Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Ham Radio, Chemistry Kits, and the Future of American Science

I've been having a correspondence with Tom Coates, an amateur radio operator, who has brought to my attention some proposed legislation in Maryland to protect amateur radio antennas from local and home-owner association regulations. Ham radio is one route for young people to enter into the world of science and technology, one path to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty with something that will spark the intellect and imagination.

And it isn't only amateur radio. Steve Silberman has a fascinating article over at Wired about the fate of chemistry sets detailing the why and how they are being turned into sterilized, pointless, joyless magic kits that will inevitably fail to spark the imagination of would-be future scientists.

We have, Tom notes, slipped from third to seventeenth in the world in terms of the number of bachelor's degree recipients in the world (Tom Friedman in The World is Flat quotes this statistic on page 257). Yet, we fail to plant the seeds of scientific resurgence, in Tom's words:

I've been thinking about your article in the Baltimore Sun back in June. One solution to the problem of spreading a common understanding of science and technology through society has existed for almost a century--the Amateur Radio Service. Amateur (ham) Radio has also sparked some notable careers: The inventors of FM radio, the integrated circuit, the Apple Computer and the AltaVista search engine all acquired their interest in science and technology as teen-aged amateurs. Nobelists Jack Kilby, Michael Brown, MD, Joseph Taylor and Russell Hulse also started as teen-aged amateurs, as did Michael Griffin, the current Administrator of NASA.

More to your point are those who pursue non-technical occupations while enjoying Amateur Radio. Prof. L.B. Cebik of the University of Tennessee - Knoxville teaches aesthetics at the university and teaches antenna theory to hams. Singer- songwriter Joe Walsh of the Eagles band is an active amateur. Walter Cronkite is retired, but still on the air as a ham. Vice Admiral Donald Arthur, MD, Surgeon General of the Navy, is a new ham, licensed in 2005. Other notable examples are congressman Gregory Walden and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony.

You point out the scarcity of teachers like Mr. Wizard who explain the sciences to non-specialists. Good teaching is very important, of course, but shouldn't the objective be encouraging self-directed life-long learning? That is also one of the purposes of Amateur Radio, as specified in the Code of Federal Regulations title 47, Part 97.1. As you can see, it works.

Or at least it worked for a long time. Unfortunately, Amateur Radio is in a state of decline. The number of U.S. licensees has declined about 4% since peaking in 2003 and median age that year was 59, a new high. The publisher of the largest Amateur Radio magazine, QST, reported in June 2004 on page 45 that only 3% of its readers were under 35. The same article is my source for our advancing median age. Of course, everyone nowadays has a steadily growing menu of alternative leisure activities.

But there's another factor, too. Since the 1980s, real estate developers have routinely written antenna prohibitions into the land titles as restrictive covenants. This practice may have been originally instigated by cable television companies, but it persists even after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 invalidated such restrictions for a narrow list of television broadcast and Internet antennas. It is difficult to retain a teenager's interest in Amateur Radio after her or his parents
learn that experimentation with outside antennas could lead to trouble with the community association and possibly a lawsuit. Amateur Radio has become largely invisible.

Maryland Senate Bill 68 and House Bill 941 were introduced in the 2007 Maryland General Assembly session to remove Amateur Radio antennas from the control of developers and newly-formed homeowners associations, but, like more than 95% of the bills that session considered, they didn't pass. We plan to try again in 2008.
Those in Maryland, please do contact your local representatives and see if we can get this on the radar screen -- assuming the radar is still allowed, of course. Anyone know of similar efforts in other states?

What other means are there to rekindle the interest of Americans in science -- including kids, teens, and adults? In the 60s and 70s, the space program was sure to get the dreams of kids going. Shows like NOVA got to me hooked into a lifelong love affair with all sorts of big questions related to the nature of science and the universe. Ham radio and chemistry kits are tried and true. What other novel routes should we also look to bolster, especially in terms of interesting girls as well as boys?