Unexplored science topics?
March 30, 2015 8:33 AM   Subscribe

What science topics remain to be explored, that an amateur scientist could do research/experiments and be the first person to look at it?

I read Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, and I am wondering what ways normal people can contribute to new discoveries these days? For example, one of the people mentioned was the expert on moss because he was the only one who had examined and documented mosses to that point. I know of some group science projects, like Zooniverse's planet or supernova finding data analysis, but is there anything for individuals? Super obscure or useless totally ok.

College level chemistry/biology/astronomy/photography/engineering background, no more than a few thousand $$ say for supplies or data access, and no special access to laboratories or equipment or supplies beyond anything you can get on the internet.
posted by lemonade to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (7 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
There are any number of things that could be done on the local level in terms of ecology, particularly in terms of population counting and assessment. Universities and local governments (states and provinces in NA) do a lot of this sort of work, but information is often spatially spotty and/or infrequently gathered.

Someone doing an ecological history of a small area, a forest or a lake or a shoreline could produce a pretty impressive corpus over time. There is a lot of value in frequency and regularity of observation, something that academics with their 3-4 year cycles or governments, with limited resources, can't do.
posted by bonehead at 9:02 AM on March 30, 2015 [2 favorites]

The big gaps for funding are things that 1) don't make money, 2) things that are unlikely to work, 3) things that take a long time, and 4) things that most people would find uninteresting.

The moss is a great example of 1 and 4. The guy who cracked his knuckles on only one side for 50 years qualifies for all 4. In-depth ecological studies usually qualify for 1 and 4 and sometimes 3, but studies like that often end up with people discovering new species in some suburban yard. (I have a friend involved with the WAVE program, and they see some of this type of thing.) Amateur astronomers that spend a lot of time cataloging some very narrow little piece of the sky fall under all 4 headings, until one of them sees the early signs of a comet or supernova.

If I wanted to do this kind of project, I'd spend a lot of time looking in my yard, local parks, and streams, during different times of the day and year, and I'd see what caught my eye.
posted by tchemgrrl at 9:44 AM on March 30, 2015 [1 favorite]

The single biggest area where amateurs are having an impact is comet-hunting.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:17 AM on March 30, 2015

And if you like moss, there's also plenty of lichen. I met a lichenologist who said that there's still a lot of under-documented stuff out there in nature.
posted by ovvl at 12:28 PM on March 30, 2015

A friend of mine is an amateur collector of fungi, specifically the funguses of animal decomposition (by day, he works in a nuclear power plant. It really does take all kinds). Most of what he's collected are species not well known or entirely unknown. All he's needed so far is a few household supplies, a bar fridge and a low-ish power microscope he got off of ebay. Plus he plans vacations to places like the Body Farm in Knoxville, TN.

My mom is heavily involved in orchid growing---it's similar there. There are orchid growers with decades of notes on the culture and propagation of orchids. The AOS has one of the best libraries on that specific topic in the world, and it's entirely volunteer run.

tchemgrrl is right, it's all about picking an interest that's a bit obscure and doesn't have a high barrier to entry. What you can bring is time and attention. Good notes are important, as well as a good plan for observation and trials, but amateurs can and do do a lot for life and ecological sciences.
posted by bonehead at 1:01 PM on March 30, 2015

Long term observation of animal populations or regular plant or insect census can provide valuable information and lead to conclusions about animal behavior, population increase, decrease or movement. Info like this is needed for climate change research as well as general ecology research.
posted by irisclara at 3:24 PM on March 30, 2015

If you google Massachusetts Butterfly Club and Harvard research, you can find how the butterfly club was able to identify a signature of insect movement in response to climate change. Cool stuff - and all they did was fill out a little notebook everyday with the species they saw, then some researchers came along and decided to analyze it. Also, if you are at all into adventuring, consider checking out Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation - the adventurers collect the data for the scientists who are trapped behind a desk.

Doing some investigation in urban environments or at night (two areas that are less often looked at interestingly enough) could render some interesting findings. But I might argue, given your background in engineering that you might just consider building stuff - find a challenge and just see if you can figure out how to construct an answer to it - from a social justice angle or otherwise. From there, you could put the blueprints online for free and share your constructions. You could do water filtering, solar cookers/heating, low carbon fuels, mosquito catchers...whatever.
posted by Toddles at 9:31 PM on March 30, 2015

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