Author Interviews
5:57 am
Sat May 19, 2012

Americans: A 'Bunch Of Amateurs,' And Proud Of It

Originally published on Sat May 19, 2012 11:19 am

Jack Hitt says if you drill down into the American spirit to find out what makes Americans so American, you'll find it's the fact that we're all amateurs at heart. In his new book, Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character, he pinpoints the first American to use the amateur label to his advantage: Benjamin Franklin.

Flash back to the early days of the Revolutionary War. Franklin has traveled with John Adams to France, and they're both trying to convince the king to spare the American military some cash. Franklin insisted on wearing the outfit of an American frontiersman — complete with a Davy Crockett-style coonskin cap. Adams hated Franklin's get-up — he wrote about the ridiculous outfit in letters to his wife, Abigail.

Franklin and Adams met at the gates of Versailles for a meeting with the king, says Hitt: "I just love this image of Franklin stepping out of his carriage in his coonskin cap, while Adams is in his silks and his breeches and his waistcoat and his feathered hat and looking at Franklin like: What are you doing? And Franklin [being] like: You don't get it, John, this is who they think we are. This is how we're going to get the money. And of course, Franklin did get us the money."

Hitt's new book doesn't dwell on revolutionary history for long, though. He tracks the American amateur all the way up to today's generation of petri-dish tinkerers, stargazers and historical detectives.

Take, for example, Meredith L. Patterson. She's a software engineer and a do-it-yourself biologist Hitt profiles in his book. In her kitchen, Patterson's trying to make a certain kind of bacteria — commonly used in producing yogurt — glow in the dark. It was a "bootstrap project for a couple of other projects," she explains. It could be "just a nifty art object or a tool for detecting poisons."

Then there's Jim Edwards. He's a radar specialist by trade, but when he's not on the clock, he's coming up with new ways to search the skies for signs of intelligent life. "The traditional way of looking for communication from extraterrestrials is sort of to cast a wide net and then look in that great haystack of signal for some little tiny needle of a pattern," Hitt explains. "One of the things that's really cool about Jim's idea is that it basically narrows down that search to just a handful of pieces of hay."

The spirit of amateurism and spirit of America have long been tied up together. The Europeans viewed the Americans as an "unfinished people," Hitt says. "We were amateur everything."

The New World was made up of people who weren't afraid to get up and walk away. In the case of the American colonists, he says, "they literally left Europe and came to this new place to invent a new self," Hitt says. "And that impulse survives today in the impulse of Mark Zuckerberg walking out of a Harvard dorm room, dropping out and forming a company."

That entrepreneurial, do-it-yourself spirit endures in the U.S. partly out of necessity. "With the economy in the toilet, you're seeing a lot of people drop whatever they did for the last 20 years," Hitt says. They're "going back to school, or going into their garage, beginning to tinker and try to create this new future here."

Hitt points to the Obama administration's April jobs report that boasted 119,000 new jobs. Large, stock-traded companies accounted for just a fraction — 4,000 — of those new jobs, he says. Small businesses and start-ups were to thank for the rest.

"Whatever groundwork we're laying here for a kind of economic revival, it's happening in large part among the start-up companies," Hitt says. "Among the people like Meredith and Jim who are going to step out of their garages and try to form new, more professional versions of their own amateur pursuits."

Edwards knows he may spend the rest of his life listening for communication that he will never hear. "It's not the destination, it's the journey," he says. "It's a lot of fun to do this stuff."

"I decided several years ago that I just wasn't going to be afraid to be wrong in public," Patterson says. "And that's been the motivation for pretty much everything I've investigated since then. I'm just not scared to screw up."

Trial and error is the American way, after all. "We screwed up the Constitution the first time around and had to write another one in 1787," Patterson points out. "Big whoop."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Jack Hitt has written a new book: "Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character." The search begins at America's beginning, the colonial period. At the time, he says, Americans were viewed by Europeans as a wild, unfinished people.

JACK HITT: We were amateur everything. You know, it was even believed that the vapors of North America made Americans smaller and kind of less human. Our women were more infertile than Europeans. It was believed that our snakes fed themselves by just lying on the ground and unhinging their jaws and waiting for our sort of mentally challenged squirrels to fall in.

SIMON: But Jack Hitt contends being a bunch of amateurs can have a fantastic advantage. In fact, he thinks he's established the first moment that an American exploited that advantage: Ben Franklin in Paris. He traveled there with John Adams during the American Revolution to try to convince the French government to give support to the Continental Army.

HITT: And he would wear the coonskin cap and the boots and the sort of, like, that whole outfit of, you know, sort of Davy Crockett, that early American sort of frontiersman. Of course, Ben Franklin was our only sort of sophisticated citizen we had at the time. And so the improbability of him running around Paris and this ridiculous outfit was something that John Adams wrote about in his letters to Abigail. He was enraged by it. And we don't have the exact words, but apparently they met at the gates of Versailles at one point to go in and meet the king and Adams was going to have his first audience. And I love this image of Franklin stepping out of the carriage in his coonskin cap while, you know, Adams is in his, like, silks and his breeches and his waistcoat and his, you know, feathered hat or whatever, and looking at Franklin, like, what are you doing? And Franklin, like, you don't get it, John. This is who they think we are and this is how we're going to get the money. Then, of course, Franklin did get us the money.

