Hooked on science – ten things that inspired me to become a scientist

How exactly did I get hooked on science?  It’s not something I’ve thought about too much before. But an invitation to discuss how to inspire the next generation of scientists, technologists and engineers next week has got me thinking…

Next Monday (Sept 7) I’m taking part in a discussion on science role models, as part of the British Science Festival – hosted by the UK Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).  It’s shaping up to be a fascinating event, and certainly not one to miss (you can sign up for it here) – not least because it is happening in the virtual world of Second Life (a first for me).  The discussion will be delving into what inspires people to get into science, technology, engineering and mathematics – and how those of us already hooked can help to inspire others.

I don’t want to give too much away before Monday – although I can reveal that the great Dr. Karen James of Twitter, Mashable and The Beagle Project fame will be a co-panelist, and that the event will be the place to be between 6:00 PM – 8:00 PM London time on Monday.

However, to limber myself up for the big event (while providing something of a teaser), I thought I would delve into my own past and revisit some of the inspirations that led to me becoming a scientist.

So without further do (apart to apologize for cultural references that may not make sense to all readers), here are ten inspirations from my youth that got me hooked on science:

1.  My father. I know it’s a bit of a cliché – for which I apologize – but looking back, my father undoubtedly played a major role in sparking my interest in science.  He was a technician for most of his working life – starting off in TV’s, moving on to nuclear power with the UK Atomic Energy Authority, and later on working as a lab tech in a sports science department.  He was fascinated by science and technology and what it can be used for (still is), and his spirit of inquiry, questioning and investigation rubbed off – big time.  He also taught me the value of a good technician – without which most scientists would be marginally less productive than a two legged horse.

2.  A defunct radio. When I was around four, someone kindly provided my preschool with a large old fashioned radio – with large Bakelite knobs, impressive dials, and valves (or “tubes” as Americans quaintly refer to them).  It didn’t work, but I was absolutely convinced that I could fix it; and spent hours fiddling around in its innards with a screwdriver.  I failed (nothing to do with my age I’m sure – the previous donors had given us a real dud!), but the experience was the beginning of a long love affair with anything electrical.

3.  My first home chemistry kit. I can’t remember what was in that first kit or even who made it.  What I do remember is being able to replenish it from the local chemist – something that you can’t do these days sadly – and  “augmenting” it with exotic new additions. Irresistible :-)

4.  DIY Science books. Where would I be without local libraries?  Not where I am now I suspect!  I used to devour books on science experiments for the home.  The experiments often didn’t work, I must confess (good training for later days).  But armed with an arsenal of basic household supplies, a good tome from the local library, and my augmented chemistry kit, I was in kid-heaven.

5.  Jacques Cousteau. I still remember the feeling of anticipation – sitting in front of the TV in my pajamas, way after my proper bed time, waiting for the latest nautical adventure from Cousteau and his crew.  Looking back, it was the sense of discovery that had me glued to the set on these rare occasions – I wanted to be informed and inspired, not entertained.

6.  “Teach Yourself Atomic Physics.” I owe so much to this little book (possibly by James Moncur Valentine – I can’t be sure) – which must have gone out of print decades ago.  It was my father’s, but I purloined it and poured over it for hours on end, trying to understand the mysteries of the universe.  I even started to tell people I was going to be a nuclear physicist when I grew up (I was rather young at the time).  I only achieved half of my childhood dream (the physicist bit) – but that was in part because of this book.

7.  Judith Hann. Actually, I would include many of the old Tomorrow’s World team – Raymond Baxter, Michael Rodd, Bob Symes and a number of others. The program had its critics, and in later years tried too hard to grab fleeting attentions – becoming rather shallow.  But as a child growing up, Judith and the others were an inspiration.

