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Programming GNU is Not Unix Software Technology

Open Source Geeks Considered Modern Heroes 361

Posted by michael
from the i-need-a-hero dept.
loconet writes "The BBC reports that a report by Demos says that the all-consuming passions of geeks and nerds may actually be beneficial for society. The UK think tank's report published today, underlines the importance of 'Pro-Ams' -- amateurs who pursue a hobby or pastime, in many cases an all-consuming passion, to a professional standard. The report says Pro-Am astronomers have made 'significant contributions' to the knowledge of the universe, while Pro-Am computer programmers are providing the only serious challenge to Microsoft's dominance of personal computing."
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Open Source Geeks Considered Modern Heroes

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  • by Sheetrock (152993) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @12:23PM (#10953975) Homepage Journal
    Although open source programmers have done neat things, one must be careful not to throw around the word 'hero'.

    Heroes are people who save lives. Firefighters and policemen are heroes -- they brave danger on a daily basis to save lives. So too was Jonas Salk; if he developed a program to add tags to MP3 files instead of discovering penicillin and refining it for medical use, this would have been a disappointment.

    This isn't intended to disparage the work of open source geeks in any way. They're just in a different class (improving our lives in front of a LCD monitor instead of saving them from a burning building.)

  • Volunteers (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @12:25PM (#10953997)
    Open source creatores (me) must be compared to volunteers and philanthrops.
    The volunteer that help the senior to cross the street, the meals on wheels volunteers, the philanthrop that give money to cancer research, you name it.
    And we should have the same respect.
  • A Troll article? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by smooth wombat (796938) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @12:26PM (#10954007) Homepage Journal
    I have one Mod point left and I want to use it before the end of the day when it expires. How can I mod this whole article as Troll?

    Come on folks. Only on select sites such as this one are people like those mentioned in the article considered heroes. Joe Average, as a rule, doesn't even know what Open Source is let alone that it exists.

    Maybe, possibly, though unlikely, some time in the future those who have contributed might be recognized for their efforts (such as Linus) in hindsight but I'm not holding my breath.
  • by kfg (145172) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @12:28PM (#10954037)
    The terms "amateur" and "professional" are in no way synonymous with "expertise," and the phrase "professional standard," if it has any real meaning at all, has meaning only within the realm of a particular workplace, not the lab/workshop.

    KFG
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @12:33PM (#10954077)
    Pros eventually reach a level where they spend more and more time managing the system (meetings, writing, planning, and press) than doing whatever they were doing to got them there in the first place. Amateurs have a love and the luxury (total absence of finances or already early retirement) of not having the management role and can focus their efforts more productively.
  • by garcia (6573) * on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @12:33PM (#10954079) Homepage
    Come on folks. Only on select sites such as this one are people like those mentioned in the article considered heroes. Joe Average, as a rule, doesn't even know what Open Source is let alone that it exists.

    I think that we could say that even though most people don't know about Open Source "heros" that what these people do on a daily basis ends up impacting everyone else even if only indirectly.

    If it wasn't for the rise of Linux who knows where MSFT would be heading...
  • by Vainglorious Coward (267452) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @12:36PM (#10954107) Journal

    Take your point, but what about, for example, Phil Zimmerman? He gave us Pretty Good Privacy, and fought long and hard to ensure it was globally accessible. It's hard to know (for example) how many human rights workers lives have been saved by having access to secure communications, but for having the courage to fight for what he believed in, Phil Zimmerman is a hero.

    Disclaimer : I was at a recent conference at which Zimmerman gave the keynote and he was, frankly, awful. It was as though someone had stolen his notes, which he hadn't previously read anyway; he winged it, kinda, sorta, for twenty of his allotted forty five minutes, then called for questions. The actual topic of the keynote was touched on precisely once, by a questioner. I suspect that he often *is* able to wing it in front of adoring geek audiences; it was embarassing that on this occasion he was so woefully unprepared. I didn't worship him before, and certainly don't now, but I still hold him as a hero.

