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Orchid Hunter

Great Amateurs in Science
by John Malone

Orchid Hunter homepage

Like the amateur orchid expert Tom Hart Dyke in "Orchid Hunter," they have no formal training. They are often ignored by those who do. In some cases they don't live to see the scientific recognition they so richly deserve. Who are they? They are the nonprofessional scientists who every now and then make their professional counterparts green with envy for the enormous contributions they make to their discipline. Here, in no particular order, meet ten amateur scientists who secured such an enviable place in the history of science.

Gregor Mendel

Gregor Johann Mendel is regarded today as the father of genetics, but the importance of his work wasn't recognized until 15 years after his death and 35 years after he completed his revolutionary experiments with garden peas. Born to a farming family in 1822 in what was then Moravia (and is now part of the Czech Republic), Mendel became an Augustinian monk in order to further his education.

In part because of his tendency to freeze during exams, and in part because he debated his teachers, he failed to pass the tests necessary to teach high school students, although he did teach younger ones. As disappointing as that may have been to him at the time, it did leave him time to carry out his experiments on peas, aided by Abbot Cyril Napp of the monastery in what is now called Brno. Napp even saw to it that a special greenhouse was built for Mendel.

After nine years of crossing and recrossing pea plants in ways that no one had ever done before, Mendel delivered a two-part lecture on the results, demonstrating that seven traits of pea plants were either dominant or recessive. The lecture was published, and Mendel sent it to leading scientific figures across Europe, including Charles Darwin. The paper was almost entirely ignored; Darwin did not even cut the pages of his copy, although it would have answered questions that deeply troubled him.

Mendel was subsequently elected abbot of his monastery and lived out his days there. Three botanists rediscovered his paper in 1899-1900, and scholars ultimately credited the obscure monk with being the first to discover the laws that underlie modern genetics.

David Levy

David H. Levy has had the good fortune to become famous in his own lifetime. Born in Montreal, Canada, in 1948, at age 12 he began observing the night sky with a small telescope in his backyard. Despite his great interest in the stars and comets, Levy majored in English at Acadia University in Nova Scotia and never took a course in astronomy.

Moving to Tucson, Arizona, where the night sky was less obscured by lights, he discovered his first new comet on November 13, 1984. Over the next several years, his backyard observations led to sole or shared discovery of seven more comets.

In the early 1990's, Levy started working with the husband-and-wife team of Gene and Carolyn Shoemaker, who were technically also amateur astronomers, although Gene was a renowned expert on planetary geology and the craters formed by comets and asteroids. Carolyn, for her part, had a gift for analyzing astronomical photographs and by then was credited with the discovery of 27 comets and more than 300 asteroids.

Working at the Mount Palomar Observatory in California, the Shoemaker-Levy team proved extremely successful, but it was the discovery in 1993 of Shoemaker-Levy 9, in orbit around Jupiter, that caught the world's attention. It soon became apparent that the comet had broken into 21 pieces, which ultimately crashed into Jupiter. Those collisions, in July 1994, provided one of the most spectacular and carefully studied celestial events in history, and David Levy's name became known around the world.

Henrietta Leavitt

Henrietta Swan Leavitt was one of several women hired at the end of the 19th century by Edward C. Pickering, director of the Harvard College Observatory, to assist him in sorting and classifying thousands of photographic plates of the stars. Nicknamed "the computers" for their ability but paid initially as little as 25 cents an hour, several of these women eventually made a considerable mark in the world of astronomy, none more so than Leavitt, whose work led to an entirely new concept of the universe.

Born in 1868, Leavitt suffered serious hearing loss from an illness in her early 20s, but that did not hold her back. Using a system she had devised for measuring the magnitude (brightness) of stars, she undertook a careful photographic study of variable stars, known as Cepheids, within the Magellanic Clouds. (These are the two galaxies nearest our own, though at the time they were thought to be part of the Milky Way.)

Leavitt discovered that Cepheids have a remarkable property. The cycles of each Cepheid—that is, the period of time that it goes from brightest to dimmest and back to brightest again—is related to its average brightness over that period (the longer the period, the brighter the star). If two Cepheids with the same cycle appear equally bright from Earth, the two stars must be the same distance away, she reasoned correctly; if one appears dimmer than the other, it must be farther away.

Leavitt's discovery made possible the calculations that ultimately led to the first measurements of how far specific stars are from Earth as well as to Edwin Hubble's 1929 proof that the universe consists of large numbers of "island universes" rather than just our own Milky Way galaxy. Leavitt, alas, died in 1921, never knowing that she had provided the key to a revolutionary new understanding of the size and complexity of the universe.

