Friday, December 30, 2011

Hydrocarbons and Our Future

When the Deepwater Horizon platform blew up in April, 2010, it released approximately 4,900,000 barrels (780,000 cubic meters) of crude into the Gulf of Mexico.  Some of that raw crude floated to the surface and was skimmed or burned - or ruined wetlands that protect the fragile Gulf coast from hurricane storm-surges. Some of the hydrocarbons drifted off into the Loop Current, and what was not metabolized by bacteria probably drifted out into the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf Stream. But the low-gravity components simply blanketed vast stretches of the floor of the Gulf, suffocating all life forms beneath it. Because the temperatures are quite cold in the abyssal sea depths, bacteria will work on this stuff only very slowly - if at all.

While the flow was on-going from the Macondo Well 3,000 meters below the sea surface, I thought about this problem. It's incredibly expensive to even drop a string of sampling bottles over the side to these depths. I developed an electrical geophysical method to map, track, and characterize this dangerous stuff - whose impact on the Gulf ecosystem is still not clearly understood.

Hydrocarbons have figured in my life off and on for a long time. After birth, my father and mother drove me home from the hospital in an American-made car fueled by gasoline extracted and refined in California. When my youngest grandson was driven home from the hospital where he was born, the car was built in Korea and the gasoline came from Venezuelan oil, refined in Texas. I worked my way through undergraduate school by washing dishes during the winters, and by fighting forest fires during the summers. Fire-fighting is hard, dirty, and dangerous work, so after my Junior year at Berkeley I started working for an oil company near my home, where I could use my brain and education more. I initially worked in the southern San Joaquin Valley of California for Getty Oil company.

Oil had been discovered just north of Bakersfield early in the 20th Century, and the initial “gushers” were just that: when the drill-hole penetrated into a rock unit with sufficient porosity to host oil, the overlying rock pressure forced the stuff out in a violent fashion. It quite literally rained oil, and the land was permanently damaged and remains largely free of vegetation. The ground throughout most of Oildale, California, is now an ugly and relatively uniform reddish-brown from the gushers that blew out during the early history of the field. After the gushers stopped, pumping began.

After pumping oil from the Kern Field for half a century, drill-cores showed that only about 15% of the oil had actually been extracted – the low-viscosity, easily-flowing stuff. The rest was what we call "tar-sands" or "heavy crude" - even longer-chained carbon molecules that entangle with each other to make a much higher viscosity hydrocarbon than the "light crude." Viscosity is just a measure of the "sludginess" of a semi-solid material. Maple syrup has a higher viscosity than water, so it pours slower.

Solid rock salt even has a significant viscosity - especially under pressure from overlying rock. This is why layers of salt in the deep sediments of the Gulf of Mexico tend to ooze up into diapirs or "salt domes". Oil geologists learned early on that salt stopped oil from migrating. It also folded and lifted up sediments above it to create "traps" where oil and gas could migrate upwards through porous sedimentary rocks until they were blocked by the salt (it's more complicated than that, of course). However, if you can find the salt domes with gravity or seismic geophysical surveys - salt domes are less dense than surrounding rock and thus a gravity survey above one will give a lower-gravity "bulls-eye" - then you only have to drill around the edges to get at the traps.

You can increase viscosity in a petroleum-based product by heating it - my grandma would use heat to liquefy wax, or to get molasses to flow out of a jar faster.

The Getty engineers thought long and hard about abandoning the old Kern Field - if 85% of the oil was still in it, this seemed like an incredible waste. It was hardly economic anymore to operate a pump for a day to get just a few barrels of oil out.  They finally developed huge steam-injection generators and conducted an interesting experiment. They used the remaining light crude from the Kern Field to heat water to 500 degrees C. The super-heated water was then injected into the old drill-pipe at ~500 psi (about 30 times normal atmospheric pressure, or about 3.4 mega-pascals, the SI metric unit for pressure) for 5 days, then the well was capped and allowed to "stew" for two days. Finally the drill-pipe was uncapped and the steam was allowed to vent for 5 more days.

