Meet some amateur scientists who made a mark on history.

Anna Atkins

Anna Atkin

Capturing the scientific process in photographs started with Anna Atkins. She was a 19th century English botanist who laid the groundwork for scientific books illustrated with photography. She created cyanotypes, images made by placing objects directly onto light-sensitive paper. Using this method, Atkins captured the plants and algae she was studying in the form of beautiful silhouettes that provided a detailed and accurate representation of their form. Some consider her Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions the first example of a book that uses photographs as illustrations.

William and Caroline Herschel

Sir William Herschel and Caroline Herschel. Colored lithograph by A. Diethe. Credit: Wellcome Collection

The first planet found with the aid of a telescope, Uranus was discovered in 1781 by astronomer Frederick Wilhelm "William" Herschel, although he thought it was either a comet or a star at first. Herschel tried unsuccessfully to name his discovery Georgium Sidus after King George III. Instead the planet was named for Uranus, the Greek god of the sky. Uranus was the first “new” planet, the others all being known since ancient times. Herschel, who was a musician by training, became a celebrity and King George appointed him Court Astronomer. Herschel constructed his own telescopes, sometimes even making his own lenses, which he used to study Mars, double stars, star clusters and other deep sky objects, and to discover two moons of Saturn. His companion in most of his work was his sister Caroline, who cataloged observations, polished telescope mirrors, and organized his notes. Eventually she made astronomical discoveries of her own, especially comets, finding at least eight, along with nebulae. She also made an independent discovery of M110, a companion of the Andromeda galaxy, and became the first woman to be awarded a Gold Medal by the British Royal Astronomical Society. In modern times, the Herschel name was affixed to a space telescope mission from the European Space Agency with significant participation by NASA. Herschel was the largest observatory ever launched that explored the universe in infrared wavelengths.

Thomas Bopp

Thomas Bopp
(Photo by Ron Baalke)

When it stretched across the night skies of 1996 in spectacular fashion, Hale-Bopp became one of the century’s most celebrated comets. Two star gazers, completely unknown to each other, discovered the object in different locations at almost the same moment. One of them was a professional astronomer and experienced comet hunter, Alan Hale. The other was an amateur using a borrowed telescope. Thomas J. Bopp, a parts manager by profession, was out in the Arizona desert with a group of astronomy enthusiasts.

Looking through a friend’s scope at the globular cluster M70, Bopp noticed an uncharted fuzzy patch to one side. Both he and Hale contacted the International Astronomical Union's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with the unknown object’s coordinates. Hale’s message was the first to arrive, and after subsequent observations and confirmation of its nature, the comet was eventually officially designated C/1995 O1 (Hale–Bopp). Bopp’s fame exploded in the months that followed, and he eventually left his job and devoted the remainder of his full-time career to speaking, TV appearances and other forms of outreach, sharing his love for astronomy with the public.

Mary Anning

Mary Anning

It’s not hard to see why plesiosaurs, long-necked leviathans of the ancient seas, are one of the most popular fossils. The first plesiosaur specimen was a discovery of Mary Anning, a leading fossil hunter in the fledgling field of paleontology in the early 19th century. Without wealth or extensive education, Mary and her family were nonetheless at the forefront of fossil finding in the seaside cliffs at Lyme Regis, England. In addition to plesiosaurs, she found important fossils of ichthyosaurs and many other species. Anning not only collected the fossilized skeletons of ancient sea creatures, but was well-versed in the science of the time, winning the respect of experts. Despite the fact that her finds were often displayed in museums without credit to her, Anning’s discoveries have proven to be key links in reconstructing the history of life on Earth.

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