by Brian J Ford
Photo: N Dunbar/MIllennium
Amateurs and independents are responsible for
much of our progress in science and technology. They deserve
HOW does science make its great leaps
The academic establishment--and the funding
bodies--will tell you that all the important advances take place
through research at universities and institutes. But then they
would say that, wouldn't they?
The reality is more surprising. Look at the
history of science and you will see that it progresses mostly
through accident or rebellion--or as a result of somebody's hobby.
Innovators often come from fields outside those in which they
make their mark. It seems that a fresh mind, or a viewpoint born
of a free spirit, is best placed to offer revolutionary insights--something
that the people who fund science consistently fail to take account.
There are many examples of successful amateur
scientists and inventors. Antony van Leeuwenhoek, the microscope
pioneer, sold sewing supplies for a living. Christopher Wren,
who helped rebuild London after the great fire of 1666, was a
natural scientist who studied architecture as a hobby. John Boyd
Dunlop, father of the pneumatic tyre, was a veterinarian. Laszlo
Bíró, who invented the ballpoint pen with his brother
Georg, was a sculptor and journalist.
William Smith drew the first fossil-based
geological maps of Britain in 1815 when he was a surveyor. He
studied strata while digging canals. The bacteriophage was named
by Félix d'Hérelle, who left school unqualified
and spent much of his early life as an outlaw before entering
university for the first time as a professor at Yale. Automatic
telephone dialling, which connects calls without an opera- tor,
was developed by Almon B. Strow- ger, an undertaker who was losing
business to his rival through an eavesdrop- per at the telephone
exchange. Photocopiers were invented by Chester Carlson, a patent
lawyer who researched his invention at the New York public library.
Colour photography was developed not by employees
of a high-powered research institute but by Leopold Mannes and
Leo Godowsky Jr, two concert musicians who learned chemistry
from books and experimented in their hotel rooms between performances
on stage. Embryo transfer was developed by Walter Heape, a businessman
who eventually wrote a book about his hobby. The polymerase chain
reaction--a technique key to modern genetics--was invented by
Kary Mullis, who was working in a restaurant before he was tempted
back to the laboratory.
The pioneers of today's computer age, Steve
Jobs and Bill Gates, were university dropouts, while Clive Sinclair
never went in the first place. Recording tape was invented in
the home workshop of an Austrian engineer named Fritz Pfleumer.
Although the computer hard disc emerged from IBM's labs, it was
a boot-leg venture undertaken by employees working against official
Progress often depends on an experiment going
wrong. Float glass, used in most of the world's windows, was
the brainchild of Alastair Pilkington (who worked for Pilkington's,
though was unrelated to that family). His prototype glass-making
apparatus failed to produce anything satisfactory until part
of the machine broke, and the experiment ran without anyone realising
something was wrong. By chance, the process gave rise to glass
of the gauge that is most in demand today.
Polyethylene, one of the most important plastics,
was created in 1933 when a pressure vessel developed a leak.
Viagra emerged from a search for drugs to treat angina. The first
drug for baldness, Regaine (also known as Rogane), grew out of
an unforeseen side effect of a treatment for hypertension. John
Cade in Australia stumbled on lithium salts as a treatment for
manic depression when he used them as a carrier for uric acid,
which he believed was the active ingredient. It was only realised
later that it was the lithium cation that had the desired effect.
Rebel science, where practitioners defy the
orders of their superiors, is another source of progress. It
was the independent research of Roger Altounyan that led to the
"spinhaler", a device for delivering powdered medication
to asthma sufferers. Defying official instructions, he compressed
decades of research into months by experimenting on himself.
James Watson and Francis Crick defied departmental
policy when they took Rosalind Franklin's diffraction evidence
for the helical structure of DNA and made it into the model we
know so well.
Members of today's research funding bodies
may be startled to learn that most of these discoveries were
made with very modest investment. The crowning example is Einstein's
theory of relativity, which resulted from work in his spare time
while he was a patents clerk in Zurich. The greatest scientific
theory of the century cost the price of a notebook.
These are not fringe case histories, but developments
of central significance. It is not academia that fosters discovery,
but personal enthusiasm. Current policies and funding strategies
ignore individuals, perpetuating the belief that it is the team
that matters. Nobody doubts that a well-managed team is best
placed to turn ideas into marketable products. But the idea itself
matters above all--and that is the province of the gifted individual.
Independent innovators often work alongside
an academic establishment that can then profit from their discoveries.
Sometimes they are actively courted by academia. But the narrow
view and conformity of a university environment have rarely suited
gifted innovators. The vogue for exaggerating progress in the
hope of securing another short-term grant makes many universities
an uncomfortable environment for a free spirit.
There are few sources of funding for amateur
or independent scientists. The Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation
offers sizeable grants to individual geniuses. But the British
National Endowment for Science (now known as NESTA) has widened
its scope and also gives money to the arts. Perhaps it feels
there are too few individuals in science worth supporting. Yet
it would not be too difficult to award grants to practitioners
with solid track records who are working outside the system.
It is time to give individual scientists their
due. The future will owe much to their creativity.
Brian J. Ford is an independent biologist who lectures
on topics that other people don't.