The the formerly nearly-solid oil literally poured itself out of the drill-pipe just from the pressure of the overlying rock. This was only a partial success story, however; the hot heavy crude could be poured into a bucket in liquid form; it was surprisingly light brown in color. After it cooled to room temperature, however, you could turn the bucket upside down and nothing would pour out - it had turned solid again.

You can imagine that dealing with this sort of heavy crude is more expensive, and you would be right. The oil from the Athabasca tar-sands in Canada requires a lot of effort and energy - mining expenses, local water, and heating - to extract it. The heavy crudes in Oildale, California, and in Venezuela can be extracted, but then must be mixed with light crude (in Venezuela this must be pumped down hundreds of kilometers from the Caribbean coast) into slurry that won't clog the return-pipe as it cools. heavy crudes must also be handled in a refinery in a far more complex manner.

I was a co-editor of a UNESCO book published years ago titled “The Future of Heavy Crudes and Tar-Sands.” We concluded that there was enough low-gravity hydrocarbons in Venezuela’s Llanos (plains) and Canada’s Athabasca tar-sands to power the industrial world for centuries at current rates of oil consumption – but only if the price of a barrel of oil was maintained high enough to pay for the extra costs of mining and lowering the viscosity so the oil could be refined into gasoline.

There are problems with exploiting the Athabascan tar-sands, however: there is an over-abundance of nickel and vanadium in the tar that can each be serious environmental pollutants. There is also the heavy need for local water to process the stuff - and this has seriously impacted local rivers in the area. Finally, extracting the oil is not done with drill-pipe, but by strip-mining the surface to access the tar-sands; this leaves huge scars on the arboreal landscape.

The engineering technology developed to exploit these tar-sands sounds like a great example of human ingenuity - and it is. But there is a down-side: if more and more hydrocarbons are consumed by a careless and ever-growing human population, the amount of CO2 and methane freed - powerful greenhouse gases - will drive our world's average temperatures ever high, ever faster.

Climate change has been going on for billions of years - see-sawing back and forth from a "snowball Earth" a billion years ago to a simmering Earth that several times saw forests in Antarctica. However, the anthropogenic (human-caused) contribution of burning hydrocarbons and destroying forests in the past two centuries has given the current climate a very, very sharp kick.

From the perspective of a scientist who loves his heated home and his Honda Accord, this causes me very mixed feelings. Glaciers are in retreat worldwide, and vast icebergs the size of some states are breaking free of Antarctica and melting. Island nations in the Pacific and Indian oceans are already starting to disappear - literally - as ocean levels rise. The list of consequences are as horrific as they are diverse, and our very human desire for a luxurious energy-powered life, fueled by more and more hydrocarbons, lies at the bottom of it all.

And the Lord said unto Enoch: look, and he looked and beheld the Son of Man lifted up on the bcross, after the manner of men; and he heard a loud voice; and the heavens were veiled; and all the creations of God mourned; and the earth groaned...

The Earth is where we live; if we treat our house carelessly, we will pay a very dear price.


Saturday, December 24, 2011

White: Age and Respect

When I was in my early 30's, my hair rather abruptly largely turned gray (mostly straight white, with occasional strands of curly dark brown in it). I inherited this from my mother, who was bothered that her hair turned white in the front during her 30's. I thought it was sort of cool-looking: her hair when I was a kid, and my hair when I was barely no longer a kid.

In my late 30's I was invited to teach classes in applied geophysics to upper-division and grad students at the University of Maryland and The George Washington University. After meeting with the Department Chairs in both cases I was designated a full professor at both universities. In part this was because I already had a long science bibliography by that time, but I suspect that it also had to do with my hair color. Respect!

