Amateur Scientists Making Significant Discoveries While Fighting To Receive Recognition And Respect

Discoveries While Fighting To Receive Recognition And Respect In Tucson, Ariz., David Levy is a freelance writer and educator who spends his nights watching the desert sky for comets. STRUGGLE: Forrest Mims III, shown during a trip to the Mauna Loa Observatory, has encountered resistance to hisefforts to work at the site. In Miami, Randy McCranie is a postal worker who has conducted extensive investigations as a field biologist in Honduras. And in Seguin, Texas, Forrest M. Mims III is a pro

Bruce Bigelow
Jun 9, 1996

Discoveries While Fighting To Receive Recognition And Respect In Tucson, Ariz., David Levy is a freelance writer and educator who spends his nights watching the desert sky for comets.

STRUGGLE: Forrest Mims III, shown during a trip to the Mauna Loa Observatory, has encountered resistance to hisefforts to work at the site.
In Miami, Randy McCranie is a postal worker who has conducted extensive investigations as a field biologist in Honduras.

And in Seguin, Texas, Forrest M. Mims III is a prolific science writer and inventor who has gained renown for his studies of the atmosphere and notoriety for his views on evolution.

Each seems to have little in common with the others, but they all are amateur scientists who have struggled alone at times to prove their capabilities to the scientific establishment. These days, however, amateurs may feel a little less lonely in their quest for respect.

While it is difficult to measure such things, amateurs today seem to be making significant contributions across a broad range of scientific disciplines-especially in astronomy and field biology.

"What's really exciting is that we're making new discoveries with amateurs," reports David B. Wake, a professor of integrative biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

Increasing numbers of scientists, for example, are making use of data collected each year by volunteers during the Audubon Society Christmas Bird Count (E. Pennisi, The Scientist, Dec. 11, 1989, page 1). Indeed, many scientists prize the data gathered for the avian census and similar biological surveys.

Another reason amateurs may feel less lonely is the existence of the Society for Amateur Scientists, which was established in San Diego two years ago to coordinate amateur studies in a variety of scientific fields.

The group's founder, Shawn Carlson, explains that he formed the society specifically to help its members pass muster with journal editors and other gatekeepers of the scientific establishment.

"We work very hard to separate the amateur from the amateurish," he says. With more than 400 members, the society funds its operations chiefly from a $35 annual membership fee and from charitable contributions. In addition, Carlson arranges for professional oversight of amateur research and finds projects for scientific wannabes.

"We try to divide our energies between projects that are very simple, that we know will make contributions, and projects that are grand schemes we can't be sure will bear fruit," he notes.

By amateur standards, Carlson's only disadvantage is that he has a professional pedigree. He earned a doctorate in physics at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1989.

Nevertheless, the 35-year-old Carlson sees himself as an ardent advocate for amateurs. He founded the society especially for practitioners frustrated by an unwritten law of academics: Those who try to enter the rarefied atmosphere of research without credentials will find it difficult to breathe.

Carlson's own grandfather, whom he describes as "an amateur scientist extraordinaire," was stymied in his efforts to publish his experiments. Carlson says his "Grandpa Don" wore his ostracism like a badge of honor. The society founder hopes to help amateurs overcome such sometimes-unbearable snobbery of science.

"I still see it very much as an assault on the ivory tower," he asserts. "Not so much against institutions as the attitude that only professionals can conduct research. All it does is slow things down and add frustration to the lives of very creative people whose contributions are not being recognized."

Such biases have even worked their way into politics. Wake, a strong supporter of amateurs, says he was appalled last year when the United States House of Representatives restricted plans to use volunteers in a national biological survey proposed by the U.S. Department of Interior.

Biological surveys traditionally depend on volunteers, including university and museum researchers, conservation groups, and amateur naturalists. Such fieldwork usually involves enumerating the flora and fauna of a particular region.

But Congress cut funding for the National Biological Service (from roughly $167 million to $137 million in fiscal 1996) and stipulated that volunteers could not work on private lands without the permission of property owners.

The possibility that an army of amateurs might find endangered species on private lands apparently set off alarms among congressional opponents. Congress also decided to fold the service into the U.S. Geological Survey by October 1, which has triggered additional administrative upheavals for the program.

Wake and others familiar with the National Biological Service say congressional opponents of the program were motivated by partisan politics-not by any professed lack of confidence in amateurs.

"My field is absolutely filled with outstanding amateurs-people who practice with distinction," maintains Wake.

"There are a lot of people out there who are excellent biologists," he comments. His coauthors have included Miami postman McCranie and Chuck Brown, a teacher at a Santa Rosa, Calif., community college.

AIMING HIGH: NASA's Steve Maran says amateurs are relied upon in astronomy.
In astronomy, most amateurs contribute by identifying comets, variable stars, and stellar occultations, according to Steve Maran, spokesman for the American Astronomical Society and assistant director of space sciences at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA's) Goddard Space Flight Center.

"I think amateurs are relied on more now than they were when I got my start in this field," says Maran, 57. "There are now hundreds of people out there with CCDs [charge-coupled devices] and computer-controlled telescopes making precise observations."

