The pro-am tournament

Science (of all descriptions) is usually done by scientists in universities or industries, and they get paid to do it. Science became a predominantly paid profession towards the end of the nineteenth century, with the growth of lectureships and PhD studies at universities. Until then, amateurs had played a key role. Victorian science is full of country parsons with microscopes in their dining rooms, and even Darwin wasn’t a professional scientist.

Until recently, astronomy was probably the only science still carried out by amateurs as well as professionals. Amateur astronomers do useful stuff like monitor the changes in light from variable stars. They also search the sky for supernovae (exploding stars), and other rare phenomena. They’re in a good position to do so, as they tend to have more access to telescopes (albeit much smaller telescopes than the ones professionals use).

But amateur astronomy is different to that done by professionals. Amateur astronomers have more in common with collectors of butterflies or fossils. In any science there’s a need to collect, classify, and categorise. Before you can explain different phenomena you need to have detailed descriptions of them, know how common they are and where they occur. Is a big red star a different type of star than a small white one? Or just the same type at a different stage of its life?

Amateurs document and describe what they find, but they’re less likely to investigate the underlying physics and provide explanations of what they see. Theirs is a more passive activity than professional astronomy. Perhaps it’s also more visually aesthetic because they spend more time actually looking at the sky.

Now, the edges are being blurred between amateur and professional astronomy as amateurs are able to get access to facilities like the 2 metre robotic Liverpool Telescope. Will this change what they do?

And now astronomy is no longer the only science in which amateurs participate. There is a growing trend for DIY biology, done by amateurs in their kitchens. This is seen by its practitioners as challenging the hegemony of ‘big science’ and making it more democratic so that genetically modified organisms aren’t just created for the purposes of making profit. This sort of amateur science is much more of a challenge to professionals than amateur astronomy. DIY biologists are doing what professionals are doing, just on a smaller scale, and the professional way of ensuring that scientific results meet a commonly agreed standard is through peer review. Will the DIYers bother with that? Perhapd they won’t need to, if they’re not applying for jobs or grants…

Of course, the blurring between amateur and professional activities happens because people get access to technology and information. Writers now publish on the internet. It may not be ‘professional’ and it may not make them any money, but it disseminates their work. But we still crave the kudos that comes from getting our work published in more traditional ways. Do we want this just because it’s so difficult to get?

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2 thoughts on “The pro-am tournament

  1. I think there is more amateur sciecne out there that is generally credited, as there is a gradient between 'professional' and 'amateur', not a dichotomy. Thus I am an 'amateur' astrobiologist but a 'professional' drug discovery biochemist: I get paid to do one, not to do the other (which I therefore do at the weekends). Submissions to Bioscience Hypotheses come from professional and amateur scientists, including the retired, people with jobs in technical companies who do research in their spare time, and people from all sorts of other walks of life – at least one author is literally a used car salesman. The barrier to acceptance is not the 'passive' nature of the amateur science (after all, there is no real experimental astronomy – it is all observation) but the demands of professional publication to use high-tech equipment and expensive methods. As the cost of biotech comes down, this currently hidden activity in amateur science will explode into view.

  2. Interesting.. wonder how bioscience will adapt..

    I see what you're saying about the lack of apparent experiments in astronomy, given that astronomers simply receive data without doing anything to create that data. But, the 'experiment' is in the design of the data receiving equipment, and in the manipulation of the data once it's received.

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