Amateur Scientists
November 15, 2002 2:57 AM   Subscribe

Amateurs, Mere Amateurs still make significant contributions to astronomy [The Canadian Laval group's website is typically enthusiastic] and may yet make a difference in other sciences, according to Freeman J. Dyson in this review of Steve Guttenberg lookalike Timothy Ferris's latest book [Here's an enticing glimpse of his home-made Rocky Hill Observatory.]. I wonder just how much easier it's becoming for amateurs to contribute to specific areas of scientific knowledge? Or is it, in fact, increasingly more difficult? And would it still be strictly limited to the observational sciences?
posted by MiguelCardoso (8 comments total)

I can't say much for other observational sciences, but there are many of us professional amateurs in astronomy. Most of us professional amateurs discover stuff like supernovas and comets all the time using our own telescopes (sometimes handmade), often beating out the teams of university researchers using expensive equipment designed for that specific purpose.
posted by jasonspaceman at 3:18 AM on November 15, 2002

Miguel, most scientific research is observational. (*Rimshot)

As for investigative fields where amateur findings compliment the daily work of research boards, much of the work is often grounded in "habitual" studies (geology, climatology, astronomy, and nutrition) as that's the easiest means for the layperson to become involved. Land/earth/sky watching is an activity which is ingrained into our behavior to some degree. Without any substantial formal training, but with enough time, patience and enthusiasm on hand, nearly anyone, at any age, can actively participate.

The gap has started to close in areas such as archeology for numerous legal and practical reasons. While seminars and formal instruction can help bridge those barriers, the real "heavy lifting" - thesis documentation, international grant acquisition, management and distrubition of archival materials - still falls upon the parties with the most experience and skill.
posted by Smart Dalek at 4:19 AM on November 15, 2002

And no, I didn't have to Google any of my findings. :)
posted by Smart Dalek at 4:21 AM on November 15, 2002

hmmm. amateurs, by definition, give their time for free. if you charged for that time then the "expensive equipment" would look much cheaper and more effective.

(as an ex-astronomer i have to say that the article sounded rather optimistic to me. astronomers don't push for larger and more expensive telescopes just because they like wasting money - they're necessary tools (and tools that amateurs astronomers can't afford). "many eyeballs" can help out only when the objects are relatively bright - which is generally not the interesting case (supernovae being the honourable exception)).
posted by andrew cooke at 4:38 AM on November 15, 2002

I think that right now, it's possible for amateur astronomers to make significant discoveries, particularly in the field of supernovae and asteroid detection - but perhaps that opportunity will disappear as professional astronomical projects become more advanced and far reaching.

In a couple of decades time, projects like the incredible GAIA will be routinely detecting up to a million new Solar System objects at fainter magnitudes than will be possible by amateur astronomers.

The advent of the internet and the increase in computing power is really shifting the focus of astronomy to large scale international collaborations.
posted by astro38 at 9:42 AM on November 15, 2002

It's the unfortunate case that in physics, in particular, and in chemistry to a lesser degree, most of the activity brought to us by general public is generated by cranks, cooks and scam artists. Every researcher whose name is available to the public has their own set of kook stories. Perpetual motion machines, "quantum" and/or "gravity" theories, and the terrors of aluminum cookware are the varieties I've personally been involved with. The Time Cube guy is a typical physics kook.

My favourite so far was a guy who was sending out videotapes showing that by wrapping wires around a wide variety of paper rolls, he could produce electricity. The hour-long video consisted of him, walking around his house, hooking electrical appliances, a light bulb, a blender, a tv, up to an improbable-looking array of these hand-wound "transformers" glued to a square metre of plywood. Each demonstration had a curious formula: a brief discussion of his amazing invention, the denouement with the appliance, followed by a series of passes with a hoola-hoop to show that only the appliance was connected to his board of coils and a vigorous denial of the use of any external power source. This culminated with him running his washing machine, and included an audience of his extended family, who each introduced themselves beforehand. It was entirely charming. I never did figure out his angle. Unfortunately I have long ago passed the tape on and no longer have a copy.
posted by bonehead at 11:05 AM on November 15, 2002

Oops, forgot to mention my own new field of amateur interest, orca studies....and the old standby hobby, neurosurgery.

posted by fold_and_mutilate at 2:38 PM on November 15, 2002

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