What don't we know?
July 3, 2006 1:20 PM   Subscribe

I would like to make a "scientific discovery", or otherwise contribute something (however useful, or not) to the body of human knowledge. What are some unanswered questions, or unexplained details of the world, or (most especially) developing fields of inquirey, that an amateur might seek to investigate with possibility of making progress into the unexplored?

I feel like I do too much backyard science that has all been done before, or tech industry software stuff that, while cutting edge, and thus technically contributing to human knowledge, is a kind of technology-driven innovation that previosuly just lacked a means rather than being non-obvious.

It is pretty clear that there are plenty of unanswered questions if you know your field or know where to look, and plenty of examples of people answering them in ingenious ways that are not beyond the reach of the amateur.

I'm looking for something to investigate that interests me, but there will be things that I don't know about that interest me, hence I'm throwing the question right open. I'm hoping for suggestions in myriad areas, perhaps specific unknowns, a scattergun that will hopefully bring to light something I didn't previously know I was interested in.

Not counting standard consumer stuff like computers, cameras, regular tools, etc, I'd prefer fields that don't require specialised apparatus in excess of $1000 just to get started, but that $1000 is ebay/used/surplus prices, not retail ;)

(If necessary, I am willing to design/build my own instruments/equipment (and am probably more capable of doing so than many professional scientists, though I certainly have my limits), might there might be lower-hanging fruit in areas for which there isn't off-the-shelf equipment?

I've been to Science projects. The Society for Amateur Scientists didn't seem to have much to address this aspect. Any other links? I guess what I'm looking for is some vague way to improve my mental map of the edges of knowledge - so that I can better recognize the unknown when I see it. Or know where it is and go straight to it.

I'm not looking to make some epic discovery. Just work out or confirm some obscure thing that previously wasn't known :)
posted by -harlequin- to Science & Nature (45 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
"New" creatures are still being discovered all the time, your best bet would be to search for insects, probably ants.
posted by borkencode at 1:31 PM on July 3, 2006

I would look at areas of science that offer no tangible economic return, or that nobody will fund. Astronomy is one example that wanders close to this territory. Some sociological studies would have widespread popular interest would be candidates. Also perhaps consumer-related studies, which would have widespread interest but some of which many large organizations don't have the backbone to do.

Science is basically any type of search for truth, so don't limit yourself to the conventional ideas of earth, sea, and sky.
posted by chef_boyardee at 1:33 PM on July 3, 2006

Both types of slime mold are seriously understudied in the field. Right in your own backyard there are new species and behaviors in known species that are entirely unknown to science. I know it's probably not what you were thinking of, but it's something.
posted by 517 at 1:36 PM on July 3, 2006

I agree with Chef - even though we'd like to think that as a scientist you are outside the realm of economic forces - you aren't. It will be almost impossible to compete with GE when it comes to the search for the next green fuel or the next leap in artificial intelligence.

Like Chef said - what about philosophical dilemmas or social problems? Drug abuse? The war on drugs? Exploring the retail job market? Psychology of consumerism? I thought Freakonomics was pretty cool.
posted by ifranzen at 1:40 PM on July 3, 2006

You Could tackle japanese beetles or Satelite signal rain fade or cat fleas or how pot plants measure daylength or why young girls love horses or what's up with that moon.
posted by longsleeves at 1:44 PM on July 3, 2006

There's always Science Magazine's feature on 125 unanswered questions in science. The entire issue is actually about the future directions of scientific inquiry.
posted by Aster at 1:45 PM on July 3, 2006

Have you spoken to research advisors at graduate schools? Or applied to work at any government labs? The whole point of pure science and publicly-funded research is to pick up the slack where industry falls short. And often times the research doesn't need expensive equipment, just someone who is smart enough and dedicated enough.
posted by randomstriker at 1:53 PM on July 3, 2006

It's said that there are plenty of undiscovered species of bacteria in a common shovelfull of backyard dirt. So, you've unknown species of bacteria in your backyard, you just need to know how to identify them. And then maybe see any of them have any interesting properties or abilities.
posted by fcain at 2:00 PM on July 3, 2006

I live in an earthquake-prone zone and the next 7+ earthquake is almost "due" around now. It might happen tomorrow or it might happen two hundred years from now.

