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ISSUE 1656Tuesday 7 December 1999

  Amateurs 'are the scientific pioneers'
By Aisling Irwin, Science Correspondent


 

External Links
 
> Albert Einstein online - Steven Morgan
 
> Exploring the creation/evolution controversy - The Talk.Origins Archive
 


 SCIENTIFIC breakthroughs tend to be made by amateurs and outsiders, not by professionals who are generally paid to make them, a biologist said yesterday.

Relativity theory, colour photography, the discovery of Uranus and the invention of the spin inhaler for asthmatics were all benefits that came from mavericks whose ideas were not welcomed by the scientific establishment, said Brian Ford, an independent biologist and broadcaster.

Yet funding went to established scientific laboratories because it was believed that the most innovative science comes from there, produced by "cogs in management machines," he said.

"Almost all of the key stages that carry science forward actually come from the hearts and minds of gifted and freewheeling individuals," Mr Ford said last night before a lecture to the Cambridge Society for the Application of Research. "Virtually every area where I have been looking it has been the independent, iconoclast who has made the major contribution."

Mr Ford cited examples such as the church organist William Herschel who discovered Uranus, and Charles Darwin who did not complete his first degree. More modern examples included Kary Mullis, the rollerboarding father of the Polymerase Chain Reaction, which underpins today's genetic research; and Watson and Crick, who discovered the structure of DNA but had been warned away from the project by their employers.

Einstein was a patent clerk, he added, while photocopying was invented by a lawyer and colour photography by concert pianists. "Sometimes it almost seems that they do it better if they are not specialists," said Mr Ford. But his ideas were greeted with scepticism by scientists and historians.

Dr Rob Iliffe, historian at the Centre for the History of Science, Medicine and Technology at London University, said: "It is actually highly unusual for people who are genuinely outsiders to make breakthroughs. In what way are these people outsiders? Einstein received very good training. He was clued up."

29 May 1999: [International] The list that missed the 20th century giants
14 July 1998: Science research gets 1bn extra

 




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