When I turned 40, I was called to serve as a counselor to the Dulles Branch President; this Branch was formed to help a large number of southeast Asian refugees who had arrived in Northern Virginia following the end of the Viet Nam War. Right away I noticed that I was treated very reverently by our Laotian brothers and sisters - they would bow deeply while making the 'wai', the hands-together formal bow of greeting. The deeper the bow, the greater the respect. I came to realize that their culture afforded great respect to older people - this was deeply ingrained from childhood. I remember feeling a bit awkward at being treated with a respect that I felt I had not earned. I still thought of myself as a kid.

At one point, we put on a Road Show with our Dulles youth. They were short of guys in the main part of the play, so Jared and I died our hair (my white hair, his golden hair) a deep black, in order to fit in. The box of hair-color said it would wash out with the next shower... but it didn't. For many weeks afterwards, people would pass me in the hallways in the immense US Geological Survey National Center, stop, turn around, and say "Jeff? Is that you?" Just changing the color of your hair can disorient people around you.

In 2000 I was the General Chair of the Symposium for the Application of Geophysics to Environmental & Engineering Problems. This was the annual international meeting of the Environmental & Engineering Geophysical Society (full disclosure: I was president of this society in 2002-2003), and is called "SAGEEP" because some international visitors can get authorization to travel to a "symposium", but not to a "meeting." Go figure.

As General Chair, I organized this complex nightmare: we took over the Hyatt Arlington hotel for a week, I arranged for the NASA Administrator to be our keynote speaker, and we had over 300 international participants who all seemed to need a letter to justify getting an American visa. I noticed that a number of non-USGS people who I had called to help me from among the DC Metro geophysical community would sometimes stare at me. One day, while driving one of them back to his office in downtown Washington, DC, the guy abruptly asked me how old I was?  I was 53 at the time. "Wow," he said, "You look like you are older than that, and you look like you are younger than that. You have the energy of a 20-yr-old, but you called Dan Goldin!"

The hair again. That, and probably my sugar addiction.

Now, in the United States, we have a culture that fairly worships youth - it was very disorienting to our younger Dulles Branch teenagers, recently transplanted from rural Laos. This cultural emphasis can be felt just about anywhere in the country, but it is strongest in New York City and Los Angeles, at least in my observation. The desperate effort to look youthful in the San Fernando Valley and Hollywood can sometimes lead to bizarre creatures that could only be described as moms trying to out-dress each other in their daughters' clothes. Madonna recently complained bitterly that her hands looked OLD, and there was nothing she could do about them. This adulation clearly affects your ability to market yourself as an actor or an actress (Steven Spielberg recently had to quell rumors that Harrison Ford was going to be digitally "younged" in the next Indiana Jones film).

At one point not long ago I looked at a passport photo, and compared it to a passport photo taken when I was 40. Wooo... when did THAT happen?!?? Around this same time I saw a TV special of before-and-after examples of several individuals getting a face-lift. The surgery was filmed, and it frankly stunned me. Don't get me wrong, I have done minor surgery on myself a number of times. An infected ingrown toenail, acne cysts, and larvae multiplying in my feet in the jungle are strong motivations.

I was shocked at two things: the intrusive nature of a face-lift surgical procedure (the anesthetized patient was treated like a slab of beef), and the... wrong-ness of the face afterwards. You see, as we age. a lot more changes than just the tension of our facial skin. The juxtaposition of young and old in the same individual is strikingly artificial, and it doesn't take a Michael Jackson to convince most people that they shouldn't mess with the natural progression of things. The human eye is finely-attuned to the most subtle changes in a human face - that's why seeing a corpse is so shocking. It comes across as mixed signals... all wrong.

I rather enjoy being a grandpa, or as my father-in-law put it, "I'm the father of several aunts and an uncle."