  • by hellfire (86129) <deviladv@gmaMONETil.com minus painter> on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @12:38PM (#10954124) Homepage
    See, this doesn't surprise me as news. The article should be taking the complete opposite tack.

    For the last 100 years in the US, for example, we've been consumed by consumption. Things have to make money in order to be researched or experimented with and people have to make money to survive. So everyone gets a 9 to 5 job and works their tail off until they go into business for themselves or find some niche that makes them happy that also pays them.

    I think the problem is that the over all amount of science and pure research has shrunk in recent years because so many people are concerned about two things:

    1) What they think is important rather than what's best for science in general.
    2) Money.

    I.E. "why should my taxes fund that research? Huh? it might cure disease in 20 years? I don't get it, it must be stupid since I don't understand how that could possibly happen. Now pardon me while I go manage my snack food and oil stock portfolio."

    And worse, in the US, so many people have less hobby time than they used to because people are working longer hours in the US.

    Scientists of old had more significant hobby time than dop typical US citizens. They also were funded more often by local lords who thought it a status symbol to be funding the local science or art geek. Our national endowments for the arts and sciences inthe US have been gutted as of late because the public feels these funds "unnecessary."

    Science and Art lead society. Most americans don't get that, because they are scared of change. So we are stuck with the same music as before, the same stupid non-important drugs, and the same people running the government, and less and less real art and science coming out of this country.

    Hopefully, the UK will heed the BBC and turn away from the way the US is running itself into the ground.
  • by ChrisDolan (24101) <chris+slashdot@c ... t ['sdo' in gap]> on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @12:39PM (#10954136) Homepage
    I believe the term is being used in this sense -- Dictionary entry: [m-w.com] 1c. a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities

    I understand your point, but I think the use of hero in this context is appropriate. A hero does noble things you wish you could do. Narrowing the definition to just people who save lives is not accurate.
  • by wantedman (577548) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @12:40PM (#10954146) Homepage Journal
    A long time ago, extreme was only for activities that had a significant risk of getting killed; now it's a soft drink. Hero's the same way.

    Hero is now used for everyone important & significant, even if that significance is just being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
  • by Daniel Dvorkin (106857) * on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @12:41PM (#10954151) Homepage Journal
    Actually, I'd argue that just being a competent firefighter or cop isn't enough to be considered a hero, and that the word is overused in reference to dangerous professions. And no, I've never been either one -- but I was a medic in Desert Storm, and worked as a civilian EMT in one of the nation's top trauma hospitals, so I do have some perspective on this. In the military, there is a very specific definition of heroism: putting yourself at great personal risk by going above and beyond the call of duty to accomplish the mission.

    I think it's fair to apply this definition to dangerous civilian jobs as well. A firefighter who pulls someone out of a burning building, or a cop who busts an armed and dangerous criminal, isn't necessarily going above and beyond; he's doing his job. (OTOH, the specific circumstances may well involve going above and beyond, in which case this is heroism, and should be recognized as such.)

    In the case of less dangerous jobs, such as medical research -- yeah, I'd certainly include Salk and the other pioneers of immunization (penicillin was Alexander Fleming, IIRC) especially since they did risk their lives by working with people infected with very dangerous diseases. But the average researcher working in a lab, no matter how competent, shouldn't be called hero unless he does something extraordinary to earn that title. Overuse of the word weakens its meaning, and dishonors those who actually deserve it.
  • by suso (153703) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @12:44PM (#10954185) Homepage Journal
    When you think about all the people in history that made sizeable contributions to society (like Galileo, Mozart, Tesla, etc.), did it not seem to you from our perspective that they were more of hobbyists? I'm not trying to belittle them, I'm just saying that when reading about their life, they seemed quite a bit like most of us. So I imagine there is a lot we could learn from their lives and experiences they had within their society.
  • by Tim (686) <timr@NosPAm.alumni.washington.edu> on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @12:45PM (#10954189) Homepage
    You're being tremendously unfair.

    I'm a graduate student. I do computational biology research, as do many of my colleagues. I know scores of people who are involved in genome analysis, drug design, and fundamental forms of biomedical research. And when you look at the tools that we use, you find that we're increasingly dependent upon open source software -- from operating systems to compilers to scripting languages, our work is fundamentally enabled by the efforts of hundreds of thousands of volunteers.

