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Monday, October 28, 2013

Book Review: "Bunch of Amateurs" by Jack Hitt

The title held a lot of promise, but the subtitle ("A Search for the American Character") hinted at the main problem that I had with the book:  the author (perhaps driven by his editor) seemed to be struggling to prove that there is some uniquely American elements to amateur science and technology.  Early on, Mr. Hitt, makes the preposterous claim that "the rest of the world doesn't have amateurs."  He goes on to write that "In Europe and on other continents, the word hints at class warfare... Amateurs may be taken seriously, but, almost by the power of the word, are kept in their place: isolated outside some pre-existing professional class, some long-standing nobility.  In America, amateurs don't stay in their place or keep to themselves."   

What a load of rubbish!  This claim directly contradicts what many of us have been finding out in the quintessentially amateur world of amateur radio:  as we travel around the world (in person, or via the ionosphere) we find, all around the globe,  guys who have followed shockingly similar paths to ham radio.  From Sudan to Switzerland, from India to Indiana, the story is much the same.  And I'll bet you'll find similar similarities in just about every serious sci-tech hobby (astronomy, photography, etc.).  To claim that there is something fundamentally exceptional about amateurism in the U.S. is, I think, ridiculous.  Mr. Hitt should have spent some time looking at the amazingly diverse and vibrant world of British amateur science and technology.  That alone would have prevented him from straying into these silly claims of American amateur exceptionalism. 

But, all that aside, there is a lot of interesting material in the book.  I liked his description of John Dobson and the amateur telescope builders.  And, somewhat surprisingly, Hitt's description of the DIY Biology movement (these guys are playing with genetics and cooking up new organisms) seemed to capture very well the creative joy and satisfaction that amateurs find when working (just for fun) on their projects.  I was kind of surprised when I found myself identifying with the DIY Biology folks. Their basement labs sounded a lot like our radio shacks.   

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