The take-away here is that we will age, and there is nothing we can do about it that won't look at least a bit bizarre. If we didn't age, we wouldn't want to leave this planet. We would fear the Colored Door to the next level, and might choose to be stuck permanently in a do-loop. Instead, I think it's great to enjoy each season of our lives and accept the admiration and respect that our changing faces and hair mean we've earned. The fact that I get to play with my grandkids and I don't have to change diapers anymore is sort of like 'having your cake and eating it too'.

Life is good. There is an order to it. There is a reason for that order. 

Thursday, December 22, 2011


There is a passing mention of lightning in Pliny's description of the destruction of Herculaneum and Pompey by Vesuvius's eruption in 79 AD, but no one made much of it at the time, nor for the two ensuing millennia. 

Then the eruption of Surtsey in 1979 (a basalt-andesite volcano forming a new island off the coast of Iceland) had people present with cameras - and the spectacular lightning associated with the eruption was actually recorded, and evaluated in subsequent scientific papers.

When Mount St Helens erupted in May, 1980, the pilot flying closest to the Plinian column reaching up to the Stratosphere commented repeatedly about lightning bolts coming from the top of the eruption column and flashing down into the caldera. (Yes, that name came from Pliny the Younger's description of the demise of his father, Pliny the Elder, in the Mediterranean Sea off Herculaneum. These eruptions also entrain the surrounding air, which drew Pliny's ship into the coast; there are reports of 100 kph winds roaring towards MSH on May 18, 1980). 

Current models have suggested that the rapid rise of silica-loaded particles in effect drew (or separated, depending on your point of view) a net unbalanced charge entrained in the ash to considerable heights. When sufficient charge imbalance accumulated, it relieved itself by bolts of lightning to the highest topographic point below it... the still-considerable remains of the edifice of the volcano (which lost 400 meters of its original elevation in the eruption). 

There are scientists in the Alaska Volcano Observatory who now track lightning along the Aleutian chain as an early warning of an eruption on volcanoes that we can't yet afford to instrument.  It turns out that the noise threshold for a reasonably reliable call on an eruption is around a VEI level 3-4. That's for Volcano Explosivity Index, and the numbers are approximately logarithmic: the 1980 MSH eruption was a VEI 5, which is about 10 times greater energy released than a VEI 4 event. 

As an aside: Managua, Nicaragua, is not an old city. Instead, there have been at least three versions of the city just in historic times. In between each, stupendous subduction earthquakes leveled most of the pre-existing city, and huge blankets of volcanic tephra and ash buried what remained. The same holds, more or less, for Guatemala City, the capitol of Guatemala. While we can visit the Parthenon in Greece and the Forum in ancient Rome, we cannot view what ancient Central America might have looked like 2,000 years ago... 

...for behold, the whole face of the land was changed, because of the tempest and the whirlwinds, and the thunderings and the lightnings, and the exceedingly great quaking of the whole earth...

Thursday, December 15, 2011

2.555 Gy

That's an estimate given by W.W. Phelps for the age of the universe ("eternity"). Incidentally, "Gy" is the usual scientific shorthand for 1,000,000,000 years, because there is both a Short Scale and a Long Scale version of what a "billion" is. They differ, depending on the country you live in, by 1,000. 

In The Times & Seasons, 1835, Phelps wrote "...that eternity, agreeably to the records found in the catacombs of Egypt, has been going on in this system, (not this world) almost two thousand five hundred and fifty five millions of years..." 

A deeper probe suggests that Phelps came up with this number by multiplying
7,000 x 365 x 1,000 = 2,555,000,000. 

