Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Carving niches: are there still roles for amateur scientists?

Until the mid-nineteenth century the majority of scientists seem to have been unsalaried, so the barrier between paid practitioners and the rest of us is relatively recent. It has been said that with the contemporary emphasis on expensive equipment and increasing specialisation there is no room for dabblers in the field, but there is plenty of evidence to negate this. A good starting point is this year's BBC Amateur Scientist of the Year competition, which garnered over 1300 applications, some admittedly a bit on the fruitier side. So whilst Britain doesn't have anything to compete with the USA's Society for Amateur Scientists, there's clearly no lack of enthusiasm.

But of course anyone can dream up a bizarre idea without putting in the 99% perspiration afterwards. It is the latter that proves the mettle of the amateur scientist, prepared to doggedly test a hypothesis or utilise scientific techniques as and when time becomes available. It also seems to be true that there are very few amateur theoreticians: by and large, if you engage in science for fun, you're a practical person at heart. Many dedicate years to the cause, from those who tally local wildlife numbers (occasionally identifying new species, of which there are still plenty to be described scientifically) to the likes of Simon Cansick, whose website provides constantly updated weather forecasting data for his Yorkshire village. Mr Cansick may sound like the archetypal British eccentric, but his level of accuracy has apparently caused local farmers to snub the Met Office in favour of instead.

The two main areas I've always considered easy for an amateur to explore are astronomy and palaeontology, mostly because the necessary equipment is comparatively cheap and readily available. Whilst large telescopes can cost a fortune, some enthusiasts build at least some of the mount themselves (as recommended by Patrick Moore, no less), if not necessarily going to the lengths of the brother and sister team William and Caroline Herschel, who several centuries ago cast telescope mirrors using the likes of horse dung for moulds. As a child I had a small refractor which was reasonably adequate for the limited seeing conditions in the light polluted sky of my small home town. I did however build my own observatory shed, complete with a sliding roof made from old wardrobe doors. Ah, the folly of youth!

Whilst it may seem daft for backyard astronomers to compete with 10 metre reflectors and orbiting telescopes, the world record for visual discoveries of supernovae is held by the Australian amateur Robert Evans, who has mostly utilised a variety of reflectors with primary mirrors under 50cm. Another example of amateurs at the forefront is the network, which helps part-time astronomers hunt for extra-solar planets using a combination of backyard telescopes and digital cameras, although to be sure the latter need to be in the several thousand pounds range.

As for palaeontology, I have already covered the delights of fossicking in an earlier post, although sad to say my daughters recently came away empty-handed from a trip to the Isle of Wight. Chips off the old block, they were lulled into thinking they might find dinosaur bone or even pterosaur remains by a University of Portsmouth palaeontologist they spoke to at the Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition. Instead, the family returned with depressingly lightweight sample bags, the stars of which were a heavily worn tooth (most likely crocodile) and a possible gastrolith. As a brief aside, I must mention that the Royal Society event at London's South Bank Centre was in itself a superb example of encouraging amateur participation in science, with even my four year old donning goggles and latex gloves to conduct some nanoparticle experiments.

All in all, the idea that amateurs cannot conduct useful or even just enjoyable science couldn't be more wrong. And with the likes of cardboard telescope and microscope kits available for under twenty pounds, children can easily get on the bandwagon too, perhaps with a touch of parental persuasion. Now I have to go back the workbench and a 12 volt rotary grinding tool, as I've promised my children I'll find out whether the Isle of Wight tooth could just possibly be from a small iguanadon after all...

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