We live in an age of science, therefore of accuracy and an opposition to amateurishness. While commendable in many ways, this attitude has an unfortunate tendency to kill enthusiasm – for if success in an area is connected to the precise mastery of an unholy amount of detail, we may be frightened away without having our curiosity properly engaged.
Take attitudes to natural science. I was a keen amateur scientist until I was 12, when I gave up for fear that too much had already been catalogued and known. It seemed as if it would be 20 years before I would encounter a real mystery again. Like thousands of others, I saw my spontaneous interest in science and the natural world killed by a secondary education that unwittingly suggested that everything was already known and categorised.
To remember what popular science could and should be, it’s instructive to consider the case of England’s greatest amateur scientist, Gilbert White. White published his extraordinary (but too little read) book, The Natural History of Selborne, in 1789, setting out his observations of the animals, birds and insects of his native Hampshire village: squirrels rustling in bushes, spiders levering themselves across cobwebs, slugs pulling themselves across dew-coated lawns and insects dancing above ponds.
Like many of his contemporaries, White believed that God had, on the fifth day of creation, quite literally brought into life all the animals on earth; he had put the stripes on the tiger and the antlers on the deer. The animal kingdom bore testimony to the benevolence, greatness and, at times, the sense of humour of God. The belief may have been nonsense, but the attitude that it inspired in White was perhaps less so, for it led him to express sentiments of uninhibited wonder about animals which we have in subsequent ages grown shy of expressing.