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Is scientific discovery/theory development best left to professional scientists?


Alex Mercer
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Just through lurking these forums I see people post their theories about what may be possible but most of the time cannot back up. I am talking specifically about physics. Has it always been something left for professionals to work on or has their ever been times when hobbyists have contributed in some way? What comes of discussing physics if you are simply a member of the general public and not a professional scientist/physicist?

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There’s plenty of science done by amateurs - astronomy comes to mind - but it’s typically observation and data collection rather than theory development. Since models have to fit with other parts of science, it requires a broad spectrum of knowledge that is much more typical for someone who has been formally schooled in the topic and pursuing it as a professional. 

This has not always been the case, but the sphere of scientific knowledge was smaller back when amateurs had a better chance of contributing. There was more low-hanging fruit.

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48 minutes ago, Alex Mercer said:

Just through lurking these forums I see people post their theories about what may be possible but most of the time cannot back up. I am talking specifically about physics. Has it always been something left for professionals to work on or has their ever been times when hobbyists have contributed in some way? What comes of discussing physics if you are simply a member of the general public and not a professional scientist/physicist?

No not always. As swansont says, there was a time when enthusiatic amateurs, both men and women.

But these were generally 'men or women of means'

Count Rumford and Cavendish come to mind for the men

Mary Ward and Marianne North for the women.

Of course, some sciences are easier for the gifted amateur to discover something new in.
Atom smashers are probably out of the reach, but mathematics probably has most and many amateurs have contributed.

Ida Lovelace and Napoleon come to mind.

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1 hour ago, Alex Mercer said:

What comes of discussing physics if you are simply a member of the general public and not a professional scientist/physicist?

    Hopefully, you enjoy yourself and understand something better.  I'm just going to focus on the use of this forum.  Others have spoken in more general terms about the history of developments in Physics.

What's the point of the general public discussing (and replying to) ideas in this forum?

1.  It may be that you realise why things can't be the way you thought - but that is not to be thought of as a negative thing ("oh, I was wrong").   It is progress and development in your understanding.

2.  It may be a practical benefit.  For example, getting the right temperature of light bulb to make the kitchen look clean.

3.  Very occasionally, you get to help someone else and that may be worth doing.

Very, very rarely will it achieve a revolution or significant change of thinking in the scientific community, if that's what you were looking for.  Presenting an idea in this forum is not likely to be a shortcut to publishing a research paper in a recognised journal.

If you think of this site as being a discussion forum for the benefit and betterment of the users, that would be best and hopefully it will be enough to make it worthwhile.  Shrug off some of the replies if you need to, there are always people with their own agenda and motives just like any online activity these days.

But what do I know?  I'm quite new here and I've only done a quick survey of the site similar to yourself.

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Kinda off topic from op. But do those people who do experiments to validate scientific theories put out there results and data for the general public to view. Example: the large Hadron collider where they experimented for the existence for the Higgs particle. I am just curious if they do not interested in reading it that much (I probably wouldn't understand it anyway)

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2 hours ago, Alex Mercer said:

But do those people who do experiments to validate scientific theories put out there results and data for the general public to view.

Many results and papers first appear on freely accessible pre-print servers such as arXiv before they go to peer-review journals, so the short answer is yes. The problem though is that such papers are almost always very technical in nature, so unless they have the requisite background knowledge it is very unlikely that a random member of the general public would understand such articles. It’s usually only later that easier to understand corollaries of these findings appear in various pop-sci publications aimed at the general public.

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They will publish results in journals. Some of those are open access. A lot of journals these days require that you make your data accessible as do some funding sources and institutions. At least one of my academic partners the university requires open access journals. There are also preprint archives. 

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16 hours ago, Alex Mercer said:

Has it always been something left for professionals to work on or has their ever been times when hobbyists have contributed in some way?

The law of jet motion was brought out by an unknown math teacher from the city of Kaluga (Russia).

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4 hours ago, John Cuthber said:

Should the people who are most likely to come up with new ideas and discoveries be employed as scientists?

  Just my opinion:  There is no shortage of ideas.  Artist's frequently have the most incredible ideas and sometimes novelist's have an idea that changes the way an entire society see the world.  Surely, ideas are their primary currency but even in those fields people are initially recruited into the profession based on other skills they have.  Artists must be able to express their ideas in an artistic way, novellist's must be proficient in a language and then demonstrate an ability to communicate emotively despite the syntactic limits of that language.

   Most of the time a Scientist is not required to come up with fantastic new ideas, so it is reasonably natural to recruit people into the profession based on other skills they have.  It is still not difficult for most people to come up with new ideas when the need arises.   The difficulty lies in coming up with ideas that remain consistent with existing well-established principles across the field or at-least knowing when such principles must be in conflict and need challenging.  We are not born with the knowledge of Science so coming up with relevant good ideas absolutely demands that we have spent time studying the existing body of knowledge first.  Finally, few scientists are actually famous just for an idea they had, this is just a romantic view that we like to have and popular media propagates.  It is extremely likely that someone else realised that being in an accelerated box was similar to being in a gravitational field long before Einstein.  However, it was only Einstein that developed the idea with sufficient mathematical formalism.  Einstein is not famous just for the idea, he is famous for the development of that idea.

    As for the second part of your sentence, should scientists be people most likely to make new discoveries - that is more sensible then just searching for creative, imaginative people but is still not essential.  A person who can communicate scientific ideas to non-specialists, like some popular science documentary presenters I could mention, is still a valuable scientist.  A school Chemistry teacher, who motivates an interest in their pupils is still a valuable scientist.  An engineer who applies only existing theory to develop a zero-emission vehicle is a valuable scientist.  The scientists and technicians who developed and manufactured a vaccine for Covid-19 are remarkable (by comparison, developing a new theory of gravity seems less remarkable, if I'm quite honest with you).  I think it just depends on your idea of what science is.  It almost certainly isn't the romantic view of theoretical physicists coming up with new fantastic ideas anymore then most experiences of a real-life spy are like the tales told of James Bond by the novelist Ian Fleming.

   Science is an expression of human curiosity and sometimes a tool to help mankind influence the environment in which they find themselves.  It is made possible by the hard work of farmers and factory workers that sustain the scientists while they develop ideas or apply existing theory.  Recruiting new scientists on the basis of identifying who can feed-back the most benefit to the rest of society is as sensible a recruitment criteria as any.  There is no shortage of new, fantastic ideas at the current time.

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10 minutes ago, Toby Jug said:

  Just my opinion:  There is no shortage of ideas. 

No, there is no shortage. But in science we are constrained by what nature allows to work, and people untrained in science often ignore or are unaware of these constraints.

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