It's long been known that animals often act strangely prior to an earthquake. According to this Wikipedia article, this is because they can detect the P waves generated by the earthquake which precede the earthquake wave.

Can you help me sleep better at night and invent a portable (or fixed if necessary) P-wave detector device that would give me 30 seconds of warning so I can run out into my back yard screaming before the quake hits?
posted by zaebiz at 2:14 PM on July 3, 2006

Go read Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything. There's one chapter that spends a great deal of time talking about how there are many fields of study, especially botany, where the world-renowned expert is actually a single "amateur" or a tiny group of like-minded thinkers. Fascinating stuff.
posted by frogan at 2:19 PM on July 3, 2006

Don't know how you would go about answering this. But we really don't really know how human narrative "memory" really works. We know that it's notoriously unreliable and highly subject to manipulation. We also know that we insist on maintaining the illusion that we have reliable memories of important events.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 2:22 PM on July 3, 2006

harlequin, I so admire your initiative to undertake such an enterprise.

I would love to know:

What causes autism? Many scientists believe it is genetic, but the cause is still unknown.

How to develop a foam insulation that doesn't crack. Please send it to NASA so the space shuttle can go up. :)

How can we engage countries around the world to report and treat brain disorders, e.g., Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, epilepsy, psychiatric disorders, traumatic brain injury, and developmental brain disorders? Brain disorders are believed to be hugely underreported in many areas of the world, especially underdeveloped nations. Epilepsy is inexpensive to treat, but many go without treatment in places where it is stigmatized. Funds are available.

How can we plan towns in the United States or, redevelop existing towns and cities to facilitate more walking and less dependence on driving? Maybe we already know the answer to this problem. But, it would be nothing short of a miracle if one could find a way to create less dependence on automobiles in the US.
posted by LoriFLA at 2:25 PM on July 3, 2006

well - i think it's great that you're into doing this.

astronomy is actually a good place to think about starting. you can get some decent equipment for around a grand, and there have been lots of cases of amateur astronomers discovering comets, etc.

the problem with the list of 125 unanswered questions is that almost all of them are so big, so vague and nebulous you'd hardly know where to start. what is the universe made of? yikes. if you're looking for some kind of small, concise and neatly bound-up question you're probably going to have to drill down pretty far.

i'll give you an example of one from my own field. i study the optical properties of colloidal crystals, which are well-ordered stacks of tiny objects - in this case, spheres. the spheres we make are smaller than a micron in size, so that they interact with light in an interesting way, and they're made of silica (quartz, basically).

we make them by a chemical reaction of liquid reactants. with the right concentrations and conditions, you get a bunch of little solid spheres that are all the same shape and all the same size. nobody really understands why this is so. (so you see, they're still kind of intractible even down here on the mere-mortal level)

i think the problem with your question is that it's a little too far-flung. it's well and good to have broad interests, but if you're asking for specific, unsolved questions you'll have to be a little more specific. biology, chemistry, physics? subfield even?

here's what i suggest. you need some perspective, and for that you should read some journals. and i don't mean popsci magazines like scientific american or discover (science and nature are usually pretty good, but leave your bullshit detector on because sometimes they really toe the line), i mean real journals in whatever field interests you, like maybe JACS or PRL if you're into chemistry or physics, respectively. (i chose these journals because they tend to cover a broad range of topics - i don't know enough about other fields to give similar recommendations.)

posted by sergeant sandwich at 2:29 PM on July 3, 2006

oh also, i guess i was speaking in terms of 'pure' science as opposed to applied science. if you're open to technology-based research, you might consider trying to make a better solar energy -> electricity device. the current ones are limited to around 20% efficiency or so.

the amount of research ongoing in this area is disproportionately small compared to the importance electricity and etc have in our lives. plus there's money available for out-of-left-field energy research.
posted by sergeant sandwich at 2:37 PM on July 3, 2006

Maybe a good place to start is to try to hook up with some university scientists who could use your help as a volunteer. Summer internships might be worth looking into as well. The advantage here is that you can talk to people who already have a good knowledge map of their field, they are working on unsolved problems, and they already have (most) of the equipment they need so you don't have to buy anything.

