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.