Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

People—especially smart people—often fall prone to the conceit that, if they just had the time, they could totally write a novel, perform standup comedy or run for local office. After all, these jobs require only innately human skills like being able to tell a story, tell a joke or relate well to strangers. Curious, then, that some of these same people—smart people—tend to view science in the exact opposite way. Scientists to them seem to exist in a world far removed from everyday life, so much so that even heartfelt efforts to bridge the divide between university campuses and the broader world just leave people on both sides feeling ­alienated.

It was not always this way, and, in fact, it is not this way now. Science existed before universities; and tinkerers, inventors and private hobbyists have been responsible for many major discoveries over the centuries. British biologist Thomas Henry Huxley famously made the case that we are all scientists in his 1863 essay “We Are All Scientists.” Humans are built, he says, for inductive and deductive reasoning, for observation, for hypothesizing about the world, and for making observations and seeking knowledge to test those hypotheses. In this deep, substantial way, we deploy the tools and methods of scientists every day as we go about our business. It is a seductive idea, made more appealing and powerful by intellectual titans such as cosmologist Albert Einstein and inventor Thomas Edison, who did some of their most innovative work outside of the university system.

These days, an interconnected group of movements, including maker culture, hacker culture and citizen science, is attempting to loosen academia’s grip on scientific endeavour, promoting the Huxley-esque idea that we are all innovators, researchers and creators of knowledge. “Today, it’s easier than ever before for anyone to organize an exploration, measure what they find, and share their discoveries with a global community,” writes Kate Wing in her “Citizen Science Manifesto.” Wing, a resident at the citizen science-driven organization Manylabs, echoes Huxley in her interpretation of the movement. “It’s about tapping into your own inner scientist, the curious part of you that wants to dig into questions bigger than one person can solve on their own.”

In its modern form, citizen science manifests in crowdsourced projects to monitor at-risk animal populations and help discover new species. Citizen scientists play computer games that help train artificial intelligence networks. They observe weather patterns and document indicators of climate change. They help map the surface of other planets, and join the search for extraterrestrial life. The movement works to complement rather than compete with traditional academic research.

Academia, though, is not always willing to throw open its ivy-covered doors to welcome the non–peer-reviewed hordes. Two new books paint portraits of unwilling citizen scientists—people who strove to become professional academics, were denied and devoted their lives to research anyway. Biologist Anne Innis Dagg’s memoir, Smitten by Giraffe: My Life as a Citizen Scientist, and historian Ian Dyck’s biography of a natural-born archeologist, The Life and Work of W.B. Nickerson (1865–1926): Scientific Archaeology in Central North America, both tell stories about dedicated scientists who find themselves blithely marginalized and excluded from professional circles.

Dagg and Nickerson, although they had little else in common, share some singular similarities. Both discovered their intellectual passion early on. Neither seems to have ever considered the possibility of shifting focus, even when it became apparent that traditional avenues for progress would not be available to them.

In 1966, Dagg, who is the daughter of famed political economy professor Harold Adams Innis and historian Mary Quayle Innis, received her PhD in biology from the University of Waterloo. She published papers in respected journals, had a solid network of academic contacts and colleagues—including her husband, Ian Dagg, a respected Waterloo physics professor. Still, she had no hope of landing a tenure-track position. She recalls Waterloo’s dean of science telling her “he did not hire women, no matter how talented; their place was in the family, raising children.”

Although addressing sexism at universities would later become a major cause for Dagg, all her energy at the time went into finding ways to pursue the research that had first led her to do a PhD. As the title of her memoir implies, Dagg had been infatuated with giraffes since she was a toddler, and had self-financed a trip to Africa to see them up close. Dagg recounts with unselfconscious relish every single detail of her observations.

Each day … I wrote down the temperature, how far the group I had been watching the evening before had moved during the night, and everything each giraffe in my vision was doing every five minutes. This included chewing their cud, lying down, pacing about, or standing looking thoughtful.