My experience in academia was that most of the time, professors had some ideas on the back burner that they didn't have anyone to work on, so you might pick up one of those projects and run with it. They are usually the more, um, speculative projects too, so you could really go where no geek has gone before.

Oh, and goodonya for such a neat ambition!
posted by Quietgal at 2:38 PM on July 3, 2006

I hate to rain on your parade, but I would suggest that you figure out how to go back in time and be a Victorian gentleman of easy means. That's about the only way you're going to do it on your own, outside of maybe observational stuff like botany and species identification, and even that would probably require the means, knowledge, and luck to go to some pretty remote places and pick a needle out of a haystack.

As a generalist with a scientific bent, who grew up reading the history of science and wanting to emulate the people I read about, I was really tempted by this sort of scenario too. But, several years in the world of academic science have taught me that the low-hanging fruit is mostly picked, and science in general is way more professionalized, specialized, and structured than it was before WWII, when most of the stories in books like Bryson's were lived out.

Individual scientists who get credit for discoveries these days are more often than not avatars for laboratories with budgets in the millions and 10 to 50 research staff. It's not that individual genius has disappeared, it's that most of the interesting problems are now complicated enough that they require whole arrays of individual genuises working on different little pieces of them.

And even if you did manage to find your nugget of new knowledge, well, how would you manage to get it a hearing for it from outside the world of academic science? Speaking from the inside, I can tell you that we get a constant low-level barrage of stuff from cranks and crackpots, and I think at this point it would be very hard for the rare skilled amateur to rise above the noise and get a legitimate hearing from the scientific establishment in their field. Perhaps not impossible if you had something of an Einsteinian level of incontravertible genius, but still, a big obstacle.

For me, the upshot of all this was figuring out that I just didn't really want to be a scientist, since what I thought of as a being a scientist didn't really exist anymore. (I currently work as a tech since I have a molecular bio degree and those are my current marketable skills, but I don't plan on a long-term career in science anymore.)
posted by jdunn_entropy at 2:57 PM on July 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

I'm not looking to make some epic discovery. Just work out or confirm some obscure thing that previously wasn't known :)

I think you would find this book about the Ig Nobel prizes a fun read.

Try to think about what happens when things are coupled together rather than breaking things down to see how the bits work on their own. You will immediately be taking a different point of view from most traditional scientific enquiry and open up an almost unlimited number of problems. Almost any non-linear interaction will have interesting consequences when repeated many times in a large enough population. Spation-temporal patterns appear as if from nowhere. You can do this stuff at any scale you like, from the above-mentioned slime molds to people and beyond.

Also, do read Nature, but also read a whole bunch of popular science; you're not asking for convincing evidence about one thing or another, you're looking for inspiration.
posted by teleskiving at 3:04 PM on July 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

Easiest thing would be to buy a telescope and look around for new astroids, etc.
posted by Paris Hilton at 3:26 PM on July 3, 2006

I second jdunn_entropy's post: you haven't mentioned what your background is, but since you asked, my opinion is that the starting point has to be to get some credibility in a field. Many researchers encounter crackpots very frequently, and as a aresult science tends to be very wary of work coming out of people's backyards/basements. I mean that in the nicest way: not every amateur scientist is a crackpot, however the signal-to-noise level makes it very, very hard for a perceived outsider to get noticed.
posted by drmarcj at 3:27 PM on July 3, 2006

Figure out a way to do something everyday or mundane, but totally outside our existing design/technology/industrial paradigm.

A decent example might be rail travel. Figure out a way to move large amounts of freight or people along the ground quickly, with maximum efficiency. Don't fall back on our existing paradigms of trains, planes and automobiles. Don't just design a more efficient engine to run on existing infrastructure.