    It's quite humbling, actually. I probably couldn't do my research without open source. At the very least, the people who pay me probably couldn't afford to pay the same number of students/faculty/staff if they had to shell out for millions of dollars in proprietary software (to say nothing of the compatability problems that proprietary software usually creates).

    The people who develop open source software help to make biomedical research possible. Is that heroism? I don't know, but it's certainly not a trivial thing....
  • Re:Of course... (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @12:50PM (#10954241)
    I think you underestimate what appearing on the cover of even wired magazine can do to a guy's social life. It isn't just money. Fame counts too.


    Also, just having money may not get you nooky. Look at "Who wants to marry a millionaire". That guy came off a serious looser. What women really want IMHO is the men that "represent the future"-whatever that future may be.

  • by Ryan Amos (16972) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @12:57PM (#10954304)
    Hero is also a contextual (and very subjective) word. In a loose sense, a hero is a person who exemplifies the ideal. Also, in different circumstances the same act can be either heroic or cowardly. What open source developers do may not be seen as heroic by Americans, but it may be the case among Tibetans as allowing them to organize against violent oppression. Perspective drives reality; that sounds strangely neo-con but it really is the way of the world (neo-liberals would do well to figure this out before 2008.) The same man may be viewed as both a tyrant and a national hero depending on the perspective. And there's almost always going to be SOMEONE on either side of that divide (opinion on someone like Bush is a great example.)

    Many people around the world (probably the majority, actually) see the advancement of multinational corporate interests as a threat. Those who go against the grain, be it coffee cooperatives in Chiapas, Islamist insurgents or "rogue" open source developers will always be seen as heroes by someone. True freedom from information censorship may be this generation's greatest gift to the world. Of course, my perspective is probably skewed as well, so as with anything on slashdot, grain of salt provided.
  • Money.... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by PrimeNumber (136578) * <PrimeNumber@exci t e . c om> on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @12:58PM (#10954323) Homepage
    I do think paying 'pro-ams' money would be disastrous. Govt money seems to be a sirens song for hucksters, slackers and corrupt businesses.
    One of the reasons I think people like working on opensource software is because they work with people that love what they do and want to do it the right way and be proud of it. You start mixing govt money into this equation, then every tom, dick and harry will be claiming they are pro-ams because they have contributed a bunch of half-a$$ed source to a project. This in my opinion would destroy the quality and 'pure' ideology of open source/free software. Keep OSDL, keep paypal or other donations to a project (firefox is a good example), but keep govt funds out.
  • by RailGunner (554645) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @01:02PM (#10954374) Journal
    Linus Torvalds has a Masters Degree in Computer Science, and a "real job", and yet he's a "Pro-Am?"

    Alan Cox has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Applied Mathematics, and a "real job", and yet he's a "Pro-Am"?

    I have a Bachelor of Science Degree in Computer Science and Engineering from the University of Texas and a "real job", and I'm a Pro-Am when I contribute to open source projects?

    I feel insulted by this article, and I strongly disagree with the point that it makes. While it is true that there are Amateur OSS contributors, when you look at the major players (note: I'm not claiming to be a major player.) they all have advanced degrees in Computer Science, Math, or another Engineering method. These are some exceptionally bright people, and to dismiss them as "Professional Amateurs" does them a pretty great disservice. Just because an OSS contributer is not getting paid does NOT make them an amateur anymore then a laywer doing pro-bono work is an amateur.

  • Do what you love (Score:3, Insightful)

    by 5n3ak3rp1mp (305814) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @01:02PM (#10954380) Homepage
    Isn't this simply a corollary of "do what you love, and the rest will follow"?
  • by randall_burns (108052) <randall_burns&hotmail,com> on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @01:04PM (#10954401)
    Is there is a need to have means of rewarding inventors and researchers that include the Pro-Ams, part time pros and others that are not affiliated with the existing research establishment. What I'm thinking here is a system of prizes similar to the Longitude prize and the X prize-but something that would impact a lot more people.


