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Just for the love of it

A few of that sturdy breed of amateurs who pioneered scientific work still survive. Martyn Kelly meets them

Martyn Kelly
Saturday 17 June 1995 23:02 BST

IN THE 19th century, nobody would have thought of the scientist as a white-coated boffin aloof in his laboratory, working on the payroll of a university, hospital or drug company. The typical scientist then would have been a gentleman of independent means, and his place would have been out in the field, recording wildlife or excavating ammonites. There were exceptions, of course (like Mary Anning, the working-class naturalist who discovered the first fossils at Lyme Regis), but scientists were by and large male, well-heeled, leisured - and, above all, amateur.

Darwin's Origin of the Species changed all that. The schism that followed, so often seen as a clash between science and religion, was as much a battle between these amateurs and the new breed of professionals as exemplified by Thomas Huxley. Huxley and his successors began to ask more sophisticated questions, and laboratories equipped with increasingly specialised (and expensive) equipment were needed to answer them. Yet the new disciplines were little different from the natural history that had spawned them, and amateur scientists remained an important force until early this century: where would genetics be, for example, without the pioneering work of Gregor Mendel, the 19th-century monk who discovered patterns of inheritance? Where would aviation be without the Wright brothers?

Today, amateur science is less of a force than it used to be, but there is still a place for it. Henry Arnold, database manager for the Biological Records Centre at the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, says the majority of its data on 10,000 plant and animal species is gathered by volunteers. "Nowhere else in the world can boast such a tradition of amateur naturalists," he says; unlike in some other countries, their observations have been taken seriously and used to advise the government in areas such as global warming and biodiversity.

The strengths the amateur brings to science are clear. Professionals may be in a position to contribute sophisticated analytical equipment, but amateurs have the freedom to make patient observations over long periods of time. By studying purely as a hobby, they can also set their own agenda, free from the politics, diversions and demands of a university department or a commercial company.

The days of the amateur may be numbered, however. With access to further education improving, more young people with an interest in science will end up pursuing it professionally. There are also signs that the public's relationship with science is changing. Though 10 million viewers tuned in to David Attenborough's Private Lives of Plants on BBC1, suggesting science has never been more popular, their interest is a passive one. There are fewer enthusiasts out in the field: compare those viewing figures with the membership of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (860,000), which is regarded as having a very high membership, or the County Wildlife Trusts (220,000).

Television, which brings the world's wildlife into our front rooms has, paradoxically, taken away some of the leisure time that was once spent looking at wildlife. We are now a nation of spectators, while the amateur scientist is becoming an endangered species. Pockets survive, however, and their contribution is invaluable. Here are some of the people without whose work science would be impoverished.


House sparrows seemed a natural choice for Denis Summers-Smith to study in the late 1940s, when petrol rationing made travel in pursuit of less ubiquitous birds difficult. "The thing that interested me was that they were obviously successful," he explains, "and I began to ask why." A mechanical engineer by profession, Summers-Smith has the advantage of a scientific training which enabled him to adopt a systematic approach from the outset. "The trivial answer," he says, "is that they are associated with man and that man is a successful animal. The question then becomes, `How does the association arise?' I believed the way to answer this was to look at the other members of the genus, and see if I could get clues from them. Having started from a back garden in Hamp-shire, I then moved pretty well worldwide."

Professor Tim Birkhead of the University of Sheffield sums up Summers- Smith's achievement: "He alerted people to the fact that something as common as a sparrow was worthy of serious study." Terry Burke of Leicester University adds: "He showed that sparrows are relatively monogamous in their pair bonds over a period of time, but he also had an indication from his data that they might not be totally monogamous in terms of their sexual relationships." Both Birkhead and Burke point out that Summers- Smith's intuition has subsequently been confirmed by DNA fingerprinting, which has shown that about 15 per cent of house sparrows are fathered outside "wedlock".

Summers-Smith's study has brought him some unwelcome attention, however. "Sparrows are associated with man," he says, "so most of my bird watching is close to man. The best time to watch birds is at dawn - and if you are looking at houses at dawn through field glasses, people get the wrong impression. I have had the police visit me, and I had to satisfy them that my intentions were quite moral."


Ray Fairbairn's hands were still dirty from tending his hybrid saxifrages (Alpine rock plants) when I spoke to him about his geological work. One of his collection of grandfather clocks chimed gently in the background. Such polymathy (Fairbairn has also written books on the industrial archaeology of the Pennines), is typical of many amateur scientists, free from the constraints on professionals to publish and achieve eminence in one particular field.

Over the years this retired industrial chemist has traipsed hundreds of miles across northern England following the bands of the Great Limestone. "Someone once unwisely said to me that you can't prove it's continuous," said Fairbairn. "That started it." He began to look at how fossils contained within the rock varied from place to place. "You can use these as markers, because certain bands of limestone contain certain fossils - so you can trace them from one quarry to the next." Over the course of many years, and the writing of a string of papers for the Yorkshire Geological Society, Fairbairn eventually proved that the Great Limestone was, in fact, a single continuous band of rock.