In The Times and Seasons, he specifically said this was the age of the universe ("not this world"). This number also includes Phelps' assumptions that we are nearly at the end of eternity, that a day for the Lord was a 1,000 years to man, and that Genesis supported a 7,000 year span of creation. The current best estimate for the age of the universe - the time since the Big Bang - is about 13.4 Gy. You can tie yourself up in knots over this half-order-of-magnitude difference, but on the scale of important things, this ranks well below the noise threshold 

This 2.555 Gy number is nevertheless interesting. In a remarkable coincidence, the Great Oxygenation Event of the Earth closely brackets this age. Depending on who writes about this, the GOE started at 2.7 Gy or 2.5 Gy, or 2.4 Gy. Before that time, the Earth's atmosphere was largely methane, SO2, CO2, and ammonia. The sky was not blue, and the Earth would have been unrecognizable to us as such. There are deposits of alluvial pyrite (FeS) sand found in Archean rocks in South Africa that predate the GOE; the grains are rounded, something that could never happen in the presence of oxygen (they would turn rapidly to iron oxides, including rust, in the rough-and-tumble erosion and deposition process). 

A talk given at one of the Union sessions at American Geophysical Union on December on 5 December 2011 fleshed out a lot of the chemistry necessary for oxygen to appear in the primordial Earth's atmosphere. First, a lot of hydrogen had to escape the atmosphere. This can happen when hydrogen-based molecules in the atmosphere decompose in the presence of U/V light - and in the absence of a protective ozone (O3) layer. Then, a lot of the freed-up oxygen would be needed to break down the remaining methane in the atmosphere. There is another big oxygen sink, however:  the rocks of the Earth's crust themselves had to be oxygenized. Only then (after the oxygen sinks were filled) would significant amounts of O2 get into the atmosphere, and a significant amount reach the upper Troposphere and form a protective shell of ozone. 

Somewhere in this evolving planetary atmosphere photosynthesis also began producing O2, but the atmospheric scientist at AGU discounted this as being a significant producer until after the Huronian Snowball Earth event

Today, modern photosynthesis in plants could produce the 21% oxygen in the modern atmosphere in just 2,000 years. During the Cretaceous, the ultimate dinosaur wonderland (or nightmare alley, depending on your point of view), the atmospheric oxygen ranged up to 35% - which would go a long way towards explaining 22-meter-long dinosaurs and meter-long insects in the fossil record from this time.

The Earth's age may be around 4.5 Gy, but as we presently understand it, it is closer to 2.555 Gy.


Tuesday, December 13, 2011


Among scientists in the US Geological Survey there are two expressions of note: "WAG," which stands for Wild A$$ Guess, and Guestimate.

These are the low-end members of a legitimate - even critical - aspect of science: estimation. You can't predict the future (at least, managers in the US Geological Survey can't), but you can sketch out some possible scenarios and begin planning for them. These include rough guesses of what the annual funding for the US Geological Survey might be. If it includes reduced funding - and senior managers are strongly encouraged to follow the political news for this reason - then you SURE better not plan on hiring new people. This is a form of political estimation that can save you and other people a lot of grief later on.

Estimation is absolutely critical for both advanced math and for all of applied science. With a geophysical instrument inside Mount St Helens crater - or with the $20 billion Large Hadron Collider at CERN in Switzerland - you can ALWAYS get "results", you can ALWAYS come up with numbers." The problem is that in complex systems, where there are a lot of things affecting the final results, the numbers can add up to something round and steaming.

The critical point of estimation is to set bounds on a reasonable result - a result that is consistent with the real world values already in hand. Example: the conductivity of water and the conductivity of dry rock are well known. If your geophysical box gives you numbers unlike any of these, if you get numbers outside a realistic range, those numbers may be round and steaming: crap.  You then must go back and check your equipment to see what might be wrong, what you must have overlooked when you set up the experiment. Technical review of any scientific manuscript will home in immediately on anything that is unrealistic, so you can save yourself embarrassment if you estimate ahead of time what may be reasonable to expect. Among other things, the preliminary estimate in science is also critical in designing the experiment in the first place. If you are looking for ants, don't build a science experiment to trap mastodons.

It used to be the case that "close" worked in horseshoes, hand grenades, and nukes. Not anymore. Close is usually better than perfect in the real workday, where your data are routinely fuzzy to begin with.

