Sunday, August 29, 2010

Become a Scientist for $1

One dollar. That’s what it costs to become a scientist now.

Or, anyway, that’s now the price of a scientific calculator. Yes, they are now sold in stores that don’t charge more than a dollar for anything.

Despite the low price, the $1 scientific calculator is not a trivial tool. You can do real science with it. It does the mathematical computations involved in ordinary scientific questions and experiments, not to mention the exercises of college-level courses in math, science, and finance.

For years, this kind of math was done mostly with pen and paper. It could take days just to add up the results of a simple biology experiment, and more days to double-check the answer. Simpler computations could be approximated on a slide rule, an analog device based on a slider with marks on it, used mainly for multiplying and dividing. Computers came along, but access to computers was a substantial obstacle at first, and the cost, size, and power requirements of computers remain an obstacle in some places — if you’re out in the field, or sitting in a classroom. Scientific calculators under $100 arrived in the 1970s and revolutionized science. Among other things, studies based on observations from decades earlier could finally be completed in a cost-effective way.

I have a feeling that the $1 price for the scientific calculator may have equally important consequences — not so much for professional scientists, for whom a price of $100 or $50 already wasn’t particularly a financial barrier, but perhaps in other, unexpected areas.