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John C Zarnecki
professor of space science at the Open University, member of the Planetary and Space Sciences Research Institute, and principal investigator for the Surface Science Package on the Huygens probe on the surface of Saturn's moon Titan

On reflection, I believe that my inspiration to take up science can be described in one word – namely people.

Several people were my inspiration. First was Yuri Gagarin, the world’s first cosmonaut. As an 11-year-old schoolboy, I stood a few feet away from him when he visited London in 1961, as the most famous man in the world. His space achievement dazzled me.

Next came my school physics teacher, who showed me that the laws of physics were awe inspiring. Whether it was Isaac Newton’s laws of motion, which made so much of the universe make sense, or whether it was the more mundane explanation of the conduction of heat, the realisation that the behaviour of the physical world could (mostly) be described was a revelation.

Next was my undergraduate tutor at university. Instead of discussing the weekly problems that we were set, he would often talk about his own astronomical research. A new world was revealed to me. And then to my PhD supervisor, who gave me opportunities and placed trust in me that led to my first journey into space with X-ray detectors on sounding rockets, giving us at most 10 minutes of observing the X-ray universe.

I mustn’t forget my parents. They had no special scientific education – one was an art historian, and the other had a degree in politics, philosophy and economics – but they had the breadth to encourage my scientific learning from an early age, without reservation.

So to conclude, the answer to the question is inspiring people. My thanks go to Yuri Gagarin, RIG Hughes, John Baldwin, Len Culhane, and George and Anne Zarnecki.

John Zarnecki is coauthor of Space Dust and Debris (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)). See his website.