These days it seems you’ve got to have a PhD and decades of research experience before anyone will take you seriously as a scientist.
Mendel’s pea plants helped the amateur scientist discover genetics
Despite the difficulty amateurs have in discovering new scientific truths, and their even greater problems getting them published, the canon of scientific knowledge has been greatly expanded by people without an advanced scientific education. Amateur science has a long history, and in today’s education obsessed world of science we can forget that many of the greatest scientific discoveries were made by amateurs with a passionate personal interest in their subject.
So today we’ll pay tribute to a few of the amateur scientists, and their discoveries, that changed our world.
Faraday was born into a poor London family in the late 1700s and received little formal education. He educated himself while apprenticed to a bookseller in his teens, sparking a lifelong interest in chemistry and electricity. He later became an assistant to Humphry Davy, the famous English chemist. He was treated like a servant, but was inspired by meeting European scientists while on tour with Davy and his wife. He went on to become the world’s foremost authority on electromagnetism, discovering diamagnetism, electrolysis, and electromagnetic induction. His work established the basis for magnetic fields and led pretty much directly to the electric motor. Without Faraday, it’s quite possible that electrically powered technology might not exist. Those are just a few of his accomplishments; he also discovered benzene and helped revolutionize the experimental study of science, which had previously been a more “philosophical” field of study.
Mendel is a familiar name today, but he came perilously close to being lost to history. Mendel is famous for discovering the laws of inheritance and helping found the discipline of genetics. He had a bit of scientific training, mostly in physics, but spent most of his life in a Czech abbey as an Augustinian priest. It was here that he conducted his famous experiments with pea plants and discovered the dominant and recessive qualities of genes. Though the work laid the foundations for the science of genetics, his original paper on the subject was almost universally ignored. It was cited a mere three times in the thirty five years after its publication, and was rescued from obscurity only by later scientists who rediscovered his work. It’s a measure of his scientific esteem that the abbot at his monastery burned all Mendel’s scientific papers after his death in 1884. Thankfully, we now know how important his work was.
Because of Edison’s many remarkable achievements it’s easy to forget the man was not an educated or trained scientist. Home schooled as a child, he read scientific books and magazines while conducting amateur experiments. Later he used downtime during his night shift job at the AP news wire service to conduct experiments. These experiments paid off later. Edison got his start as an inventor and scientist by creating and improving devices for the telegraph. Later, he gained his everlasting fame by inventing the phonograph and light bulb at Menlo Park, the world’s first industrial laboratory.
An image of the Kepler supernova
Robert Evans is the only living member of this list. Born in 1937, Evans spent much of his life as a minister in the Uniting Church of Australia. He also happens to hold the all-time record for individual visual discoveries of supernovae. His ability is nothing short of amazing, requiring him to notice the tiniest burst of light in the night sky that wasn’t there before. In his profile of Evans in A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson likened Evans’ ability to being able to spot an added grain of salt on a tabletop covered in salt. Add to this the fact that Evans generally uses his own amateur’s 12 inch telescope, while other scientists have massive automatic professional devices, and his record of 40 discovered supernovae becomes even more impressive. He’s not only discovered supernovae, he’s added to our knowledge of them. In 1983 Evans discovered a previously unknown type of supernova called a type 1C.
Henrietta Swan Leavitt
If society were fairer, Henrietta Swan Leavitt wouldn’t be on this list. She would have been an educated and respected astronomer. As it was, in 1893 she was hired by Edward Pickering of the Harvard Observatory to work as a “computer”. Computers were women who sorted and classified thousands of photographic plates of stars taken at the observatory. It was while working there that she discovered a peculiar quality of a particular group of stars called ceiphids. Leavitt had already devised an impressive system of measuring the brightness of stars, and she applied these measurements to the ceiphids. Ceiphids have a close relationship between their period of brightness (think the twinkle of stars) and their brightness. This means we can figure out how far away they are. This finally gave us a point of reference in space and eventually led to the first measurements between stars in space. The value of this to astronomers is almost incalculable, so Leavitt joins the crowded ranks of amateur astronomers who made their mark on science.