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From New Scientist magazine, 30 September 2000.

Free spirits

by Brian J Ford

Photo: N Dunbar/MIllennium
Photo: N Dunbar/MIllennium

Amateurs and independents are responsible for much of our progress in science and technology. They deserve more recognition.

HOW does science make its great leaps forward?

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 instructions.

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.


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