Sun. Jun 20th, 2021

Two days after Christmas in 1831, a soft-featured gentleman set sail from Plymouth, England, aboard a modest brig-sloop. The ship was embarking on a two-year voyage of exploration, and the 22-year-old former divinity student had been invited to serve as the expedition’s naturalist. Though he had taken only a few courses in what was then called natural philosophy, he’d been recommended for the post by a prominent botanist. Better yet, his wealthy father was able to pay his way on the voyage, which meant the expedition could forgo a salary. In short, the young gentleman was a true amateur: one drawn to a field by love—despite lacking much formal training—and with little hope of earning a living in the profession.

The two-year journey stretched to five. In the rocky archipelago of the Galapagos, he pondered a particularly unusual assortment of birds. His insights into how those birds developed their distinctive traits would someday change the world. That ship, of course, was the Beagle, and the young naturalist, Charles Darwin.

In our modern, credential-obsessed age, it’s worth remembering that, not that long ago, science was largely the pursuit of amateurs like Darwin. Benjamin Franklin worked out some of the core principles of electricity while running a thriving printing business. The brother-sister team of William and Caroline Herschel built enormous telescopes and scanned the heavens for decades, discovering the planet Uranus and thousands of other astronomical bodies.

But in the decades after Darwin published On the Origin of Species, the physical sciences underwent a thoroughgoing process of professionalization. Universities set up programs and degrees more narrowly focused on botany, astronomy, physics, and other fields. The era of the free-ranging natural philosopher was ending, while that of the highly trained specialist had arrived.

To a large degree, this was a necessary advance. As the sum total of human knowledge expands, it takes longer for an individual to get up to speed in any given field. In Darwin’s time, biologists mostly focused on collecting and identifying specimens. Today a biologist needs a working knowledge of genetics, laboratory techniques, cell and molecular biology, ecology, and so on.

It might seem that the days when a gifted amateur could venture out in the field and make important discoveries are now long past. Over 40,000 people earn doctorates in science or engineering from U.S. universities each year. Basic research at academic institutions is a $70 billion enterprise. And yet, despite all that, passionate amateurs are still with us. In dozens of scientific fields, dedicated nonprofessionals make valuable contributions. The work done by these amateurs is known as community science, crowdsourced science, or “citizen science,” a lovely phrase that captures the democratic spirit of the enterprise.

In the early 19th century, John James Audubon rambled across North America, laying the groundwork for modern ornithology. Birds remain a key focus for amateur naturalists to this day. Birders tend to be obsessive list-makers and record keepers, which makes their observations especially valuable for scientific research. Since 1900, amateur birders across the continent have gathered every year to perform an annual Christmas Bird Count. Here’s how it works in my neck of the woods: My local Audubon Society chapter asks volunteers to visit particular birding locations around New York’s Westchester County and the Bronx on a specific late-December day and keep a record of every bird they see. These sightings are then added to a database that goes back nearly a century.

Obviously, even the most assiduous birders can’t provide an exact count of every bird in the region. But because the volunteers visit the same spots every year, their records give ornithologists a useful snapshot of trends in species populations. For example, after World War II (and the advent of DDT), bald eagles were only rarely sighted in this region, until about 15 years ago. This past December, some 24 eagles were counted, a new high. In all, birders in my area recorded 120 species last year, four more than average. One might think academic ornithologists would look askance at this kind of data, collected by a bunch of amateurs. But more than 300 peer-reviewed papers have been based on Christmas Bird Count data alone.

Over the years, birders have developed a host of similar population tallies: fall hawk watches, hummingbird-migration surveys, the “Great Backyard Bird Count,” and more. In 2002, ornithologists at Cornell University and the National Audubon Society decided to expand on the concept. They created a digital database to which any birder can now contribute using a smartphone. It’s called eBird, and it might be the most successful example of crowdsourcing in history.

The platform’s secret sauce is its interface, which makes it easy for birders to enter their sightings, keep track of their various lists, and share information with the birding community at large. All that data flows into the massive eBird database. (Teams of experienced volunteer reviewers look it over first, weeding out dubious entries.) To date, close to a billion sightings have been entered into eBird. That dataset is invaluable to ornithologists, but also to other birders. If I’m visiting an eBird “hotspot,” I can check to see what species other (and, invariably, better) birders have spotted there in recent days. Today, eBird is available around the world, in more than two dozen languages. In 2020 alone, more than 100 scientific papers cited eBird data.

The digital revolution has its dark side, but when it comes to helping millions of people share precise observations about the natural world, it can’t be beat. To wit: Penguin Watch; Project Budburst (recording when plants bloom); Koala Count; Citizen Weather Watch; Bumblebee Watch; HerpMapper (snakes and such); Moon Mappers (NASA can’t do everything); Mangrove Watch; Project Roadkill (don’t ask); and many more.

Long before the smartphone era, backyard astronomers were making important discoveries. In 1995, stargazer Thomas Bopp, a factory manager by day, noticed an unusual smudge of brightness while looking through a friend’s telescope. On the same night, a professional astronomer made the same discovery. The Hale-Bopp comet, one of the brightest in history, shares their names. One of the biggest challenges for astronomers is tracking the millions (billions?) of stars that vary in brightness. They come in endless varieties: pulsating white dwarves, eclipsing binaries, yellow hyper-giants, luminous blue variables, and more. Those faint pulses offer clues into the origin of our universe, but astronomers can’t watch them all. A global association of “variable star observers” recruits interested amateurs to submit their own observations. “Pick a star,” their website urges.

Most of us have what I would call a heroic understanding of science. We imagine the solitary genius—Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein—overthrowing some entrenched scientific worldview in a radical flash of insight. In his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, science historian Thomas Kuhn called those moments “paradigm shifts” (a term that turned into a cliché before the print was dry). But before that lightning bolt of genius comes something else, something less glamorous but every bit as necessary: data. Copernicus’s revolutionary idea that the earth revolved around the sun was informed by centuries of astronomical observations. It wasn’t while standing on some island outcrop that Darwin arrived at the idea that finches evolved to fit various Galapagos niches. In fact, he didn’t know the birds were related until an expert colleague back in England helped him sort through his copious collection of specimens. Darwin’s breakthrough was informed by years of careful observation. And observation is something we can all do.

Today’s academic scientists have a degree of training unmatched in human history. They have state-of-the-art laboratories, and they attend conferences to share the latest research in their fields. But what they don’t have is access to unlimited data describing our planet and the cosmos. That’s where citizen scientists come in. One doesn’t need an advanced degree to watch a hawk migrating overhead or to point a telescope at a distant star. There is still a place for the passionate amateur. So, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go look for some birds.

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