This is the first in a two-part series about the rise of citizen science, from CASTAC Contributing Editor Todd Hanson.
When it comes to science, Albert Einstein was an amateur. Well, at least he was during the time he made his most groundbreaking contributions to physics. From 1902 to 1908, Einstein’s day job was that of an assistant patent examiner at the Swiss Federal Office for Intellectual Property. It was during these six years as an avocational scientist that he developed his theories that transformed physics. Working as what we would today call a “citizen scientist,” the four papers he published would become a foundation of modern physics. While Einstein’s case may be unique, a lesson from his life is that ignoring the contributions of those scientists and scholars unaffiliated with university or research institutions is done at society’s risk.
The bifurcation of scientists into professional and amateur is a relatively recent and arbitrary occurrence. Several notable eighteenth and nineteenth century “gentlemen scientists” had no direct affiliation to corporate or public institutions, including Robert Boyle, Henry Cavendish, and Charles Darwin, and were not paid scientists, or even science professors, for much or even all of their lives–but were nonetheless immensely important in the history of science. Historically, the divide increased as professional scientists were generally better educated in their fields and paid positions in universities and, later, corporations increased. Still, the general public interest in scientific matters was strong and although amateurs were rarely welcomed into science’s inner circles, they continued to work unpaid, and mostly unacknowledged on scientific matters. (read more...)