New Scientist, 21 January 2006, 44-46.
Most of them have no formal scientific training. Often scorned by professionals. they
endure a constant battle to find funding. Yet amateur scientists continue to make a
significant contribution in just about every field. Caroline Williams asked three of the
most successful about their work: Forrest Mims III, who has taught NASA a thing or two
about ozone monitoring. Jerry MacDonald, discoverer of some of the most important
Palaeozoic fossils ever found, and Pierre Morvan, a world expert on ground beetles. They
all share a passion for exploration, an unusual route to academia -and the need for a day
Forrest Mims III
Forrest Mims III set up a network to monitor ultraviolet radiation and ozone levels,
first in his home state of Texas and then across the world, using a hand-held device he
invented himself. He also proved that NASA’s ozone- monitoring satellite was giving false
readings, after which NASA and other climate scientists started taking him more seriously.
Most recently, he has been looking at the effects of smoke, dust and haze on sunlight and
ecology. He makes a living writing books about science, lasers, computers and electronics.
Q: Your hand-held ozone monitor became a crucial tool in monitoring stratospheric ozone
levels, which protect life on the Earth’s surface from damaging ultraviolet radiation. How
did you come to invent it?
A: I became interested in measuring levels of UV radiation when I learned that the US
government had closed down its UV-monitoring network in the late 1980s. I then realised
that you could measure the ozone layer by looking at UV light at two different wavelengths
where it is absorbed by the ozone. So I built some ultraviolet detectors at home and in
1990 I began making daily measurements. I now have almost 16 years’ worth of data and I
have published many scientific papers about my findings.
Q: What happened when you discovered that NASA’s satellite measurements of the ozone layer
A: The satellite measurements began to diverge from my data in 1991. NASA said, maybe you’ve
got an aerosol error or maybe your instrument has got a problem. I visited Mauna Loa
observatory in Hawaii, which houses the world-standard ozone instrument, four times, and
guess what, it was also seeing a difference compared with the satellite. Later NASA said
they had made an error. The satellite was drifting out of orbit. At that stage they agreed
to write a paper with me, although they later pulled out. The management weren’t too keen.
But that was my first paper in Nature.
Q: How does an amateur get through the peer-review process?
A: Sometimes there is resistance to publishing my papers, but most of them have been
published. Now I peer-review papers for scientific journals and I’ve peer-reviewed
two-dozen books for scientific publishers. On a number of occasions professional
scientists have taken me aside and asked me how to get published in Nature. Only once or
twice in my career has somebody been rude or resentful that I didn’t go through the
process they did.
Q: Why do you think amateurs like yourself make such an important contribution to science?
A: I once asked the famous Canadian ozone scientist James Kerr, “Why is it that Canada does
so much better at measuring ground-level ozone than the US?” He had a very simple answer:
we can’t afford satellites. That made my day. That is why an amateur scientist can do
science just as well as anyone else: we can’t afford the tools of the professionals so we
have to do the very best we can with the tools we have.
Forrest Mims III: “NASA’s data diverged from mine. Later they said they made an error”
Q: With a passion for science, why did you study government at university?
A: I wanted to major in physics but after I took algebra in my first year I realised I would
never make it -my mathematical abilities were not there. Nevertheless I was spending all
my spare time building electronic devices. It’s one reason why my grades at college
weren’t that good. I was building circuit boards with integrated circuits and transistors
and the latest light-emitting diodes. My great-grandfather was blind, and this inspired me
to build electronic travel aids for the blind that would bounce a beam of infrared
radiation against objects such as walls and other people and notify the blind person by a