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Amateur Help Wanted; PhDs (and Nut Cases) Need Not Apply

November 18, 1996|LEE DYE

Shawn Carlson is a scientific iconoclast out to disprove the enduring myth that you must have a PhD to do science.

The 36-year-old physicist hopes to change the way science is done in this country by enlisting armies of amateurs to work on projects ranging from archeology to astronomy to biology.

Three years ago, he founded the Society for Amateur Scientists, a nonprofit organization with 600 members around the world that has been taken under the wing of San Diego State University, where Carlson serves as an adjunct member of the faculty.

"It's simply not the case that only people with a PhD can make contributions," says Carlson, who holds a PhD himself. Anybody with enough interest and the dedication to work hard on sometimes tedious projects can do it, he says.

Many areas of science, especially in the rapidly growing field of environmental monitoring, are labor-intensive and require only a little training, Carlson says.

The Society for Amateur Scientists teams amateurs with professional scientists to do archeological excavations, haze monitoring, biological and other research. The group is launching a project in which amateurs will monitor earthquake faults to see if low-frequency electromagnetic radiation is released by the fault just prior to an earthquake, a hot subject in seismology.

"We don't encourage amateurs to go running off in all directions by themselves," Carlson says. "We encourage them to stay in close contact with professionals in the field."

Members of the society pay annual dues of $35 for adults and $25 for students, and that is the primary funding for the organization. It hasn't been hard to find members, Carlson says, but selling the idea to the scientific community has been anything but easy.

Scientists that I have interviewed over the years have expressed reservations about the role of amateur scientists, despite the fact that there have been some astounding successes, particularly in archeology and astronomy. A high percentage of new comets, for example, are discovered by amateurs.

But many scientists believe a deep understanding of a scientific field is essential for the researcher to recognize the significance of anything he or she finds. Carlson believes this attitude is reinforced by the fact that many amateurs encountered by scientists are, as he puts it, nuts.

"There are two kinds of people out there who are passionate and enthusiastic about science," he says. "There are people who suffer from a peculiar form of megalomania whereby they believe they are the new Galileo. Although they have little or no scientific training, they can make these great contributions, and the rest of the world just can't see how brilliant they are. That's a mental illness. Those people are not amateur scientists. Those people are crazy people.

"And then there are hundreds of thousands of passionate amateurs out there who are keenly interested in science and who are only too happy to receive guidance from other people because they recognize the limits of their knowledge and they want to learn. So we have a handful of nuts running around, but they're the ones who make all the noise."

That has been a significant problem in enlisting the support of the scientific community, Carlson says.

"There are a number of Nobel Prize winners who have told me they will not sit on our board of advisors because the only amateurs they see are nuts," he says.

As a result, the society has placed some subjects off-limits. It steers clear of paranormal phenomena and theories of cosmology, creation and unified field. Those areas require a deep understanding of complex scientific disciplines, and they tend to attract the nuts, Carlson says.

Slowly, though, Carlson is persuading some scientists to embrace his concept. Paleontologists are working with the society on a continuing series of excavations to survey the archeological significance of numerous sites in San Diego County, for example.

Amateurs can make significant contributions by simply sharing the load with professionals, according to John Lighton, assistant professor of biology at the University of Nevada, who works with Carlson's program.

"The more science that gets done by amateurs," Lighton says, "the more professionals are free to do those experiments that only professionals can do."

Forrest Mims III, a Texan with no formal training in science, is one of the organization's leading achievers. Mims built his own instrument to measure stratospheric ozone at a cost of about $500, and he sees that kind of penny-pinching as another way for amateurs to make contributions to science in these days of tight budgets.

"Having no budget forces amateurs to be clever," he says. "We know how to get things done on a shoestring."

Carlson, who says he has never received a dime in salary from the society, says it all stems from the influence of his grandfather.

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