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I'd like to see a tad less credulity in tales like this. Certainly, innovations in engineering are quite workable by an amateur enthusiast, particularly in niche areas with significant commercial interest like medical isotope manufacturing.

But hard fusion is an area that's been looked at for decades by literally thousands of top physicists around the world, and there's little low-hanging fruit left for a tabletop inventor to come across. Multi-billion dollar efforts like the National Ignition Facility involving hundreds or thousands of scientists are where the action's at today, and they've brought together solid plans for pursuing economically sustainable fusion.

An outsider may indeed bring new ideas that have value in niche areas, simply because that's not where the majority of scientific attention is being focused -- but it's unlikely to be a replacement for the core effort of an entire movement, as the article suggests.

Sadly, while reading it my inner (outer?) cynic thought, "another phenom I'll be reading about on the 30-years-from-now version of cracked.com, about "Young Phenoms Who Became Merely Very Good".

And after seeing all of the African urine generator stories that didn't have even the slightest amount of scientific rigor to them, that didn't help.

But that said, one could argue that if thousands of people with traditional backgrounds all attacked the same problem and couldn't crack it, if it's ever going to be cracked it might require someone who comes from a completely different system.

Overall amateurs spend a lot of time and money and contribute next to nothing to scientific progress. Astronomy is known for the contributions from armatures, but if you actually look at all known objects in space they have contributed a ridiculously small fraction of them and have been limited to rather bright objects.

I fear the media focuses so much on the armatures contributions that most people have a rather distorted view of the value of large and well funded projects like ITER.

Amateur astronomers may only contribute a little on an individual basis (it is not their primary job, after all), but collectively, they contribute massively in some sub-disciplines. Two fairly prominent examples:



As a side note, astronomy is not simply about discovering objects. Furthermore, many amateurs have access to pretty impressive hardware; they are not as limited as you might think.

Outsider ≠ amateur.

Actually, I'd love to know of any cases where an outsider with a nontraditional background like this was able to solve a famous unsolved problem that had withstood significant academic and economic scrutiny. Is this a collective myth, or does it ever actually happen?

The only example that comes to mind was Ramanujan, who made many new contributions in number theory, but it's not quite the same thing -- though his genius was unparalleled, he was also working on domains that were at the time not as widely studied as nuclear fusion is today.

Galois, Fermat, Tartaglia...

Setting aside the question of whether these mathematicians were outsiders, they were certainly not working on problems as well-studied as nuclear fusion is today.

Check out http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cubic_equation#History

Cubic equations were researched by mathematicians for thousands of years before Tartaglia solved the general case! (btw the solution for Quadratic equations was well known since at least 2000 BC)

And he also made up the complex numbers on the way!

Wrt whether he was an outsider, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Niccol%C3%B2_Fontana_Tartaglia

> There is a story that Tartaglia learned only half the alphabet from a private tutor before funds ran out, and he had to learn the rest for himself. Be that as it may, he was essentially self-taught. He and his contemporaries, working outside the academies, were responsible for the spread of classic works in modern languages among the educated middle class.

After Tartaglia's solution for Cubic equations and Ferrari's solution for Quartic equations were published in 1545, no doubt that finding a solution for 5th degree polynomials became a hot topic. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quintic_function

> Finding the roots of a given polynomial has been a prominent mathematical problem.

But even though it was a hot topic, it took 300 years until Galois came around with a method to determine which Quintic equations can and which cannot be factored to "radicals".

Eli Whitney's cotton gin.

Einstein, of course.

The cotton gin?!

Einstein: physics-trained, in Switzerland, married a physics classmate, learned electromagnetism from his father and uncle who were in the power generation business, taught physics, worked in the patent office, certainly a good place to be exposed to the froth of new ideas. Read the Isaacson biography.

The cotton gin was a simple device that solved a long-standing problem that nobody else thought of. It came out of nowhere.

Einstein, in 1905's "miracle year", was pretty much outside of the physics establishment (why he worked in the patent office).

He was soaked in advanced calculus from puberty. Not quite the same as skipping college.

He gave a ted talk and it seems credible.


the main thing that lacks credibility is the title... i read that he did attend college classes as a child. also, the fusion experiment is also currently housed at a university.

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