Flowing With Science | Walking in Flow


“What concerns us here is amateur science, the delight that ordinary people can take in observing and recording laws of natural phenomena. It is important to realize that for centuries great scientists did their work as a hobby, because they were fascinated with the methods they had invented, rather than because they had jobs to do and fat government grants to spend.


Nicolaus Copernicus perfected his epochal description of planetary motions while he was a canon at the cathedral of Frauenburg, in Poland. Astronomical work certainly didn’t help his career in the Church, and for much of his life the main rewards he had were aesthetic, derived from the simple beauty of his system compared to the more cumbersome Ptolemaic model. Galileo had been had been trained in medicine, and what drove him into increasingly dangerous experimentation was the delight he took in figuring out such things as the location of the center of gravity of various solid objects. Newton formulated his major discoveries soon after he received his B.A. at Cambridge, in 1665, when the university was closed because of the plague. Newton had to spend two years in the safety and boredom of a country retreat, and he filled the time playing with his ideas about a universal theory of gravitation.” (136-137) The list goes on and on.


“Is the situation really that different these days? Is it really true that a person without a Ph.D., who is not working at one of the major research centers, no longer has any chance of contributing to the advancement of science?


. . . There is no doubt that a layman cannot contribute, as a hobby, to the kind of research that depends on multibillion-dollar supercolliders, or on nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy. But then, such fields to not represent the only science there is. The mental framework that makes science enjoyable is accessible to everyone. It involves curiosity, careful observation, a disciplined way of recording events, and finding ways to tease out the underlying regularities in what one learns. It also requires the humility to be willing to learn from the results of past investigators, coupled with enough skepticism and openness of mind to reject beliefs that are not supported by facts.


Defined in this broad sense, there are more practicing amateur scientists than one would think. Some focus their interest on health. . . some learn whatever they can about breeding domestic animals, or creating new hybrid flowers. Others diligently replicate the observations of early astronomers with their backyard telescopes. There are closet geologists who roam the wilderness in search of minerals, cactus collectors who scour the desert mesas for new specimens, and probably hundreds of thousands of individuals who have pushed their mechanical skills to the point that they are verging on true scientific understanding.


What keeps many of these people from developing their skills further is the belief that they will never be able to become genuine, ‘professional’ scientists, and therefore that their hobby should not be taken seriously. But there is no better reason for doing science than the sense of order it brings to the mind of the seeker. If flow, rather than success and recognition, is the measure by which to judge its value, science can contribute immensely to the quality of life.” (137-138)


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