Armchair science.

With the advent of the popularity of science, a variety of amateurs set of into the field to ‘discover’.  Amateur archaeologists destroyed countless cultural sites and shipped relics and bones to home museums.  Amateur biologists drove certain species (dutifully observed and collected) to the verge of extinction.  Amateur medical professionals brought disease more than they cured it.  To combat such errors methods were refined, and as technology marched forward, new more advanced tools were found to take the place of more bumbling human agents.  But despite tremendous technological advances, the world remains reliant on individual error checking and observation.  The human mind is still the most potent weapon we possess to filter and analyze the unknown.

Take the example of Alice Kober and the decipherment of Linear B.  Sure, guesses were made about what the script might be, and that its form might be linked to inflection.  Sure, certain reoccurring sign patterns were noted.  But it took a keen human eye and hundreds of categorical notecards to discern the real patterns of the script.  Kober (a woman, mind you, well-trained but serving as the assistant to another archeologist) was the one who had the time and patience to hunt down and analyze these patterns, without the drama of fieldwork or the assistance of advanced modeling platforms. Here is armchair science as it’s supposed to be – a discerning mind applied to a problem or question, without the need for recognition or success – to investigate the question is enough.

Today astronomy has brought us another example of a ‘real’ armchair scientist int he form of one Hanny van Arkel.  As a part of the Galaxy Zoo project, she has been spending her time and brainpower pouring over old archived photographs of galaxies far, far away.  The purpose of the project was to allow for quick categorization of each galaxy as spiral, elliptical, or something else, and involved amateurs to free time up for the main researchers.  It is the human element to perception (currently better than computer analysis) that allowed van Arkel to pick out an anomaly, currently being called a ‘cosmic ghost’ for lack of a clearer understanding of what we’re looking at, in one of the photos just below a bright galaxy.  They think the ‘ghost’ is a hot cloud of gas illuminated by a long-dead quasar even further away, but more research is to be done in the area.

What does this say for all of us?  As my sister, Shelly, likes to say, ‘use your brain’.  We are, all of us, still able of contributing something to the collective understanding of the world.  The human mind (or brain, if you prefer) is a tremendously complex wonder with an amazing power to analyze, categorize, and intuit.  As such, we are each the best tool possible for making something great, if we but use that power to question for the question’s sake, rather than the answer’s.

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