Joseph Priestly

Joseph Priestley was one of the most remarkable men of the 18th century, a widely read author of scientific and theological books, a supporter of the American and French revolutions, and a clergyman whose dissident ideas would serve as a foundation for Unitarianism. Born in 1733 near Leeds, England, Priestley was also one of the foremost scientific experimenters of his age. A quintessential amateur, he has been regarded by some professionals as a "dabbler." But if so, to what effect!

Encouraged in his scientific studies by his friend Benjamin Franklin, Priestley demonstrated that graphite could conduct electricity, and he documented the process of photosynthesis. In a spur-of-the-moment experiment, he invented the eraser and gave rubber its name. He discovered carbon dioxide and used it to invent soda water, and he was the first to describe the properties of ammonia, sulfur dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon monoxide. Most significantly, Priestley discovered oxygen (although it was his French rival Antoine Lavoisier who gave the gas the name we use).

In 1794, Priestley's religious dissidence made it necessary for him and his wife Mary to flee to America, where their three sons already resided. He quickly made new friends, including Thomas Jefferson. Declining a professorship of chemistry in Philadelphia, he built a house near his sons in Northumberland, Pennsylvania, then at the edge of the American frontier, where he died in 1804.

Michael Faraday

Michael Faraday was the son of a blacksmith and received only a grammar school education. Born in 1791, he was apprenticed to a London bookbinder at the age of 14. He set about educating himself, starting with a popular book on basic chemistry from which he cut the pages and rebound them with a blank page interleaved between each page of text so that he could take proper notes.

Faraday's gradual rise to the pinnacle of British science is a story of extraordinary perseverance in the face of great social and educational barriers. Fortunately, a number of people recognized very early on that he was a youth with unusual intellectual ability. In 1813, for instance, Faraday managed to get an interview with Sir Humphrey Davy, the head of the Royal Institution and the most important scientist in England, who soon hired him as his assistant. (Despite Davy's own eminence, it has often been said that his greatest discovery was Michael Faraday.) Faraday eventually became head of the Royal Institution himself and one of the great lecturers of the century.

But his first love remained experimental research, and today he is recognized as the foremost experimental scientist in history. His three Laws of Induction (concerning electromagnetism) and his two Laws of Electrolysis remain fundamental to modern science.

After years of work, on October 28, 1831, Faraday invented the dynamo, or electric generator. In a sign of how highly regarded he remains today, for the 150th anniversary of his invention of the dynamo in 1981, Faraday's face temporarily replaced that of Shakespeare on the ten-pound note. Faraday died in 1867 in a house at Hampton Court given to him by Queen Victoria.

Grote Reber

Grote Reber is far less well known than he deserves to be. Born in Chicago in 1911, Reber graduated from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 1932 and took an engineering job with a Chicago radio manufacturer. He became, among other accomplishments, an immensely proficient ham radio operator, succeeding in making contact with other hams in no fewer than 60 countries.

But his greatest achievement came in astronomy. Following up on an experiment conducted at Bell Labs in 1932, Reber built the world's first true radio telescope in his backyard in Wheaton, Illinois. Putting his knowledge of radio waves to work in constructing his telescope, he used a parabolic antenna—a "dish"—with a sheet-metal surface to reflect radio waves to a receiver located 20 feet above it. He designed the receiver so as to enhance the signals by a factor of several million, and he used an electronic stylus to record the radio waves on paper charts. His radio telescope became operational in 1937, and he published a number of papers in technical journals concerning his techniques and results.

Reber's telescope remained the only one of its kind until after World War II, when new technologies led to the building of much larger dish antennas. His pioneering work was a key to the development of vast modern radio telescopes such as those found in the Very Large Array in New Mexico (popularized in the movie Contact). Reber has received many awards, including the coveted Bruce Medal in 1962, and his original telescope is now on display at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank, West Virginia.

Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is one of the most celebrated science-fiction writers in the world. But he himself says that by far the most important piece he ever wrote was a short technical article published in an obscure journal in October 1945. Clarke was then serving as an officer in the British Royal Air Force radar division.

Born in 1917 and raised on a farm near Taunton in southwestern England, Clarke had gained only a high school diploma (he would attend college after the war), but in the RAF he had the opportunity to work with scientists who were doing cutting-edge work that ultimately would prove crucial to the Allied victory in World War II. Clarke had published some short science-fiction stories, but his article "Extra-Terrestrial Relays" was a different matter.

In the article he proposed that communications satellites orbiting the Earth would be the best way to transmit television around the world. Although television would not become a commercial success in the United States until the 1950s, the British Broadcasting Corporation had begun operations in 1936. The few scientists who read Clarke's article largely dismissed his idea as science fiction. But his technical discussions of how such satellites would work were solid, and he correctly calculated the orbit in which they should be placed to gain maximum coverage of the globe.

