I was sitting in a coffeeshop the other day, staring at the black screen, wading through some code refactoring for work when someone sitting in front of me dropped a coin. The coin fell and hit the ground, but then it rolled in a straight line straight for my foot. It hit my shoe, stopping in a cute little whirlwind of rotational and gravitational forces. I exchanged a glance with the coin bearer whose eyes had similarly been following the path of the coin. I picked up the penny, returned it to him, and enjoyed a moment of wonder . Why does the coin roll? Richard Feynman is rumored to have preoccupied himself with such everyday questions everyday, if not often. Finding great satisfcation in the understanding why pasta breaks in two places and not one, or in the wobblying of a rotating plate, these musings sometimes led to new and revolutionary ideas in theoretical physics.
So why do coins roll? Once a coin is on its edge rolling along the floor it is basic Newtonian mechanics to understand why it doesn't immediately fall over. Angular momentum -- the same phenomenon that keeps your bicycle upright, and your gyroscope pointing in a particular direction. But why is it not uncommon that a coin, falling onto the floor, rights itself onto its edge, and then manages to roll in some serendipitous direction? The momentum is enough to hold a rotating coin "in place," just like a bicycle, but why does it right itself? Perhaps it is a perfect storm of angle, spin (rotational speed), direction of spin, and smoothness of the floor (friction constant). There may be all sorts of things to consider, to be honest, I'm still not sure how to sit down and go about calculating it on a sheet on a paper. Furthermore, I'm not even sure that this can be done at all.
I realized, "I have to do an experiment." And in that moment I realized I am a scientist. It was a moment of Enlightenment style enlightenment where a single individual human has the ability to explore the grand mysteries of the universe, like why coins roll. I didn't end up doing the experiment because I'm more or less satisfied with the handwavy paragraph above but it was a realization late in coming -- "I can ask questions too."
All this in the context of a talk I attended a talk given at the lab by Ethan Perlstein on his experiences crowd funding one of his basic science projects in evolutionary pharmacology (his term). He needed funding for extending his experiments in tracing effects of anti-depressant drugs to mouse models and time was running out on his longstanding grants. Instead of going to the canonical sources for science funding, he decided to do an experiment in crowd funding his research. Now he is planning on running his lab primarily, if not exclusively, on crowd sourced funds.
The curious individual may finally be empowered to explore the universe without having to be neck deep in academia or industry. Open hacking spaces like Genspace are key in making this a reality. But, in some sense this puts the traditional paths back into perspective. Finally the science PhD comes back to itself as training to be a scientist. After all, none of this changes the fact that science is hard (no matter how much open sourced machine learning big data hacking you can do -- and I love this stuff -- is going to change this fact). How would you try to figure out why coins roll?