Both the Royal Institution (RI) and the Science Museum have been talked about this week and their validity has been brought into question. It led me to thinking about my childhood and what inspired me as a young person to get into science. What I came up with was a broad range of things that I remember having a profound effect on me and formed part of my journey. This is of course a bunch of anecdote so unless you are interested in other folks experience stop reading here.
My dad is a tool-maker and has worked in factories making tools all of his working life. As a young child (~4/5) I would slope out to the garage at the weekend and watch dad fixing our car, an old rust-laden ford Anglia that needed constant attention. Sometimes I would hold a spanner or do a minor job, sometimes I would just squat down and watch patiently as my dad worked away. The garage was a constant attraction to me all the way up until I left home – filled with drills, soldering irons, jars of nails and screws, and any manner of kit you could lay your hands on. I feel that it was here that the seeds of “an experimentalist” were sown. Dad always encouraged us to do projects and would always spring into action if I had a grand idea but could not see how to make it work.
The Usbourne Dictionary of Science:
I had a beautiful hard back junior science dictionary from Usbourne. I could often be found reading this book from cover to cover. I can’t remember how many times I read it but always seemed to find something I’d missed each new time I read it. When I got a bit older, there was a more substantial Usbourne science dictionary which I also proceeded to devour. This was the first time I saw the term quantum physics and I proceeded to write down my thoughts about what I’d learned in my little Garfield diary (which I still have).
This is funny, as I’d forgotten Mr Edwards and it wasn’t until my dad reminded me that I realised what an effect this teacher had on my choices. When I was 9 we had a teacher called Mr Edwards. We did all sorts of projects like making kites, playing with bulbs and batteries, and all sorts of other fun things. Of course this was all science, but I had no idea. I just remember them being the most fun six months of school I ever had. Sadly, he left halfway through the year so that put pay to all the fun! According to my family I talked about him a lot and I remember him looking a bit like Freddie Mercury.
In year 6 (when I was 11) I was chosen as part of a lucky few from my school to watch a lecture at the RI. I remember arriving outside this enormously grand building that somehow portrayed all of the weight of its history at once. I don’t remember every single piece of the day, I don’t even remember what the lecturer was talking about although there were lots of fun demonstrations (as you would expect at the RI). What I remember is how I felt. I felt like an entire world I’d known nothing about previously had suddenly appeared before me and that I just wanted to know what it was all about. It’s hard to describe the feeling, nebulous but very real, wanting to understand something but not even knowing the right questions to ask. It was utterly thrilling.
Later (~15) when I had a lot more chance to think about science and had three years of formal science lessons behind me I had the opportunity to go back and listen to a series of lectures at the RI. As part of this we got to have a tour of the museum and Faraday’s labs. I actually found this bit more interesting than the lectures because it was a chance for me to walk in the footsteps of the greats of science. Being connected to the history of discovery was the key here. It felt important, and it felt like nowhere I’d ever been before as a bog standard, working class, comp student.
The Science Museum:
I cannot underestimate how much I fell in love with the Science Museum. I have been many times in my life and I can’t remember how old I was when I first went but I think I was 10/11. There was just so much to take in. There were huge steam engines, aeroplanes, and rockets and all manner of curiosities. I remember down in the basement there used to be a weird area with loads of strange hands on pieces of kit that smelled like a workshop and looked like it was from circa 1950’s. I remember the excitement and hilarity of our allotted time in the “launch pad” playing with huge bits of foam, fibre optics, lasers, and many things I strain to remember. I do remember some of the boys discovering that if you scuffed around on the carpet you could give each other electric shocks. Discovery right there!
The space gallery was the part that really left an impression on me. As a small child the concept of “all of space” and space travel petrified me (possibly because of Challenger). When I visited the space gallery I was started to realise how incredible space travel was and how brave and/or stupid the folks were who strapped themselves into these enormous vehicles. I remember the way the rockets and one of the Apollo capsules were arranged in this dark and labyrinthine room and the hairs on my arms standing on end. Sometimes I take a moment if I am at Imperial or the Dana centre to sneak into the space gallery and recapture the moment. It always feels like coming home.
The Eureka Science Master classes:
The RI trip when I was a teen was part of a scheme run by the University of Surrey (I grew up in surrey) called the Eureka Science Master classes. It was a university outreach scheme that gave the opportunity for school kids in the area of 14 or 15 years old to come into the university and learn about science and engineering in all its forms. I remember doing practical workshops on things as diverse as CAD design, biochemical engineering, and Boolean logic. There were also trips arranged to various lectures and museums in London. We went to what is now known as the Wellcome collection to the museum and to watch a lecture on the human genome project. I thought it was so fascinating that I almost did biology and genetics instead of physics (luckily I came to my senses). What my parents can attest to is that these master classes blew me away. I talked about them incessantly for weeks…and weeks…and weeks. It really sealed the deal for me and I also think it had something to do with me ending up at Surrey for my first degree.
It’s hard to know what had the most significant effect, and if any of these things had not happened whether I’d have still ended up where I am now. Maybe the most important thing is that my parents and my teachers never told me I couldn’t do science. I don’t know. What I do know is that all of these different factors produced a profound and memorable effect for me. I think it’s important for us to remember our own journeys since it will help shed light on how we should share science and technology to the next generation. Write about yours and pass it on!