The New York Review of Books
December 5, 2002
Simon and Schuster, 379 pp., $26.00
Astronomy, the oldest science, was the first to pass through the first and second phases and emerge into the third. Which science will be next? Which other science is now ripe for a revolution giving opportunities for the next generation of amateurs to make important discoveries? Physics and chemistry are still in the second phase. It is difficult to imagine an amateur physicist or chemist at the present time making a major contribution to science. Before physics or chemistry can enter the third phase, these sciences must be transformed by radically new discoveries and new tools. The status of biology is less clear. Mainstream biology is undoubtedly in the second phase, dominated by armies of professionals exploring genomes and analyzing metabolic pathways. But there is a wide hinterland of biology away from the mainstream, where amateurs following the tradition of Darwin discover new species of wildflowers, breed new varieties of dogs and pigeons and orchids, and collect butterflies. The writer Vladimir Nabokov is the most famous of twentieth-century butterfly collectors, but there are many others not so famous who also discovered new species. A young friend of mine who went recently as a student to Ecuador discovered twelve new species of plants in the rain forest.
Biology will probably be the next science to enter the third stage. New tools which might give power to amateur biologists are already visible on the horizon. The new tools will be cheaper and smaller versions of the tools now used by professional biologists to do genetic engineering. It took thirty years for the expensive and cumbersome mainframe computers of the 1950s to evolve into the cheap and convenient personal computers of the 1980s. In a similar fashion, the expensive genome-sequencing and protein-synthesizing machines of today will evolve into cheap machines that can stand on a desktop. The personal computer is not only cheaper and smaller, but also faster and more powerful than the mainframe that it replaced. The desktop sequencers and synthesizers of the future will be faster and more powerful than the machines that they will replace, and will be controlled by more sophisticated computer programs.
When these tools are available, the demand for them will be irresistible, just as the demand for laptop computers is irresistible today. Genetic engineering of roses and orchids, ornamental shrubs and vegetables, will be a new art form as well as a new science. Homeowners in well-to-do suburbs will use the new tools to embellish their gardens, while subsistence farmers in poor countries will use them to feed their families with higher-yielding or better-tasting potatoes. Amateur plant breeders and animal breeders and ecologists and nature lovers will then be enabled to make serious contributions to science, just as amateur astronomers do today.
Before the amateur use of genetic engineering becomes widespread, numerous political and legal obstacles will have to be overcome. Many people are strongly opposed to genetic engineering of any kind. Some of the opposition arises from religious or ideological principles, but much of it arises from practical concerns. Genetic engineering can undoubtedly be dangerous to public health and to ecological stability. The use of genetic engineering kits must be strictly regulated if these dangers are to be avoided. Genetic engineering of microbes is a great tool for terrorists, as Richard Preston demonstrates in his recent book The Demon in the Freezer.[*] Any kit available to the public must be made physically incapable of handling microbes. It could well happen that political authorities will decide to prohibit such kits altogether. It will be a sad day for biology if amateurs are forbidden the use of tools available to professionals. But that is a decision which we should leave to our grandchildren.
When we look at the wider society outside the domain of science, we see amateurs playing essential roles in almost every field of human activity. Amateur musicians create the culture in which professional musicians can flourish. Amateur athletes, amateur actors, and amateur environmentalists improve the quality of life for themselves and others. Amateur writers such as Jane Austen and Samuel Pepys do as much as the professionals Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky to plumb the heights and depths of human experience. In the most important of all human responsibilities, the raising of children and grandchildren, amateurs do the lion's share of the work. In almost all the varied walks of life, amateurs have more freedom to experiment and innovate. The fraction of the population who are amateurs is a good measure of the freedom of a society. Ferris shows us how amateurs are giving a new flavor to modern astronomy. We may hope that amateurs in the coming century, using the new tools that modern technology is placing in their hands, will invade and rejuvenate all of science.