Last year, one of my heroes passed away. John Dobson, the original sidewalk astronomer, was 98 years old. He’ll be best remembered for his namesake design, which was called the Dobsonian Telescope. It’s a unique, novel way of mounting larger lenses using whatever materials happen to be lying around.
Dobson was not an engineer. He was not even a classically-trained astronomer. In fact, he began his young career as a monk. When his telescope-building hobby became too much of a distraction, the monastery forced him to choose between the two. Lucky for all of us, he chose telescopes.
He never patented his design, never tried to make money off of it, but he dedicated himself to teaching everyone and anyone the methods and the joy of building their own. He spent the rest of his life standing on street corners, traveling around the world, and inviting everyone he met to look up into the stars.
More than just an inventor, Dobson was a pioneer in the realm of amateur science. His formula—low-cost, DIY tools, and a community and culture of collaboration—has been one of the major reasons that amateurs have been able to make so many important contributions to the field. It’s not a difficult formula; it’s very simple, but it’s been very hard for other scientific disciplines to replicate until very recently. Over the past few years, across the board, the tools for doing science and exploration and conservation have become more accessible and more powerful.
A local community in Borneo builds DIY drones to monitor and protect their rainforest. A new origami microscope that costs less than the cost of postage gives rise to a community of tens of thousands of people who are experimenting and exploring the microcosmos. After the nuclear reactor in Fukushima, Japan, a group of makers and hackers get together to create Safecast. They build their own Geiger Counters and map the impacts in real time.
DIY biologists are now competing in international design competitions with their engineered microbes, all the while building new, low-cost tools to power the growing number of garage wet labs. The list of examples goes on and on. The walls between questions and answers are being torn down by groups with these open-source tools. We don’t have a good name for this trend yet, but it’s coming on fast. I think calling it science might be too high of a bar, but just in the same way you wouldn’t call all of the cat videos on YouTube films … I should be careful because some people probably might … you can’t ignore the phenomenon.
What the internet did to movies and music and journalism and manufacturing, it’s now turning onto the process of discovery. The combination of cheap sensors, open standards, and most importantly, connected enthusiasm, is unleashing the long tail of curiosity. It’s a new era of connected exploration. If you thought that smart thermostats were cool, then you’re going to love this. Because this isn’t about efficiency and convenience; this is about wonder and this is about adventure.
I’ve experienced this flood of amateur enthusiasm and interest firsthand. A few years ago my friend Eric and I built an underwater robot in his garage in Cupertino. We shared the design online and found thousands of other people who shared our passion for low-cost ocean exploration.
Six months ago we launched a site called OpenExplorer, a digital field journal designed to give our community a way to share not just what we were building together but what we were exploring. In that short time we’ve seen everything from the discovery of shipwrecks in Australia to the pursuit of lost Incan cities in Peru. It’s gone far beyond the underwater realm as well. There’s a field biologist in Mojave who’s building internet-connected rovers to monitor and protect the endangered desert tortoise. There are makers and scientists who are going into the jungles of Madagascar with soldering irons and microcontrollers to push the limits of remote sensing for research and conservation. We’re watching these weird and wild and interesting stories unfold right before our eyes.
The rules for these new methods are being written right now. One thing so far is already clear: When you give people the tools to ask questions, they will surprise you with what they ask, and with what they discover.