The Pro Am Revolution[]

Mass creativity is being driven in part by the resurgence of a new kind of amateur. The Pro Ams love what they do; they are not primarily motivated by money but they want their work judged by high professional standards.

Part 1: Star Gazing[]

On the night of February 23, 1987, light reached Earth from a star that had exploded on the edge of the Tarantula nebula 168,000 years before. The supernova was so large it was the first to be witnessed by the naked eye since 1604. In the Chilean Andes, Ian Shelton an avid amateur astronomer took a photograph with a 10” telescope and went down in history as the man who discovered supernova 1987A. That night two other dedicated amateur astronomers were at work. Albert Jones, a New Zealand veteran with more than half a million observations to his credit had taken a good look at the Tarantula nebula earlier but had seen nothing unusual. Another amateur Robert McNaught, photographed the explosion at 10.30 UT in Australia. (UT is Universal Time, the standard astronomers use, the equivalent of Greenwich Meantime.) Together these amateurs played a vital role in confirming a theory that explains what happens when a star explodes.

Their collaboration is just one example of how dedicated, educated and well-equipped amateurs – Pro-Ams - are changing their fields from astronomy, software programming, to music and politics. Free-form organisations such as Wikipedia and Linux, e Bay and Craisglist, are thriving precisely because they tap into this Pro Am culture. Big organisations, led by professionals, often feel threatened by new amateurs. Doctors do not always like patients who come armed with information about their condition. Big J journalists frown on mere bloggers. Big companies like to see their consumers as targets waiting to be hit. There are few better examples of how Pro Ams can transform a field of activity than modern astronomy. It is a morality tale professionals in other walks of life should take heed of.

Astrophysicists had theorised that when a star like the one in the Tarantula nebula exploded most of its energy would be released as neutrinos, low-mass, subatomic particles which fly through planets as if they were not there. The theory suggested neutrinos should exit at high speed and arrive on earth perhaps two hours before the light. The night of February 23rd a large storm of neutrinos from Shelton’s supernova was detected by labs in the US and Japan at about 7.35 UT. According to the theory the first light should have arrived at about 9.35UT but the labs did not have photographs. That is where the amateurs came in. Jones checked his meticulous records and confirmed there was no sign of an explosion when he was looking at Tranatula at 9.30UT. That meant the neutrinos had already arrived yet the light had not, just as the theory predicted. McNaught’s photograph taken at 10.30UT made the light of the explosion clearly visible, just as the theory predicted, more than two hours after the neutrinos. A key theory explaining how the universe works had been confirmed, thanks to three amateurs working in different countries, combined with professional physicists in the US and Japan. The skilled amateurs were as important as the professionals.

Astronomy is fast becoming a science driven by a vast Pro-Am movement working alongside a much smaller body of professional astronomers and astrophysicists. They are building on deep amateur foundations. Astronomy, like most sciences, was started by amateurs. Copernicus, who moved the sun to the centre of the universe, was only a part-time astronomer. Johannes Kepler, who discovered that planets orbit in ellipses made most of his money from horoscopes. Yet by the 20th century the pendulum had swung decisively in favour of the professionals, for one simple reason: scale. Professional astronomers had access to huge telescopes, like Jodrell Bank in the UK or the Mt Wilson Observatory near Pasedena where Howard Shipley established that the Sun is located to one edge of our galaxy and Edwin Hubble determined that the galaxies are being carried away from one another into cosmic space. Professionals probed the outer depths of space, home to the most troubling scientific questions. Amateurs, with their puny telescopes, concentrated on closer, well known and brighter objects: astro tourism.

In the last two decades three linked innovations have given the Pro Ams a host of new ways to contribute. A disruptive innovation made powerful telescopes affordable for the average astronomer. John Dobson, a one time monk and lifelong star-gazer designed a crude but powerful telescope using discarded materials. Dobson’s philosophy was pure open source: “To me it’s not so much how big your telescope is, or how accurately your optics are, or how beautiful the pictures you can take with it; it’s how many people in this vast world less privileged than you have had a chance to see through your telescope and understand this universe.” Dobson refused to profit from his invention, which he never patented. Soon many companies were making telescopes based on his design. Observers armed with a Dobsonian telescope could invade the deep space that had previously been the preserve of the professionals. Then along came a relatively cheap, highly light sensitive computer chip, which could record very faint starlight much faster than a photograph. Amateurs who attached this chip to a powerful Dobsonian found themselves with light gathering capacity to match the giant telescopes of many professionals. It is a slogan of open source software programming that “many eyes make bugs simple”: the more programmers looking at a problem, the easier it should be to solve (so long as they organise themselves in the right way.) The same is true of some aspects of astronomy. Thanks to Dobsonian telescopes and the new light sensors the earth acquired hundreds of thousands of new eyes, recording events in deep space that would have gone unnoticed by the much smaller body of professionals. The Internet vastly amplified this distributed capacity for exploration.

Before the Internet, an amateur who thought they had made a discovery would telegram the Harvard College Observatory. Once the professionals there had checked out the claim, they would mail a post card to observatories around the world. The professionals were the gatekeepers of knowledge. These days if an amateur finds something interesting they can email the image to friends, colleagues and professionals, within minutes. New discoveries are openly debated and assessed. Crude Dobsonian telescopes armed with CCDs had given the Earth thousands of new eyes; the Net provided the optic nerves to knit them together.

In the 1990’s, these three innovations started to spawn new forms of endeavour. Astronomy used to be done in “big science” research institutes. Now it is also done in loose Pro-Am collaboratives. Many amateurs continued to work on their own and many professionals were still ensconced in their academic institutions. But global research networks sprang up, linking professionals and amateurs, with shared interests in flare stars, comets and asteroids. Groups of Pro-Am astronomers tracked the weather on Jupiter and craters on Mars as accurately as professionals. They detected echoes from colliding galaxies, and more than 1m contributors, in more than 200 countries, are contributing their computers’ idle time to analyse data than might be evidence of extra terrestrial life. Together they have created a super-computer larger than anything IBM could make.

There are limits to what Pro-Ams can do. Amateurs do not produce new theories of astrophysics. Sometimes amateurs do not know how to make sense of the data they have acquired. Yet the future of astronomy, and after it other sciences and professions, will be as a Pro-Am activity, with dedicated amateurs and professionals working in tandem, motivated by the same sense of excitement about exploring the universe. For many professionals this poses a worrying challenge. Some will seek to defend their endangered monopoly. The more enlightened will understand that knowledge is now much more widely distributed and not controlled in a few ivory towers. The most powerful organisations will combine the know-how of professionals and amateurs to solve complex problems. That is true in astronomy, software development and online games. It should be the path our health, education and welfare systems follow as well.

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