York naturalist ranked among "best brains" in science

York naturalist and educator Bill Hilton Jr. was returning from a trip to Central America late Saturday night when, in Charlotte's airport, he glimpsed physicist Stephen Hawking on the cover of Discover magazine.

Looking inside, he found himself among the science magazine's “50 Best Brains in Science.”

“It was pretty neat,” he said.

A former high school biology teacher, Hilton, 62, runs the nonprofit Hilton Pond Center for Piedmont Natural History. He's an internationally known expert on hummingbirds, which he has banded by the thousands to understand their migrations and protect their habitat.

Discover says it “conferred with leading academics and unleashed a team of crack researchers to seek out the best of the best” for its December issue. Among the luminaries: Hawking; Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson; NASA administrator Michael Griffin; and Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin.

But most aren't celebrity scientists. The magazine listed Hilton among “10 Amateur Scientists Who Might Cure Cancer – From their Basements.” Like Hilton, they don't have doctorates, work for big institutions or rely on large grants.

There's a California storm chaser. A software expert who builds lunar landers in his spare time. The retired radio technician who used his wife's pie pans and a couple of hotdogs to, yep, develop a new cancer treatment.

And Hilton, his fingers pictured grasping a tiny ruby-throated hummingbird.

“Historically, amateur scientists have probably made as many contributions to science as professional scientists,” he said Monday. “You don't have to have a great laboratory.”

Hilton leads trips for schools and other groups at the 11-acre Hilton Pond Center, which he opened in 1982, and speaks widely. He chronicles his bird banding and seasonal wildlife in weekly, online photo essays.

Hilton returned Saturday from two weeks in El Salvador and Guatemala, where he presented an academic paper and banded hummingbirds. Each winter he leads expeditions to Costa Rica to band wintering hummers.

He has banded more than 52,000 birds at Hilton Pond, including nearly 3,900 ruby-throats. In 1996 he created Operation RubyThroat, an online database through which citizen-scientists throughout the Americas share observations.

Science, he said, “is no good to anybody unless you share it.”