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In Praise of Amateurs

Ferris is saying that amateur astronomy is a growth industry, gaining in scientific importance as new technologies increase the reach of amateur instruments. Another factor favoring the amateur observer is the change in our view of the universe caused by recent discoveries. The traditional Aristotelian view imagined the astronomical universe to be a sphere of unchanging peace and harmony. The earth alone was perishable and violent, while the heavenly bodies were perfect and quiescent. This view was contradicted by a multitude of discoveries during the last four hundred years, beginning with the two exploding stars observed by Tycho Brahe and Johannes Kepler and with the mountains and valleys discovered by Galileo on the moon. In the last fifty years it became clear that we live in a violent universe, full of explosions, collapses, and collisions. The Earth now appears to be a comparatively quiet corner in a universe of cosmic mayhem. The 1994 bombardment of Jupiter demonstrated that our own solar system is not immune to cosmic violence. After this replacement of the old static view of the universe by a new dynamic view, the subject matter of astronomy is also transformed. Astronomy is less concerned with things that do not change and more concerned with things that change rapidly. The new emphasis on rapidly changing phenomena requires quick and frequent observation. Quick and frequent observation is a game that serious amateurs can play well. It is a game that amateurs can sometimes play better than professionals. It is a game that gives amateurs and professionals many opportunities for fruitful cooperation.

Ferris shows us a grand vision of the growing importance of ama-teurs, nimble, well-equipped, and well- coordinated, jumping ahead of the slow-moving professionals to open new frontiers. Some professional astronomers share this vision and welcome the help that amateurs can provide. But most professionals consider the efforts of the amateurs trivial. After all, the professionals with their big instruments and big projects are solving the central problems of cosmology, while the amateurs are finding pretty little comets and asteroids. The view of the majority of professionals was expressed by the physicist Ernest Rutherford, the discoverer of the atomic nucleus, who said: “Physics is the only real science, the rest is butterfly-collecting.” For most professional astronomers, the large-scale structure of the universe is real science, while comets and asteroids are unimportant details of interest only to butterfly collectors. Butterfly-collecting is an amiable hobby, but it should not be confused with serious science.

The clash between the two visions of amateur astronomy, Ferris’s vision of amateurs as pioneer explorers and Rutherford’s vision of amateurs as butterfly collectors, has deep roots. It arises from an ancient clash between two visions of the nature of science. There are two kinds of science, known to historians as Baconian and Cartesian. Baconian science is interested in details, Cartesian science is interested in ideas. Bacon said,

All depends on keeping the eye steadily fixed on the facts of nature, and so receiving their images as they are. For God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world.

Descartes said,

I showed what the laws of nature were, and without basing my arguments on any principle other than the infinite perfections of God I tried to demonstrate all those laws about which we could have any doubt, and to show that they are such that, even if God created many worlds, there could not be any in which they failed to be observed.

Modern science leapt ahead in the seventeenth century as a result of fruitful competition between Baconian and Cartesian viewpoints. The relation between Baconian science and Cartesian science is complementary. We need Baconian scientists to explore the universe and find out what is there to be explained. We need Cartesian scientists to explain and unify what we have found. Generally speaking, professional astronomers tend to be Cartesian, amateur astronomers to be Baconian. It is right and healthy that there should be a clash between their viewpoints, but it is wrong for either side to treat the other with contempt. Ferris’s sympathies are on the side of the amateurs, but he portrays the professionals with respect and understanding.


Astronomy is the oldest science and has the longest history. For two thousand years it was studied in different ways in two disconnected worlds, the Western world of Babylonia and Greece and Arabia, and the Eastern world of China and Korea. Ancient astronomy in the West was predominantly Cartesian, culminating in the elaborate theoretical universe of Ptolemy, with the clockwork machinery of cycles and epicycles determining how the heavenly bodies should move. Astronomy in the East was Baconian, collecting and recording observations without any unifying theory. In both worlds, astronomy was mixed up with astrology and was mainly studied by professional astrologers. After a promising start, progress stopped and science stagnated for a thousand years, because neither Baconian science nor Cartesian science could flourish in isolation from each other. In the West, theory was unconstrained by new observations, and in the East, observations were unguided by theory.

Then came the great awakening in the West, when Bacon and Descartes together led the way to the flowering of modern science. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were the hey-day of the scientific amateurs. During those two centuries, professional scientists like Isaac Newton were the exception and gentleman amateurs like his rival Gottfried Leibniz were the rule. Amateurs had the freedom to jump from one area of science to another and start new enterprises without waiting for official approval. But in the nineteenth century, after two hundred years of amateur leadership, science became increasingly professional. Among the leading scientists of the nineteenth century, professionals such as Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell were the rule and amateurs Charles Darwin and Gregor Mendel were the exceptions. In the twentieth century the ascendancy of the professionals became even more complete. No twentieth-century amateur could stand like Darwin in the front rank with Hubble and Einstein.

