The Gentleman Scientist

Amateurs used to make significant contributions to scientific research—as they still do, in astronomy at least—but generally speaking, their roles got small once the sciences got big. This is particularly true for physics, the hardest-core of all the “hard” sciences. Physics had become almost exclusively professional by the dawn of the twenti-eth century, when Max Planck first glimpsed the quantum principle and Albert Einstein was starting to grope his way to relativity theory. (Part of the charm of Einstein’s life story is that he was working as a patent office clerk in 1905, when he published the special theory of relativity, and so could be taken for an amateur scientist. In reality, though, he was a formally trained physicist who was simply having trouble finding a job, and he assumed academic posts once they were offered him.)

When an able self-educated physicist does show up—as did, say, Nicholas Christofilos, an autodidactic Greek elevator maintenance engineer who in 1949 discovered the “strong focusing principle” since employed in particle accelerators—he or she is obliged to maintain such constant, beehive-level communications with colleagues and to keep up with so imposing a volume of scientific literature that there is usually no way to do the job except by working at it full time.
(Christofilos, once the importance of his work was recognized by the professionals, was promptly given a job at Brookhaven.)

Hence it is eye-opening to reflect, on reading Jennet Conant’s precocious first book, Tuxedo Park, that important twentieth-century research in ultrasound, brain-wave analysis, radar, and the LORAN (Long-Range Navigation) system was accomplished by an amateur physicist, the wildly successful Wall Street investor Alfred Lee Loomis. Loomis was a lawyer (Harvard Law, class of 1912) who made a fortune in corporate finance and cashed out before the 1929 crash. Although he was something of a teenage math whiz, given to experimenting with boomerangs, gliders, and radio-controlled model cars as a student at Andover, Yale, and Harvard Law School, Loomis had little formal training in science. Yet he turned out to be so good at physics that the Nobel laureate Luis Alvarez in 1980 called him “one of the most influential physical scientists” of the twentieth century.

Loomis’s early experiments, conducted in laboratories he set up on the grounds of his lavish summer estate in Tuxedo Park, New York, could easily be mistaken for the casual putterings of a wealthy dilettante. Intrigued by timekeeping, he sailed to England in 1928 and visited the London workshop of F. Hope-Jones, who made the most accurate—and expensive—clocks in the world. The experimental physicist Robert W. Wood, a close friend who came along on the trip, recalled that Loomis asked the price of a clock, “and on being told that it was two hundred and forty pounds (…roughly what the average American worker earned in a year), said casually, ‘That’s very nice. I’ll take three.’” But the elegantly casual Loomis knew what he was doing. When …

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