8.  Doctor Who. Okay so this one took me by surprise as well – was I really inspired by an individualistic fictitious character with an authority complex?  Looking back, I think I was.  I have a sneaking suspicion – never articulated until the confessional of this blog, that I wanted to be just like John Pertwee or Tom Baker – using science and superior intellect to save the world while cocking a snoot at the establishment.  Come to think about it, I suspect I still do…

9.  Isaac Asimov. There are a number of science-realistic fiction writers I could insert here: Arthur C. Clarke, Brian Aldiss, H. G. Wells – I read them all.  And while many (not all) of them fell short of writing good “literature,” they nevertheless set my mind ablaze with new ideas and new possibilities.  If this was what science was about – I wanted in!

10.  Mr. Tranquada. Mr. Tranquada (I think I have the name right – it was a long time ago) was a high school physics teacher I had for one year only. I had two other physics teachers at high school who were less than inspirational – although the pot-smoking hippie brought an interesting flavor to the subject, until he got busted!  But the year I had Mr Tranquada was a revelation.  He wasn’t flash.  He didn’t strain to entertain.  And he could be a real sarky so and so.  But when he taught, it was as if he opened a window into a universe of full of new ideas – and the more I experienced, the more I wanted.  He also taught me that there’s no such thing as a stupid question – one of the more important lessons of my youth.

These weren’t my only inspirations that led to me becoming a scientist – but they are amongst the more prominent ones.  Interestingly, there weren’t too many traditional role models there (unless you count Doctor Who of course…)  The people who attracted me were those who expanded my knowledge and understanding – it was what they offered that hooked me, not who they were.  I wonder whether this is just a personal predilection, or whether it hints at something more universal.

Finally, as I compiled this list, I was intrigued by the things that didn’t get me hooked on science as a youth.  Here are just three:

1. My careers advisor. Mr. Barlow was his name.  I asked him once what it took to become a research scientist.  His answer: “You don’t want to do that!”

2.  Dead people. I’m sorry to admit it, but dead scientists just didn’t do it for me.  Things are a little different now. But then, given Newton or an apple, I’d go for the apple.

3. Carl Sagan. Okay, so I may be the only scientist of my generation to admit to not being inspired by the great Carl.  Not having a TV when Cosmos was shown in the UK may have something to do with this :-)  But it just goes to show that you don’t always need a superstar to get someone hooked on science.

Well, that’s the introspective retrospective over.  If you have your own thoughts and ideas on how to hook people on science, join us on Monday –  in the flesh if you are at the British Science Festival, or via Second Life if you are not – details here.

See you there.

43 thoughts on “Hooked on science – ten things that inspired me to become a scientist”

  1. Brilliant post (and not just because you called me “The great Dr. Karen James”, which I’m now thinking of putting at the top of my CV) – I’ve just nominated it for Open Lab 2009. : )

    1. Thanks Karen (and not just for the nomination :-) ) – I was surprised how rich a set of influences there were in my past. Would be fascinating to hear what got others hooked on science.

  2. It’s really cool to hear how someone as famous as you got into science!
    My grandfather was probably the first influence that made me interested in science. In his workshop, he showed me a ball joint he had designed as an engineer as part of GM’s team that was building a collapsible steering wheel. He said the collapsible steering wheel his team had invented was estimated to save 20,000 live a year. I remember holding the part in my hand and thinking that scientists were superheroes!

    As a graduate student in chemistry, I’ve found actual science to me more Clark Kent than superman. Despite this, my addiction to science has been maintained through a steady stream of passionate professors (Cliff Harris @ Albion College) and advisers (Neil Donahue @ Carnegie Mellon, Christy Haynes @ UMinn.). I really can’t imagine where I’d be without them and hope I can pass it on to future generations.

    1. Thanks Bryce,

      love the story about the ball joint. It often seems to be seemingly small things like this (not small really, considering the impact) that strike a chord with people.

      Great comparison between superman and Clark Kent – think this is what it’s like for 99.99% of scientists. But the funny thing is, I think it’s more satisfying in the long run being Clark…

  3. Great list… I can relate to most of the experiences that you’ve listed, if not exactly the individual examples. I noticed that one thing was missing, however, that I found very influential: museums. When I was young my family visited the Field Museum in Chicago, and I was hooked. A visit to the Ontario Science Centre as a teenager was also influential.