This, explains Tony Johnson, a former lecturer in geology at Durham University, greatly aids our understanding of this period 300 million years ago. "It shows that these layers were laid down continuously over a very wide area," he explains. "This means you had very stable conditions over a relatively long period of time, when the lime muds were able to collect slowly on the sea floor."

Fairbairn follows in a long tradition of amateurs who have studied carboniferous rocks in Britain. One, William Bisset, a company secretary, was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on the basis of his studies of fossil ammenoids. The reason for this fascination with the carboniferous period is not hard to find: the limestone formed at this time underlies some of Britain's finest countryside, making it a most attractive environment in which to work.


Dr John Rogers is not an amateur scientist. By day he works at the department of physiology in Cambridge, looking at aspects of how genes work in the brain. But he has a spare-time passion, at the opposite end of the scale. "I have always been interested in the sky in general," he says, "and Jupiter is the planet on which one can see most." He co-ordinates observations for the British Astronomical Association, the amateur body which had a particularly fine time last year when the comet Schumacher-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter. "We could see the impact sites right after the comet fragments hit, and were able to follow them as they evolved over several months. We contributed observations to the professionals' Jupiter Watch project throughout the crash period."

Even in a discipline epitomised by high technology and higher spending, Dr Rogers explains, "professionals recognise that what amateurs can bring is a lot of time, and the ability to do continuous observations over years and even decades. Many professionals seem very pleased to know what we amateurs can tell them about what the planets are doing at the moment." He has also drawn together amateur observations and professional research in a 460 page book, The Giant Planet Jupiter, about to be published by Cambridge University Press. "It's been great fun doing it, because I am in a position to synthesise observations from amateurs over the past 120 years - and a lot of that just had not been done before."

Despite the enormous cost of facilities such as the Clerk-Maxwell telescope in Hawaii, astronomy is not an especially expensive hobby; a really good telescope might cost more than pounds 1,000, but, as Dr Rogers explains, enthusiasts can make their own for very much less. "There is a long tradition of amateur telescope-making," he says, "doing it all on the cheap but getting very good optical results out of it. It's a field in which a lack of funding isn't a prohibition."


The work of Klaus Kemp, one of Britain's most distinguished amateurs, is as much art as science. He creates tiny masterpieces, each only a couple of millimetres across, by carefully arranging the empty shells of diatoms (microscopic plants) on a microscope slide. Diatoms - each less than a tenth of a millimetre across, perfectly symmetrical and enclosed in a delicately sculpted silica case - have attracted the attention of amateur microscopists for more than 150 years. They find rich hunting grounds in rivers, ponds and by the sea, where insignificant-looking brown smears can contain 30 or more species, each with its own characteristic patterns of surface ornamentation.

It was the Victorians who first started arranging diatoms on microscope slides, yet they never wrote down their techniques. Kemp, a biology technician, saw one and was intrigued. "It took a whole eight years of fiddling about to find an adhesive that did not show under the microscope," he says. "It was all purely for my own interest, though I was eventually able to sell a few slides to pay for the materials I needed."

His dexterity led to collaborations with professional scientists, who asked him to arrange cells so that they could use an electron microscope - many times more powerful than his light microscope. These studies led to new ideas about one group, the genus Mastogloia, which were published in academic journals.

Kemp's German background comes in useful as most important monographs on diatoms are written in German. The first comprehensive guide to the diatoms of Britain, to be published later this year by the Natural History Museum, contains 6,000 drawings by three of Kemp's fellow amateurs. One, John Carter, a retired photographer and peripatetic music teacher, des- cribed more than 200 new species between the 1930s and his death in 1993 and, says Patricia Sims of the Natural History Museum, was generally acknowledged to be the British expert.


The Reverend Gordon Graham has taken the biblical injunction to "consider the lilies of the field" to extremes. He has written a 526-page flora of County Durham, plus a handbook on wild roses - a genus notoriously difficult to identify - and is also an authority on mosses and lichens. David Bellamy writes in his introduction to the Durham flora: "He is one of the many students who taught me more than I taught them." All this, along with an MSc degree, was achieved while working as a parish priest in the north-east of England.

Collating the county flora was a mammoth undertaking, for which Graham relied on the goodwill of an army of spare-time recorders. "The Botanical Society of the British Isles has always had a large amateur membership," he says, "who have given hours of time absolutely free." This may all be changing, however, as environmental consultancies muscle in. These often approach amateurs for their information for use in environmental impact assessments, but offer no remuneration. "Amateurs are getting fed up with doing it all for nothing."

Even the county Wildlife Trusts now offer consultancy services. As a result, Graham notes, it is often hard to get information from them without charge. The quality of data collected by some consultancies is also abysmally low. "In one glaring example," he says, "the consultants missed a lot of things and the area, which is a good example of limestone grassland, would have been infilled with rubbish." Some-times he has the opportunity to re-survey areas like this, but in other cases a poor survey has worked in the landowner's favour - and he has been reluctant to allow subsequent surveys. "How would you write a flora now," Graham asks, "with all these conflicting interests?" !

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