How to Become a World's Leading Authority
Entry for 2016-07-23


How thick is Pennsylvania?

A simple question, yet the answer may elude us for decades. Certainly it will not be discovered by experts in this field of research, because there aren't any.
As The New York Times recently pointed out, some fields of study are simply left by default to amateurs like you and me. The Times cited the case of Lloyd DeMause, a businessman who decided to go back to school and major in psychohistory at Columbia. The university, however, informed DeMause that his chosen field did not exist and that he would have to major in something that did. And so, without benefit of a PhD, DeMause founded his own branch of research, recruited other volunteer scholars, and now publishes the Journal of Psychohistory.

That's one way to become a World's Leading Authority (WLA). Nonscientist Henry David Thoreau was the first to determine the concentration of bubbles on the underside of lake ice. He did it by counting, eighty per square inch; and until Walden was published, he was the only one who knew. Architect Christopher Wren became the first WLA on direct injection of narcotics. He gave opium to his dog, which then fell asleep. Crude experiments, today's scientist might say; but when a professional scientist's experiment is ludicrously simple, it's termed "elegant."

The Amateur Night Sky

Amateur researchers have also left their mark in the studies of history, archaeology, and astronomy. Amy Lowell's brother Percival was a self-taught astronomer who became WLA on the subject of Martian canals. Though it later turned out there aren't any canals on Mars, Lowell's books describing their function—irrigation of crops to feed a dying Martian civilization—finally brought him recognition and a nonresident professorship at MIT.

More recently, the Ikeya-Seki comet was discovered by two uncredentialed Japanese skywatchers, each of whom jumped on his bicycle and raced to the nearest observatory to report the find. Ikeya saw it first, but Seki had a sleek C. Itoh 10-speed and strong calf muscles, so they finished in a tie and received joint credit.

In paleontology, evidence of the Piltdown Man was discovered in England when one amateur found some fake fossil specimens forged and planted by another amateur. And in genetics, a British hobbyist devoted thirty years of patient rodent husbandry to developing a symmetrically spotted mouse. I don't recall his name, but the mouse was named Spotty. There is no law requiring that research be dull and stuffy—or that researchers be brilliant—as Erich von Däniken has demonstrated time after time.

Dilettantes Welcome

The fact that scientists regard von Däniken as a boob should not deter you or me. Scientists think all nonscientists are boobs; in fact, they're not too sure about each other. So why follow their rules? You don't have to pass a test or obtain a license to become a researcher, nor do you need advanced degrees, university affiliation, or NIH grants. All you have to do is select your field of inquiry and start to inquire.

If you're clever in choosing a research project in which there are no competitors, you can be a World's Leading Authority within a week. And when you're ready to publish, you can bypass the quibbling pontifications of technical editors and peer review. Just take your manuscript and nine dollars to Kinko's.

Consider my own ascendancy as WLA on the thickness of states and countries. I wanted to do research in an area where the competition would be nil, so I was careful to choose an extremely narrow specialty—a one-cow field, so to speak. Also, as a matter of personal taste, I preferred the type of inquiry I could pursue on the living room sofa rather than one which would require me to go out and look for things such as rocks and plants and little animals that are too small to see.

It took about six hours to become the WLA. First, I noticed that the thickness of Pennsylvania is not one problem but two. We think of our state in terms of its surfaces, but how high is it? And how deep? If you go six miles straight up, you are no longer in the state, but you are still in the country and subject to FAA regulations. At precisely what height do you leave the country?

Plumbing the Depths

We know that Russia is at least 14 miles high because, at that altitude, our U-2 flights were deemed to violate their air space. But we also know that no country is 100 miles high. No one protests overflights of orbiting satellites at that level, not even Tibet.

That's the top half of the question—the easy half. Next, how deep is our commonwealth? It's at least as deep as an oil or gas well: State agencies assume jurisdiction over those and over deep mining and lake bottoms, too. Should you discover a Spanish galleon in Pymatuning Reservoir, the Department of Environmental Resources will superintend as you haul it out, and the Pennsylvania Fish Commission may insist that you throw it back. But if you were able to go six miles straight down—or sixty—would you still be in Pennsylvania? As drilling techniques improve, can the legislature levy taxes on geothermal energy extracted from the earth's mantle? Could Ohio or, for that matter, Portugal object if our drills cross their boundaries 3,000 miles down?

If the state goes that deep, it must get smaller and smaller as it descends. At the center of the earth, Pennsylvania comes to a point. If you place a 12-inch classroom globe at the exact center of the earth, the little pink picture it shows of Australia is an exact diagram of Australia's mineral rights at that depth, and Pennsylvania's territory is a half-inch wide. There, our bottom border is within inches of a potential confrontation with the tips of Russia and Saudi Arabia.

Higher Loining

Heady stuff. Amateur research is no place for the faint of heart. But if you have the courage to plunge into it, I can suggest several areas that are ripe for conquest.

For example, what exactly is a loin? I always thought of it as the inside thigh. Butchers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture think a loin is something above the hips and below the ribs, in back. Milton, Shakespeare, and the Bible seem to have in mind something lower down, much more personal, and in front. Their kind of loin harbors future kings and issues "issue." A loincloth usually covers the biblical loin but leaves part of the USDA loin exposed; but, historically, soldiers who have girded their loins have tended to cover everything vulnerable. As long as professional linguists and anatomists twiddle their thumbs and ignore this muddle, the ancient paradox of the loin is wide open for an enterprising amateur researcher to move in and become the WLA.

Notice that we are avoiding the overworked fads and clichés of scientific inquiry—fusion, DNA, antimatter, black holes, semiconductors, superconductors, cloning, nutrition, and disease—where researchers are a dime a dozen. The amateur must find fresh fields to plow.

Back Door Frontiers

Raise caterpillars to forecast stock market trends. If you enjoy field research, outfit an expedition (i.e., drive around) to look for lake monsters, banana-shaped UFOs (the other shapes are all taken), passenger pigeons, or pterosaurs. These last two are presumed extinct, but science cannot prove that something is extinct, so the field is open.

If you look carefully, you'll find that some of the deeper mysteries are simply lying about the house, awaiting the right amateur investigator. Why is it that children never close or put away a cereal box unless it's empty? How much cupboard space is wasted per box? Per child? Per million? How many barrels of oil per year are squandered by heating the space inside empty cereal boxes?

One amateur researcher examined two perplexing household questions in tandem: a) Why is it that when I want to open a bottle of beer, all the openers are missing? b) Why are there always so many coat hangers tangled up in the hall closet? His startling conclusion: The lowly "church key" is actually the pupa stage of the coat hanger.

Is he right? If not, he has no professorship to lose, nor have I. We're amateur researchers. With any luck at all, like Percival Lowell, by the time we're proven wrong, we'll be dead.
Pennsylvania Illustrated, (1979)