It also is very much the case that "perfect" is the enemy of "good." Scientists worrying about the third decimal place in accuracy on an important number (such as the Hubble Constant) could hold up publication for years - when the number had such approximations in it in the first place that the third decimal place was totally pointless. In other words, that third decimal place of accuracy was a waste of time.

Sanjoy Mahajan recently published a book "Numbersight" (Subtitle: "A street-fighting mathematician teaches how to make better decisions"). This book sings the praises of estimation. He also points out that to teach kids to do fast math in their heads, it is critical to first teach them how to estimate, and then teach them how to visualize results. If they had no idea what they could expect (for instance multiplying two three-digit numbers is NOT going to give you a four-digit result), then you couldn't be sure that your short-cut math was working in the first place.

Another aspect of estimation - very useful in teaching kids how to do math - is to visualize the result in terms of something that they can relate to. It therefor helps to visualize a football field as being "60 dads long" instead of 100 yards or 91.4 meters in length. In the 1960's physicists spent a lot of time deciding what kind of metric system to use (they had already concluded that all science must be metric to be universally understood, and only in the United States do children still learn distances in "feet" and weights in "pounds"). The argument went something like this: the SI (standard international) system uses meters and seconds and kilograms. The CGS system uses centimeters and grams and seconds. As an old Manhattan Project nuclear physicist gruffly put it, the SI system was appropriate for humans, and the CGS system was appropriate for grasshoppers.


Friday, December 2, 2011

Amateur Science

Well, that sounds kinda bad, doesn't it?  However, in my experience amateur science can be both good and bad.

There are certainly examples of both good and bad professional science out there. Examples of good science include the breakthroughs for AIDS drug cocktails that essentially lifted the automatic death sentence from AIDS sufferers - at least in the United States. At least if you have health care insurance. As I write this there appears to be a breakthrough on the horizon for a malaria vaccine; malaria kills millions, mainly children, every year.

One example of bad professional science is the scientist who fudges data - or worse, makes up data - in order to get the publications needed to get ahead. The competition is incredibly fierce to go from student to PhD, to post-doc, to term-appointment scientist, to career scientist in a public agency or university. Sadly, there have been a number of examples of (generally younger) scientists who under this pressure have cheated on their research. When discovered - and all successful science is subject to repeat verification testing - it generally means the end to someone's aspiring career. The science journal that had to retract the flawed paper will not be interested in dealing with that individual again. Would YOU trust someone to do research on a drug you needed if you found out that the person had been dishonest?

Let's consider now an example of bad amateur science:
I received an Ask-a-Geologist query that wasn't a query, but instead a statement that the Great Comet of 1811 had caused the 1812 New Madrid Earthquakes in the Mississippi Valley. The writer ignored the time-gap, and also ignored readily-available astronomical information out there that the Great Comet of 1811 had never come within 100,000,000 miles of Earth. Instead he gave several reasons why he was sure that the features on his property proved this causal link - and then said a USGS geologist had agreed with him. He pointed me at a web-site that he claimed had all the data... his personal website.

Aside: All US Government employees must take IT security training at least once a year - due to the ferocious hacking attempts that happen from 8am to 5pm Mainland China time. One of the Big Red Flags we are told to avoid is social engineering like this - an attempt to steer us to do something we normally wouldn't do. Do NOT Open a Link - unless you are looking for it yourself.

A quick check with the USGS geologist (whom he named) proved that he had in fact lied to me. This kind-hearted lady told me she was giving a free public lecture on earthquakes, and had stood still long enough to politely listen to him. She said she had emphatically NOT agreed with his half-baked idea.

I use that expression deliberately: the individual had not done his homework on several fronts. He had not researched the astronomical information that I found within seconds on the internet. He had no idea what an abandoned stream meander was, something basic in a first-year geology class, or even simpler, available in the first third of a basic geology textbook. Instead, he painted the feature on his land as a comet impact structure. Still avoiding the website that he seemed anxious for me to click on (he kept including copies of the link throughout his message, along with oblique references to curiosity come-ons like "fossilized human remains"), I read his text again. To even a casual observer it was apparent that he was cherry-picking only information that supported his idea. He chose to ignore explanations and additional data that the USGS geologist had offered him - they weren't convenient.

