Sunday, July 28, 2013

Was Einstein a Citizen Scientist?

Everybody starts somewhere.  A young Michael Jordan lost countless basketball games to his older brother.  Abraham Lincoln lost many political races before becoming President.  Vincent van Gogh couldn't sell a paintings for a  $1 that now hang in museums.  And Albert Einstein was just an everyday citizen scientist.  Just like the rest of us.

Walter Isaacson's "Einstein: His Life and Universe" shows how a man with a desire to learn and dedication to science can go from being shunned by world of academia to being embraced by it.  His ideas came from completely outside the professional establishment.  But they were so ground-breaking, and so correct, he forced the world to notice him.

Despite growing up in the Austrian town of Ulm, known for breeding world-class mathematicians, Einstein only received a limited education in the subject.  His verbal development was slow and the geometry he learned was done as his own (two years early) thanks to a book from a friend.  He also bought his own college-level physics textbooks while in high school to prepare himself for the Zurich Polytechnic Institute.  But these self-motivated initiatives and unique learning schedule were not necessarily a bad thing.  It helped him learn at his own pace and let his mind ask questions of the material he could never have asked his own teachers.  It also allowed him to master calculus before the age of fifteen (despite what unfounded rumors of his problems with math would have us believe). So by the age of sixteen he had written his first scientific paper, "On the Investigation of the State of the Ether in a Magnetic Field."  As Isaacson writes,
"His slow development was combined with a cheeky rebelliousness toward authority, which led to one schoolmaster to send him packing and another to amuse history by declaring that he would never amount to much.  These traits made Albert Einstein the patron saint of distracted school kids everywhere.  But they also helped to make him, or so he later surmised, the most creative scientific genius of modern time."

After graduation Einstein ran into another of his many difficulties breaking into academia as his parents were unable to afford a university education.  Returning home he worked in the family electrical engineering business, but soon found his way back to Zurich Polytechnic.  His eventual graduation from Zurich also led to frustration as he would wait another nine years before being offered his first academic job as a junior professor.  All leading him to the famed Swiss Patent Office.
He soon learned that he could work on the patent applications so quickly that it left time for him to sneak in his own scientific thinking during the day.  "I was able to do a full day's work in only two or three hours," he recalled.  "The remaining part of the day, I would work out my own ideas." ... He came to believe that it was a benefit to science, rather than a burden, to work instead in "that worldly cloister where I hatched my most beautiful idea.".....In addition, his boss Haller had a credo that was as useful for a  creative and rebellious theorist as it was for a patent examiner: "You have to remain critically vigilant."  Question every premise, challenge conventional wisdom, and never accept the truth of something merely because everyone else views it as obvious.  Resist being credulous.  "When you pick up an application," Haller instructed, "think that everything the inventor is saying is wrong."

All this work paid off during his "Miracle Year" of 1905.  In four brief papers published in the Annalen der Physik, he would upend the physics world and make a name for himself in the annals of history.
  • Photoelectric Effect: Showed that light energy is absorbed and released by atoms in discrete amounts.
  • Brownian Motion: Helped prove the theory of atoms by showing how their motion could be visually detected under a microscope.
  • Special Theory of Relativity: Established that the speed of light remains constant regardless of the speed of the observer.
  • Mass-Energy Equivalence: The most famous three-page paper which brought us the magical equation, E=MC squared

To quote Isaacson, "This was all quite presumptuous for an undistinguished Polytechnic student who had not been able to get either a doctorate or a job."  Though he would earn that Ph.D. later in the year.

Even this would not be enough for the establishment to immediately accept him.  While he convinced the editors to publish his papers that didn't mean other scientists had to accept what was in them.  Some thought his arguments were too "Jewish".  Others thought they were too conceptual and not what a true "Englishman" would argue.  In fact it was only as the many predictions made in those papers came true that the physics world would begin accepting the correctness of his arguments.  But slowly they do.  

In 1908 Einstein received his first true academic job and in 1921 he would receive the Nobel Prize for Physics.  He would then go on to a distinguished life in both Europe and America while continuing to search for a unified theory that would combine electromagnetism with his theories on gravity.  But his greatest successes were those performed by himself, outside of academia, with no support but his own mind and government salary.

