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Saturday, September 13, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Group finds inner child in experiments, explosions

Seattle Times staff reporter

Amid the cream puffs, animal cookies and Ziploc bags of homemade Chinese food that litter Bill Beaty's kitchen, a dozen or so men circle the microwave.

Inside are three overturned paper cups supporting an overturned Pyrex bowl. Underneath the bowl is a candle with toothpicks sticking out the top. "Turn off the lights!" someone yells as everyone leans in.

"This is when I usually leave the kitchen," says Jerry Redfern, backing away.

Beaty lights the candle, closes the door and sets the timer for a few seconds.

As if from nowhere, a bright blue ball of plasma balloons up inside the bowl, casting an eerie glow on the darkened room. The appliance buzzes ominously.

"Whoa! There goes the Pyrex!"

The timer clicks off before the heat gets so intense they bust another microwave, but the experiment does ignite a heated discussion about the science behind the phenomenon, and what causes the blue glow.

Enter Seattle's Weird Science Salon.

Pushing the boundary of the scientifically accepted attracts those who call themselves "weird scientists" to Beaty's Ballard house on the first Friday night of the month. Amateur scientists, who pursue science as a pastime and not a profession, and hobbyists also attend.

Discussing the contributions of inventor Nikola Tesla until 3 a.m. might be peculiar to certain minds. The need to belong is not.

"It's a reinforcement of your self-image to go to a place where people think like you do and you're not a nobody," Redfern said. "It's a very strong aspect of human nature."

Since it began in an electronics surplus store on Lake Union nearly 20 years ago, the group has seen longtime members and many one-time visitors. They've gathered at various locations, including a warehouse where a member built a lightning-generating Tesla coil that threw sparks 15 feet into the air.

The group is popular with hobbyists, Boeing engineers, academics and kids alike. They are all men, save for the occasional woman who attends. The meetings are "not a great place to get a date," as one member puts it.

Many answer Beaty's call to the universe: "Attention all Tesla worshippers, free-energy buffs, 'crazy' inventors, anomaly hunters, scalar researchers, anti-gravitationalists."

So goes the message he posts on what he says has become a very popular Web site and most recently a Webby Award nominee (www.amasci.com).

Beaty devotes countless hours to the science-fair experiments, science-textbook criticisms, and hundreds of articles and links he's created for his Web site. "I do it to bend the minds of the young toward science."

Beaty, who had what he calls a Zen Buddhism-influenced upbringing in Guam with his "weird" teacher parents, moved to New York at age 9 after his father died. A foreigner to American culture, Beaty was an instant outsider.

"I didn't like the normal world, so I escaped into science and reading an enormous amount of books," said Beaty, who is well into his 40s and divorced. "As a kid, I wanted to discover something no one else had seen before and then play with it before anyone else got to."

Over the years, he discovered how to draw holograms by hand and developed theories on the causes of traffic jams. He discovered how the plans of Tesla, an early-1900s inventor, to transmit voice, pictures and electricity via wireless broadcasting towers worked in theory.

Tesla, perhaps the uncrowned king of the weird-science subculture, is revered by some who allege he invented the radio, the AC motor, high-voltage power lines, the Tesla coil and other wonders.

Beaty, who earns a living working at the University of Washington's chemistry electronics services, admits the things he's discovered are largely pretty useless. And every time he thinks he's close to discovering something that might prove financially valuable, he gets distracted by the next cool thing.

"He's not in it for the money," Redfern said. "He has a childlike sense of wonder."

The best part of science, Beaty adds, is that you never have to leave your garage. "But a lot of the basement-inventor crowd want to be billionaires," he said. "They're like old prospectors trying to find gold mines, not realizing if they actually hit something, it will usually destroy their lives."

Redfern drew an analogy to alchemy, the ancient goal of trying to turn base metals into gold and achieving immortality by gaining a profound knowledge of how the world really works. By the time those of good heart earned this wisdom, they would no longer care to become rich in worldly ways, Redfern said.

And like the weird-science subculture, he said, alchemy could also breed greed. "There are people that are pursuing the dream and it kind of attracts the best and worst of humanity."

On Beaty's front porch on a recent evening, North Seattle Community College student Monty Reed worked on a prototype of a robotic exoskeleton.

Reed, who spent nine years regaining the ability to walk after a failed military parachute-jump exercise, has dedicated his life to building a functional robotic suit that paralyzed people can wear.

"Until all those people are walking," he said, "I'll be kept busy."

Kevin Hilbiber said what attracts him to the meetings is how the members' ideas build off each other. Hilbiber, recently laid off from his job at Radar Inc., a Bothell electronic-components distributor, opened his own electronic and electromechanical surplus store last spring. He's building a 3-foot-tall Tesla coil to greet customers at the door, he said.

Hilbiber's store, House of Science, caters to tinkerers, parents with kids doing science-fair projects and robotics fans. But Hilbiber learned from Reed's robotic model that he'd been junking what turned out to be some useful parts for hobbyists.

"I picked up ideas from him," Hilbiber said. "That's synergy."

Next to Reed, others ate ice cream as the sun began to set.

The talk included how atoms absorb light waves and whether Edison got undue credit for Tesla's inventions.

As one member put it, Tesla may have been the greatest inventor of the 1900s, but he wasn't a good businessman. Edison was.

As Beaty explained, "when you go after the money, you're not being a little kid anymore."

And when you stop being a little kid, he said, your creativity is asleep.

Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company

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