Her research for her doctoral thesis on the comparison of gaits of large mammals produced “interesting results,” she recalls, published in two papers, “one on slow gaits and one on fast.”

Dagg’s childhood love affair with the giraffe never diminished. In passage after passage of her book, she recounts odd facts, esoterica and minutiae—giraffes never trot; when walking, they shift their weight from two left to two right legs (smaller ungulates support themselves with diagonally opposed legs); they cannot swim. Her exhaustively detailed descriptions cover everything anyone would ever want to know about the world’s tallest animals. They also paint a self-portrait of Dagg, whose personality type is rare in the general population, but common among university scientists: she fixates on learning everything knowable about one narrow subject. Even more telling, she exhibits an overt lack of self-awareness in how she expresses her passion. She treats every new detail, experience and fact as thought it were of equal and major importance.

One especially memorable day … I noticed a group of seven giraffe coming from the opposite direction, heading slowly toward me as they browsed. When they were about thirty yards away, one, noticing me, stopped to stare. She didn’t snort to alert the others but instead gazed intently at this intruder. Gradually, the others noticed her posture and then my presence. They remained tense and immobile for perhaps five minutes, then drifted off.

Dagg is awestruck precisely as much by this snortless, action-free communication as she is by a sparring match between two males or a mother giraffe suckling her calf. “I wrote up this event along with every other one in my notebooks,” she writes.

Dagg continues to teach university courses, but is denied the full professorship that would allow her to pursue her research agenda as a career. In 1978, she takes a position at Waterloo’s independent studies program, which allows her to guide students on their research projects. With very little in the way of funding or other support, she continues to study mammalian movements, then expands that work to compare how animals swim. She uses her own and other people’s film footage, and studies animals closer to home—returning to Africa is out of the question at this time. She publishes. Applies for positions. Is rejected. She analyses the walking gaits of birds. She graphs the hourly activity of squirrels collecting chestnuts, correlating it with daily temperature, sunshine and rain.

Her primary idée fixe remains the giraffe: “Using the limited literature on giraffe, I had noted that male skulls were thought to be heavier than female skulls. To test this out, I visited several museums … weighed the giraffe skulls in their collections, and found that it was indeed the case.”

What is the value in rigorously testing an arguably banal fact that most people believed to be true, only to determine that it is, in fact, true? Why publish a paper on the subject? Why then publish a layperson’s version of the study in your memoir? If you find yourself asking these questions, you are not a scientist. Not in the way Dagg is. Dagg’s tenacity is both sympathetic and admirable, marvellous and genuinely strange. She rises to become a world-renowned expert on the giraffe, writing books and giving lectures around the globe. And when she looks back on her career, she now focuses less on having been denied a professorship, and more on how lucky she was to spend a life doing science anyway.

Throughout my lifetime I have been able to pursue scientific problems that interested me and that seemed important. It has been a privilege and joy for me as a citizen scientist to have shed light on a variety of subjects that had never before been studied or understood.

William Nickerson’s circumstances had little in common with Dagg’s, other than the fact that he too found himself an academic outsider. Born in 1865 in New England, Nickerson came of age when there were 29 people in North America earning their living as archeologists. Nickerson spent his life trying—and failing—to become the 30th. He never managed to secure a permanent position at a museum or university. And yet, his body of research—eked out during whatever time he could steal away from paying jobs in the railroad industry—became posthumously influential in the development of institutional archaeology on this continent.

Dyck’s biography of Nickerson tells the story of a man who, for unknowable reasons, only ever wanted to devote his life to digging for artifacts and reconstructing history. By the age of 18, he had mastered technical drawing and topography. He knew how to recognize potentially fruitful dig sites, and to situate found artifacts in historical and cultural contexts. And he was already writing reports and sharing his discoveries with a broader research community.