SIMON: Jack Hitt's new book traces American amateurs all the way up to today's generation of adventurers, stargazers and tinkerers. For example, Meredith L. Patterson. She's a software engineer and a do-it-yourself biologist.

MEREDITH L. PATTERSON: When Jack and I met up in San Francisco, I was working with lactobacillus, which is a genus of bacteria that are commonly used in producing yogurt. So, what I was working on at the time was integrating the GFP gene, green florescent protein, which normally appears in a type of jellyfish.

SIMON: You were trying to make yogurt glow in the dark?

PATTERSON: Yes, as a bootstrap project for a couple of other projects, whether that's just a nifty art object or for a tool for detecting poisons.

SIMON: Let's meet another one of the people featured in Jack Hitt's book, "Bunch of Amateurs." We're joined now from the studios of NPR West in Culver City. We have Jim Edwards. Mr. Edwards, thanks for being with us.

JIM EDWARDS: Well, thanks for inviting me.

SIMON: You are a radar specialist by trade, right?

EDWARDS: That's true.

SIMON: But what do you search for when you're not on the clock?

EDWARDS: I had no idea a while back about how serious amateurs, amateur astronomers, who were, you know, just working with their own hobby equipment that they would be capable of detecting communication signals from intelligent life and other star systems. And this kind of relied on the fact that the extraterrestrials wanted to be detected and that they took the steps on their end to help us find them and help communicate with us. One of the core elements involves using the motion of large planets in their solar system, the transit of a planet in front of the star, as kind of an obvious synchronization mechanism. And this mechanism would tell us when to look at their star system and it would also tell them when to shoot their signal toward our own star system.

SIMON: Well, let me get Jack Hitt for a moment. Jack, explain to us what a difference this represents in attitude, say, as opposed to the famous SETI project.

HITT: Right. I mean, the traditional way of looking for communications from extraterrestrials is sort of to cast a wide net and then look in that great haystack of signal for some little tiny needle of a pattern. One of the things that's really cool about Jim's idea is that it basically narrows down that search to just a handful of pieces of hay, if you will, in the stack.

So in other words, if you use Jim's method there's a kind of billboard moment when that star system might communicate with us and it might only be a few hours long out of the whole year.

SIMON: Let's turn to Meredith L. Patterson and Jim Edwards. I mean, Mr. Edwards, it sounds like you understand the fact that you could spend the rest of your life looking for someone to say hello out there and never hear from them.

EDWARDS: It's good for the amateur, because professional astronomers, they need to produce results, you know, to get further grants. So they're only going to be looking at things that have a very high probability of success, and this obviously has a very low probability of success which is something that amateurs are willing to put up with. They're willing to do the grunt work, put in the long, long hours and accept the low payoff likelihood.

PATTERSON: I mean, I decided several years ago that I just wasn't going to be afraid to be wrong in public and that's been the motivation for pretty much everything that I've investigated since then. I mean, I'm not scared to screw up because, you know, there's nothing embarrassing about screwing up.

You know, talking about the early days of the Republic, you know, we screwed up the Constitution the first time around and had to write another one in 1787. Big whoop. You know, it seems to have worked for a while.

EDWARDS: And in fact, when I gave my paper a couple years ago at the Society for Amateur Astronomy, I thought I was going to be laughed off the stage, and I was put on last for that very reason, and I was utterly fascinated by the number of people that came up and said you know what? That is really, really clever. That's a great idea.

SIMON: Mr. Hitt, how do you see the spirit of amateurism and the spirit of America being all tied up together?

HITT: You know, every nation starts somewhere and I think from the very beginning this idea that we have walked away from something, in the case of our colonials, like, literally left Europe and came to this new place to invent a new self, and that that impulse survives today and the impulse of Mark Zuckerberg walking out of a Harvard dorm room, dropping out and forming a company.

And I think right now with the economy in the toilet you're seeing a lot of people drop whatever they did for the last 20 years, going back to school or going into their garage, beginning to tinker and try to create this new future here. I mean, I just happened to check, for example, the April jobs report that was issued by the Obama administration showed like 119,000 new jobs.

SIMON: Yeah.

HITT: How many of those came from large stock-traded companies that, you know, the investors all - that the Wall Street types are telling us is, you know, they're the job creators? Four thousand. So you can see whatever groundwork we're laying here for a kind of economic revival, it's happening in large part among the startup companies, among the people like Meredith and Jim who are going to step out of their garages and try to form, you know, new more, well, professional versions of their own amateur pursuits.

SIMON: Well, I want to thank you all very much for being with us. Jack Hitt, joined by Jim Edwards who is searching the skies for signs of intelligent life, and Meredith L. Patterson, who'd like to be able to find her yogurt in the dark. They are both featured in Mr. Hitt's new book "Bunch of Amateurs: The Search for the American Character." Thank you very much, all of you.

HITT: Thank you, Scott.

PATTERSON: Thank you.

EDWARDS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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