Amateur role in basic research on rise

From pigeon romance to planetary eruptions anyone can do serious science

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Forget the PhD. All you need to take part in a national, government-funded science project these days is a clipboard, a pencil, a data sheet and a flock of pigeons.

Find a comfortable park bench, sit down, and simply answer the questions on the sheet: How many birds are there in the flock? How many white ones? How many grays? Are there any males who have puffed up their feathers and are strutting around, wooing prospective mates?

Pigeon-watching may seem like an odd way to participate in a scientific endeavor, but research resulting from observations like the ones above have led scientists at Cornell University's Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, N.Y., to understand how pigeons choose their mates.

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Although a few areas of science have always involved amateurs, collaboration between professional scientists and their nonprofessional counterparts is becoming more visible: scientists in astronomy, archeology, geology, ecology, even marine biology and health have begun collaborating with interested volunteers.

From star hunting to bird watching to dinosaur digs, amateur scientists, who at the outset of the scientific age were the only scientists, have become increasingly important. And as the number of nonprofessional scientists grows, science is slowly beginning its descent from the ivory tower back to its amateur origins.

Most amateur scientists were squeezed out of the profession when holding a PhD became a prerequisite. Yet in a few fields, the amateurs never disappeared. Ornithology is one, astronomy another. In fact, astronomy has what is, perhaps, one of the most long-standing collaborative relationships between professionals and their amateur counterparts.

Today, most "professional" astronomers - those with a PhD and a job in the field - do not even own their own telescopes, instead relying on instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope, or newfangled telescopes like the Chandra X-ray observatory in Cambridge, Mass. It is the amateurs who scan the night sky regularly and find celestial objects of note; it is they who alert the professionals when they discover a new comet, a new star, or some other remarkable phenomenon.

Looking up at the sky one dark night in 1990, for instance, Donald Parker, an anesthesiologist from Miami, trained his telescope on Saturn and noticed something peculiar. There seemed to be an atmospheric eruption near Saturn's equator. Intrigued, he contacted Sky and Telescope, an astronomy hobbyists' magazine. Upon receiving multiple phone calls about the observation, notes Richard Fienberg - the publication's president and publisher - the magazine's editors realized that something unusual was occurring and, in turn, contacted the scientists in charge of the Hubble Space Telescope. Researchers pointed the Hubble telescope toward Saturn, and the resulting images of the developing storm were something that planetary scientists might never have otherwise seen.

While this kind of collaboration has been happening for centuries in astronomy, in other fields - such as paleontology - it is only just beginning to surface.

According to Richard Stucky, chief curator at the Denver Natural History Museum, public interest in fossils and paleontology has increased exponentially in the past few decades. In 1971, he was one of only two volunteers at the museum.

Now, 10 years after he instituted a paleocertification program at the museum, more than 100 people have graduated. Not only do they know how to dig up fossils and catalog them, but some are actively participating in museum research. Last year, 189 volunteers logged more than 32,000 hours - the equivalent of 16 full-time employees.

In Caon City, Colo., a graduate of the Denver museum program has begun the very first grassroots museum to gain repository status, which means they can catalog and display the fossils they find on public land.

Donna Engard opened Dinosaur Depot in 1995, and one of her volunteers is already working on his first publication. The volunteer found the tracks of a new kind of dinosaur, perfectly preserved in a "trackway" formation outside the town, and Dinosaur Depot supplied him with the field crew to excavate the 18-inch deep hand- and footprints.

The educational aspect is one that seems to be particularly attractive to proponents of amateur science. Children participating in the federally funded Globe Program, for instance, can measure the diameter of a tree trunk or look at a pine tree's needles, then send the data over the Internet to researchers at universities.

Although amateurs have always existed in the background, their presence has increased exponentially in recent years. Computers are one reason this change is happening now. According to Forrest Mims III, an amateur atmospheric scientist, the development of smaller, faster, and more efficient computers has allowed amateurs to do much more. And, through the Internet, people from all over the country can participate in programs like Cornell's Great Backyard Bird Count.

Mr. Stucky of the Denver Natural History Museum suggests a different reason for the growth of amateur involvement: the environmental movement of the 1960s.

This movement made people more ecologically conscious and aware of environmental changes and is a "major driver" behind the surge in amateur science, he says. "It's part of a wave of more volunteerism throughout our society," he says.

"There's more of a societal push for people to participate and to do it in a meaningful way." This movement, he says, has taken the discipline out of the ivory tower and has instead "brought people to the ivory table, to participate with us in the science."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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