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Who Needs Professionals?

Author and New York Times Magazine contributing editor Jack Hitt has written a book called Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character, in which he talks about how important garage tinkerers and weekend innovators are in America, and how much they contributed to all facets of society. In an excerpt of the book published in Popular Science, Hitt says the next breakthrough in synthetic biology may come from an amateur scientist tinkering around in a garage. "Ever since Ben Franklin left Boston for Philadelphia, and continuing right up through when Mark Zuckerberg abandoned Harvard Square for Palo Alto, there has been this sense that a certain kind of creativity happens on the fly, often on the lam, after beginning in one of those proving grounds of American ingenuity: the dorm room, the weekend hobby club, the garage," Hitt writes. He describes San Francisco resident and DIY biologist Meredith Patterson, who shows Hitt her equipment made up of common household devices, takes him to a Trader Joe's where she gets some of her supplies, and gives him a demonstration of her work with green fluorescent protein.

"Ask most people about the amateur spirit, and they'll say, well, that was then. It's almost common wisdom that the golden age of the self-invented upstart ended sometime about a generation ago," Hitt writes. "But the fact is, we've been hearing this line for at least a century, and it's always wrong. The time of outsiders and amateurs and cranks is not a bygone era, but rather a cycle that comes around just when you think it's over. This cycle is an essential part of America's history — arguably the country's genesis story."

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