    What I personally think would be optimal is a both some major prizes for achievement of significant milestones(i.e. creation of the viable first fusion reactor [geocities.com] or a cure for AIDS) and a series of smaller prizes that would involve smaller lifetime payments(work out a set of criteria that would be used to award small lifetime stipends to researchers/inventors on the order of maybe twice what social security pays so these folks don't have to mess with the mundane realities of just scraping by--and have thousands of these awarded every year so that a big chunk of Pro-Ams can expect to get one once they've showng themselves to be serious contributors). Frankly, if the government wants to be anything but a deadbeat, they ought to start giving out these prizes because a lot of agencies could barely run without free software!

  • by NardofDoom (821951) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @01:15PM (#10954503)
    Problem: Most people love to do nothing. Or the something they love to do is so popular (sports) that they'll never make any money doing it.

    Very, very few people make enough money at what they love to live off of it. And most of them are very good.

    So the phrase should be "Do what you're best at, or what nobody else will do, and the money will follow." If that happens to correlate with what you love, all the better.

  • by Beardo the Bearded (321478) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @01:35PM (#10954690)
    Here's why people think geeks can't get laid:

    1. They're morons.

    2. They're trying to be funny to karma whore, having not read the explicit instructions stating that "funny" does not improve your karma.

    Let me turn off the spin and give you a no-shiatter. It's had to explain in a tiny little window, but eh, I'll give it a shot and hope that you get some understanding.

    The truth is that we do stuff that most people can't understand. I'm smarter than most of the people I know. (The same probably holds true for most of the people on /.) I am more successful than anyone I went to school with, including most of my teachers.

    I program VHF transmitters that track animals, wildlife, and assets via GPS and broadcast those co-ordinates up to 20 km away. I primarily use C, but my day-to-day routine also requires HTML, Visual Basic, and Assembly. I've also got a hand in designing the circuit boards.

    I'm sure everyone on /. got that. Now, how many people do you know outside of work still understand that? How about the guy you went to school with who now runs the deli at the local grocer? The girl who - after 10 years - is now the manager at McDonald's? They don't have a clue. My mother-in-law knows that I "do something with computers" even though that's not the case. That's like saying a carpenter "does something with hammers". I get embarrased sometimes when I talk to the people I've known that haven't gone further.

    "How's it going? I haven't seen you for a long time."

    "Oh, I'm now running the gas station. How about you?"

    "Good, I'm an Electrical Engineer, etc."

    So where does that leave them? Exactly where they are. We're generally richer, having better health coverage, nicer vehicles, more attractive spouses, bigger houses, etc. In all respects, we're better off.

    Now, I'm not elitist. I don't think that I'm better than any other person, and I think that with the same training and ambition, just about anybody could learn to do this job. (I mean, hell, *I* figured this out, so how hard can it be, right? ;) ) I know that I don't have the physcial ability to dig ditches. (I could dig one, but I'd be more likely to rent a backhoe for the day.) Nor do I have the stomach required to clean toilets or mop floors.

    So what do they have left? Ridicule us based on a sterotype that may not apply. This holds true in the media - look at how geeks are portrayed. It's always someone with big glasses, greasy hair, and clothes that don't quite fit right. To round off the stereotype, the typical geek is shy and awkward around women, and has a voice that's barely audible. When geeks are portrayed as cool, it's so over the top that it's ridiculous. Take the Matrix (please!). They're running around in skin-tight leather, trenchcoats, and sunglasses. It doesn't even make sense, but that's what we've got. The media either portrays us as loner dorks who sit in messy rooms and order pizza on a Saturday night or as rejects from a leather fetish bar who can't work a dryer.

    The problem is that it's just not cool to be smart. You can buy expensive clothes, you can buy a cell phone, you can listen to the latest bads (and buy their CDs and cereal and posters!) but you can't buy a bigger brain. If you could, they'd tell you that you need an IQ of 222 to be cool.

