The Age of the Amateur

Bear with me.  The following things are related.

Scientists put gamers to work, scientists get pwnd.

I just changed the oil in my snowblower.  I’ve never changed the oil in anything outside my kitchen before, and snowblowers in particular are still a vaguely foreign concept to me – until three years ago I had absolutely no need for one, and I haven’t exactly been around much in the winter since getting the house.  I’m told that last year our previously well-behave little machine turned into an onorey punk, so I’ve changed its oil.  It seems very well mannered now.

A guy with too much free time discovers planets.

Stanford offered their intro to AI class to everybody.

I could list a lot more, but I think just that is enough to reveal my thesis: Amateurism is back.

This could very well be (read: probably is) a romanticized description of how things were, but back in the day, say, late Victorian through turn of the last century, amateur science was a thing.  Most science was amateur science, in fact, because, like the olympics, amateur didn’t mean crap, no good, or otherwise sub-par.  It meant the person doing it had a day job.  To be a straight academic required money, and enough of it to not have a day job.  So people worked out their theories and did their experiments in the period equivalents of their garages.  Then science got big and expensive, the equipment required too specialized to produce on your own and too massive to put in your yard.  Also war, Depression, war, anti-intellectualism, and football.*  A beautiful thing died, and science retreated to universities and corporations.

Ladies and gentlemen, I am here to declare one thing: It’s baaaaack.  See links and anecdotes above.  See every bit of home maintenance or repair I’ve done in the last three years.  Hell, see most everything I know about non-baking cooking.  Our lives have been invaded by a lovely thing called the internet, and it is wonderful.  I have no idea how people figured out how to fix their garbage disposals before a troubleshooting guide was just a google search away.  I imagine they hired a plumber and remained mystified when all they needed to do was crank a wheel.  So maybe the modern era isn’t so great for plumbers.  Or maybe they can stop making house calls to idiots who don’t know how to crank a wheel, and can focus on the more complicated, interesting problems.  If I were a plumber, I’d be pretty pleased with the latter.

The only point of this entry, really, is to wax enthusiastic about this extremely cool aspect of modern life.  Garage science is a thing, and it happens, and it could happen to you if only you’d let it.  Your opportunity to learn new things and run into weird, random stuff doesn’t end in college.  It doesn’t even have to begin in college.  As much as I adored school and would wage holy war against anybody who tried to take it away from me, I get a bit excited when I think about a world where you can have all the cool things college provides without actually going.  Who cares about term papers when you can find nebulae without leaving your house?

No longer do professionals and academics get to have all the fun.  The world is our playground.  I call dibs on the swings.

*It’s possible football is a symptom of all that is wrong with the world, rather than the cause.  I blame it anyway.

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