Thursday, 30 April 2009

Monkeys and Moons

You may have realised by now that this year is both the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth as well as the 150th anniversary of the first publication of ‘The Origin of Species’.

It’s also the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s use of the telescope. Why is this worth commemorating? In 1609, Galileo looked through his telescope and observed the moons of Jupiter for the first time. He saw that they were orbiting around Jupiter, so he realised that not everything in the sky moved around the Earth. This was experimental proof for Copernicus’ heliocentric model and it relegated us and our Earth away from the centre of our Universe.
This relegation has continued ever since, to the present day. We now know that we’re on a small planet orbiting around an average sized sun, in a rather large spiral galaxy, which is only one of many galaxies in the Local Group and one of several million (known) galaxies in the Universe.

Darwin’s work was necessarily more focussed on humanity than Galileo’s, but it helped to emphasise the links between humans and other living organisms at the expense of the uniqueness of humanity. Our place in the universe is not particularly special, and neither are we, compared to other species. (We can’t yet quantify how unique the combination of us on our planet is, compared to other similar Earth-like planets in the universe.)

It’s interesting that the anniversary of Darwin’s work seems to have a much higher profile than Galileo’s. Of course, that’s been helped by the double whammy of Darwin’s anniversaries falling in the same year. And this year is International Year of Astronomy, which was at least partly triggered by the Galileo anniversary. IYA is a big deal; there are lots of astronomical events going on all over the world to celebrate it.

Even so, I can’t see any commemoration of the wider implications of what Galileo found, outside of the scope of the actual science. (Of course, these implications were realised by the Church during Galileo’s lifetime, leading to his infamous trial and subsequent house arrest.)
In contrast, we’re possibly in danger of developing Darwin-fatigue. There is oodles of coverage on TV, radio, newspapers, books… and the impact of evolution on every other aspect of human endeavour hasn’t been missed.

I think this difference in emphasis has two possible causes. Darwin’s work is not finished. Evolution is endlessly being challenged by proponents of so-called Intelligent Design. These challenges are not trivial, they are affecting the way that children are educated. So there is a real reason to defend evolution and to continue to explain how it works. Also, Darwin as a person is accessible. We know how he lived, and we can read what he wrote without it needing to be filtered through intermediaries.

On the other hand, Galileo might have been the first modern scientist (in that he actually observed the world around him rather than rely on Aristotlian arguments to make his case) but he’s a remote figure. It’s difficult to imagine his world. What did he really think of the Church? His writing is direct and engaging (see his ‘Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems’) but it’s difficult to relate it to the way we do science.

But we lose sight of Galileo at our peril. His trial was a test of what can and cannot be said. The journalist Simon Singh is currently being sued by the British Chiropractic Association over his criticism of the possible dangers of chiropractic therapy. This is totally inappropriate; science shouldn’t be constrained by legal devices. If the BCA think that Mr Singh is wrong, why don’t they produce the relevant scientific research?

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The pro-am tournament

Science (of all descriptions) is usually done by scientists in universities or industries, and they get paid to do it. Science became a predominantly paid profession towards the end of the nineteenth century, with the growth of lectureships and PhD studies at universities. Until then, amateurs had played a key role. Victorian science is full of country parsons with microscopes in their dining rooms, and even Darwin wasn’t a professional scientist.

Until recently, astronomy was probably the only science still carried out by amateurs as well as professionals. Amateur astronomers do useful stuff like monitor the changes in light from variable stars. They also search the sky for supernovae (exploding stars), and other rare phenomena. They’re in a good position to do so, as they tend to have more access to telescopes (albeit much smaller telescopes than the ones professionals use).

But amateur astronomy is different to that done by professionals. Amateur astronomers have more in common with collectors of butterflies or fossils. In any science there’s a need to collect, classify, and categorise. Before you can explain different phenomena you need to have detailed descriptions of them, know how common they are and where they occur. Is a big red star a different type of star than a small white one? Or just the same type at a different stage of its life?

Amateurs document and describe what they find, but they’re less likely to investigate the underlying physics and provide explanations of what they see. Theirs is a more passive activity than professional astronomy. Perhaps it’s also more visually aesthetic because they spend more time actually looking at the sky.

Now, the edges are being blurred between amateur and professional astronomy as amateurs are able to get access to facilities like the 2 metre robotic Liverpool Telescope. Will this change what they do?

And now astronomy is no longer the only science in which amateurs participate. There is a growing trend for DIY biology, done by amateurs in their kitchens. This is seen by its practitioners as challenging the hegemony of ‘big science’ and making it more democratic so that genetically modified organisms aren’t just created for the purposes of making profit. This sort of amateur science is much more of a challenge to professionals than amateur astronomy. DIY biologists are doing what professionals are doing, just on a smaller scale, and the professional way of ensuring that scientific results meet a commonly agreed standard is through peer review. Will the DIYers bother with that? Perhapd they won’t need to, if they’re not applying for jobs or grants…

Of course, the blurring between amateur and professional activities happens because people get access to technology and information. Writers now publish on the internet. It may not be ‘professional’ and it may not make them any money, but it disseminates their work. But we still crave the kudos that comes from getting our work published in more traditional ways. Do we want this just because it’s so difficult to get?