    I wear contacts, I shower regularly, and a lot of my stuff is tailored. (Well, my jeans aren't, but they're women's jeans and I'm a guy. What can I say? I biked to university and ended up with pretty big legs - normal guy's jeans don't fit.) I was in a choir for 10 years, and I have a pretty strong and projecting voice. "It goes right to the heart," was how one person described it.

    I've been married for six and a half years, and I've got a fantastic 10-month old daughter.
  • by Progman3K (515744) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @01:44PM (#10954774)
    In a way you touched on how the Internet most threatens institutions; by leveling the playing-field, it short-circuits the copious ass-kissing and brown-nosing that lots of geniuses fail at when trying to go through the academia.

    Freedom of ideas, freedom of communication, these are the enemies of corporate-managed countries.

    I'm surprised the Internet has even been able to proliferate and circumvent most educational and class barriers (although there are still lots of people who cannot access the Internet).

    Who knows how many people with society-changing innovations have been supressed by the old guard.

    I wonder, are the people who invented the Internet (and by doing so enabled research's pace) heros?
  • by kavau (554682) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @01:49PM (#10954846) Homepage
    amateur n.
    1. A person who engages in an art, science, study, or athletic activity as a pastime rather than as a profession.
    2. Sports. An athlete who has never accepted money, or who accepts money under restrictions specified by a regulatory body, for participating in a competition.
    3. One lacking the skill of a professional, as in an art.

    professional n.

    1. A person following a profession, especially a learned profession.
    2. One who earns a living in a given or implied occupation: hired a professional to decorate the house.
    3. A skilled practitioner; an expert.

    I believe that the first two definitions of each word were close to the original meaning, and only later, sadly, the third meaning developed as a connotation. And the first two definitions of amateur capture the typical open-source developer pretty well.

    After all, amateur stems from Latin amare, meaning to love. So an amateur coder is somebody who loves to code. The upshot: Don't get upset if somebody is calling you an amateur, just smile :D

  • by skubeedooo (826094) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @01:49PM (#10954856)
    ...and less and less real art and science coming out of this country

    So why do about half the nobel prizes in science go to american universities? As a european physicist/mathematician I have to say that the world leading institute for a particular field of research is usually from the US.

    Really i'm shocked that this groundless rant is modded +5. Even on /.

  • by Minna Kirai (624281) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @01:55PM (#10954927)
    Heroes are people who save lives.

    No they aren't. "Hero" is one of those words that's circularly defined: a person is automatically a hero if enough others call him a hero. It's about popularity, not effectiveness.

    Look at Pvt Jessica Lynch for a good example of a recent hero who did absolutely nothing worthwhile, and whose failures put others' lives at risk. (She gets points for effort, though)

    Dominant athletes from Tom Brady to Mike Jordan back to Babe Ruth are heros, and they don't save lives, or even make much of a positive social contribution.

    Heck, Osama Bin Laden is hero to millions, and he's primarily a killer.

    You could argue that none of the people I've listed SHOULD be heros, but that doesn't change the fact that they ARE.

    (Of course, by the popularity-oriented definition, "geeks" aren't heros either...)
  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @01:58PM (#10954976)
    You seem to think that the word "amateur" is an insult. You seem to think that the word has some connotation of quality -- or lack thereof.

    This is the biggest problem with this whole discussion; most people here don't seem to actually know what the words "amateur" and "professional" mean. That's because these words have been misused for a long time. People use "amateur" as an insult, thinking that it implies lack of skill. It does not.

    The word "amateur" simply means one who does an activity as a hobby -- ie, you don't get paid. The word "professional" means one who does an activity as a profession -- ie, you get paid.

    People tend to equate "amateur" with lack of skill and "professional" with skill, simply because it's sometimes reasonable to assume that if one had the skill, one would get paid for the activity. But the words themselves actually make no reference to skill. Saying that you are an amateur because you don't get paid -- which would be correct -- does not mean you are uneducated, unskilled, untalented, or produce poor quality work. Linus Torvalds wrote Linux as a hobby. He did not get paid to do it. It was, therefore, an amateur project. The fact that it's so good is simply proof that "amateur" does not necessarily mean "poor quality".

