score one for the amateurs

July 22, 2009

The photo taken (and debris identified) by ameteur astonomer Anthony Wesley

The photo taken (and debris identified) by ameteur astonomer Anthony Wesley

Science News recently reported that amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley (home page here) has documented that something big slammed into Jupiter, causing what apparently is called an impact scar. This is only the second impact scar recording on a large gaseous planet. While I imagine this occurrence is interesting (to astronomers), what’s far more interesting to me is that the discovery was made by an amateur scientist.

In our current world of NIH/NSF-funded research, where it takes 3 grad at least students, 2 post docs, and a PI (principle investigator – the person who runs the lab) to make any scientific discovery, it’s incredibly refreshing to know that the realm of science is still open to the amateur. The divisions between “professional” scientists and everyone else compartmentalize the field(s), which not only reduces the number of future scientists but also general scientific literacy.

Scientific illiteracy not only deprives people of the amazing insights that knowledge can bring (nerd alert, I know) but also fails to inoculate them against charlatan-speak (“there is a healthy debate about global warming among scientists”).

So score one for the everyman. Remember, all the old scientists — Bacon, Boyle, Descartes, Charles, Kepler, Leibniz, Einstein (before he struck it big) — were amateurs in their fields.

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