    1. Ah yes, museums…

      I had a complex relationship with museums as a child (still do). I quickly tire of exhibits that promise to thrill and entertain me – they inevitably disappoint. But then I remember a trip to an outpost of the British Natural History Museum in Tring (is it still there anyone?) – a classical museum with cases and cases of preserves and cataloged plants and animals. In a small, Victorian room, I found tray after tray of carefully arrayed beetles – hundreds upon hundreds of them. It’s hard to describe the feeling the discovery inspired – something akin to awe I think – arising form the subdued atmosphere, the exquisite Victorian cabinetry, and the meticulously arranges specimens.

  4. Thanks for the reference to your parenting, I always knew you had in you!
    Interestingly enough, my inspiration came from my father and grandfather, both of whom had an inquiring nature.
    Wonderful to be compared with Dr Who!!. Maybe yet we can ‘save the world’.

  5. Excellent list. I find it ironic that we were both inspired by one of our parents. I with a lifelong fascination with science and learning and you with actually becoming a scientist. A famous one at that according to one of the commentators above. Having first found you on Twitter, I had no idea that you were such a famous scientists – the power of social media, I guess. :) I really loved this post. So many reminders of other things that inspired me. If I had to annotate my own list, I’d have to put in the zoos and museums in New York as one of my inspirations. As a kid, I never got to watch Dr. Who but from the new series, I can see how that might work. Also, there is unfortunately the loss of discovery of going to the library and finding good science books for kids an teens. I can’t imagine that anyone in 20 years will say they were inspired to become a scientist because of Wikipedia. Maybe, maybe not. But I suspect that some kids will say that certain websites and blogs – like yours – did inform them and spark an interest in science.

    1. Thanks Lon!

      I suspect I’m only a “famous” scientist to those who have come across me – which in the grand scheme of things is probably not a huge number of people!

      I wanted to make sure readers had access to your list – which is a great one: http://cohenside.blogspot.com/2009/09/three-science-influences.html

      Very interesting comment about libraries. I can’t imagine my childhood and early years as a scientist without the serendipity of stumbling across really interesting books/publications in the library – usually while looking for something completely different. I guess today’s generation would claim the same for browsing the web – but for me, it just doesn’t work in the same way.

  6. Your list of influences to become a scientist made me think. Growing up in a different environment and before ubiquitous TV, I did not have available many of the listed options.
    There are three big influences I do not see on your list that were crucial for me.
    One were my maths teachers- both in middle and grammar school. My middle school maths teacher was a woman who encouraged me to do work outside classes and even came to my house to help me with extra work.
    Second was the participation and progress on the science and maths competitions- from school through district to town to republic levels. It was challenging and recognised in the school as kudos so other kids did not just see me as a nerd- prize in science/ maths was as good as in sport!
    Third was the excitement of space exploration and new technology that was opening up the world for all.
    The most important for me was not so much an influence as a way of being- doing maths and science meant that I could concentrate on a problem at hand and get to the bottom of it. It was the thrill of constantly new challenges and the beauty of solutions that drew me.
    Thank you for giving me the impetus to revisit the days when I sat side by side with my dad reading the second world war spy stories and learning about atom bomb and nuclear physics. It was really mysterious yet human and filled with larger than life characters.
    Ultimately, my science background got me to leave my birth country and come to UK to do my PhD in the days when women in science were really rare. I am committed to encouraging more girls to try.

    1. Thanks Lilly,

      I’m fascinated to know where you grew up. I didn’t have the same exposure to maths and science competitions, but your thrill in being faced with new challenges and finding beauty in the solutions really resonates with me. Something else that didn’t make it to my list of influences – reveling in the predictive power of science!

  7. my inspiration has come from the internet, and many more I speak to say the same. That is why it is so important for the youngsters to have access to it not only at school but at home. I think it is one of the most useful resources to find information and make contact with peers. I feel sorry for the kids in the UK who have only limited bandwidth, Korea, Denmark and other far sighted countries are enabling their kids to innovate and invent.

