Were You Inspired?

When someone sticks a microphone in front of you, it is all too easy for the truth to out, despite one’s media training. I have frequently been asked one particular question during interviews, but somehow this week I didn’t nuance my answer. Confronted with the question ‘who inspired you to become a scientist?’ out came the unconsidered answer ‘no one’. But it’s true. I went into science without thinking about those great men – and of course they almost all were men – who had gone before, who had done such heroic things and whose splendid deeds I was supposed to want to emulate. I wanted to be a scientist because I was interested in the science; I didn’t – at the time – delve into books about who had done what and when, so I could learn about those giants on whose shoulders I aspired to stand. Obviously names sank into my consciousness, how could they not, but they weren’t flesh and blood, in my eyes, people whom I wanted to emulate. They were just names. That was obviously very short-sighted of me and perhaps I should be embarrassed to admit it now, but my mind goes a blank when I’m asked to name a hero/heroine from my childhood past.

So, no one directly inspired me. Role models also came later, much later. As I slowly matured into a practicing scientist, as opposed to someone who broke everything I touched (which at the start of my PhD I most certainly did), I started to look more carefully at the way those more senior around me acted, led and mentored, as well as did their science. Perhaps then, for the first time, I started to feel inspired. I have written in the past about a couple of inspirational gentlemen I was fortunate enough to be encouraged and nurtured by – but these were people, Sam Edwards and Pierre-Gilles de Gennes – I got to know when I was already an independent researcher. I’m curious to know if I’m unusual in lacking an idol from the past on whom to fixate as I decided my career choice, or if such inspiring individuals are more talked about than real – I’d like to hear your comments on this, so maybe I can give a more coherent response the next time someone approaches me with the dreaded mike. I certainly got the impression my interviewer’s jaw metaphorically dropped when I let slip my blunt response.

For some people it is the spokes-men and –women for science who jump out of our TV screens who are so important. In my case that could have been Gerald Durrell or Desmond Morris (and later David Attenborough), but these were in the wrong field to be very influential on me as an aspiring physicist.  Perhaps the next generation of physicists will indeed say that it was Brian Cox who made all the difference to them as teenagers when making career choices after having seen his series; or maybe it will have been watching Jocelyn Bell Burnell speak so quietly and impressively in the Beautiful Minds programme about her that opened their eyes to the possibilities for women in science. Clearly the more science that is on the TV, the more that possibility is there for early inspiration. It is for that reason that a year or two back there was so much discussion about ‘where is the female Brian Cox?’, but I wasn’t convinced then by that argument and I guess that is still my position.

I have heard many people, and more particularly women, say how important role models are or have been to them. These, I suspect, are not great individuals from the past, or even those who smile at them from the TV, but the living people they see a few notches further up their chosen career path. It would be nice to think the humanising interviews that Jim Al Khalili has been carrying out for his Life Scientific radio programme will broaden how people perceive some senior scientists and offer them a greater choice of impressive researchers to look up to. Too often such people can seem featureless (or perhaps I mean characterless) if only viewed on a far distant podium at some huge conference. I think this radio series has been able to present a wonderful mix of the passion scientists have for their field of research, with their own individual voices discussing their sometimes tortuous career paths. Maybe some school children will hear these programmes and be able to say in future years about how Professor X inspired them when they heard them being interviewed. Perhaps that is precisely what I didn’t get: a feeling of the scientists whose names I read in textbooks as real people. So, is that a lack in me? Or do many of you equally feel the honest answer to

‘who inspired you?’ is  ‘no one’?

If you are not a frequent reader of society columns, Hello and the like, you may want to skip the rest of this post. It contains shameless name dropping but no solution to the tricky question of how Sherlock Holmes’ death was faked at the end of the last BBC series.

The occasion of this rather off-the-cuff interview was an event to launch the Discovery Channel’s new series, starring Stephen Hawking. Known as ‘Stephen Hawking’s Grand Design’, it has a lot of physics (from Galileo and Newton to String Theory), but remarkably little biology. It identifies a number of Hawking’s heroes and illustrates them with little vignettes. I’m afraid Hawking makes some rather stark statements including ‘Philosophy is Dead’ and ‘I think science can explain the Universe without the need for God’ – which are likely to raise some eyebrows; the former in particular was not met with universal enthusiasm by those attending the event. The first programme goes out next week (September 13th on the Discovery Channel) in the UK, but I have had the privilege of viewing all three episodes already, by way of ‘homework’, before I engaged in the evening’s other entertainment: a panel discussion.

