Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Scientific Revolutions and the Spirit of Amateurism

Darwin, Edison, Einstein, and Goodall were amateurs when they achieved the most.

Steve Rhodes / Flickr
Source: Steve Rhodes / Flickr

In my last post I distinguished between professionals and amateurs in four ways: (1) professionals do it for a living, amateurs live to do it; (2) professionals work within boundaries, amateurs wander freely; (3) professionals know, amateurs learn; and (4) professionals aim to separate thought and action from emotion, amateurs often do not. Now, in this post, I pursue the discussion of amateurism with examples of great contributions in science by passionate researchers who were amateurs at the time of their contributions. These stories illustrate some of the points I made about advantages of amateurism in my last post.

Prior to the 19th Century, Essentially All Science Was Amateur Science

Science as an activity is not new; it is as old as humanity. Every child is a natural scientist, exploring, experimenting, testing hypotheses, trying to figure out what’s there and what it can do. Just as is true today, I suspect some kids throughout human history grew up without losing their wonder about the world and continued to “do science” because their curiosity did not die.

But science as a profession is new; it first appeared in the 19th century. The first formal laboratory of science, dedicated to research and teaching, was established in Germany, in 1826, for chemistry (Atkinson & Blanpied, 2008). In the United States, the first science laboratory devoted to research and teaching was the Jefferson Physical Laboratory at Harvard, established in the early 1870s, and the first American University with an explicit goal of supporting scientific research was Johns Hopkins, founded in 1876 (Atkinson & Blanpied, 2008).

Prior to the 19th century, science was not something that a person “went into” to make a living, the way one might go into medicine, or law, or the clergy. There were no institutions for training scientists, no ways of accrediting them, no (or almost no) paying jobs for them. The old universities in Europe and the new ones in America were dedicated just to the transmission of what was deemed to be knowledge (teaching, mostly from ancient texts), not the creation of knowledge. So, by today’s definition of a professional scientist—someone accredited as a scientist and paid to do it—there were no professional scientists.

There were just hobbyists and curious seekers—people like Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, and Newton—coming up sometimes with seemingly crazy or blasphemous ideas. To devote much time to such adventures you had to be born into wealth, or have some other money-making job, or have a patron who would support you, perhaps because they found your ideas amusing.

In the American colonies, the first person who became famous for scientific discoveries was Benjamin Franklin, who pioneered the study of electricity and discovered that lightning is electric. Now we think of him as a statesman who promoted the American revolution, but he achieved fame earlier as an amateur scientist. During that phase of his life, he supported himself and his scientific adventures through his work as a printer and newspaper publisher.

Four Illustrations of How Amateurism Can Lead to Scientific Breakthroughs

Even in the 19th and 20th centuries, much of the greatest scientific work was done by people who were not certified, professional scientists. In my previous post, I argued that an advantage of being an amateur in any field of endeavor is that you are not constrained by the dictates and beliefs that constitute professional boundaries or by the demands of an employer. You let your muse (if in the arts) or curiosity (if in the sciences) carry you where it will. The result is that you might produce nonsense, or you might, if you are very good or very lucky, produce what is later called genius. Here are four examples of remarkable scientific achievements that, I suggest, were possible because of the spirit of amateurism.

Charles Darwin and the Idea of Evolution by Natural Selection

My personal hero, to the degree that I have one, is Charles Darwin. His meticulous observations and cataloguing of thousands of facts about plants and animals, combined with his brilliant strivings to link the facts into a unifying story, led to the idea of evolution by natural selection, which is the foundation now for all of biology. Today, essentially all biologists would agree with Theodosius Dobzhansky’s (1973) oft-quoted statement, “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

So, who was Darwin when he revolutionized biology? He was not a biologist. There was no such profession in the first half of the 19th century when he did his groundbreaking work. He was born into a moderately wealthy family. His father, a doctor who wanted him to follow the father’s footsteps, pushed him into medical training. But Charles was bored by the medical lectures and repelled by surgery.

As a kid he loved being out in nature, collecting specimens, and he continued that passion in medical school, at the expense of his medical studies. His father was finally forced to concede that Charles would be no doctor, so he then encouraged him to go into the clergy (even though the family was not particularly religious), because he figured that Charles could in that way make a living and enjoy some prestige without much effort and have time for his hobbies. But that direction, too, failed to capture Charles’s interest, and he flunked out of the theology program.

Young Charles was saved from his father’s good intentions when he was hired, at age 22, based on reports about his knowledge of plants, animals, and geological formations, to be the naturalist on the HMS Beagle. The famous voyage of the Beagle lasted five years, from 1831 to 1836, mostly along the coast of South America and islands near the coast. Darwin filled dozens of notebooks with his observations and collected countless specimens, which, along with further collecting and research after his return, became the fodder from which he developed the theory that unified all life on earth.

Thomas Edison and a Leap Toward Our Modern Technological Age

Thomas Edison, born in 1847, was a problem child. He was sent to school at age 8, but lasted there only three months. His teacher sent him home with a note declaring the child had “an addled brain” and was “dense as a stump and virtually unteachable” (Beals, 1997; Clark, 1977). In today’s world he would probably be diagnosed with ADHD and drugged.

Thomas never returned to school. His mother ostensibly took over his education, but really, he took it over himself. He soon found a copy of Faraday’s Experimental Researches in Electricity and fell in love with the possibilities of this source of power.

