The Marginalian
The Marginalian

A Pioneering Case for the Value of Citizen Science from the Polymathic Astronomer John Herschel

“There is scarcely any well-informed person, who, if he has but the will, has not also the power to add something essential to the general stock of knowledge.”

A Pioneering Case for the Value of Citizen Science from the Polymathic Astronomer John Herschel

“It is always difficult to teach the man of the people that natural phenomena belong as much to him as to scientific people,” the trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell wrote as she led the first-ever professional female eclipse expedition in 1878. The sentiment presages the importance of what we today call “citizen science,” radical and countercultural in an era when science was enshrined in the pompous pantheon of the academy, whose gates were shut and padlocked to “the man of the people,” to women, and to all but privileged white men.

Two decades earlier, Mitchell had traveled to Europe as America’s first true scientific celebrity to meet, among other dignitaries of the Old World, one such man — but one of far-reaching vision and kindness, who used his privilege to broaden the spectrum of possibility for the less privileged: the polymathic astronomer John Herschel (March 7, 1792–May 11, 1871), co-founder of the venerable Royal Astronomical Society, son of Uranus discoverer William Herschel, and nephew of Caroline Herschel, the world’s first professional woman astronomer, who had introduced him to astronomy as a boy.

Several years before he coined the word photography, Herschel became the first prominent scientist to argue in a public forum that the lifeblood of science — data collection and the systematic observation of natural phenomena — should be the welcome task of ordinary people from all walks of life, united by a passionate curiosity about how the universe works.

John Herschel (artist unknown)

In 1831, the newly knighted Herschel published A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy as part of the fourteenth volume of the bestselling Lardner’s Cabinet Cyclopædia (large chunks of which were composed by Frankenstein author Mary Shelley). Later cited in Lorraine Daston and Elizabeth Lunbeck’s altogether excellent book Histories of Scientific Observation (public library), it was a visionary work, outlining the methods of scientific investigation by clarifying the relationship between theory and observation. But perhaps its most visionary aspect was Herschel’s insistence that observation should be a network triumph belonging to all of humanity — a pioneering case for the value of citizen science. He writes:

To avail ourselves as far as possible of the advantages which a division of labour may afford for the collection of facts, by the industry and activity which the general diffusion of information, in the present age, brings into exercise, is an object of great importance. There is scarcely any well-informed person, who, if he has but the will, has not also the power to add something essential to the general stock of knowledge, if he will only observe regularly and methodically some particular class of facts which may most excite his attention, or which his situation may best enable him to study with effect.

Diversity of snowflake shapes from a 19th-century French science textbook. Available as a print.

Pointing to meteorology and geology as the sciences best poised to benefit from distributed data collection by citizen scientists, Herschel adds:

There is no branch of science whatever in which, at least, if useful and sensible queries were distinctly proposed, an immense mass of valuable information might not be collected from those who, in their various lines of life, at home or abroad, stationary or in travel, would gladly avail themselves of opportunities of being useful.

Herschel goes on to outline the process by which such citizen science would be conducted: “skeleton forms” of survey questions circulated far and wide, asking “distinct and pertinent questions, admitting of short and definite answers,” then transmitted to “a common centre” for processing — a sort of human internet feeding into a paper-stack server. (Lest we forget, Maria Mitchell herself was employed as a “computer” — the term we used to use for the humans who performed the work now performed by machines we have named after them.)

Couple with a wonderful 1957 treatise on the art of observation and why genius lies in the selection of what is worth observing, then revisit Maria Mitchell on how to find your calling.

Published September 15, 2019




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