“Amateur” is not a dirty word, but then again neither is “expert”.

Humanity needs all kinds of people, period. Any kind of honest job is honorable. That being said, there are jobs and there are jobs.

Some disciplines require an advanced degree to truly make an original contribution to the field. In my own field of science for example, if you want to pursue your own ideas, almost invariably you will need a doctoral degree in an appropriate discipline, and even then, sometimes that is not enough, because nowadays the natural sciences are truly interdisciplinary. Long gone are the days when a single person could learn pretty much all what was known about the natural world. Nowadays, you will need to cooperate with people with different / complementary expertise.

Incidentally, about the interdisciplinary nature of the natural sciences, a couple of years ago an academic advisee came to see me at my office. Basically, the student wanted to study towards an undergraduate degree in biology without taking any chemistry.

!!!

I can hear the loud laughter of my fellow biologists as they read this. Not because they are laughing at my student, but because they know that modern science is essentially an integration of fields of knowledge that used to be separate. That is what let us to understand the universe a little better nowadays. We just cannot understand biology, any kind of biology without some working knowledge of chemistry. In turn (you know where this is going) chemistry requires a working understanding of physics and physics requires a working understanding of mathematics (Who am I kidding? Physics requires quite a bit of mathematics)…

In this context, while I am sure that what I am about to say is true of other academic disciplines, I can only speak from my own experience; science, as wonderful as it is, is really hard. Moreover, if you decide to go for an advanced degree, it only becomes harder. Maybe it does not look like that from an outside observer, but it certainly is; trust me on this one.

But then again, as the saying kind of goes, worthy things have a tendency to be hard. There is no free lunch indeed, and there is no way around it. Of course, there are the rare, exceptional people who thrive without formal education. They are not successful because of that; rather, they are so smart that they are successful despite not having formal education, and of course, we only hear about the success stories, for every billionaire college dropout there are thousands of college dropouts sans the billions. Furthermore, whom do these billionaires hire to help run their companies?

Yep, people like us, mere mortals who are nonetheless trainable in relatively esoteric areas of knowledge.

As you go from an undergraduate degree to a Master’s and finally the coveted Doctor of Philosophy degree you need to build upon what you learn from courses and other readings and try to come up with an original contribution to your chosen field, something that has never been thought about before in exactly the same way. By the way, you will never forget who calls you “Doctor” for the first time after earning your degree. For me, it was Dr. R. Harris-Warrick, a member of my committee and at the time Chair of the department of Neurobiology at Cornell. And it was an AWESOME feeling!

But I digress…

Amusingly, the usual quip about graduate work being knowing more and more of less and less is truer than you can imagine. If you want to see a representation of this fact, look here.

That said, an often overlooked aspect of graduate education is that graduate school, if done properly and guided by a good mentor, it is not as much about knowledge in itself as it is about learning how to think about these matters and figure out ways to pry nature’s secrets from her selfish hands. In other words, learning how to become an expert on something is more than learning bare facts; it is also to acquire the ability of using that knowledge to infer previously hidden aspects of nature; scholars are professional troubleshooters (and sometimes troublemakers as well…(;-)…).

The word “expert” sometimes carries a negative connotation, as if an expert were a pompous high priest that looks down at the uninitiated. True enough, many scientists are like that. I vividly remember a postdoc at the lab where I did my PhD who acted as if he was smarter better than everyone else in the lab; he was really rude, especially to women (he was quite the coward) and overall he was a raging a**… Well, I don’t want to go on a tangent right now.

Just remember that we will see people with this type of attitude in virtually any profession or trade, it is not an exclusive trait of scientists.

Anyway, experts. Learning how to become an expert can be taught; this is ostensibly the purpose of graduate school. However, just in the same way that you can teach someone to play football (European or American), that someone needs to have some minimal abilities to succeed at it.

Then again, sometimes certain people do not even need to be taught; they are naturals, as the people we talked about before; some of these really good naturals are called amateurs.