Come up with something new, and hopefully more efficient, from scratch.
posted by generichuman at 3:54 PM on July 3, 2006

jdunn_entropy's first paragraph very eloquently distills the problem.

-harlquin- your profile doesn't say where you are; are there smaller post-secondary institutions in your area? Private college or community college? Odds are that the professors there will be working (slowly and intermittently) on research topics that tend not to be in ultracompetetive fields. Check out the websites of local schools and look over the faculty bios. Someone might be working on something you're interested in and might appreciate volunteer help.

There are still things to do in your backyard. Many modern antibiotics are produced by soil-dwelling streptomycetes. You could selectively grow actinomycetes and screen them against a bacterial lawn. You'd probably re-disocver a lot of common ones like tetracyclines, but you never know.

Are there ponds in your area? Do some grow unsightly algae blooms? You could catalogue the different zooplankton species and correlate them with algal growth. Transplant the appropriate species and viola - no more algae. Sell it as a service. I did something similar for my undergrad ecology project.

You always hear about how amateur astronomers are finding new rocks in the sky, too.

posted by porpoise at 3:58 PM on July 3, 2006

I think there is one thing that is always around us and never understood - women. If you can put down in writing how a womans brain works and predict how she will react to any event then you could win the noble prize.

Prepare to spend your life doing the research, but know that it is for the better good.
posted by Sonic_Molson at 4:14 PM on July 3, 2006

I think there is more 'low-hanging fruit' than ever before-- didn't some guy just recently discover a couple of very big impact craters previously unknown to science just by messing around with Google maps?

On a more theoretical level, I would argue that discoveries which are not simple observation result from considerations of combinations of facts. For N facts, there are 2 to the Nth combinations of those facts. If you have 20 new facts, for example, there are more than a million combinations of those facts to be explored for their implications, if you have 30, the number rises to over a billion. Add to this the predilection of government and the academy to support the most basic science, which is heavily biased toward accumulation of facts, and you have a recipe for a situation which is very much in need of the leavening which a lot more effervescent and enthusiastic, but well-informed, amateur theorizing would provide.

So don't repent, -harlequin-, get out there and go for it!
posted by jamjam at 4:28 PM on July 3, 2006

Response by poster: I hate to rain on your parade, but I would suggest that you figure out how to go back in time and be a Victorian gentleman of easy means. That's about the only way you're going to do it on your own, outside of maybe observational stuff like botany and species identification, and even that would probably require the means, knowledge, and luck to go to some pretty remote places and pick a needle out of a haystack.

For the record, this has been what I had always assumed, until recently, when I've started to notice a few things that suggest or demonstrate otherwise. So now I no-longer consider this to be a legitimate reason to give up before even giving thought to starting. Hence my question. (Recognition of any findings, by the scientific community, is another kettle of fish entirely and one that I don't expect I will care enough about to address, however the suggestions to work on a back-burner concept from someone in academia is an interesting one that comes with the benefit that it avoids the crackpot problem. Unfortunately, I haven't kept any academic contacts (save fellow grad friends) but that's a practical problem, not a conceptual one :-)

posted by -harlequin- at 4:36 PM on July 3, 2006

I think it would be good to figure out how to better present information to voters, so people without much time can know enough broad and deep truth to make really informed decisions. Information not just about candidates' background, but also about the issues/technologies/budgets they make decisions about.

I've also been interested in figuring out how to integrate physical activity into modern daily life, possibly in a way that reduces the need for otherwise-generated electricity. We need exercise, exercise can produce energy, we need energy. Grinding your own wheat is a slouchy chore, though, so maybe there's some way to combine a nautilus machine with a mill or something. It takes a lot of pedaling just to light a bulb by generating electricity, but maybe there's some way to solve the problem.

These are probably not what you're looking for, but I've been thinking about them myself for a while so I had to mention them.
posted by amtho at 4:47 PM on July 3, 2006

"I hate to rain on your parade..." = Don't try because we have got most of it figured out already, we'll let you know when we find something new.

