What is the Role of an Amateur Scientist?

By George Hrabovsky, President of MAST.

What is a scientist? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary there are two possible definitions. The first is, "A person learned in science and especially natural science." The second is, "A scientific investigator." We can combine these to form the following, "A scientific investigator learned in natural science." What does that mean? What is a scientific investigator? What constitutes being learned in natural science? What is natural science?

Let us begin with the last. The dictionary defines natural science as, "Any of the sciences (such as physics, chemistry, or biology) that deal with matter, energy, and their interrelations and transformations or with objectively measurable phenomena." We can look at this with a trained scientific eye and reword this in a more informative way, "Any study that seeks to address issues of objectively measurable matter, energy, and/or its interrelations and transformations." Let us see how this applies to botany. Botany objectively measures (in a controlled laboratory environment) matter (plants), energy (the heat production from internal processes in plants), the transformations of matter (plant growth), the transformations of energy (the production of heat over time), and the interrelations of matter and energy (the photosynthetic cycle); so botany is a natural science. Good! This seems to work.

To be learned in science, according to the dictionary, is, "To gain knowledge or understanding of or skill in natural science by study, instruction, or experience." That seems pretty reasonable.

A scientific investigator is then, "One who is learned in natural science and uses the principles and procedures of natural science for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses."

Okay. Now we know what a scientist is. What is an amateur scientist? According to the dictionary, an amateur is, "A devotee, an admirer, one who engages in a pursuit, study, science, or sport as a pastime rather than as a profession, one lacking in experience and competence in an art or science." Let us then say that an amateur scientist is, "One who is a scientific investigator as a pastime rather than a profession."

Now that we know what an amateur scientist is, what is the role of the amateur? No, really, what can we expect to accomplish with relatively no money, relatively little in the way of professional-level training, in a world where the professionals live and die by the motto, "Publish or perish?"

This question is not an easy one to address, for it deals with nothing less than the standing of individual accomplishments and rights within a societal structure where decisions are primarily based upon what is accepted by the majority of its members. That's right, in case you were not paying attention to developments over the last four hundred years; scientific truth is determined by majority rule!

There are several factors to consider.

  1. What is the quality of work done by an amateur compared to that of a professional?
  2. How does an amateur get the word out so that their ideas can become part of the scientific establishment?
  3. Is it necessary for amateurs to have their work become part of the scientific establishment?
We can address the first question in an interesting way. Simply ask, "Is money the answer to a question?" In other words do you need a Large Hadron Collider, Nuclear Reactor, or Level IV Containment Facility to do your work? If the answer is yes, then unless you can get access to existing facilities of the type you need you are doomed. Finished. End of game. Start over with something you can do. Do you have a background in differential geometry, algebraic and differential topology, functional analysis, general relativity, and high energy physics? Then stay away from cosmology and quantum gravity. Are you interested in stuff you can reasonably fit into your living space, within a reasonable budget of a hobby, and within a reasonable period of time (say a few months)? Then you have found something worth pursuing as an amateur! You have now found something that you can do that will be competitive with the pros. Is that possible? Of course; amateur astronomers have been finding variable stars (stars that vibrate) for decades, they have also been finding asteroids and comets, most storm chasers are amateurs (and many are better than the pros). If you have the time/money/inclination almost nothing is beyond your reach. Once you have sufficient background begin to attend seminars and colloquia at a local university, make contacts within the departments that interest you, and after you have demonstrated your interest and capability you might be able to join a research group (and get access to some amazing stuff)!

Let us say you are working in your home lab, making numerical models on your computer, tramping in the wilderness gathering observations, or making mathematical models or derivations on a stack of paper; and you actually think you have discovered something of interest. Now what? Do you just file that away and not tell anyone? Sure, that is certainly one way to react. I think such activity is criminal (and Isaac Newton was notorious for this). If you find something interesting, tell the world! How? You could write up a web page and put your stuff out there for all to see. The only problem is that scientific results must be reproducible, so you must give enough information so that anyone can duplicate your results. Now that you have it out there, how do you get anyone to take a look? How do you get anyone to take it seriously? Most people do not have the time or inclination to cruise individual web sites looking for nuggets (there are billions of them).

The only way to reliably get your material out there is to publish in the format that has existed for the last two hundred years or so. You write a paper describing what you have found. If you don't like it, tough! That's the way the world works and you won't stop it! If you want the mainstream to look at your work and take it seriously then you have to jump through the same hoops as everyone else in the mainstream. If you think your work deserves special treatment, or that you don't want to compromise your precious intellectual freedom; then no one will take you or your work seriously. Period. End of game. You will live out your life puttering in obscurity.

