'Off the Shelf' Science

At the ExtroBrit meetings, we have sometimes talked about the possibility of non-professional scientists constructing complex instrumentation, such a scanning tunneling microscope (STM) as a project. The latest design for a PC based spectrometer, linked to the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Paris, demonstrates that many research programmes, once limited to universities due to expense and bespoke design, are now opening up to hobbyists.

Using commercial-off-the-shelf cards and RF Engines' cores in FPGAs, institute engineers built an FFT spectrometer that can fit into a standard PC, replacing the huge rack-mounted systems traditionally used, Klein said.

Radio telescope systems have gone through a string of generational design changes over the past 20 years. The analog filter-based spectrometer gave way to an acoustic optical version, later supplanted by autocorrelation spectrometers, Klein said. The digital FFT spectrometer, which Klein called the fourth-generation radio telescope, is designed to handle more frequency channels than previous systems and to see finer resolutions of spectrum.

Whilst the latest version of the spectrometer is still built by engineers, using a combination of bought parts and specifically engineered cores, the next generation will probably be open to the radio telescope hobbyists who dot the globe. Examples can be found here, here in Cambridge and here as a non-profit corporation.

There are plenty of examples. What strikes me as one of the least discussed aspects of the information revolution is the decrease in costs for scientific instrumentation combined with the potential of computing power as digital replaces analogue. For those who are interested in science, the barriers to entry are lowering and the possibilities for achieving research objectives are far higher.

Not everyone wants to work on science, but for enthusiasts who do, it is faster, better and cheaper.

Philip Chaston (22.40, 23rd February 2004)

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