This geostationary orbit, lying directly above the equator, would come to be called a Clarke orbit in honor of the young visionary who first proposed it. And while Clarke has won numerous awards for his science-fiction novels and stories, his greatest honors—from a special Emmy award in 1981 to NASA's Distinguished Public Service Medal in 1995—have paid tribute to the revolutionary idea he conceived in 1945.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson is such a towering figure that it can be difficult to see him whole. It's hard enough to grasp that the principal author of the Declaration of Independence and third president of the United States was also an architectural genius, as exemplified by his home, Monticello, and an expert in zoology and botany.

But how many people today know that he is considered the father of modern archeology for his investigation of an Indian burial mound in 1784? Jefferson described this endeavor in detail in his book Notes on the State of Virginia. Archeologists now recognize the way Jefferson went about examining the mound as the first modern archeological excavation.

Instead of simply digging down from the top of the mound or attacking it randomly in hope of stumbling upon some treasure (as had occurred at Pompeii in 1748), Jefferson cut a narrow wedge into the mound that he could walk into. This allowed him to examine the mound's strata, or layers, from top to bottom, enabling him to draw conclusions about how it had been constructed that would otherwise have been impossible to deduce.

Susan Hendrickson

Susan Hendrickson is a self-taught expert in a number of fields who has the unusual distinction of having a fossil dinosaur named after her—in fact, the largest and most complete fossil skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex ever found.

Hendrickson has often been compared to Indiana Jones, the fictional hero of the Spielberg movies. She was indeed born and raised in Indiana and has had fascinating adventures all over the world. She was the kind of kid who was reading Dostoyevsky at age 11 yet dropped out of high school. She didn't need diplomas—many people later in her life have simply assumed she has a Ph.D.

An accomplished scuba diver, Hendrickson early on supplied aquariums with rare marine specimens, some of which had never been described. She always knew when she had found something unusual, because she had taught herself well. Later she dealt in amber insect fossils. The good ones she sold to collectors for as much as she could get; the great ones she sold to museums at cost, earning a reputation as someone who cared more about knowledge than money or fame.

But fame came her way. Working with Peter Larson, founder of an organization of private fossil-hunters known as the Black Hills Institute, she set off on her own on August 12, 1990, to investigate a cliff that had been "beckoning" to her for two weeks in the rocky terrain of north-central South Dakota. As was her wont, she had learned the new discipline of dinosaur hunting with great thoroughness, and that training paid off.

Today, the enormous skeleton of "Tyrannosaurus Sue" that she discovered is the principal attraction at Chicago's Field Museum of Natural History. And Sue Hendrickson, who never went to college, finds herself collecting honorary degrees from major universities.

Felix d'Herelle

Felix d'Herelle was a self-taught French-Canadian bacteriologist who had difficulty working with establishment scientists. Yet he made one of the most significant breakthroughs in 20th-century biology, discovering and naming bacteriophages, the viruses that attack bacteria.

Testing diseased locusts on the Yucatan Peninsula in 1909 while in the employ of the Mexican government, d'Herelle noticed that cultures of the locust bacteria showed an anomaly that took the form of circular clear spots. In 1916, while he was working at the Pasteur Institute in Paris trying to find ways to control the dysentery that was then felling soldiers on the front, the anomalous clear spots turned up again. This time he conducted further research, leading to the discovery of bacteriophages (literally "eaters of bacteria").

D'Herelle published his first paper on the subject in 1917. An English biochemist named Frederick Twort had made the same discovery, and the two men are given dual credit, but d'Herelle described them in greater depth and named them. He believed that phages, as they came to be generally called, could be used to eradicate some of the most ancient of human diseases, and he spent the rest of his life working toward that end. (Today, as bacteria are becoming increasingly immune to antibiotics, modern scientists have begun undertaking new research of this kind.)

Phages proved to have ideal properties for genetic research, leading directly to the unraveling of the mysteries of DNA. D'Herelle died in 1949, four years before James Watson and Francis Crick worked out the structure of DNA, but he knew that was coming and that his own discovery of phages had made it possible.

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John Malone John Malone is the author of It Doesn't Take a Rocket Scientist: Great Amateurs of Science (John Wiley & Sons, 2002), which fleshes out each of these profiles into a full chapter. Author of more than 40 books, Malone lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

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NOVA Home Find out what's coming up on air Listing of previous NOVA Web sites NOVA's history Subscribe to the NOVA bulletin Lesson plans and more for teachers NOVA RSS feeds Tell us what you think Program transcripts Buy NOVA videos or DVDs Watch NOVA programs online Answers to frequently asked questions