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @02:06PM (#10955074)
    But that will only allow you to catch the exceptional ones...

    And I wouldn't have it any other way.
  • Re:Tolkien & Lewis (Score:2, Insightful)

    by guet (525509) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @02:32PM (#10955413)
    Now, the works of Woolfe, Joyce, and hundreds of authors who are mostly forgotten are read primarily by 'experts' in the field or by lit majors, while Tolkien and Lewis are two of the most recognized fiction writers in the world.

    I'm sorry, but Tolkien and Lewis (CS Lewis?!?) are not great writers, and won't be considered as such in the future. Writers feted in their own time (by the public or the authorities) are often forgotten about a century later. In fact those you cited as 'read by experts' were largely ignored or vilified during their own lifetimes.

    Tolkien is famous right now because of the film, and will fade back to insignificance in a few decades. He is not a great writer, and will never be considered as such, because his work really isn't that good. I read it when I was 10 (twice) and was enthralled by it, but the standard of writing is not very high; the characters are caricatures, the dialog is flat, and the jokes are tortuous buffoonery (esp the dwarves). However the plot is full of archetypal myths, and the linguistic references and languages are interesting. This doesn't make it a classic, just interesting. Huge hollywood films or comments on Slashdot claiming it's 'The best book of the 20C' will not it make a classic either.

    Rowling is a mediocre writer. Just because her books have been made into blockbuster films and are popular right now doesn't make them better than average. There's a lot of other more deserving talent in Childrens' books - take a look at 'The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time' for example. Unfortunately the way media hype works makes fame and accolades accrete on 'stars' and is divorced from any notions of quality.

    The influence of Joyce on writers in this century alone means he's not going to disappear any time soon. Woolfe is also far more interesting than Tolkien (or CS Lewis, or Rowling) both in the characters she tackles, the social issues, and the language - have you read any of her books? If you want to choose someone from this century who is a 'great writer' Grahame Greene would be a good choice - accessible but writes very well.

  • by jesterzog (189797) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @03:48PM (#10956346) Homepage Journal

    Scientists of old had more significant hobby time than dop typical US citizens. They also were funded more often by local lords who thought it a status symbol to be funding the local science or art geek.

    I'm not an expert, but I suspect that it hasn't changed all that much. "Scientists of old" are the people who are remembered because they made such a significant impact on science. Just because we remember them, however, doesn't mean that there weren't scores of potentially capable scientists whose potential was blocked by limitations of society.

    Tycho Brahe, for instance, is famous for making the first seriously accurate measurements of several thousand stars. (He had many assistants, of course.) He may have been well above average, or even brilliant. But the main driving force behind him being able to do this was that he had his own sources of money. He came from an aristocratic family, was in renowned standing with the various kings of the day, and was able to pull together his own resources to do what he enjoyed. This later extended into sponsoring further research and more scientists (Keplar is the most famous), but Tycho was one of the few exceptions in this. The social norms for people with money was for them to become educated in managing their money, lands and social situations, and not much more.

    This isn't terribly dissimilar to today. Some people have money, most people don't. A few people with money or power do decide to support science, some support other interests, and some prefer to keep their wealth to themselves. If anything, we're better off because we have governments that see science as an important thing to support, at least relative to governments of centuries ago. But although there are tens of thousands of scientists contributing around the world, only a few will be remembered and have their names commonly recognised centuries from now.

    We probably do remember a larger proportion of scientists from long ago. But if we do, it's because there weren't as many scientists then as there are now.

  • by kfg (145172) on Tuesday November 30, 2004 @05:25PM (#10957496)
    The work produced/done should stand on its own - not be judged by the "qualifications" of who did it. Ones qualifications should be based on what he's done, not who his employer was while doing it.

    I was recently reading the history of the Barringer Crater in Arizona. The official website claims that Barringer was "not a scientist."

    Then it goes on to describe how Barringer used the scientific method, both empirically and theoretically, to convice the scientific world that the crater had an impact origin.

    That, my dear friends, is the actual definition of a scientist, not what it says on one's degree (assuming one even has one).

    KFG

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