This panel consisted of Martin Rees, Will Self, Adam Rutherford and myself, all pushed and pulled into some semblance of order by Dara O Briain. The topic of our debate was

What will be the most important questions for science in the next 40 years?

You’ll be able to judge that that was an easy subject to construct light badinage around to an audience of newspaper feature editors and the like. It seemed, in advance, a very daunting challenge. In fact, I really enjoyed myself. We were a very diverse bunch, each with our own particular take on things. Adam Rutherford seemed to feel slightly perturbed to be the ‘token biologist’, as he put it, but Martin Rees and I both saw biological challenges going to be absolutely key to the future.

It was of course a publicity event for the programme rather than serious science. But, as one of the Channel’s senior executives put it to me, they want their programmes to draw people in who aren’t scientists and of course part of that is getting people talking about it. It has already been pointed out to me through Twitter (thank you Stephen!)  that you can find me lurking in the pages of the Radio Times online, posed for all intents and purposes as if on a red carpet at some celebrity do – the celebrity of course being Stephen Hawking. Indeed, you can see me standing shoulder to shoulder not only with Dara O’Briain but also Benedict Cumbernatch, who is doing the programme’s voiceover. And no, I didn’t ask him how his death was faked at the end of the last series of Sherlock Holmes. Not being a celebrity-watcher (even if I did watch the Sherlock Holmes series) I was still concentrating on the serious side of things, engaging Andrew Miller, chair of the Commons Science and Techology Select Committee, in discussion about the need to get scientists and policy makers closer together.

So, did anyone inspire you in your youth? I am looking forward to a lively comment stream – don’t let me down!

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25 Responses to Were You Inspired?

  1. csrster says:

    It’s an interesting question. Science naturally appeals to people who are interested in ideas and things, and it’s often those which inspire us more than individual role models. If I had to name specific things that turned me on to astronomy it would be the moon-landings and Patrick Moore’s Sky at Night. Towards physics in general, I would give an honorary mention to Nigel Calder’s book “The Key to the Universe”. But besides those there are probably a hundred library books I read as a kid, whose authors’ name I never knew because that wasn’t why I read them, and a hundred “Horizon” documentaries besides. I never felt the need for a role-model, but then I’m not a member of an under-represented minority, and maybe that makes a difference in some cases.

  2. Patricia says:

    No-one inspired me to become a scientist. The science itself was my inspiration! I also find that people are really shocked to hear that as answer, as if it’s a failing on my part. Why isn’t wanting to do something you find really interesting and rewarding as a career reason enough…?

    • James Kerin says:

      Patricia, I strongly believe that it is enough AND it is to your credit.

      Science is about progress; about pushing or breaking boundaries, be it serendipitous or not. People may inspire others to take a particular direction in life but the inspiration itself is dated. What really counts is what that person achieves. So I’m saying that that the cause of inspiration is second to what is actually achieved, so your reason is perfectly adequate.

      Hmm, Athene, perhaps a blog on serendipitous science achievements (is its value lower if it was a serendipitous discovery?)

  3. Abby Kavner says:

    I had role models when I was young. My dad is an engineer. Carl Sagan on TV. A few mostly dusty books. (_Microbe Hunters_, anyone?) Now that I am a practicing scientist and know many many scientists, I have lots of role models. Far more important for me along the way was the huge amounts of support and encouragement that I received. From many many people–family, friends, colleagues.

  4. Verity says:

    Like other commenters, I don’t know that I had role models as such, particularly when I was younger. I was always most interested in the ideas, so there are a few books and TV programs that stand out, but for the ideas first. I did then quite often go on to find out more about the people writing the books and having the ideas. I then often found that information interesting and encouraging (if not always precisely inspirational); however, it was always derived from the ideas.

  5. phaatim says:

    Hmm perhaps I am the exception! I think I was always interested in the lives of scientists and was an avid reader of popular science books during my A levels. In fact, I sometimes liked the anecdotes about the scientists more than the science. A brilliant talk by Prof Daniel Glaser at UCL for sixth formers on fMRI gave the final push when I chose medical physics, but I always secretly wanted to be a polymath of sorts like the ancient scientists I had read about (mostly Avicenna). I guess they somehow ‘inspired’ me to go multidisciplinary, joining forces with the chemical sciences, then the bioengineering dept…
    I think for most people, its a combination of factors at the right time in your life. I’m not sure whether TV shows will fill the role of factors such as a good science teacher etc for the next generation…
    Ps. Having a role model doesn’t imply having impure intentions in pursuing the goal; I love science for the sake of science. I was just naturally drawn to these people whose thirst for knowledge I felt I could relate to, even if they lived thousands of years before me.

