Why Didn’t I Become a Biologist?

The question in the title is not a rhetorical question. I find it strange when I look back at my early years, why I ended up so convinced I wanted to be a physicist, particularly as there was no family member who could conceivably have talked to me about the joys of physical science.  As I sort through the contents of my late mother’s house, everything points to the fact that I should have become a biologist of some sort. Yet I was never tempted.  I can laughingly say my biology teacher put me off because she terrified me – which she did, being a fierce, smart and independent woman of the ‘old school’, whereas I had an excellent and kind physics teacher . Nevertheless the reality is that by the time I started biology lessons I had already made my decision: we started separate physics and chemistry lessons in (what would now be called) Y8, but biology not for at least another year and I had internally already chosen.

At primary school, from around 8 years old I fell in love with ornithology. My mother, also bitten with the same bug, would take me off to Hampstead Heath after school and at weekends to see what we could find. The answer was usually quite a lot, a much more diverse set of birds than would typically turn up in an urban garden. Birds such as snipe and wheatears could be spotted at appropriate times of year, birds not likely to be found on your bird-table, or even spotted skulking at the bottom of any wild garden spots in London.

Systematically we recorded these birds. I have always remembered this, but it was brought once more into sharp focus finding the files and notebooks my mother and I (with a little help from my sister) laboriously compiled, now that I am sorting through her house. From 1962 on, for around 10 years, there are neat accounts year on year: the recordings of the first swallow or chiffchaff in spring, or the passage of skylarks overhead on a bright, clear winter’s day. It is chastening to think magpies were then sufficiently rare (!) that every single one we saw was meticulously recorded. Birds now rare to non-existent in this country – red backed shrike, pied flycatcher – are also captured in these files, noted down on the few occasions we came across them.  Also intriguing are the absences: for instance, not a single cormorant, now regularly to be found on the ponds on the Heath. No doubt there are plenty of similar London record books, but now I’ve found them again and dusted them down (and they certainly needed dusting) I don’t feel I can just toss them out.

I also found my primary school ‘project’ book, intended to be written on a topic of light relief at the end of my last school year. Inevitably it describes the birds I’d seen on the Heath, illustrated in my childish and incompetent hand. And, perhaps most strangely of all, I’ve come across a handsome tome ‘Birds in Britain’  by Kenneth Richmond, published in 1962 and bought by me, as my childish script inside the cover shows, with a Christmas book token (that early predecessor of an Amazon voucher)at the end of that year. I suspect I never read the book. Reading it now – and it turns out to be a wonderful book, written in flowing prose, describing the habits and habitats of just about every UK bird then to be found within these shores – I cannot imagine I could possibly have comprehended it let alone enjoyed it at the time. I was 9!

Take these sentences describing a duck unlikely to grace the ponds of Hampstead Heath but one I well recall from holidays in Scotland at the time:

Solid as a barge, stolid in temperament, the Eider is designed for a life full of hard knocks. Imperturbable in the heaviest swell, it rides out the worst storms with negligent ease, sleeping on reefs until they are awash, sliding off into its element, the white boil of surf at the foot of the cliffs.

A wonderful if slightly anthropomorphic description. Did it set my pre-teen heart racing, or did I just like possessing the handsome book as a means of conveying that gravitas I completely lacked? Or was I merely desperate to look grown-up when set loose in a book shop with no idea what I wanted to buy (and I do recall Christmas book-token-spending as being a dreadfully difficult task, full of indecision and anxiety I’d get it wrong: it was such a rare thing to buy a book new, rather than rely on the books already in the house or temporarily imported from the library, the latter full of warnings about not bringing books back if anyone in the house was in quarantine!)

As a practicing scientist I am also amused by the author’s irritation with academic attitudes:

Nowadays even the simplest article submitted to the editors of ornithological journals has to be laid out on the lines of a learned paper, couched in the contemporary jargon and studded with references.

Plus ça change.

So, by the age of 9 or 10 I was a clear systematiser, used to recording events (if not experiments) and with an absolute fascination with the natural world. Yet a mere two or three years later, I was absolutely clear I wanted to be a physicist. I wasn’t thinking of careers – financially rewarding or otherwise – in making that choice. I wasn’t thinking that as a female physicist I could stand out in a crowd much better than as a biologist or that I wanted to be a rarity like a red-backed shrike. Of course not. I wasn’t thinking of a career at all, I was merely following my nose. Yet never did I feel the slightest temptation to study biology for any longer than I absolutely had to, which was probably only about one year before I chose my O levels and dropped it like a hot potato.

Do I regret this? Not really. For all my physics research has steadily moved towards the biological realm over the last 30 years, the biology my generation was taught was simply systematising, labelling, recalling the names of obscure parts of plant and animal anatomy. It simply didn’t appeal. I recall I really felt I had hit the pits when we did an experiment to find out which side of a leaf gave out more water vapour, although why that specific investigation caused me such ire I can no longer reconstruct. The other biology experiment I recall, although it is one that caused me embarrassment rather than ire, involved Fehling’s Solution A and B and a potato. Maybe this could be thought of as an early introduction to experiments on starch, which formed so much a part of my research life from the 1980’s onwards, but it sticks in my mind due to the vigour with which the complex in the test tube shot out of the tube across the lab during overheating and the unsurprising consequent irritation of the teacher. Then, as through so much of my later career, I was a clumsy experimenter.

So, now forced to confront these different manifestations of my early days as a twitcher, reminded how much time and effort I put into ornithology (tick-lists from numerous coach trips to the best birding haunts within a 75 mile radius of London testify to the time commitment I put in) and the fun I got out of it, I am still left pondering why physics grabbed me. Asked, as I so often am, what inspired me to go into physics I simply have no convincing answer. It wasn’t a study of the night sky, or men landing on the moon; nor was it linked to Harold Wilson’s ‘white heat of technology’ speech.  I liked it and it made sense to me. It was as simple as that.

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6 Responses to Why Didn’t I Become a Biologist?

  1. Jim Smith says:

    Here is how I accidentally became a biologist!

    • Jim, thanks. It’s an interesting question what would have happened had I taken IA Biology of Cells – but no one ever suggested that to me and I did the standard trio of physics, chemistry and (what was then) Crystalline state. Tom ap Rees, talking to me about starch decades later, asked why hadn’t I done cells, that it was created for people like me – but that was far too late!

      • Jim Smith says:

        My Director of Studies, Douglas Barker, recommended Biology of Cells to me, Hugh Pelham, Richard Treisman, Daniel St Johnston, Mike Lynch, and many others (lots of whom, no doubt, would have stuck with Physics!).

  2. David Secher says:

    I was one of the first students to do 1A Biology of Cells. I had not even done O Level Biology at school. It changed my life from a chemist to a biologist! When, seven years later, I was elected to a Fellowship in Caius and had a chance to thank Tom ap Rees for a great course, he told me how the hardest part of setting it up was persuading his colleagues that we ignorant first year students would not break or steal components from the Zeiss microscopes that we had to take apart and re-assemble for the first practical. In ten years there were only two minor breakages and no lost microscopes, he said, with evident pride.

    • Jim Smith says:

      The Zeiss microscope practical was brilliant. And only one person, it is said, thought you had to pour oil inside the 100x oil-immersion objective!

  3. NQ says:

    I think you are lucky that not only did physics catch your eye and imagination from such a young age, you also turned out to be excellent at it! One without the other is the saddest state…

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