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Friday, 8 June 2012

On the (re)rise of the amateur scientist

So half term eh? One week, two holidays, lots of rain and nearly over.

What do I have left to do? Well year 7 planning for a weeks time has to be sorted and those tests don't mark themselves. The only thing I seem to have gotten through is this month's pay packet.

Ouch.

One thing I have spent of time doing - other than house hunting - is experimenting with my snails.

Or rather I should say observing my snails. For there is a difference and it's taken a bit of this week for me to get used to.

You see I could write up what I have observed on my snails but without lots of data, and statistical analysis of that data what I would have are just things I have seen in a small group of snails that have been potentially exposed to a predator.

Unfortunately that doesn't make for scientific research.

However it is still a worthwhile exercise for me. Why? because I have disproved something I thought I had seen from my undergrad days. Instead I now think I have a better idea of what is happening when the snails are in a group setting.

However I need a lot more data/experimentation before I write it up.

I still will write it up. However for this holiday time has defeated me. For now.

This is what I need to get used to. I am always an all or nothing kind of person however with this situation I think I will have to take baby steps.

So how does this link in with the blog post title?

Well...

One thing that is becoming more common is the use of amateur scientists to support professional science research.

Seti http://setilive.org/, PlanetHunters http://www.planethunters.org/, The Natural History Museum London - bluebell survey (http://www.nhm.ac.uk/resources-rx/files/bluebells-2012-survey-recording-form-61677-61677.pdf)  are 3 I can think of off the top of my head but it does feel that with more and more science becoming commercial the rise of the amateur scientist will become more important.

I know that the BBC already run competitions to allow peoples experiment ideas to be put to the test by professional scientists - 'so you want to be a scientist' http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/sywtbas/.

As well as the recent Venus transit highlighting that amateur astronomy is still a popular hobby.

Maybe this is where less commercial science will end up? In the public domain again. After all a fair few of the heroes of science were 'gentlemen scientists' who treated science as a hobby alongside being doctors or lawyers etc.

With the world now a smaller place and with the internet giving everyone a voice then maybe we will find more people using that voice to discuss and further science.

Maybe.

It is a big maybe but from personal experience, doing the blog, posting science videos, contributing to discussion groups I know that it is already happening.

Albeit no one has quite written another 'Origin of Species' yet.

Although one of the people using PlanetHunters did find a new planet.

Which I think you will agree is very cool!

So how does this all sum up? Well its simple if you want to do an experiment then have a go. Remember that your not professional so don't spend hours and hours on it, just do a bit every now and then and write up what you find.

Remember your science lessons from school.


  1. have a question in mind and come up with what you don't think will happen - your null hypothesis
  2. only change 1 thing - your independent variable
  3. what your measure is your dependent variable
  4. everything else you should keep the same - controls
  5. try to minimize experimental error - equipment and human
  6. document everything - photo's are good but results tables
  7. avoid drawing early conclusions until you have lots of evidence
  8. take repeats - the more the better - just because you see it once doesn't mean it always happen

Easy, have fun, start small you can build up with experience.

here are a few to start with


  1. do you catch more flies with vinegar or beer?
  2. what cleans a coin better coke or vinegar?
  3. collect rainwater, if you get sediment in the rainwater that is magnetic you have collected iron from space!
  4. do beans grow better with or without soil? 
  5. what effect do different soft drinks have on your heart rate?
Have fun, let me know any results - I am off to set up water traps before it rains again...

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