Amateur literally means “lover”, and to truly be one, you need to have that exact frame of mind. You need to l-o-v-e what you do. I think that the distinction between being an amateur or having a mere hobby is the same distinction between being a committed bodybuilder versus working out only in the weekends.

The history of science and technology is full of tales of great practitioners who were genuine amateurs. People with very little or even no formal education that went on to make great discoveries or invent great technologies. You will have no difficulty finding many examples, so I will not go over them here.

But at any rate, as I said right at the beginning of this post, we need all kinds of people. In fact, true amateurs accept and even seek the advice of experts in their particular area of interest. This is true because a real amateur is not happy until she or he gets it right, and there is no way around it, an expert is oftentimes needed to make sure. Also, it is important to realize that not everyone that calls himself an amateur is necessarily a good one. This can be rather dangerous, as this blogpost shows.

I guess that my point is that there is no reason whatsoever why the amateurs and experts cannot work side by side, as equals (yes, you heard me). Let me give you a concrete example.

The science of astronomy is without a doubt the hard science that most interacts with and also benefits the most from the efforts of amateurs. Actually, there exist way more amateur astronomers than professional astronomers; furthermore, many important discoveries in astronomy have been given to us by amateurs. They work hard and not only they work hard, they also get things right. None of the other sciences comes close in this respect.

In a delightful book titled “Seeing in the dark: How Amateur Astronomers Are Discovering the Wonders of the Universe” science writer Timothy Ferris narrates several stories of amateur astronomers that are making discoveries that are “the envy of professional astronomers”.

As the previous example illustrates, it can be done, things are changing.

There is a recent trend with the collective name of “Citizen Science” that aims to develop these kind of relationships. Check this link out to learn more about it. In all honesty, when I heard about it for the first time I was reluctant, certainly skeptical and almost suspicious, to give it a break. There are many areas like biotechnology that can have the potential of very dangerous outcomes when in the wrong hands.

However, I have changed my mind about Citizen Scientists, not in small part because whether we like it or not, the future is coming at the constant speed of 24 hours per day; there’s no stopping it, we may as well ride the wave…

We have talked about amateurs an experts, as if those were mutually exclusive. I am happy to report that there are some of us who are fortunate enough to get paid for doing what we love, and I would not have it any other way.

(:-)

Please allow me to show you an early example of a committed amateur: Here’s some illustrations of planarians published in the 1800s by Dr. R.J. Johnson, a physician by training and amateur naturalist (Public Domain).

image

Picture credit: Johnson RJ (1822) Observations on the Genus Planaria. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London (1776-1886). 1822-01-01. 112:437–447.

IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE

http://matt.might.net/articles/phd-school-in-pictures/

http://ideasillustrated.com/blog/2013/01/13/2012-the-year-of-the-amateur/

http://thinkingscifi.wordpress.com/2012/11/04/science-needs-you/

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15 thoughts on ““Amateur” is not a dirty word, but then again neither is “expert”.

  1. Pingback: Brief and unorganized thoughts – Why thinkers cannot retire | Baldscientist

  2. Well said. My own beef is with the young people who start a Biology degree, thinking that it’ll mean no Maths. Otoh it’s a great joy when I talk somebody through a statistical analysis, they notice how it makes sense of the world, and their face lights up :-)

    And yes, the first person to call you Dr is special forever. Esp the first person to do it in writing. For me, that was the Internal Examiner of my PhD. ‘Dear Dr Mason… a well deserved pass.’

  3. I’m reminded of Patrick Moore.

    I think one of the most important aspects of Citizen Science is that it creates awareness of and interest towards science which might otherwise not be there. Inclusion is a very useful tool in showing us non-scientists just how exciting and infectious science is.

  4. I agree, we need both amateurs and experts. Sure, amateurs often strike out: an example comes to mind of a biologist who “discovered” integration and published a paper on it, when it was known to every math student who had ever taken calculus. At least the amateurs have the drive and fresh perspective, and may occasionally stumble on something useful.

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