointers for your activities.
Starting a home lab has been an adventure that completely changed my life. If I did not fall in love with science, my life would have been very different and I would certainly not be writing this blog today.
Figure 1 shows my very first attempt at Raman spectroscopy the 8th of July 2014. At that time, I had no idea where this small experiment would take me What started as a small curiosity ended up being a full open source project for which I already exchanged hundreds of e-mails with people across the world willing to replicate the experiment.
This is a question I have been asked literally a million time. Most of the time people would look at you with some kind of whats wrong with this kid? look on their face. I receive this reaction even as an adult and it took me about 10 years feeling confident about my activities.
I would like to say first that there is nothing wrong in being enthusiast about science, math, engineering, programming or any other crafts. If you come to like it, then do it! Do people who like playing football have to justify themselves? Is laying in the couch all week-end watching Netflix better than actually doing something with your hands? As you stop feeling the need to justify in front of people and act like youre normal, their look will change too. They are the one who are wrong, not you.
For me, science is about solving problems. Not just for the fun of it but to accomplish something. That something can be anything from flying a rocket in the air to developing a kick-ass 3D video game from scratch. Nothings beats the thrill associated to seeing something work that only first existed in your mind.
Dont worry if you are not as passionate as I am when you are just starting up! The joy will increase with time in an exponential way and without any limit!
Absolutely no! In fact, when I started I was an F student and the nightmare of all teachers. I was the prototype of the slow kid who dont listen, never do his homework and always fail tests although being polite and everything. In high school, my chemistry teacher even wrote notes after notes to my parents complaining that I had not what it took for being in his class and I would better go pick up studies that do not require any thinking.
I was a lazy kid in a school without money and full of teachers who forgot the time they were young and passionate about their job. At home, though, I would do electronics and 3D game programming. It was pretty basic but I could already do a few nice things. However, since we had no electronics nor 3D math class, this remains completely unrelated to school and I was not able to transfer any of the knowledge I had acquired with these fun activities I would do at home. Im by the way extremely thankful to my parent for having offered me the programming books and electronics kits and having taken the time to play with me. They also refused to follow the recommendation of my chemistry teacher at a time where I was unable to defend myself from bullies like him.
The big breakthrough was during summer 2001 with a science magazine for kids (Science&Vie Junior). It was mostly vulgarisation of not-so-interesting science stuff but there was a super interesting article about fireworks where they gave the recipe of black powder. I would just not believe it would be so easy so I started doing some researches on the Internet. No google nor YouTube at that time so it was a bit tricky but I managed to find a website confirming the recipe and even giving more pyro stuff. The next day, I decided to go to the DIY store in the next town (by foot, 10 km+ walk!) to buy the chemicals and tried the experiment. That was just amazing, I could do true blackpowder that would burn with the nice sparkling colours and everything.
The pivot point came just after that when I felt I wanted to understand what was actually going on and try predict what other chemicals I could use. That forced me to do more researches in less dark areas of chemistry. That paid off because this time the skills were completely transferable to what we were learning in chemistry class at school! It was hard at first to find my way in but after a while information was entering much faster and I was always eager to know more theory, more lab technique etc.
In about 3 months, I literally went from F to A in chemistry class. Feeling more confident about myself, and having the teacher looking at you differently, I quickly Aced all math/science tests. At the end of high-school, I was much more advanced than all other students in both theory and practical aspects of science. I then entered University and headed to a prestigious engineering school, but thats another story!
So, no, you dont need to be a A student to do science and it can even help you if you are not good at it!
This is not a question I asked myself so much at the time but my parents were actually very concerned about it. Probably because I was experimenting a lot with things that would go boom for the first 10 years.
Science can be dangerous; I will not lie. Chemicals can be toxic, reactions can go beyond control and literally lead to an explosion, lasers can make you blind and moderate voltages can electrocute you. Some activities are safer. Programming on a computer or playing with an Arduino electronic board is much less likely to hurt you than trying to fly a rocket. Figure 2 shows the electrolysis of dilute potassium iodide which is relatively safe to perform and teaches things too.
I must say, however, that I would be concerned as a parent knowing that my kids would be doing potentially dangerous stuff at home. I dont think forbidding them would be a good solution because we all know that when you forbid something to a teenager, he/she will just do it when you are not looking. I think the role of a parent, especially a parent who cares about the safety of their kids, is to go along with them and help them evaluate the danger properly and make them take actions to mitigate the risk.
I also know that, as I grew up, I moved away from the dangerous stuff because the thrill of science shifted from being adrenaline-based to being reward-based. That is, after a while you get more exciting from solving a complex puzzle than by doing roller-coaster science stuff.
