The moments that rocked me most in my teenage years were the death of my grandfather, the impossibility of kissing Sophie, and taking the Oxford physics entrance exam. Love, death and science have been with me ever since, and all are equally mysterious to me. The ability to live with uncertainty seems to be necessary to cope with them all – to live in the dark, and see the pinpricks of light that occasionally show the way.
Very, very occasionally, there is a full-on encounter – very like being caught in the headlights of a car, while walking at night down a country road. It is exciting, dangerous and soon replaced with darkness. Searching for more such encounters seems to me to be what life is about.
In science, my first car headlight moment was in that Oxford exam. Facing questions like ‘What is life?’ or ‘Design a new rocket propulsion system for insects’, made me realise that this was the first time I had been asked questions that had no formulaic answer. These questions required me to think, not regurgitate, and there was no way to cram for them. These questions spoke nobly of the band of thinkers who had composed them. I wanted to join them.
Mark Miodownik is a contributor to On Growth, Form and Computers (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)), and The Encyclopedia of Materials: Science and Technology (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website.