Cherry-picking only the data that supports your hypothesis is fundamentally dishonest. Lying about what someone said to you is fundamentally dishonest. Dishonesty is fundamentally the polar opposite of good science. 

Consider now an example of good amateur science:
This took place during the third of the three Zahid expeditions to map the Wabar impact site in the middle of the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. We were a group of about 23 individuals including several PhD scientists interested in mapping and studying a very recent asteroid impact. The party also included a cook, several automotive engineers, a front-end loader specialist, even a senior manager of sales for Zahid Tractor company, which marketed the AM General Hummers we were using, and had funded this expedition.

Without exception, every person was interested in the expedition's objectives. They had to: the temperatures reached 132 F during the day and never dropped below 100 F during the sandstorm-dusted nights. The the breakfast menu each morning was invariably "Grit Eggs", "Dust Toast", and "Sand Meal", while lunch each day was invariably "Sand-wich" or "Sand-burger." Why else subject yourself to such conditions unless you were somehow interested in the research effort?

Whenever we had breakfast, whenever we stopped for lunch, whenever we relaxed around dinner (when a sandstorm was not flattening our cook-tent), people would all ask questions. As we would gather detailed geologic mapping data (Gene Shoemaker), close-spaced magnetic data (me), or ground-penetrating radar imagery (one of the Saudi university professors), we would discuss it. Everyone would listen, and early on the front-end loader driver tentatively offered a suggestion for why not check for structures under the crater impact crater rims. Gene and I both got excited: yes! That's a great idea - let's do that this afternoon when the heat drops below 110 F. That opened the dam-gates, and everyone started to offer ideas and suggestions. Some would fit with what we already knew, some were inconsistent, and some we thought should be chased down by one team or another. Everyone was a participant, everyone was a contributor to the research effort.

This was an excellent example of participative science - the final results were much greater than if just the professional scientists had been operating in isolation. Here's the thing: most people are interested in what surrounds them in the world - most people and almost all children are curious, natural scientists. And most people, if they are not upbraided but instead encouraged, can become natural scientists participating in a greater research effort. A PhD is NOT required to be a scientist. If you ever visit a university, you will find that there are professors - and there are non-professors. There are people who run the laboratories who are not professors and may or may not even have college degrees - but the research would shut down without their quiet, tedious work and contributions.

As participants in science, they are scientists.

A Second example of good amateur science: A group of researchers created an online game called FoldIt to simulate protein folding, and used teams of online gamers to help solve the structure of an enzyme.  This was aimed at a problem that had vexed researchers for decades. It was finally put out to the world in the form of a game-challenge, asking for help. Gamers took on the challenge and solved the problem in a mere three weeks.

As participants in science, they are scientists.

Another example:
Researchers trying to process vast amounts of radio-telescope data in the SETI project (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) realized they did not have the computing power to deal with the data properly. It would require billions of dollars to pay for it. Someone suggested the idea of distributed computing: put it out as an elegant screen-saver. Millions of personal computers that would otherwise stand idle for hours on end could then automatically download a packet of data, process it, and then upload the results to a central server at Berkeley. Anyone with a personal computer can do this. You can do this while you are asleep.

As participants in science, they are scientists.

I can go on and on with examples: people participating in the Christmas Bird Count, people volunteering to check ponds for frog eggs, etc. These, unfortunately, you cannot do in pajamas in front of a personal computer.

Here's the take-away, in three parts:
1. Anyone can participate in science. You don't need a PhD.
2. However, you must accept the fact that good science requires you do your homework, and
3. You MUST be determinedly honest about every facet of it.

You - virtually anyone - can contribute to the advancement of science, helping others and gaining great personal satisfaction in the process.