Hasn't this been the reigning view throughout the history of science? Hasn't it always been wrong?

Even if it isn't entirely BS, it's BS.
posted by 517 at 5:01 PM on July 3, 2006

My guess is that there is far more 'low-hanging fruit' than is generally thought, the trick being to have the imagination to find new places to look. My reasoning is that there is an awful lot of world/universe out there to know about, and there is probably relatively rather little we know about it.

So my idea would be to simply follow your interests - learn what is known and keep an open mind, looking for unexplored connections, untested hypotheses, small-sample experiments that require elaboration, and so on.

There is an incomprehensible amount of research and data on the web, waiting to be mined; you wouldn't even necessarily need to do experimentation of your own, just absorb yourself in research on topics you find interesting, and see if there are any overlooked details. An is example is psychology, a fairly new field, with a mass of experimental data, and an awful lot of thought and work to be done.

Moreover, there are new fields of inquiry springing up all the time. Complex network theory is a very new field, straddling the range of thought from maths, physics and biology to psychology, politics and economics. I'm sure there are other young fields you will run unto, if you pursue your passions. In this vein, a good place to look may be the intersections of disciplines, as I think teleskiving suggested upthread.

So I think there is a not just a lot of science left undone, but a whole spectrum of thinking and experiment you can engage in, from confirming minor details to following up old leads to examining and analysing existing data, to coming up with new ways to dissect the natural world, and all combinations thereof.

However, I am not a scientist, and haven't discovered anything myself, so it is quite possible I simply share your desire for discovery, and don't know shit.
posted by MetaMonkey at 5:04 PM on July 3, 2006

Science without passion is like love without the same. You can't just jump into any field and hope to have an apple fall on your head (metaphor) you must enter into a field which you are madly passionate about, and if you get lucky you might discover something. But the novelty of the discovery shouldn't be your soul motivation.
posted by oxford blue at 5:09 PM on July 3, 2006

I'm with jamjam and teleskiving, it is all about the connections.

It is also about human factors. For example, you could try untangling audiophile talk to figure out where and how our understanding of the ear differs from typical measures of signal quality. I remember reading an obscure paper that proposed a new human-centred measure similar to THD which gave extra weight to certain harmonics. The author claimed that the new measure shed light on the tube vs transistor debate (the current wikipedia article dismisses this possibility, but you are looking for something new :P).

Newness in general is a really hard concept to pin down. Presumably scientific professionals survey the literature to establish the novelty of the ideas they are working on, but in practice..

Every field has a standard library of literature, and that stuff is referenced often, but anything non-standard is ignored unless someone very close to you is the author (people reference their own papers all the time, and their supervisors, stuff like that). I get the impression that new citations to previously uncited old papers are exceedingly rare. Of course there are plenty of old timers ready to tell you how every aspect of your new discovery is just a retread from 40 years ago too..

I think there is more 'low-hanging fruit' than ever before-- didn't some guy just recently discover a couple of very big impact craters previously unknown to science just by messing around with Google maps?

In many important ways this is very true. Reference material and computational power are basically free, and manufacturing one-off prototypes is becoming relatively affordable (consider cheap custom printed circuit boards, cheap custom stereo lithography and CNC machining).
posted by Chuckles at 5:22 PM on July 3, 2006

"I hate to rain on your parade..." = Don't try because we have got most of it figured out already, we'll let you know when we find something new.

Hasn't this been the reigning view throughout the history of science? Hasn't it always been wrong?

Look, the question wasn't about cheering someone on in their efforts, it was about the viability of actually discovering something doing amateur science. If I think that's unlikely, I'm gonna say so.

I think a big confusion here is that I'm talking about a pretty narrow definition of what science is, and what discovering some new fact or truth in the context of science entails. This is systematized and formal, involves peer review, controls, replicability of results, publishing in reputable journals, waiting for consensus to slowly develop, etc. It's a process, and you have to participate in it for your work to be recognized as adding to scientific knowledge.

