Cult of the AmateurPosted: June 22, 2009
I just became aware of this extraordinary story last week:
Caroline Moore is 14 years old and just discovered her first supernova. Moore, who lives in Warwick, NY, is the youngest person ever to discover the exploding remains of a dying star in a distant galaxy. She’s a member of the the Puckett Observatory Supernova World Search Team headed up by principal investigator, Tim Puckett. Every clear night at various locations around the globe, members photograph thousands of galaxies remotely using computer-controlled robotic telescopes (no humans involved). The images are then analyzed by 28 team members for the telltale brightening of an exploding star. These suspect stars are confirmed and then reported to the professional astronomers for study.
Which brings to mind John Seely Brown’s analysis of such endeavors (here summarized in the new MacArthur report):
John Seely Brown has noted that it took professional astronomers many years to realize that the benefits to their field of having tens of thousands of amateur stargazers reporting on celestial activity far outweighed the disadvantages of unreliability…The result has been a far greater knowledge, amassed in this participatory method, than anyone had ever dreamed possible, balanced by collective and professional procedures for sorting through the data for obviously wrong or misguided reportings.
This is not digital utopianism. This de-centering is not vaporware, or Silicon Valley hype. It is happening right now, around the world, in thousands of endeavors. From the use of twitter in Iran, to the Guardian crowdsourcing investigative journalism, to astronomers using distributed methods, this is not the latest whim of the digital elite — this is the way the world is now. I mean, crikey, that was just the news from last week.
As I watch my own daughters grow up, what I find most difficult is not that education is not supporting the sort of experience afforded amateur astronomers, but that in many cases our system actively works to quash such approaches. Everything in it is aligned to tell people like Caroline to be quiet and listen, to do fake problems out of special books made for students. To think about what they want to be when they “grow up”. To wait patiently until they graduate college, and then, maybe, after a couple years of doing crud jobs, if they are lucky enough to get the right job they’ll get assigned an interesting project, and then, and only then, at 26 years old will they come to realize what a gift their education was, and how all that proving themselves to the gatekeepers was worth it after all.
To which I say:
This is Caroline. She is 14 years old, and she just discovered a supernova.
Are we telling our students they can do that?
Or are we telling them they can’t?