In addition to his passion for tinkering and experimenting, Edison had a remarkable head for business. By age 12 he was making an adult-sized income selling newspapers and other goods on trains and using much of his profits to buy equipment for electrical and chemical experiments. Two years later he managed to establish and run his own newspaper, which he sold on trains. This was followed by other business ventures, which ultimately gave him enough money to set up his own laboratory for invention, and the rest is history. He became the most prolific inventor in American history, with over a thousand patents, including early versions of the phonograph, motion picture camera, electric light bulb, and alkaline batteries.

Albert Einstein and the Reformation of Theoretical Physics

Albert Einstein, born in 1879, was not a fan of formal schooling. Concerning his own schooling, he wrote:

"One had to cram all this stuff into one's mind, whether one liked it or not. This coercion had such a deterring effect that, after I had passed the final examination, I found the consideration of any scientific problems distasteful to me for an entire year."

And, in his autobiography he added:

It is nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wreck and ruin without fail. It is a very grave mistake to think that the enjoyment of seeing and searching can be promoted by means of coercion and a sense of duty.” (Einstein, 1949.)

Although Albert attended school as a child and subsequently obtained a post-secondary degree from the Federal Polytechnical School in Zurich (in 1901), he was, truly, self-educated. From his own accounts, school distracted from his learning more than it helped. He was passionate about mathematics from early childhood on. By the age of 12 he had worked his way, on his own, through books of higher mathematics and had even developed a new proof of the Pythagorean theorem.

Yet his school record was so undistinguished that, after graduating from the Polytechnical School, he was unable for several years to get an academic position, not even one as a lecturer. To support himself, he took a job as an assistant examiner at a patent office, which had the advantage of leaving him plenty of time to pursue his interests in theoretical physics. In 1905—sometimes referred to as his annus mirabilis (miracle year)—he published four remarkable papers, which collectively marked the biggest advance in theoretical physics since Newton and even overthrew some aspects of Newtonian physics.

His four papers, respectively, presented a theory of the photoelectric effect, explained Brownian motion, introduced his special theory of relativity, and, from that theory, revealed the equivalence of mass and energy. By all accounts, he succeeded because of his intense curiosity and fertile imagination, bound by rigorous mathematics, not by a priori assumptions derived from conventional physics of his time. He allowed his imagination and mathematical calculations to take him where they would, even when they crossed traditional boundaries. He referred to his work as “mental play.”

After he was famous, he became a professor of theoretical physics, first at the University of Zurich and then, eventually, at Princeton University. As a professor he continued to contribute to theoretical physics and was a valued teacher, philosopher, and public intellectual, but he never had another year approaching that when he was a 26-year-old amateur working in a patent office.

Jane Goodall and a New Way of Studying Animals in the Wild

When Jane Goodall began her courageous, groundbreaking study of wild chimpanzees in Africa, in her mid 20s, she was a high-school graduate whose only subsequent schooling was secretarial school. She grew up with a love of animals. Among her early pets were a dog, pony, and tortoise. As a young child she read Tarzan and Dr. Doolittle books and dreamed of going to Africa to see animals she had read about. At age 23, in 1957, she visited a friend whose family lived in Kenya, and as fate would have it, she met there the famous paleoanthropologist Louis S.B. Leakey. He offered her a job at a local natural history museum and subsequently arranged for her to study wild chimpanzees at the Gombe Stream Game Reserve in Tanzania. Leakey apparently considered her lack of formal training in animal behavior to be an advantage; she would observe with an open mind. (Description from National Geographic.)

After much effort locating a group of chimpanzees, Goodall managed to gain their acceptance in part by mimicking their own signals of nonaggression. Instead of seeing each chimp simply as representative of the whole species, she got to know them as individuals, much as one would get to know human beings. She gave them names rather than numbers and, defying accepted practices at the time, used anthropomorphic terms in describing their behaviors. She recorded their emotions, affections, disaffections, and individual differences in their personalities. She wrote about chimpanzees in ways that allowed readers to see clearly how similar they are to us, and how varied they are from one another, just as we are varied.

In more recent years, Goodall has been a staunch and effective advocate for animal rights and wildlife conservation. In my previous post I suggested that amateurs—that is, those who are in it for love, not money—often become activists because of their passion. That is certainly true of Goodall. Leakey was astute in guessing that naïve but smart, passionate, and courageous young Jane would be the ideal person to pioneer the study of our closest animal cousins in the wild.

Final Thoughts

It is noteworthy, I think, that all the great contributors to science I have discussed here were following passions that they developed in childhood. Childhood is a natural time for play, exploration, finding out what one loves to do. Sadly, in modern times, we are controlling children to such an extent, in schools and other adult-controlled settings, that we are seldom giving them time or opportunity to discover what they love to do and pursue it. Elsewhere (here) I have presented some evidence from my own research that young people growing up outside of coercive education in today’s world often develop passionate interests that they pursue with much success as careers in adulthood.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and questions. Psychology Today no longer accepts accepts comments on this site, but you can post them to me at this alternative site.


Atkinson & Blanpied (2008). Research universities: Core of the US science and technology system. Technology in Society, 30, 30-48.

Beals, G. (1997). The biography of Thomas Edison. Available at

Clark, R. W. (1977). Edison: The man who made the future. New York: Putnam’s Sons.

Einstein, A. (1949). Autobiography. In P. Schilpp, Albert Einstein: Philosopher-scientist. Evanston, IL: Library of living philosophers.

More from Peter Gray Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today