Finding an impact crater with google maps satellite(for example) is something cool(I'd personally be very chuffed if I had done it), and does add productively to human knowledge, but I don't think it's exactly science in the same way as what I'm talking about.

If -harlequin- wants to do something like that, it might be possible with hard work and luck. But, if (s)he wants to make a new discovery in a hard science like physics, chemistry, biology, etc as an amateur outside of the university / corporate / government system, I'm saying it's highly unlikely that a) it will happen, and b) even if it happened, that (s)he could get a hearing within the field and get the review and feedback required to create the sort of consensus that adds a new bit of knowledge to the canon of known scientific facts.
posted by jdunn_entropy at 5:23 PM on July 3, 2006

Are there ponds in your area? Do some grow unsightly algae blooms? You could catalogue the different zooplankton species and correlate them with algal growth. Transplant the appropriate species and viola - no more algae. Sell it as a service. I did something similar for my undergrad ecology project.

I think this is a brilliant idea. There are stormwater ponds all around where I live. I doubt that they are all totally played out, scientifically, in terms of things that could be learned about the flora, fauna and localized environmental pressures.
posted by frogan at 5:36 PM on July 3, 2006

Develop an herbicide or a way to control Kudzu. That would be the discovery of the century!
posted by LoriFLA at 5:51 PM on July 3, 2006

Go donate some spit to one of the genetic genealogy companies, like FamilyTreeDNA.com. And by "donate" I mean, go buy the 37-marker y-chromosome test and the mtDNAPlus test, for about $300. This will end up testing your father's father's...father's line and your mother's mother's...mother's line, and reporting on their respective y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA haplogroups. (If you want to donate somewhere totally for free, there's the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, but for a variety of reasons, especially ones regarding open access to the dataset you're helping build, you're not helping humanity quite as much as you're helping one foundation.)

This is helpful to humanity, because you'll be helping both amateur genealogists and bigwig scientists have a larger dataset with which to map ancient human migration patterns. Right now, only about 100,000 people have tested with some of the commercial companies, and those datasets are heavily skewed towards their British-American, German-American, and Ashkenazic-Jewish-American customers, i.e. people with both a strong interest in genealogy and the money to pay for these new-fangled tests. We need more people testing from alternate and minority and isolated ethnic groups, something the National Geographic Genographic Project is trying to work on, by visiting remote human tribes and asking for samples.

If you search the FTDNA surname or place name projects, you can join some of them and get a discount on your test kit. You'll be adding to the knowledge of all possible descendant lines of the Smith family, or all lines of people with maternal ancestors in Scandinavia, or whatever. So on a more personal level, you might help some other genealogist out there break through a "brick wall" and figure out more about their family.

To be honest, if you have paternal British Isles ancestry, you'll probably be in y-chromosome haplogroup R1b, which is common as dirt and really not that useful. But if you have ancestry from somewhere else (especially non-European origins) or if you end up in one of the less well-represented haplogroups, your little datapoint of knowledge might help other people in that group a lot.

By the way, this is a great question, and thanks for asking it!
posted by Asparagirl at 6:11 PM on July 3, 2006

The big problem you're likely to run into is that when faced with the narrowness of an actual scientific inquiry, or even a semi-scientific soft science, you'll find it dull.


You can look at the composition of state legislative committees. There are several competing theories that make differing predictions about the representativeness of legislative committees. Something that you can do at zero cost, assuming you already have a PC:

(1) Get lots of interest group scores for state legislators from Project Vote Smart.
(2) Combine with committee assignment information so you know who's on what committee. This information is probably most conveniently available from the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
(3) Look to see if agriculture committees are full of people beloved by ag interest groups, if education committees are full of people beloved by NEA/AFT chapters, if labor committees are full of people beloved by the AFL/CIO. This is easily done by simulation using a simple program for R or S.

