contrary to popular belief, citizen science is alive and well
You’ve heard it a thousand times from snake oil salespeople, cranks, and quacks: “scientists are threatened when those outside of their establishment challenge their narratives.” Of course, if this was really the case, we’d still be taught that the universe is static and eternal, that disease is caused by tiny worms, and that flying machines violate the laws of physics. We even give gold medals and millions of dollars for making scientists change course in their research. And yes, an amateur with a good eye and good ideas can still make a difference today.
Our first example takes us to England where furniture restorer Ben Bacon was admiring high resolution images of cave paintings and noticed repeating patterns of 13 dots and a consistent Y shaped symbol. After asking enough anthropologists about the meaning to these dots, he got quite a few to reexamine their ideas about cave paintings. By looking at the animals and hunt scenes depicted in them, and the corresponding numbers of dots, the hypothesis is that these markings were part of a lunar calendar terminated by the Y glyph.
Essentially, our ancestors were keeping track of prey animals and maybe even plants in bloom using the lunar cycle, marking beginning of spring as the start of a new year as far as they were concerned. It would mean that humanity may have had some form of writing going back as far as 42,000 years ago. There’s still quite a bit of work to do to confirm if this really was the case, but scientists are treating Mr. Bacon’s idea very seriously and think he may well rewrite history as we know it, leading to deeper studies of early written languages.
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, a woman names Jill Viles spent the last few decades pursing scientific study after scientific study about rare genetic conditions after being afflicted with a particularly nasty one that can waste away muscle. What started off as self-advocacy when doctors refused to do their due diligence on such a complex patient turned into a journey of discovery, which led international teams of medical researchers to better understand genes responsible for how our bodies build muscle and process fat.
Turns out that a protein called SREBP1, long known to be involved in deciding if our cells will store incoming fat or use it for fuel, interact with genes responsible for lamin proteins that perform key functions in cell integrity and metabolism. One set of mutations and the body is dense with muscle, burning fat like a furnace. Another, and the muscles waste away, leaving the body unable to support its own weight while weakening the heart until it can no longer beat properly.
The exact mechanics are still a subject of intense research, but that research would not be underway, pointing to treatments for patients with rare, debilitating illnesses, if not for Viles’ dogged pursuit to understand her odd and rare cases of Emery-Dreifuss disorder, and partial lipodystrophy, or spotting similarities to them in pictures of a Canadian Olympic athlete. I won’t spoil the full saga — which is worth reading in its entirety — but I will say that Viles is still not done asking questions that make labs scratch their chins and change their research priorities.
So, yes, in the grand scheme of things, it is extremely rare for an amateur to make a discovery that all the experts missed while asking questions they never thought to ask. It takes a keen eye and a great deal of research and persistence to unearth real scientific mysteries, especially in a world where hundreds of billions of dollars are spent every year to research every aspect of the universe around us. But it does happen, and when it does, and when those talented amateurs can prove their case, the scientific community will listen and celebrate their contributions.
See: Bacon, B., el al. (2023) An Upper Palaeolithic proto-writing system and phenological calendar. Cambridge Archaeological Journal, 1-19. DOI: 10.1017/S0959774322000415