Despite the prejudices against jews that kept him (and his ideas) out of certain prestigious schools, an intellectual background improved by academia but founded on self-motivated learning, and a lack of acceptance of his ideas by others, he upended the physics world.  Modern observers only see the man and his success, assuming he was always accepted.  But we give the scientific establishment too much credit if we think he came from that community.  He was a citizen scientist with very independent (outrageous!) ideas, and we forget how lonely he must have been knowing his ideas were right while being continually ignored.  To me it's a reminder of the vital importance of independent outsiders taking a fresh look at what is assumed to be true.  Science is built on over-turning previously held assumptions and the outsider is a great source of these fresh new perspectives.

Finally, as a fellow bureaucrat, it's a great reminder of the important work performed by our nation's government employees.  Isaacson sums it up best:

Had he been consigned instead to a job of an assistant to a professor, he might have felt compelled to churn out safe publications and be overly cautious in challenging accepted notions.  As he later noted, originality and  creativity were not prime assets for climbing academic ladders, especially in the German-speaking world, and he would have felt pressure to conform to the prejudices or prevailing wisdom of his patrons.  "An academic career in which a person is forced to produce scientific writings in great amounts creates a danger of intellectual superficiality," he said...As a result, the happenstance landed him  on a stool at the Swiss Patent Office, rather than as an acolyte in academia, likely reinforced some of the traits destined to make him successful: a merry skepticism about what appeared on the pages in front of him and an independence of judgment that allowed him to challenge basic assumptions.  There were no pressures or incentives among the patent examiners to behave otherwise.

All of this confirms our titling Albert Einstein a great citizen scientist and an independent thinker we are proud to call one of our own.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Citizen Science on Vacation

I've just returned from a relaxing two-week vacation. It was just what the doctor ordered....time at the beach doing almost nothing.   It helped me get away from the stresses of everyday life and catch up on all my sleep.  But where does that leave my work citizen science work?

Just because you're on vacation doesn't mean you can't still participate in meaningful scientific research.  It just means doing things differently and learning new areas of research you have not dealt with before.  But isn't that a good thing?

Here are some ideas to test out on your next trip:

Photo Courtesy: Derek Keats
Dive for Science
My wife and I love scuba diving.  Spending time underwater watching fish swim by and counting the local species is a thrilling pastime.  One that's made even better when using that information to track the environment and save threatened species.  Many local areas have programs dedicated to counting and protecting local sea life that you can get involved in.  There are also larger programs (such as CoralWatch) dedicated to tracking also helping save it.

Photo Courtesy: Christine
Discover Local Plants and Animals
Whether you are spending lavishly to stay at a beautiful resort, or saving money with trips to a local park, you can always learn more about the wildlife around you.  Contact a local ranger station or inquire at the hotel desk about any nature programs available for visitors.  Many places are always looking to educate visitors and this is a prime opportunity to learn about the new varieties of life in your brand new surroundings.

Photo Courtesy: ScienceinDC
Tour Local Museums
City-based travelers are in luck too...every major city and most smaller ones all have museums of some sort related to science.  Some are science and technology centers.  Others may be zoos or local parks with ecological value.  And others may be monuments or birthplaces of famous scientists from history.  Take advantage of all the materials and programs available at these sites.  Many are free, but even those that aren't just cost a few dollars that goes back into the research anyway.  There's no excuse not to take advantage.

Photo Courtesy:
Grand Canyon NPS
Travel as part of a Scientific Research Mission
Don't just add science to the vacation...make it the GOAL of your vacation.  Groups such as the Earthwatch Institute, the Archaeological Institute of America, and others can connect you to world-class researchers who need volunteer assistants to help with their studies.  This could be helping dig up million year old fossils, counting insects in the rainforest, or finding new species on remote islands.   These scientists can't do it by themselves and funding for paid assistants is not always available.  While they need our help for their studies, we citizen scientists get the excitement of joining cutting-edge research.  Sounds like a win-win situation to me!


Photo Courtesy: PenguinMan13
Study the Night Sky
As someone who lives in suburban Washington, DC, star-gazing is not usually an option for me.  There is too much light and my work schedule prohibits late night viewing.  But that's not a problem on vacation.  My time is my own and staying up late for a meteor shower isn't a problem at all.  And some of the world's most beautiful vacation spots are in isolated or rural areas (such as tropical islands, hunting cabins, and national parks).  So you'll get a night sky not possible anywhere else.

Have you tried any of these on your vacations?  Any other ideas you wish to share with us?  Let me know in the comments below!