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We're All Mad Scientists Now

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The pendulum has swung, and it's cool to be a nerd again. No longer must we attend science lectures in dusty classrooms in some remote corner of a university campus. We now have TED lectures online, where scientists have become rock stars strutting a stage. Books by physicists and neurobiologists regularly hit bestseller lists. On The Colbert Report and The Daily Show, guests are as likely to be sporting scientific Ph.D.s as they are to be political pundits.

Such a resurgence of interest in all things scientific has sparked a new movement. Not only has science become more popular, but it's become more populist. With today's easy access to technology and knowledge, do-it-yourself (DIY) scientists are popping up all over the United States. The fringes of scientific exploration have shifted out of the white towers of university labs and into neighborhood garages and basements.

Back in 2001, it cost $10,000 to sequence a million base pairs of DNA. Today it costs roughly 10 cents. As a consequence of that drop in price, it is now possible to build a genetics lab in your own backyard -- and people are doing just that. The cyberpunks of the past have become the biopunks of today, hacking into genetic codes as readily as computer codes. In closets and attics around the world, ordinary people are creating synthetic life, performing experiments with genetic engineering, or patenting DNA sequences. Already success stories abound, like a new vaccine against stomach ulcers discovered by a group of Slovenian students, none of whom have even a bachelor's degree.

But with such discoveries come risks. The ready availability of such tools to create new life forms, including pathogens, makes it much harder to regulate, especially as the number of these homegrown labs proliferates. The FBI's Weapons of Mass Destruction Directorate's Biological Countermeasures Unit attempts to police such labs, but even they recognize the limits to their reach and instead encourage a "neighborhood watch" -- like cooperation among such labs. So, in the end, it raises the question: Will such grassroots research lead to a cure for cancer, or will it unleash some Franken-microbe into the world? Only time will tell.

The same burst of homegrown experimentation is happening in the material sciences, too, where 3D printers hold the promise to revolutionize not only manufacturing but medicine and food production. Yet with the precipitous drop in the cost of such devices (from the $50,000 range to $1,000), experimentation with this new technology has shifted out of corporate labs and into the fringes of the Wild West. On May 6, 2013, the first firearm produced from a printer was fired successfully. But the true threat of such newly minted weapons (manufactured out of hardened resin) is that they could pass undetected through most screening processes. And now others are working at producing ammunition from these same printers. How long will it be until an entire arsenal could be downloaded and printed at home? The short answer: not long at all.

Elsewhere, DIY scientists are taking a more personal approach: experimenting on their own bodies. A growing movement, called transhumanism, merges technology and biology in an attempt to expand the human condition, to enhance both the physical and intellectual capacity of the body. Sometimes referred to as "biohacking," there are warehouses and backroom surgical facilities that for the right price will alter your body in surprising and new ways. Some individuals have had radio frequency identification (RFID) chips inserted under their skin. Such chips allow the wearers to unlock their cars, cell phones, or password-protected laptops merely by touching them.

Others have had tiny rare-earth magnets implanted near their fingertips that vibrate in the presence of electromagnetic fields. Those I've interviewed describe these newly sensed fields as having texture, shape, rhythms, and even colors. It allows them to sense the flow of electricity through wires, to "feel" a hard drive that is malfunctioning, or to even diagnose a misfiring carburetor. Such magnets open up an entirely new way of experiencing the world. And once accustomed to them, it's apparently hard to go back. Many say they feel blind without them. It definitely is a new world out there, and now DIY biohackers are finding new ways to explore it.

The next frontier for these DIY scientists is crowdfunding, where they are beginning to pool their resources. In Sunnyvale, Calif., a new 2000-square-foot lab opened, funded by a Kickstarter campaign, called the BioCurious Community Lab. From the lab's website, the end goal is clear: "We believe that innovations in biology should be accessible, affordable, and open to everyone. We're building a community biology lab for amateurs, inventors, entrepreneurs, and anyone who wants to experiment with friends." After a short training class on safety protocols, anyone with an interest in experimenting with the building blocks of life will have access to a bevy of equipment normally available only at major biology labs.

And this is only the beginning. This current trend of democratizing science is growing rapidly, stripping exploration of science from the purview of academia and corporate control and placing it into the hands of anyone with the passion to know more about the mysteries of life. For better or worse, it allows us all to be mad scientists out there -- which is both exhilarating and very, very frightening. But isn't that how all great adventures start?