  6. Fabio Noviello says:

    No real role models, just the science. When I was three I got a book on prehistoric animals and there was a “picture2 of two Tyrannosauruses locked in combat with a barren late Cretaceous landscape in the background. This had me hooked on the concepts of the passing of time and the nature of reality (subconsciously as a child, I suppose) which, somehow, drove me into cosmology.

    If I had to cite another important influence, I presume it would be quality science-fiction. I always wanted to be Mr. Spock ….

    Not so original, I guess?

  7. Bob says:

    I wanted to be Dr Who and travel and explore the Universe from the safely of my space-time machine. In the end that time machine turned out to be the Very Small Array and the Planck satellite.

  8. rs says:

    I had role models in life, but not scientists per se. Of course I read biographies and enjoyed them, but all of those were to far for me growing up in a small town in India. I was inspired by Gandhi while growing up.

    I have an unusual career path. I became an assistant professor (teunred) at the age of 25 after my M. Sc. (it is possible in India) in a collage and actually loved teaching. I enrolled for a PhD program while working couple of years later as it would give me an additional salary benefit. When I started my PhD, I had no clue why someone would want to spend time thinking about what that particular sodium ion (my PhD thesis) was doing instead of enjoying teaching and mentoring students in the class. But as I got more and more involved in my research problem, it became more and more challenging and also more and more interesting, enough for me to want to have a research career. I left my permanent job and doing research since then. My two young kids adds up in the challanges science provide so I never get bored.

  9. I had no idol from the past to fixate on until my late twenties. There I was living in amidst a concentration of antisocial behaviour cases who did their best to try to make me doubt that my immutable belief in scientifically derived facts was without any knowledgeable foundation. Compounding with this anachronistic world of love spells and enchantments, a sort of veiled threat of types in that if you don’t do as I say this and that calamity will happen to, was that they’d provide scientific support for their belief system in the subjectively idealistic notion that reality does not exist.

    I had not had much of an education until then, but pensive at home one day, trying to get rid of the hubristic cloud of doubt in existence that surrounded me, foreboding mental death, my one idol in life came to mind standing strong amidst the adversity of the situation and I was born again. My idol, Dmitri Mendeleev, had lightly fastened onto my mind ever since I’d done chemistry O level at school because of my fascination with the periodic table of chemical elements. After that I’d had the fortune of learning more on Dmitri and his work thanks to the book and the video documentary, The Ascent Of Man, presented by Jacob Bronowski. As from my teens until the moment of scientific relevation in my late twenties, all I had to do when pausing and questioning myself about reality was to remember the table of chemical elements, my mind satisfied that I had an explanation for it.

    My epiphany was this. If all the chemical elements and the intelligent life to perceive it as such are ubiquitous in this universe, then the periodicity in them could have been independently discovered purely by objective reasoning. Objective reasoning removes any doubt as to reality existing because you can mathematically prove at the chemical scale that the elements are actual, removed from subjective invention. Doubt on there being a reality is disproved because the ubiquitous periodicity of the chemical elements does not depend on its perception by an individual, but is found everywhere around this universe.

    My idol saved my life!

  10. LL says:

    The person who inspired me to pursue my career in science (and who continues to be an inspiration as she now ‘runs’ the University of Manchester) is Dame Prof. Nancy Rothwell. I was fortunate to be able to do my school work experience placement in her lab, and while I was already committed to doing science A-levels and thinking about studying science at university, I had no idea what ‘life as a scientist’ was like, and whether a career in science was something I could, or would even want, to pursue.

    My two weeks in Nancy’s lab were transformative. I was inspired not so much by the subject of the scientific research being undertaken (although it was fascinating) but by the energy and enthusiasm of the scientists I met, the way that they set about their meticulous investigations like detectives, and most of all by Nancy herself. I spent a day following her around the department as she worked (she was already an established Prof. by then) and I was just swept away. She took me (aged 15!) to all of her meetings with colleagues and collaborators. Her confidence, drive and intellectual verve were irresistible to me as a teenage girl and I was completely in awe by the end of the day. By the time I left Nancy’s lab I knew there was nothing else I would rather do than be a research scientist, and become ‘like her’ (not sure I will ever manage the latter but I like to think I am on my way with the former).

    This may sound rather gushing and … and perhaps it is, but Athene’s post reminded me of just how important that one brief period nearly 20 years ago has been for my career. Not only as a moment of inspiration, but also in that I met someone who was both a role model and mentor as I took my first steps in my scientific career.

