Reflections on Our Science Group

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By Timothy Raney…Bald Engineer Guy with Glasses

I want to discuss amateur science groups or clubs by using our group as an example. A lot of us probably do much of our work via e-mail, web-based meetings and the like. It makes sense in many ways and saves money, but it minimizes “face-to-face” interaction. Not all of us are fortunate enough to have trouble-free, high speed internet connections with high-definition (HD) video conferencing capabilities. These technologies are improving every day, but they will not replace a group of individuals “getting their hands dirty” while they connect and adjust apparatus for an experiment or demonstration. So, these reflections will focus on our science group’s history, its selected activities and my views on what makes it work.

Our group has been successful largely because it has committed members who hold regular meetings each month and one annual meeting where attendees come from across the country. We meet at two principle locations based on an annual schedule. These two factors helped establish a consistent framework that has endured for many years now.

In its first incarnation, the group was founded in May 1983 as the “Richmond Robotics Group” by Mr. Richard Hull (our esteemed leader for life) and it became the “Tesla Coil Builders of Richmond (TCBOR) in 1989, with many of the original members. In 2000, TCBOR morphed into the “High Energy Amateur Science” (HEAS) group.  The group’s name at various points reflected our interests as they changed over time. Though “HEAS” might need further clarification. We adopted this name to represent our scientific interests in a broader context. Our members are engineers, technicians, educators and others with an interest in various scientific disciplines. Thus, we share many interests, e.g., chemistry, electronics, computer science, magnetostatics, mineralogy and nuclear physics. So, “HEAS” is a fitting name for now. Moreover, our membership changes from time to time and HEAS still represents our pursuits accurately. What’s next? Time will tell – nothing stays the same.

When talking about establishing a science group, there are no real “recipes for success” in my mind.  Sure, there are certain factors that can increase its probability of success, but it is not necessarily a series of discrete steps executed within a defined structure. I suppose one could do it that way. However, a lot depends on the members themselves, the interests that bring them together and how they decide to use their time. In our case, it helps to have some degree of relaxed leadership, member participation and a regular meeting schedule. We don’t have any dues, a charter, bylaws or other trappings associated with a formal organization. Though we emphasize the importance of safety as our one rule. We do have a routine though. We meet for breakfast at a local restaurant and discuss whatever topics suit us. That’s how our meeting starts. Pretty exciting, right?

We then drive to our regular meeting location – it varies with the months. Most months, Mr. Hull hosts the meeting at his “lab/shop”. Other months, I host it at my garage “shop.” In both cases, we have the tools and equipment to work, do experiments or whatever else we have planned. Both places are essentially machine shops that support experimental physics studies. These particular meeting places promote “hands on science” exemplified by actual experimentation vs. the more theoretical activities one can do online. So, they are good meeting locations.

After arrival, we continue informal discussions and maybe have a “sneak preview” of the planned experiments or demonstrations. Afterwards, we start the formal meeting with the “sale and free stuff” event where we pillage someone’s junk box or we have something to sell or trade. What do we sell? You name it – electronic parts, metals, hardware, minerals, chemicals, vacuum tubes, old test instruments, wire, scientific apparatus, etc. It is great way to reduce clutter in your shop/lab or buy a unique item. One of our members had some scrap titanium tubing once – I bought all he had for a few dollars. What a deal.

After this feverish selling and scrambling for free stuff dies down, it’s “show and tell” time (self-explanatory). I know, this sounds like kindergarten. However, we’ll show items of scientist interest and it’s often very educational. For example, one of our members recently restored an early 20th Century Edison wet cell[1]. This particular zinc-copper oxide cell was often used as a power source for door bells or telegraph service. He explained the cell’s principles, brought period descriptive literature and discussed the challenges of restoring the cell to display quality. We then move on to the formal demonstrations, but how do we determine what to demonstrate?

As I mentioned above, the meetings follow a definite pattern, but it does change on occasion. In the case of our demonstrations, we started naming a theme ahead of time to focus our efforts. This was one way to increase group participation compared to having one or two members doing the demonstrations.

With an average of 10 attendees at a given meeting, the overall session is more interesting too. Relatively recent themes have included electrostatics, magnetic levitation and solar-photovoltaic (PV) energy conversion. One meeting’s theme was bringing a “show and tell” item made from hamfest, scrapyard or another source of “junk parts”. For the solar-PV meeting, several attendees brought solar panels and powered DC electric motors and a radio. One member showed a small surplus NASA solar-PV array designed for satellite power needs – he used it to run a radio. Another demonstrated a solar-PV driven gear motor that lifted a brick via a miniature winch assembly. Given the brick’s mass and the distance it was raised, he showed how one could calculate the total energy needed to lift the brick. I demonstrated my 5-watt solar-PV panel connected to a bipolar DC motor I built.

Another demonstration strategy was developing a contest. This event was the great “1-Volt Challenge” where two members competed. The contest challenged the group to build a device that converts one form of energy into electrical power, with an output goal of at least “1.0-volts”. This project concluded with each entrant demonstrating their entry. I developed performance criteria, rules and a simple points system – whoever has the most point’s wins. The goal was to generate a continuous minimum 1.0V potential (AC or DC) for 5-minutes or greater, measurable with a calibrated digital multimeter (DMM) or analog meter. The device can achieve the output potential under “open circuit” conditions with just the DMM as the load. The focus was on creativity and novelty. Any one of us could have brought a 1.5V alkaline cell or a solar-PV module that meets or exceeds the key performance criterion. However, the intent was to present novel solutions. The winner was a thermoelectric generator and the other entrant was a copper-zinc battery with a sodium chloride electrolyte. The other attendees judged the event and accorded points to each contestant. We elected not to present a prize and opted for the satisfaction of winning. Though a nifty periodic table of the elements coffee mug would have been a cool prize.

As for our demonstrations, many of my fact sheets on the Citizen Scientist’s League website have the details. We have demonstrated electrostatic motors and generators, capacitors, fluorescent minerals, exploding wires, table-top inertial electrostatic confinement fusion and Curie points. Other demonstrations have included cloud chambers, prospecting for uranium-bearing minerals, low-melting temperature alloys, discharge tubes, Tesla coil oscillators, various forms of energy conversion and test instrumentation techniques. This list only scratches the surface over the last few years.

Getting a group together to do hands-on vs. virtual science is a positive experience. There’s always a thrill of doing a real experiment and seeing the results agree (or not) with a hypothesis or seeing how close your mathematical approximations came to the actual results. A physical location with some rudimentary tools and equipment is all that’s needed. It might be difficult for some, but it is always worth a try. Additionally, the group is always quick to offer suggestions for improvement, often leading to better experimental results. Besides, they can also point out the reason the apparatus is not working is because you forgot to turn on the power.

These reflections focused on our science group’s history, some of its activities and my views on what makes it work. We have a group with committed members who hold regular meetings each month based on an annual schedule. This approach has endured since this group’s founding in 1983. We have adjusted our scientific focus over the years to suit our changing interests. Our science group does not have any real rules, but we do have a routine. When one of us functions as a leader, it is mostly for announcing the next demonstration or a meeting date. Our science group has done very well over the years promoting “hands on science” via real experiments, demonstrations and the requisite theoretical discussions. So, perhaps our science group is a reasonable example for those who wish to establish their own group. It’s well worth the effort.

Notes:

[1] Hawkins Electrical Guide Number One, Theo. Audel & Company, New York, 1917, pp. 50-51.

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