You can do this now. It won't cost you anything except time. If you do some background reading (less than 500 pages) and wrap a paper around it, you even stand a nontrivial chance of getting it published. But most people reasonably enough just won't give a damn about it, and in the end it would be of interest to maybe 150-500 people in the world.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:31 PM on July 3, 2006

Eugene Shoemaker would have described himself as just a curious guy. His field was originally geology, but he kept looking up at night, maybe when he should have been looking down. He pretty much invented the field of astrogeology. Oh, and with his wife Carolyn, and David Levy, he was a co-discoverer of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, perhaps the most visually stunning and scientifically fascinating astronomical phenomenon of the 20th century.

I've participated in lobster population studies for the State of Maine, and done field work for IEEE studies looking to revise insulation recommendations for electrical equipment and appliance manufacturers in light of lightning strike frequency and intensity, as measured over large areas of the lightning prone Southeastern U.S. My task for a year was to drive a 20 mile section of a couple of country roads in Tennessee each week, stopping to change out single edged razor blades kept in the spark gap holders at the base of telephone and power poles adjacent to the road. The razor blades became flash marked and magnetized if the pole they were attached to was struck by lightning in the week they were out, so by building up "decks" of these razor blades over a year, we were able to make excellent quantitative estimates of lightning strike frequency, that hadn't been made before, over a large geographical area.

As a result, electrical motor and equipment manufacturers could better design insulation for electric motors to resist burnout and damage, while not sacrificing any more energy efficiency to insulation than necessary. Consumers got better products, with lower energy costs than would otherwise have been available to them.

Pick a field that interests you, approach a research or professional organization, hook up with active projects to see if you like the work, and can stick to it. You can make valuable contributions, if you have a little time and gumption.
posted by paulsc at 8:31 PM on July 3, 2006

I don't know the state of the field all that well, but if language is your thing, I wouldn't be surprised if there are observations in linguistics that you could undertake, especially if you live in an area with interesting dialects or immigrant populations.

If you're going for low hanging fruit, observational sciences are probably going to be the way to go. That said, if you can program well you have a lot going for you. Complex systems is all about making up relatively simple models of how things behave and seeing what happens when a lot of them are let to interact with one another. It's an emmerging field / tool box where a computer, programming and math abilities, and a bit of cleverness can unlock surprising phenomena. Another thing to do is novel quantitative analysis of some political and social data. One of my professors, for instance, did a clustering analysis of senators and found that you needed only two parameters, one for conservativeness and the other for how strongly they tow the party line, to predict with very good accuracy how someone will vote. Not too surprising, but interesting that it does work so well. A good pop sci book on this subject is "Critical Mass" by Philip Ball.

If you are interested in quantitative fields, look around www.arxiv.org. It's a totally open access preprint server for physics, math, and some theoretical biology where most papers in physics wind up before getting published. You'll find lots of research, much of which I find rather unintelligible to the non-specialist, let alone the non-physicist, but with a solid kernel of papers from which a dedicated layman could learn a lot.

Oh, and another thing, a lot of biology labs that do field collection are strapped for cash and can't do near the amount of sampling they would like. I can definitely imagine some being willing and gracious to take local passionate volunteers, if that were something you could get interested in. Professors are used to being asked for research positions out of the blue, although usually by undergraduates. It can't hurt to try.

Good luck! I hope you find something that sparks your imagination.
posted by Schismatic at 8:51 PM on July 3, 2006

I recently read somewhere (and it was not in "A Short History.." mentioned above, because I still need to read that) that the only fields where amateur scientists can feasibly contribute are in the discovery of new species.

A lot of the medical areas require ridiculously expensive equipment and chemicals, and even if you'd find something using your own low scale experiments, it wouldn't be recognized by the scientific community. Unless you'd find a lab that would do further work on it and credit you, there's not much you can do there.
Except for the protein folding project, which needs a lot of computer strength, and individuals are asked to donate some of their computer power. You're not really doing any research yourself, but you're contributing in a way.

