It is very probable that had I been born 60 years later, I would not have been inspired to take up science. My motivation started at primary school age, and came at a time when children, their parents and their teachers were not governed or particularly worried by health and safety considerations and an attendant legal profession. Consequently, as a child I was free to pursue scientific activities – some of which, today, would attract the attention of antiterrorist officers. This was a stimulating environment, which bred many scientists and preceded any understanding I had of scholarship and research.
My inspiration came from three main sources.
- My father was an expert in many practical subjects, and had a fully equipped workshop that I was free to use from a very early age. He also encouraged me to set up a home laboratory. Chemicals were freely available from the local pharmacy.
- Inspiration came from a primary school where, unusually, there was a teacher with extracurricular leanings in year four, supported by a cupboard packed with fascinating scientific equipment.
- Finally, there was the grammar school where – despite wartime staffing problems – my earlier interests, particularly in chemistry, were reinforced by an extensive and very varied programme of practical work.
The basic driving force behind all of this was excitement. I became addicted to flashes and bangs, not forgetting unusual odours. I was always wondering what would happen if you added A to B, heated C, or ignited D, preferably in a sealed tube.
Today, most people seem to invoke the precautionary principle. They insist that it is highly irresponsible to allow scientific inquisitiveness to flourish at the practical level, either at school or at university, without the most stringent precautions. Together with the attendant paperwork, this has all but taken away the environment of my youth. The product of today’s education, having been shielded from anything remotely dangerous, is not really equipped to deal with unexpected laboratory events.