    I always try to remember this whenever I host work experience or undergraduate students in the lab. As more experienced scientists we have a responsibility to inspire the next generation of scientists not only through the data that we collect, the papers we write and the theories we expound, but also by showing them that the working life of a scientist is exciting, varied, full of interesting people and experiences and most of all enjoyable.

  11. LL
    I think you precisely prove my point, that it is because you saw Nancy Rothwell as a real person that she was able to inspire you. None of this, ‘I read about Marie Curie’ sort of thing, which I suspect was the answer that might have been expected to the original question. The primary driver for many seems to be simply that great love for science.

    It is interesting that other peopel are identifying books as important, but also that role models came later on (as they did for me). Overall I sense that my position is much

    Andrew I think your experience is fascinating and clearly hugely formative but also probably a very rare sort of occurrence.

  12. LL says:

    I completely agree Athene. And I feel that collectively as academics we have a responsibility to show, through our interactions with young scientists (and female scientists in particular) that ‘real’ and often even ‘normal” people can and do achieve excellence in the field of science. I find the elevation of the distant, scientifically impressive, but ultimately inaccessible role models of previous generations to be uninspiring and potentially even demoralising, as they seem to prescribe some mythical standard of greatness we can only dream of achieving.
    Thanks as ever for the provoking post!

  13. Gem says:

    Hi Athene, I’ve been reading your blog posts for a little while now and thought I should weigh in on this occasion as I also don’t feel that anyone inspired me when I was younger. I always just persued the subjects that interested me, and now I find myself starting my first postdoc across the Atlantic from home! That doesn’t mean to say I haven’t had role models growing up, but I can’t say that any of them inspired me to be a scientist in particular.

  14. cromercrox says:

    I always wanted to be a scientist, even before I knew what a scientist was. It was the fascination with unknown things that got me.

  15. My Ichthyology professor as an undergradute, Dr. David Etnier as well as my Early Greek Mythology Prof. Chthonian gods and science – these were my two most inspiring professors. I continued in science because that is what I was best at – moving to the physical sciences later. I found these people both inspiring because they were both great teachers and seemed to have a way of explaining complexity in an accessible way. That is what I am more inspried by I think than science itself…. How to explain complexity – what we do know. Science is a good way to start at that….

  16. Adam Rutherford says:

    Hullo Athene, It was a fun evening, slightly surreal as we went to a cocktail bar with Benedict and Hawking afterwards. Margaritas.

    A film crew asked me the inspiration question at the event (after asking me how the Higgs discovery would help my field: erm, genetics?)

    My answer is threefold:
    1) My pa, who just did sciencey things with me, we used to go fossil hunting on Frinton beach (a town I later discovered famous for NOT having a pub). We also used to watch Attenborough and Cosmos together from as early as I can remember.

    2) The Space Shuttle. Apollo was already history by the time I was born, not that it wasn’t a great influence, but I was 6 when STS1 went up and 11 when Challenger came down. I have clear memories of watching the launches in awe. This is one of the reasons I think manned spaceflight is still important. I was a reporter when Columbia was lost. I had the privilege of making this tribute last year when the programme ended:

    3) Peter Venkman, Emmot Brown, Ellie Arroway, Dana Scully and others. The influence of science fiction, particularly on screen, has been profound.

  17. Zen Faulkes says:

    I can’t think of many actual people who I read or saw being a scientist and thought, “I want to be a scientist.” Maybe late in my undergraduate career, but even then, I was responding more to them as instructors than scientists.

    There were probably more cases of, “I want to do that,” or “I want to learn that,” than “I want to be that.”

    Besides my teachers in school and university, I was probably more inspired, in the traditional sense, by fictional scientists who also happened to be heroes – The Doctor, Mr. Spock, Buckaroo Banzai.

  18. Sarah says:

    Hi Athene. I’ve been following you on twitter and reading your blog for a good while. You make me think so thank you for that. I from a young age had already decided I wanted to be a scientist but I had no idea as to which direction I wanted to take this in. My first inspiration came from my O/A Level chemistry teacher who told us about how Mendeleev developed the periodic table and how Kekule came up with the structure for benzene. I suppose you could say that they were my first source of inspiration from scientists past. I now have many scientists past and present whom I greatly admire and find inspiring. The science community on Twitter is a constant source of inspiration. I’m there as @sarahscientist. Very original I know 😉

  19. Laurence Cox says:

    Initially, I was most influenced by events: getting my first chemistry set at about 9 or 10 (it was certainly before I went to grammar school) sparked my interest in Chemistry. Then, the discovery of quasars in 1963 when I was 15 changed my direction to physics and astronomy. At Sheffield University I met Dr Heinz Muller, one of the lecturers, and learnt about the new field of infrared astronomy, which I later took my PhD in. Lastly, at a stage where I was struggling with my PhD, I was very fortunate to be helped by Dr David Adams (now sadly deceased) of Leicester University astronomy department. He effectively acted as a surrogate supervisor for me when my actual supervisor wasn’t able to help me – to be fair this was not through a lack of willingness.