Society for Amateur Scientists
4951 D Clairemont Square
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Tel: (800)873-8767
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David Levy, an amateur who gained fame in 1994 as a codiscoverer of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, notes dryly that professional-quality research requires more than merely owning an expensive telescope equipped with electronic light sensors.

"It's still done the hard way," Levy points out. He explains that such work requires a background in physics and mathematics, and the ability to do the necessary research. He points out that he himself learned to do research while working to obtain his bachelor's and master's degrees in English literature. The rest he picked up along the way.

The skywatcher acknowledges that he's never encountered problems or resistance among credentialed astronomers, despite his amateur status.

"Generally, the treatment has been fantastic," says Levy, who has earned a living chiefly as a freelance science writer. His accomplishments include 15 books and 21 comet discoveries.

But such treatment is hardly universal, and Carlson reports that amateurs still frequently encounter professional scientists who act like the haughty Star-Bellied Sneetches in the children's tale by Dr. Seuss.

One of the most visible amateur researchers is Forrest M. Mims III, a scientific adviser to the Society for Amateur Scientists who triggered a media tempest of almost biblical proportions back in 1990.

Mims gained attention throughout the U.S. by disclosing that Scientific American magazine had withdrawn an invitation to him to write its "Amateur Scientist" column after the editor learned Mims was an evangelical Christian who rejected the Darwinian theory of evolution (F.M. Mims III, The Scientist, Feb. 18, 1991, page 11). The magazine's editor said at the time that Mims's religious views had nothing to do with his decision.

The controversy had a galvanizing effect on Mims, who vowed to demonstrate that "a person who believes in God can do decent science with or without a degree."

Most of Mims's research in recent years has focused on atmospheric studies, and he received a Rolex Award in 1993 for work that included a homemade, portable spectrometer for measuring atmospheric ozone (Notebook, The Scientist, June 28, 1993, page 4). He used the $33,000 prize (50,000 Swiss francs) to build 32 additional spectrometers, and he has worked to establish a global network of ground-based ozone detectors.

Mims also published his research in peer-reviewed scientific journals, and won support among scientists at Goddard, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But he says a couple of influential scientists have tried to thwart him. One, whom he declines to name, forbade him from making atmospheric observations at Hawaii's Mauna Loa Observatory, he reports.

"I judge people not by their educational background but by their achievements in life," Mims maintains. "I wish scientists would do the same."

He notes that his work for the Society for Amateur Scientists consists mainly of contributing to the group's Internet Web site. This online activity includes answering questions about atmospheric science from children and adults.

Carlson says Mims has been more active than most of the society's other scientific advisers, and he welcomes his help. (Ironically, Carlson was named last year to write the "Amateur Scientist" column for Scientific American, with Mims's blessing.)

"I differ with him sharply on the issue of creationism vs. evolution," Carlson comments. "But that's not a reason not to accept his views in atmospheric science and other fields."

As for unified field theories and other ideas that may not pass scientific muster, Carlson says he has tried to organize the society so professional scientists or experienced amateurs can oversee research done by its members.

Besides Mims, the society's 30-member advisory board includes Arthur Schawlow, a Nobel laureate in physics from Stanford University, and geologist Steven M. Stanley of Johns Hopkins University. It also includes skeptics such as James Randi, the noted debunker of paranormal feats, and Martin Gardner, the eminent science writer and historian.

"You can't subvert the peer-review process," Carlson states. "We're not trying to subvert the processes of science that have worked so well for 300 years, we're trying to widen them. That's why we're not trying to publish our own journal. We don't want to publish the original research of amateurs. We're trying to get them published in established journals."

Such oversight can be reassuring, especially among scientists who suggest that helping amateurs is a minefield they'd just as soon avoid.

WARY: Geophysicist Anthony Fraser-Smith says offering guidance to amateurs is time-consuming.
Anthony Fraser-Smith, a professor of geophysics at Stanford University, for example, says he doesn't have anything against amateurs-as long as they're professional.

Fraser-Smith's research took an unexpected turn in 1989, when he detected a powerful surge in ultra-low frequency radio signals in the days before the Loma Prieta earthquake. The serendipitous discovery has set the physicist on a search for a possible precursors to major quakes, and drawn interest from many quarters.

"A couple of people have been calling up, begging for information," he remarks. "I don't know who they are. They took up a lot of my time on the telephone that I don't think will be of any use to anybody. That's the kind of thing I'm scared of. I don't have time for it."

On the other hand, Fraser-Smith says: "Given the fact that there's so little government money around the place, it's almost necessary to set up some kind of situation with amateurs."

What's needed, he believes, are experts who can provide amateurs with the guidance they need to collect accurate measurements and interpret the data properly.

"It would be almost a full-time job for me to provide that kind of reference for them," Fraser-Smith maintains. But Carlson says that's exactly the sort of purpose he hopes his society can fulfill.

Aside from his group's scientific advisory board, Carlson notes that the society's four-member board of directors includes Paul MacCready, the renowned aeronautical engineer who built the human-powered Gossamer Condor, and Glenn Seaborg, an 84-year-old Nobel laureate in chemistry.

"I would think that nearly all scientists would be in favor of having their ranks expanded by amateurs," comments Seaborg, who still works at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. "One of our aims should be to help the public understand science better."

Bruce V. Bigelow is a reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune and a freelance science writer.