If Ferris is right, astronomy is now moving into a new era of youthful exuberance in which amateurs will again have an important share of the action. It appears that each science goes through three phases of development. The first phase is Baconian, with scientists exploring the world to find out what is there. In this phase, amateurs and butterfly collectors are in the ascendant. The second phase is Cartesian, with scientists making precise measurements and building quantitative theories. In this phase, professionals and specialists are in the ascendant. The third phase is a mixture of Baconian and Cartesian, with amateurs and professionals alike empowered by the plethora of new technical tools arising from the second phase. In the third phase, cheap and powerful tools give scientists of all kinds freedom to explore and explain. The most important of the new tools is the personal computer, now universally accessible and giving amateurs the ability to do quantitative science. After the computer, the next-most-important tool is the World Wide Web, giving amateurs access to scientific papers and discussions before they are published, allowing amateurs all over the world to communicate and work together.

Astronomy, the oldest science, was the first to pass through the first and second phases and emerge into the third. Which science will be next? Which other science is now ripe for a revolution giving opportunities for the next generation of amateurs to make important discoveries? Physics and chemistry are still in the second phase. It is difficult to imagine an amateur physicist or chemist at the present time making a major contribution to science. Before physics or chemistry can enter the third phase, these sciences must be transformed by radically new discoveries and new tools. The status of biology is less clear. Mainstream biology is undoubtedly in the second phase, dominated by armies of professionals exploring genomes and analyzing metabolic pathways. But there is a wide hinterland of biology away from the mainstream, where amateurs following the tradition of Darwin discover new species of wildflowers, breed new varieties of dogs and pigeons and orchids, and collect butterflies. The writer Vladimir Nabokov is the most famous of twentieth-century butterfly collectors, but there are many others not so famous who also discovered new species. A young friend of mine who went recently as a student to Ecuador discovered twelve new species of plants in the rain forest.

Biology will probably be the next science to enter the third stage. New tools which might give power to amateur biologists are already visible on the horizon. The new tools will be cheaper and smaller versions of the tools now used by professional biologists to do genetic engineering. It took thirty years for the expensive and cumbersome mainframe computers of the 1950s to evolve into the cheap and convenient personal computers of the 1980s. In a similar fashion, the expensive genome-sequencing and protein-synthesizing machines of today will evolve into cheap machines that can stand on a desktop. The personal computer is not only cheaper and smaller, but also faster and more powerful than the mainframe that it replaced. The desktop sequencers and synthesizers of the future will be faster and more powerful than the machines that they will replace, and will be controlled by more sophisticated computer programs.

When these tools are available, the demand for them will be irresistible, just as the demand for laptop computers is irresistible today. Genetic engineering of roses and orchids, ornamental shrubs and vegetables, will be a new art form as well as a new science. Homeowners in well-to-do suburbs will use the new tools to embellish their gardens, while subsistence farmers in poor countries will use them to feed their families with higher-yielding or better-tasting potatoes. Amateur plant breeders and animal breeders and ecologists and nature lovers will then be enabled to make serious contributions to science, just as amateur astronomers do today.

Before the amateur use of genetic engineering becomes widespread, numerous political and legal obstacles will have to be overcome. Many people are strongly opposed to genetic engineering of any kind. Some of the opposition arises from religious or ideological principles, but much of it arises from practical concerns. Genetic engineering can undoubtedly be dangerous to public health and to ecological stability. The use of genetic engineering kits must be strictly regulated if these dangers are to be avoided. Genetic engineering of microbes is a great tool for terrorists, as Richard Preston demonstrates in his recent book The Demon in the Freezer.* Any kit available to the public must be made physically incapable of handling microbes. It could well happen that political authorities will decide to prohibit such kits altogether. It will be a sad day for biology if amateurs are forbidden the use of tools available to professionals. But that is a decision which we should leave to our grandchildren.

When we look at the wider society outside the domain of science, we see amateurs playing essential roles in almost every field of human activity. Amateur musicians create the culture in which professional musicians can flourish. Amateur athletes, amateur actors, and amateur environmentalists improve the quality of life for themselves and others. Amateur writers such as Jane Austen and Samuel Pepys do as much as the professionals Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky to plumb the heights and depths of human experience. In the most important of all human responsibilities, the raising of children and grandchildren, amateurs do the lion’s share of the work. In almost all the varied walks of life, amateurs have more freedom to experiment and innovate. The fraction of the population who are amateurs is a good measure of the freedom of a society. Ferris shows us how amateurs are giving a new flavor to modern astronomy. We may hope that amateurs in the coming century, using the new tools that modern technology is placing in their hands, will invade and rejuvenate all of science.

  1. *

    Random House, 2002.

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