    1. That’s good to hear cyberdoyle. I still have problems with the internet as a source of inspiration, but maybe that’s a generational thing, and I’m no longer as hip and flexible as I’d like to think :-)

  8. science was pure magic, the door opened by a great fifth-grade teacher, got me to build a meterology station on the roof of the school .. then, a special city-wide summer biology program for a few bright students .. and then the mystery of such things that squaring velocity gives acceleration, and the magic of thermodynamics and the classification systems of chemistry …

    and then the downhill began .. no university professor was at all intrigued by the mysteries of discovery .. it was only a job, or a grant or a tenure project .. research, as in “science news” was still intriguing, but the mysteries of life, when put into formulas and monetized stopped being mysterious ..

    and then i discovered meditation, and the joys of discovering the discoverer, and science simply had to be left behind because it has limits that are far too confining ..

    1. Thanks gregorylent. I was with you until the last paragraph – guess we’ll have to disagree on science being too confining. But it is sad when science just becomes a job, and the wonder of discovery is sucked out of it. Then we wonder why more people aren’t hooked…

  9. I really hated science. The physics teacher at my all girl school was smelly and dull and I didn’t understand what he was on about; I’m afraid I can’t even remember the chemistry teacher. It all just didn’t seem relevant or remotely interesting.

    So how on earth did such a complete scientific ignoramus get to be interested in nanotechnology, let alone become Director of the Responsible Nano Forum!? (I did go on the get a degree and a Masters in corporate responsibility, though no Phd as yet!)

    Well, this came about because I got interested in how the stuff we use is made, who does it and what the impacts on us and the environment might be from how we behave. Gradually I realised that ‘science’ is everywhere, not just in my computer and all my many gadgets, but what I eat, my cosmetics, my clothes, what I think, what I do.

    But then I also realised that for people like me, for whom science was just for the clever people who were good at maths, the information wasn’t often in the form that we could identify with, we were out of the loop. Our new website http://www.nanoandme.org is my first attempt at communicating science for people like me. It’s a start, do tell me what you think!

  10. I’m not a scientist either (though I have a degree in BioSci), and I don’t think you need to be one either to have a love of science. My inspirations:

    3. Stephen Jay Gould for his work in evolution, completing his big tome in time & being a great speaker. I managed to catch a brief talk of his just before the release of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, he made relatively dry theory exciting.

    2. E.O. Wilson for seeing (and loving) the complexity of biodiversity. I keep reading Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge and The Diversity of Life over and over. The depth, richness and beauty of life on this planet is something science keeps bringing us, in spades.

    1. Richard Feynman, not for anything he discovered. Simply for his _love_ of science and making it fun. Every video, lecture, and book I’ve read or seen he seems to be having fun. He always seemed to have this smirk on his face that said, “I’ve got something neat to show you.” Whenever I was having trouble with a course or looking for motivation, I’d read one of his biographies with Ralph Leighton and some of the joy would come back, even with organic chem. :-)

    I keep reading journals, and I’m always amazed by how far we’ve come and how neat all this stuff is.

    1. Thanks James – especially for pointing out that YOU DON’T NEED TO BE A SCIENTIST, OR HAVE A SCIENCE DEGREE, TO HAVE A LOVE OF SCIENCE! – Sorry, just had to emphasize that :-)

      Love the inspirations. I didn’t come across Feynman in a big way until university, but he was huge amongst fellow physicists – not just because of his enthusiasm and his ability to make complex concepts clear, but because he was a genuinely interesting person – whether talking about science, drumming or any one of a thousand and one other things that grabbed his attention.

  11. and I thought we had all the copies! I’m not sure that even he would have described himself as a saint though …

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  19. Interesting choices. Dr Who was an important factor in my choices too. I remember he had an assistant who won the circle of mathematics – I think that I’m still striving to win it to this day. Having attended the same school as you (the year above your brother), I must agree with your non-choice of Mr Barlow. He was probably the worst choice for careers teacher ever – the only thing that I can remember was him telling us about someone called super-hod, who could carry lots of bricks. The lesson being, University isn’t that great. Luckily not many listened to him. There were other really inspiring teachers at Pilgram – I hope that they still have schools like this (not Pilgrim as in their great wisdom they closed it down).

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