One last important thing to mention is that we are often afraid of what we do not know well. You might think something is dangerous just because you dont know how it works or what will actually trigger it. Going along with your kids is also a way of better understanding yourself what they are actually doing and what the real danger is. The 400V spark of Figure 3 might look dangerous, but it dissipates only a small amount of energy in total which makes it much less dangerous than what it may look.
That depends on the kind of experiments you are doing. Programming is usually free once you have a computer (a good computer is a big investment on the other hand), electronics and chemistry can be done a relatively moderate costs and optics will usually require a full-time job to provide the money because it is horribly expensive. I also do a lot of video editing and photography and these activities are also relatively expensive.
I have been tracking all my orders since 2013 and noticed very interesting recurring features in the way I spend money for science and other activities like photo & video. I noticed that I grow interest for a given topic (chemistry, electronics, IT, machining, optics, video etc.) in a cyclic way. Each of these topic has its own frequency. For instance, I always buy books at the same period of the year, just before Christmas, but I would go mad about photography every 18 months or so. Sometimes several cycles synchronize and I do 2, 3 or even 4 of these activities at the same time before moving to something else. You can spot in the archives of this website, from the publication date of the posts, that some pattern emerges.
Knowing your own cycles is important because it will help you managing your finances. Every time you will grow interest for some activities, expenses will be associated because you need such and such specific parts for your experiment, or that new photographic lens to do this amazing shot. With time, the expenses of a given activity will usually dampen because you already have a pool of assets that you can reuse.
The big expenses usually come a bit after you start. This corresponds to when you realize how broad the field is and want to do everything but have no tools yet. You will also buy newer gears because you will realize that the one you initially bough is too limited. This is completely normal and you should not worry (or blame yourself or your kids) to change tools after a while.
If you are not into science yet and are looking for a field where you could start, I would recommend having a look at electronics first.
Electronics has the advantage of being hands-on (you actually do something with your hands), at contrario of programming which can be much more abstract when you start. Also, you can do much without needing a lot of money and with tools like Arduino you have plenty to play with without having the need to buy a soldering iron. Arduino are good for a first exposure to electronics and as you move on I can recommend the book Electronic Principles by Malvino and Bates. You can buy your hardware from DigiKey or RS. A basic multimeter and soldering iron will be required and as you gain experience you will probably be interested in a cheap function generator and oscilloscope. Books like The Art of Electronics by Horowitz and Hill will become one of your best inspiration for circuits. After a few years of practice, designing circuits like the one of Figure 5 will become routine for you!
Programming is extremely fun activity but not everybody enjoys it. I could recommend excellent books about game programming but I will not be able to stop enumerating. You cant however go wrong with a book like 3D Game Programming with DirectX by Luna although it requires prior knowledge of C++. One of my favourite book about AI in video game is Artificial Intelligence for Games by Millington. It should be reserved for people who already have some experience though. Be sure to check comments and review because many books in the computer industry are really poorly written and only consist of listing of code without much interest.
As an illustration, here is a video of a 3D game I made from sratch with a 3d artist friend, Jerôme, at the end of high-school:
Although I started myself with chemistry, I would not recommend it unless you really want to learn that particular field. Glassware can be acquired relatively easily but chemicals are much more difficult to get and trying to get access to some of them will guide the police right to your home. This actually happened to a friend of mine whom the police believe he was running a clandestine meth lab. Everything ended fine for him because they realized he was going nothing wrong but that was still a very unpleasant visit and the words quickly spread in his neighbourhood. You should be aware that chemistry is also one of the most dangerous activity you can do and some of the chemicals can severely affect your health or the environment. You should think of legal ways to dispose of the waste before you start as dumping them down the drain is immoral. Concerning the books, I can recommend both books of Zumdahl for all the high-school to first year university and Organic Chemistry as a second language to learn about organic chemistry. Those book will however not give any experiments for you to perform.
An alternative to chemistry, fluidics and chemical engineering might be a good alternative. It is much safer and you can do it without risking to have the police knocking at your door. Most of the chemistry experiment I have been discussing on this website actually refers to chemical engineering and fluidics. Chemical Reaction Engineering by Levenspiel is an excellent textbook although reserved to University students because it is relatively heavy on maths. Professionals will love Perrys Chemical Engineering Handbook which is the most complete reference I know on chemical engineering.
I would not recommend optics because it gets expensive really fast. You can still build yourself a kit to experiment with lenses under 500$ but dont expect to do much with it apart from verifying the rules of images formation. You can build a spectrometer for about $2000 but thats already a much larger budget for only a few experiments. If you would like to learn optics hands-on I can recommend books like Modern Optical Engineering by Smith. Be aware that many optics textbooks can be relatively heavy in math and very abstract. I have myself a hard time with most of the readings on optics which are bloated with massive equations. This is one of the reason Im trying to keep things at the engineering level here on the website.
