The Amateurs who Give us Science
27 May 2000
Everyone knows how science is advanced. We can all picture the rows of white-coated scientists working methodically in their laboratories, with instruments flickering and bright towers of glassware on every bench. The way a new discovery sweeps across the world is familiar to everyone. Science, they say, is a highly professional activity. This talk will attempt to show how the popular picture is wrong. For thousands of years the advance of society has been underpinned by scientific discovery. Genetic modification and civil engineering date back to prehistoric times, and the extraordinary story of how our understanding has developed paints a surprising picture of the early dawn of understanding. In recent centuries the pace has steadily increased. Most of it has been due to the work of the independent amateur. Even in such high-technology fields as aeronautics and petrochemicals, it has been the independent worker who has led the way. Some major discoveries have been made by individuals working in defiance of instructions and in their spare time. Others have been made by complete outsiders: for example, a sculptor, a violinist, an undertaker and a clerk gave us relativity, the ballpoint pen, colour photography and automatic telephone dialling - though not in that order!
Brian J. Ford is an influential biologist and broadcaster - he partners Lady Antonia on the BBC's Round Britain Quiz each year. He is chairman of the History Committee at the Institute of Biology, and several of his books and television programmes have dealt with the progress of science. He is Royal Literary Fellow at the Open University Business School, a Fellow of Cardiff University and serves on many academic bodies in England and America.