02 March 2007

Harlan J. Brothers in the Spotlight

Forrest M. Mims III

It's not necessary to publish your personal research results in a scientific journal to enjoy the pursuit of amateur science. That thought crossed my mind again and again as I visited the wonderful web sites in Ralph Coppola's Wanderings column in this installment of The Citizen Scientist. As usual, Ralph's column is must reading.

Also must reading is a Harlan J. Brothers' feature article, "Rubbing Shoulders with Newton: An Improbable Story." The story is indeed improbable, for it describes how Harlan made an important discovery in the world of mathematics, even though, as he writes, "The only problem was that I had studied music composition and jazz guitar in college; I had no formal college-level mathematics education. I knew very little about logarithms or calculus and knew of no mathematicians I could turn to."

Harlan eventually found a mentor and successfully published his discovery in the scholarly mathematics literature. During the process, he learned much about the world of peer review. Every amateur scientist who has made a discovery worth publishing will find Harlan's story inspiring.

Shortly before Harlan's article arrived, I was engaged in a lengthy correspondence about the two key topics raised by Harlan: mentoring and publication. My correspondent raised serious concerns and questions about both. In short, how can the amateur scientist with few or even no academic credentials find help and enter the world of professional science? These are important questions, and hopefully this discussion will continue here at TCS and on the SAS Forum.

One of Harlan's attempts to find a mentor was unsuccessful. Instead of giving up, he continued looking until he found someone willing to help. That's the approach I have used time and time again, and here are three key steps:

1. Read everything you can find on your subject before looking for a mentor. Chances are a potential mentor will be much more receptive if you are conversant and well informed in the topic and, especially, if you have read publications in the field written by the mentor.

2. Instead of asking a mentor to do your work, ask the mentor to review your work. For example, when you have finally managed to draft a scientific paper that you want to submit to a journal, ask the mentor to review it for you. If the mentor is a known expert in the field, be sure that you have cited the mentor's relevant publications in your paper and acknowledged any advice you have received from him or her at the end of the paper.

3. Never discuss your lack of academic credentials or use the lack thereof to justify a less than professional approach to your science. If your amateur status means you can't afford a particular instrument, then either build your own or find another project. The bottom line is that most professional scientists will care absolutely nothing about your academic credentials. What they care about is the quality of your science. A classic example is our own Shawn Carlson who has a doctorate in nuclear physics. While Shawn doesn't have the time to personally mentor everyone in the Society for Amateur Scientists, you can see him in action at the annual SAS Conference when he introduces the speakers and politely questions them. Take it from me, a lowly government major; Shawn cares only about people and their science, not the schools they didn't attend.

Harlan's story is a classic amateur science success story. While we can't all make original discoveries and publish them, it's sure fun to read about a colleague who has done both.

What do you think? Please send your comments to Backscatter. Or begin a discussion about this on the SAS Community Forum. See you there.


Harlan J. Brothers. Photograph by Elina Flit.