If you are more of a creative person, I can definitively recommend things like astronomy which is a wonderful activity and I enjoyed many winter nights staying up late to look at the night sky. I believe a telescope is a good investment for a kid who shows interest in science without requiring him to be able to solve equations. I would stay away from the cheap stuff and start with a budget of at least 400-500$ though. A good 114/900 Newtonian telescope with an equatorial mount is a very good starting point if you are on a budget. My dads bought me one when I finished highschool for about 250$ and I still have it. I will use it to show the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn to my kids when they will be old enough because its something you never forget in your life.
One of the best advice I can give you is to start a blog about your activities, right now. Even if you just started, it does not matter, start one.
Writing about what you are doing is an excellent way of forcing you to summarize what you have done and will help you to better understand it. It is also important to keep all important tracks of your experiments because in 6 months you wont remember how you did it (and even what you did). I made so many experiments that I cannot reproduce today because the website that gave the instructions is down and I didnt keep any notes at the time. So, its really important to keep good notes even if your blog is just for you or your friends.
You might be afraid of saying stupid things because you dont know the craft enough to discuss about it. Many people will tell you so and I was being told the same, even recently when discussing with my martial art teachers. While it is true that you are going to say stupid things, I disagree with the concept of holding yourself because of that. The truth is, even after 20 years you will continue doing mistake at the occasion. As an example, I already know that in a few years I will think differently about optical design because Im still learning it every day even though I have been into the field since more than 10 years. If you wait for perfect mastery of the craft before you say something, you will stay silent for the rest of your life because the more you will progress the more you will see how much you still lack in understanding.
Writing a book is fundamentally different to writing a blog. When writing a book, you summarize all your knowledge about a craft at a given moment of time. When writing a blog, you track your progress into the craft and it will evolve in time. I consider blogs as organic creatures and treat them accordingly.
I think the most important is to write with your own words and your own understanding of what you learned. Copy/pasting has little added value though your first entry will usually be derivative work, this is normal we all started there. Knowing this, you should write with humility and apply methodology such as avoid as much as possible erroneous statement (the world is flat!). You might be tempted to correct mistakes in posts you wrote 10 years ago but personally I dont do it.
Something else that might refrain you from writing is either being too perfectionist or being afraid that people would steal your idea if it is not mature enough and need more time to get it to a point where you feel confident about sharing your work. In my experience you should not worry about these and go ahead. I had tutorials being copy/pasted by other people and that was a frustrating experience but it was extremely rare. The truth is, everybody has ideas and they are not more eager to steal your ideas than you are to steal theirs.
Finally, when you work on a big project, you will have days where you will lose your motivation facing the amount of work remaining. Working step-by-step towards your goal and publishing at every steps if a good way to keep your motivation just by having already something to show for. It is easy to think about writing a blog when you have dozens of entries and people coming everyday, but at the origin all blogs start with a first post.
Because science is expensive, you might be tempted to accept offers of free or sales items that are not necessary at that time but that are either very rare or true bargains. It can go from your uncle proposing you his old soldering iron from 40 years back to this guy who is selling all his stuff for almost nothing because his wife is about to kill him for having transformed their house into a mess.
In all these scenarios, I urge you to not accept the offers! Never buy or accept for free something that you dont need today. I have so many things here that I never used in 20 years just because they were such a bargain at the time. I was so busy thinking that I could get them that I never asked myself if I should have got them.
It is really important for you to see the difference between doing science and collecting science artefacts. Also, remember that owning stuff has nothing to do with being good at using them. Entering a store and buying the most expensive camera will not make you a good photographer; it is going out with whatever you have and practicing that will.
The problem with collecting free/sales stuff is that you will only realize it is a problem when you are deep into it. If you dont control yourself now, you will one day be that guy selling his stuff because his wife is about to kill him!
Plan your experiments and buy only what you need. If you pay a bit more, it is not a problem.
As you develop interest into activities, you will sooner or later interact with other people who share the same interest as you. This is a really good experience and I met many people, some of them were even at my wedding because they became extremely good friends.
I have also travelled many miles to meet them which created some extraordinary memories. I travelled 10,000 km to meet my friend Jérôme in the Indian ocean in 2001 to test our video game! I also travelled many times to Southern France where I had chemistry friends there.
I remember one day where I was in the train coming back from France. I was wearing my TNT shirt from the chemistry class at University and one guy came to me, a bit hesitant, and asked if I was Luc, the chemist. I laughed and asked him how he heard about me. He had actually seen a picture of me at my friends house. We spent the rest of the day talking about chemistry and exchanging pdfs with our laptop.