Physics is currently either in very tiny small scale for which you can't afford the equipment, or in the field of astronomy (star gazing, mentioned above, could be a field you can contribute to.)
posted by easternblot at 9:07 PM on July 3, 2006

One possibility is paleontology. Find an expended quarry near where you live, grab a rock hammer and collect fossils. Catalog them. Occaisionally, you'll find a new one.

Echoing what frogan said above about Bryson's book, I actually met an amateur fossil hunter who may very well be the worlds leading expert in fossilized pollen. He teaching a foreign language during the day, and at night holes up in a lab looking at the fossils he has gathered in an electron microscope.

Call a local museum or university and volunteer your services. If you're serious (dedicated), whoever you latch on with will likely be grateful for the free help.

Finally, realize that "I'm not looking to make some epic discovery. Just work out or confirm some obscure thing that previously wasn't known" is EXACTLY what scientists try to do. Figuring out one minor detail successfully is way better than always trying for the miracle break-through of the century and failing. Even if you don't know why your small discovery is important, it helps the pursuit of science. Keep this humble goal in mind and you'll have a blast doing the work!
posted by achmorrison at 9:34 PM on July 3, 2006

There are surely myriad discoveries to be mined from the reams of data produced by the various genome sequencing projects. If you have a decent knowledge of genetics and access to a university library (for journal articles), you could potentially discover new genes, or ways that genes are regulated, or a ton of other things. Entrez is your friend.
posted by greatgefilte at 9:49 PM on July 3, 2006

1. Harness the power of kudzu. I understand it grows from a huge tuber and dies back to the ground every winter. So develop an edible kudzu tuber, or perhaps one that can be processed for fuel or alcohol.
2. Wikipedia has a list of lists of unsolved problems in various subjects. Many of these are in subjects like mathematics and linguistics: they don't require high budgets, they require a little background and a lot creative thought.

Sounds like fun.
posted by RussHy at 10:44 PM on July 3, 2006

On a similar note to greatgefilte, I would think your best bet is to dabble in a field where the amount of data available far, far outweighs our resources to analyse it - genomics is a good example. Download a bunch of complete genome sequences, learn Perl, start looking for interesting patterns. Find something that's very different between genomes, then try to explain it. (The first step just requires a computer and time to write code; the second may be more involved and require help). The nice thing about this approach (bioinformatics, as it's generally known) is that it's trivially easy for a professional scientist to verify your results by running your code on the dataset.
posted by primer_dimer at 2:20 AM on July 4, 2006

You might also want to try and look into some field that have been considered "controversial" and hence ignored by academics and funding.

For example:
- Gyroscopes and their bizarre behaviours
- Alleged ESP between human beings
- Alleged successes of Homeopathy

I'd also recommend you take a look atthis page on homebrew biotech which might be a stating point for some real research
posted by cgfoz at 6:27 AM on July 4, 2006

I'm a grad student in Psychology. You have a computer, you've got everything you need to do most experiments in visual cognition, my field. Basically, the experiments I program amount to nothing more than very dull computer games. Measuring each participant's accuracy or reaction time helps me answer science questions.
posted by Eamon at 9:02 AM on July 4, 2006

This is an interesting question.
posted by ifranzen at 7:42 PM on July 4, 2006

As a practicing biophysicist I can tell you one thing that might be pretty good to work on: unculturable microorganisms. Lately we have realized that we are only able to grow about 0.1% of the microorganisms in our immediate environment. Lots of these are probably important in many disease processes and have symbiotic relationships with various plants or animals, only we don't (can't) know this, because we cant grow and study them. This has seemed to me to be a great science fair project - try to find some ways to grow them. You should be able to pull it off cheaply - buy a good microscope and some glass slides and then start trying to grow stuff using random mutrient mixes - pureed chicken breast, ground up chalk, whataever - in bleach sterilized glass bottles. Get a good picture laden graduate microbiology textbook from the library and then start identifying everything you see. When you think you have a new one get it identified as such by one of the agricultural labs that does DNA testing for farmers (ARS Fruit Laboratory in MD for example.)
posted by overhauser at 8:30 PM on July 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

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