Amateur – Not a dirty word!

Like me, you were probably greatly saddened by the death of Sir Patrick Moore. He was a tremendous public advocate for science, in particular astronomy, and probably did more to boost astronomy than anyone.

One thing that I noticed was he was often referred to as an ‘amateur astronomer’, meaning he had no formal qualifications in the subject. These days we use ‘amateur’ in quite a negative way, and Sir Patrick is a prime illustration that this shouldn’t be the case.

The word amateur literally means ‘lover of’, from French. It doesn’t mean ‘not very good at’. It doesn’t mean ‘slapdash and haphazard’. It just means that you do something out of love.

While I’m a professional museum worker, and a professional geologist, I’m an amateur naturalist. I don’t say that to be self-deprecating, it’s a fact. It’s not a negative reflection on my knowledge or abilities. I’m not “just an amateur” or “only an amateur”, because that qualifier is not needed.

In my geology career I’ve encountered amateur palaeontologists and mineralogists that can blow me, or most professionals, out of the water. I’ve also met a fair few professionals that are pretty much clueless!

Where natural sciences are concerned, professionalism is a relatively new development, only really dating to the late 19th Century. Great naturalists like Darwin, Huxley, Wallace, Bates, Owen, Buckland, Agassiz, Cuvier, Lyell, Smith, Phillips, Aristotle, Linnaeus, Banks, Hooker, Steno, Anning, all were ‘amateurs’, at least at first (by the way, take a bonus point if you know all those names without looking them up!). That’s a pretty heavyweight list, and makes the point well.

I’m sure, whoever you are, you are an amateur something-or-other. You should take pride in that. So, what are you an amateur of?

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One Response to Amateur – Not a dirty word!

  1. Pingback: So you want to be a birdwatcher… Part 4 A few final thoughts | Why watch wildlife?

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