In 1885, he worked as a volunteer student assistant for Frederic W. Putnam, the curator of Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of American Archaeology and Ethnology. Putnam was a titan of 19th-century North American archeology. For 26 years, he served as a mentor to Nickerson, offering him regular encouragement and practical advice, occasional meager sums of money to carry out short-term digs, and rare job references and recommendations that consistently led nowhere.

Dyck, an archeologist and former curator of the Saskatchewan Museum of Natural History, recounts in exhaustive and sometimes exhausting detail Nickerson’s lifelong tug of war between the many railroad jobs that paid his bills and his cobbled-together shoestring operations to excavate pre-European burial mounds and villages. Nickerson continually reached out to Putnam, asking advice, proposing projects, seeking funding. Putnam made encouraging but insubstantial noises for years on end. It never seems to have occurred to Nickerson that Putnam might be merely humouring him. He never considered resigning himself to just stick to his day job. Then, in 1899, Putnam finally came through with a cheque for $75 to fund a few months’ archeological work.

Even when Putnam finally found a way to support Nickerson’s work with actual dollars, his words of encouragement highlighted the divide between the two men. “I think it advisable for you to spend a few dollars on a tent,” Putnam wrote. “I have a lot of tents, but they are in different parts of the country, and it would cost more for me to get one to you than for you to buy one at your place. Then you could keep it for use from time to time as you have occasion.”

Nickerson seems neither discouraged nor resentful in the face of Putnam’s lopsidedly superior resources. All of his proposals—to Putnam, and later to other funders, including the Geological Survey of Canada Museum, which later became the National Museum of Canada—have budgets based on the rock-bottom minimum required to do the work. As long as he could afford to take unpaid leave from—or quit—his current job, he was good to go.

“Archaeology had become his obsession,” Dyck writes. “He accepted unstable jobs in remote places that sometimes separated him from his family and sometimes left them short of funds. All the while, he was sending the results of his archaeology—a steady stream of letters, reports, maps, artifacts, human remains, and other materials—to Putnam at the Peabody Museum.”

Over decades, Nickerson continued to cobble together time and money to excavate in New England, the American Midwest and, starting in 1912, the Canadian Prairies. Even at this late stage in his career, Nickerson was still delayed and hampered waiting for his employer to find someone to take over his job on the railroad for a few weeks so that he could get away.

Still, he was starting to get contracts measured in the hundreds of dollars rather than tens. Nickerson might actually have forged a path into the world professional archaeology, were it not for the social and economic upheaval wrought by the First World War. Archeology funding dried up and, between 1917 and his death in 1926, Nickerson’s unrelenting efforts to build on his painfully slow ascent yielded only disappointment.

Nickerson’s contributions to the field had more to do with his methods than his actual discoveries. He produced beautiful topological drawings and refined meticulous, grid-based excavation methods that are now the standard for modern archeology.

These two books problematize the democratization of science. While Huxley might be correct that human beings have the capacity to do the kinds of things Dagg and Nickerson did, most of us do not have the single-minded interest and almost irrational persistence to do so. And yet, these stories also serve as a reminder that academia should not have sole proprietorship over doing real science. Whether it involves sending one’s occasional birdwatching notes off to the Audubon Society, or devoting every spare nickel and moment to pursuing the one esoteric question that fascinates you, citizen science plays a key role in pushing back the frontiers of human knowledge.

It is not always easy to grok the deep motivations of citizen scientists such as Dagg and Nickerson. Both become much more intuitive, empathetic characters when they turn their doggedness to activist causes—Dagg to environmentalism and feminism, Nickerson to socialism. (Nickerson’s socialist values emerged from his work on the railroads, where he felt ill treated and disempowered. His first declared his commitment to the cause in letters to his father and brother, who castigated him for it. He went on to write many essays for the Chicago Daily socialist newspaper.) But the drive to do science—to really do science, to let your curiosity subsume every other motivation and concern, to ignore all the signs practically screaming at you to do something else with your life—is something strange and rare. These two books celebrate that spirit, as well the glorious minutiae in which it finds sustenance.