Amateurs

In February of 1938, Alfred H. Wertheim presented a paper to the New York Academy of Sciences and Affiliated Societies. The “subject” (not title) reads as follows:

 What may be proved from our present knowledge as to the possibility or impossibility of released intra-atomic energy constituting an important source of solar and stellar energy.

Mr. Wertheim’s certificate of membership is dated May 2, 1938, so this paper may be what earned him membership in one of the oldest learned societies in the United States.

For years, I saw Mr. Wertheim’s certificate every day, as it hung on the wall of the dining room in the house where I grew up. Alfred was my maternal grandfather. I never met him, as he died when my mother was a teenager. She adored her father, but did not speak in much detail about him–the memory of his untimely death in his early 50s was, understandably, painful for her. As a result, I don’t know a great deal about my grandfather.

One important thing I do know, however, is this: Alfred Wertheim was not a scientist. At least not by profession: he was a violinist, and he also ran a textile business. But by today’s standards, even by the standards of the 1930s, he was an amateur.

I don’t know if Alfred went to college or earned a degree–or, if he did, what his field of study might have been. But I am sitting here with a draft copy of his 1938 paper on solar energy, and looking at a carefully researched, closely argued essay of a quality I would expect in a master’s level seminar. Not from an amateur.

We need to remove the negative connotations from the word amateur, and welcome more of them into our institutions. Setting aside the natural pride I feel knowing one of my ancestors produced a work of this quality, as an amateur, we need more people who are not the “professionals” making significant contributions to things like our religious institutions, communities, political endeavors. We need to take into account the insights of people with curious minds and meticulous thought processes. We need to respect the intellectual power people have when they apply their abilities to big questions and projects, and stop dismissing them because they are just “amateurs”.

We need, in short, to revive my grandfather.

I’m not arguing we need people who don’t know what  they are talking about being taken as seriously as people who do. I’m not saying (as a recent Facebook meme suggests) a Google search is equivalent to an earned doctorate.

But I think we need to foster the kind of careful thinking about sophisticated ideas by people who may not be getting paid for it. We need to educate people not so much for discreet technical skills, but for the ability to evaluate varying sources of information, compare their quality, and articulate the reasons for accepting or rejecting them on their merits.

The kind of amateurism in Alfred Wertheim’s 1938 paper on solar energy is not the kind of amateurism of a world where Twitter and the 24 hour news cycle reigns supreme. But it is so necessary as an antidote to the world of the sound byte and Facebook meme. My grandfather’s amateurism is what comes from a world where a man or woman with a  wide-ranging mind is encouraged to put serious energy into exploring important ideas, and subjecting the conclusions to the scrutiny of people who know more than he does. It is intellectual courage in a high form.

I wish I had had the chance to know my grandfather. Because I think we need more of what he demonstrated in this paper.

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