If you are serious about being an amateur scientist then you must face some harsh realities. The pros don't like us! They see us as bunglers and dabblers who are unwilling to spend the time and effort they went through to be able to do the work they do. They are completely right in this attitude! If you have not bothered to master the subjects and techniques you are interested in then you will not be able to make any meaningful contributions! Claims to the contrary are simply damning the darkness. If you have done the work then you deserve the credit due you. The only way to get it is to have your work where everyone can see it. Learn the scientific style of writing, learn to use TeX, or a system that converts your work into TeX. Write your papers and give them to an expert to see if it is worth publishing; chances are the first few papers will be garbage and worthless (or incomprehensible). If you stick with it you will eventually write one that is worth publishing. Submit it to a journal (you will likely have to pay a submission fee for this, but it is possible to get that waived, one way is to write the paper with an established expert as co-author and then have that person's institution pay for it with you as first author). Now you get to go through the painful review process where the paper is handed to several experts who check your work, your grammar, your spelling, and your style for flaws; they will find flaws and return a bloodied manuscript to you with suggestions for cleaning it up. Take these suggestions until you have enough background to buck them, then resubmit. Eventually your work will see print. Other scientists will see your work in print. Some will cite your work in their work, and your career as an actual contributor to the world's store of scientific knowledge will be made.

Another way is to present posters or even talks at conferences. This can be less time-consuming and expensive than publishing papers, but it is much more stressful. People will ask you questions; you had better be prepared to answer them! If not you are dead, dead, dead! If you can answer them you will be okay. If you don't know the answer, but are able to work it out in an acceptable way on the spot you will begin to gain a reputation. This too is a good way to launch a career, if you can take the heat!

Is all of this really necessary? Yes. One of the biggest reasons why I disagree with creating a journal that caters only to amateurs is that it will be seen by the pros as recognition that we can't make it in their world. Not to make it in their world is, like it or not, not to make it all. It is the pros who decide what is reality, they have done all the hard work to reach this level. They know their fields of study. The majority rules. We are the minority.

Is being a scientist hard work? Yes, it is among the most demanding and exacting fields of endeavor. Can amateurs be scientists? Of course, if they are willing to do the work. I hope you will join me in making a niche in the real world for amateur scientists.

As an appendix to this article I submit the following chart created by John Baez, a mathematician who works in quantum gravity and mathematical physics. He calls it the Crackpot Index and you might want to look it over to see how many points you would get (anything over 0 and you are a crackpot). Every scientist gets mail from people who have invented theories of this or that. I can't tell you how many I have seen.



A simple method for rating potentially revolutionary contributions to physics.

A -5 point starting credit.

1 point for every statement that is widely agreed on to be false.

2 points for every statement that is clearly vacuous.

3 points for every statement that is logically inconsistent.

5 points for each such statement that is adhered to despite careful correction.

5 points for using a thought experiment that contradicts the results of a widely accepted real experiment.

5 points for each word in all capital letters (except for those with defective keyboards).

5 points for each mention of "Einstien", "Hawkins" or "Feynmann".

10 points for each claim that quantum mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).

10 points for pointing out that you have gone to school, as if this were evidence of sanity.

10 points for beginning the description of your theory by saying how long you have been working on it.

10 points for mailing your theory to someone you don't know personally and asking them not to tell anyone else about it, for fear that your ideas will be stolen.

10 points for offering prize money to anyone who proves and/or finds any flaws in your theory.

10 points for each statement along the lines of "I'm not good at math, but my theory is conceptually right, so all I need is for someone to express it in terms of equations".

10 points for arguing that a current well-established theory is "only a theory", as if this were somehow a point against it.

10 points for arguing that while a current well-established theory predicts phenomena correctly, it doesn't explain "why" they occur, or fails to provide a "mechanism".

10 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to Einstein, or claim that special or general relativity are fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).

10 points for claiming that your work is on the cutting edge of a "paradigm shift".

20 points for suggesting that you deserve a Nobel prize.

20 points for each favorable comparison of yourself to Newton or claim that classical mechanics is fundamentally misguided (without good evidence).

20 points for every use of science fiction works or myths as if they were fact.

20 points for defending yourself by bringing up (real or imagined) ridicule accorded to your past theories.

20 points for each use of the phrase "hidebound reactionary".

20 points for each use of the phrase "self-appointed defender of the orthodoxy".

30 points for suggesting that a famous figure secretly disbelieved in a theory which he or she publicly supported. (E.g., that Feynman was a closet opponent of special relativity, as deduced by reading between the lines in his freshman physics textbooks.)

30 points for suggesting that Einstein, in his later years, was groping his way towards the ideas you now advocate.

30 points for claiming that your theories were developed by an extraterrestrial civilization (without good evidence).

40 points for comparing those who argue against your ideas to Nazis, stormtroopers, or brownshirts.

40 points for claiming that the "scientific establishment" is engaged in a "conspiracy" to prevent your work from gaining its well-deserved fame, or suchlike.

40 points for comparing yourself to Galileo, suggesting that a modern-day Inquisition is hard at work on your case, and so on.

40 points for claiming that when your theory is finally appreciated, present-day science will be seen for the sham it truly is. (30 more points for fantasizing about show trials in which scientists who mocked your theories will be forced to recant.)

50 points for claiming you have a revolutionary theory but giving no concrete testable predictions.


© 1998 John Baez