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.
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!