  20. Well, I’ll confess to being inspired by TV, but in a more low-brow way: by watching Star Trek as a young ‘un. It was my first exposure to the idea of science-as-problem-solver, and I decided I wanted to be a Science Officer, just like Spock. Brilliantly, my first proper job after my undergraduate degree was indeed as a Science Officer. Not on the Enterprise, sadly.

    *gets coat*

  21. Pamela Farries says:

    I think students of my generation (nearly 40) just desperately wanted to get their hands on ‘kit’ to play with. Science lessons were fine but you knew from older siblings that you’d get to see sodium in water in 3rd year etc so there was no surprise. So we salivated over Tomorrow’s World (one vote for Judith Hahn then) and I adored factory visits in WISE courses etc. In retrospect maybe someone should have told me that I was interested in things that were engineering but it’s no bad thing to be a hybrid.

    And finally, I was also retrospectively very disappointed that you Athene were on maternity leave when I was at Robinson doing Physical NatSci. However, given my background I was probably better off in the small materials dept. So yes, lots of accidental factors shape career paths rather than big conscious decisions in my experience.

  22. Steve says:

    I took a keen interest in the history of science before going to University and one book, written by George Gamow, called “30 Years that Shook Physics” was my inspiration. I suppose it was the author’s way of bringing to life the characters (Pauli, Heisenberg, de Broglie etc) that were around at the time that quantum physics was being formulated that made it most interesting to me. Gamow had a knack of making them seem real, and made clear the urgency and collective thinking process of science. Unfortunately (in the UK) were are taught in a way that focusses on answering questions that have been posed in a way that presumes we know the answer, and so it was hard, for me, to find a “hero” during that time. In some ways we probably pick different people for different times. For me these are the teacher who inspired us at school to start thinking about science, the lecturer at University who engaged our minds in abstract yet accessible physics and the supervisor/advisor who within 15 minutes of talking to you had made more sense to you than your official supervisor (no names here!). Outside of this I would pick Johhny Ball (I met him once…namedrop namedrop…at a School’s event and shared a lunch with him sat round some gas taps in a chemistry classroom talking about Archimedes!), Patrick Moore (led me to buy a telescope from a friend and go on an astronomy course – said telescope had been won by my friend in a BBC competition and was originally owned by David Bellamy!) and oddly enough Abdus Salam (I went to London to the Science Museum when I was a teenager but stood under the clock tower in Imperial College and imagined him there pondering the electroweak interaction).

    I guess I have always been inspired by the people that dared to think differently and those that have held on to an idea and pursued it against opposition – is this a position in which only true creativitiy can emerge? In this category I would include most recently Dan Shechtman for his work on quasicrystals – never met the guy but I admire his perseverance against some pretty hefty opposition.

    I also admire people who have confronted discrimination and opposition to their work on the basis of gender, colour and class. If their struggle was only to gain recognition (ex post facto) then, for me, that is not enough. Of all the people that I have mentioned, perhaps most of all, they should serve as a lesson for the future and inspire and influence policy of the future not to make the same mistakes.

  23. Volcanologist says:

    Hilariously, my inspiration was Pierce Brosnan from Dantes Peak. My preferred answer would have been David Attenborough (who I do see as an idol) but my honest answer would really have to be the character Harry Dalton. I always loved science, was really interested in Geology and was pretty sure thats what I wanted to do at university. But it was watching Dantes Peak that I realised you could study volcanoes as an actual job. That a career in understanding what I saw as the most fascinating natural phenomenon on earth (and beyond) was actually possible.

    I think thats more embarrassing than ‘no one’.

  24. Laura says:

    Like many other posters, I don’t think I had any individual role model in science. I think I was much more strongly influenced by my peer group at school — the kids who liked math and computers just seemed smarter and more open than the ones who were planning to study law or business or political science or whatever. Nerdy and all, I’m sure, but I think also less into gossip and backbiting.

    As a teen, I was pretty good at both science and history — a couple of my history teachers seriously encouraged me to consider history as a profession and I’m still interested in archaeology and language. But the cool kids — at least the ones that I thought were cool — were into math and science — and retrospectively I think this was the decisive influence on my path.
    I don’t actually know whether or not they had any role models 🙂

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