Interestingly, I still meet some of these Internet people every few years and we do experiments together whereas I lost contact with all the people I was with at university and high-school.
The following video shows how I measured burning speed of rocket fuel with my friend Geoffrey in 2009:
A bit after you start your scientific activities, it will be important to organize yourself relatively quickly. This is one of the things that you only realize too late when you get it wrong in the first place, so its mandatory to think about it carefully before things go uncontrolled.
Start by finding yourself a place to do your experiments. That can be a garage, provided there is not car in it, or an unused room of your house. As your activities will grow, you will need more place which can generate some friction at home. I currently occupy four different rooms in my house, two of them which I also share with my wife and where my footprint is less visible (but still present) and I regularly have to justify why I need that space. If you can get your own private space, its better for everybody. But you dont always have the choice. Best is to talk and explain what you are doing and why it is important to you.
Be sure to at the very least have a desk and a shelf. Be sure to keep your desk clean and clearly explain that it is your own private space and people should not occupy it with their own stuff. Most activities can be dangerous for young kids so be sure to keep them away from the dangers like pointy stuff and small parts they could put in their mouth. Be extremely careful with chemicals as some of them can severely damages your belongings. A friend of mine stored a bottle of chlorhydric acid (nb: this is a common chemical you can buy in most grocery store) that he left in his bedroom next to a collectable sword. After one week the sword had completely rusted and had lost all its value! If you own a resin 3D printer, I would pay attention to how you store the resin as well because it is toxic as well and stink like hell.
A notebook is often valuable although I tend to prefer laptop to keep notes. As I explained previously, it is important to keep notes on everything you do. This includes experiments but also copies of pdf you download, invoices, order list etc. You will want to have your disk space well organized as well. I recommend having at the very least the following folder structure:
- An Orders folder to keep track of your orders and invoices. As you will gain experience you will place more and more orders and some of them might have large backorder delays so its important to track that you received everything and paid all your invoices.
- An Experiments folder where you store the results of you experiments. I recommend creating subfolders starting with the date and with a short description in the format YYYY-MM-DD Description. I regularly create info.txt or readme.txt files inside them to describe the experiments and then put some data like images or excel results along in the folder.
- A Reports folder where I put all my texts before I put them on the blog. Again, I create subfolder for every posts such that I can put images next to the word documents.
- A Calculations folder where I put programs, excel sheets etc. when I do some maths. It is good to have some versioning like TortoiseSVN there to keep track of the evolution of your programs.
- A Literature folder where I copy all the pdfs I download. You will want to organize this properly to avoid having one big folder with thousands of pdfs. Also, dont collect PDF like books just in case they might be useful one day and restrict yourself to what you search for a given experiment.
- A CAD folder to store your drawings (optical, mechanical, electronics etc.). I recommend that each part and assembly have its own id, usually starting with the year and revision number (eg. #2021-15/2). For each part I keep copies (revisions) of the CAD as soon as I place an order.
With time you will collect many data and you will realize that it is extremely important to back them up. I recommend using a cloud solution like Google Drive or OneDrive to have online backup. You can also use a NAS configured with RAID1 or RAID5 at home to avoid disk failure but remember to always keep data copies outside of your house as well. Similarly, keep a list (with photos and serial numbers) of your instruments, in case you need them one day for your insurance company in case of problem.
As you progress into your activities, you will sometimes feel some pressure. People might be waiting for your next blog post and you may feel like you owe them to finish this last experiment etc. All of that will progressively transform something that you had fun to do into something that generate stress. At the moment this happens, you should stop for a few weeks and wait for the passion to come back.
It is normal for your brain to have to rest and intense period of activities have to be compensated by relaxations periods. Working 100% of the time at full speed is the best way to blow up your mental health.
Also, we all have to take some time to pay the bills, clean the house, pick up the kids at school etc. Adapt your science activities to these mandatory tasks, not the inverse.
Starting a home lab has probably been the most extraordinary thing I did in my life. All the people I know today are somehow connected, even remotely, to the choice I made 20 years back. All of this started with a curiosity and me going to the DIY store one day during the summer 2001. I have sincerely no ideas what my life would have been if that day I had stayed at home.
I started this website in 2005 and uploaded the current version of it in 2014. In these many years, I received kind messages of people reading me and reproducing my experiments. Since 2019, some of them joined me on Patreon and started helping me financing my experiments. There is no word to say how thankful I am for that and how much it means to me.
I would therefore like to thanks again many time James, Daniel, Naif, Lilith, Cam, Samuel, Themulticaster, Sivaraman, Vaclav and Arif. Thank you all!
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