What inspired you?

An overview of the new spiked/Pfizer survey of scientists aged 19 to 93, ranging from new talent to Nobel laureates, on what made them take up science.

Sandy Starr

Topics Politics

What Inspired You? is a survey of key thinkers in science, technology and medicine hailing from all corners of the globe, ranging in age from 19 to 93 and ranging in experience from new talents to Nobel laureates. Each of these individuals was asked: ‘What inspired you to take up science?’ The survey was conducted by spiked in collaboration with the research-based pharmaceutical company Pfizer, in order to provide insights into current challenges in science education and science communication, and how these challenges might be overcome.

The annual announcement of GCSE and A-Level results in the UK is routinely marked by fraught debate over educational standards. But it is striking that in 2006, much of this discussion has focused upon a perceived crisis in science teaching. Numbers of students taking subjects such as physics and chemistry are worryingly low and getting lower, with possible adverse consequences for future scientific endeavour.

The substitution of ‘combined science’ for seperate qualifications in chemistry, physics and biology, and the increasing difficulty of supplying enough specialist teachers to sustain these subjects, coincide with the widespread closure and merging of university science departments. Meanwhile, universities are reportedly having to offer remedial classes in the sciences.

Concerns over the younger generation’s seeming indifference to science have prompted various initiatives and proposals, which aim to make science more ‘relevant’ to children and to the broader public. Programmes of study recently introduced across the UK have asserted a new distinction between ‘science for citizens’ and ‘science for scientists’, with a corresponding focus upon ‘scientific literacy’ – a concept quite different from aptitude in the sciences as it has traditionally been understood. Critics argue that such initiatives can only denude science education and science communication of their scientific content, and therefore fail to convey anything of the the true significance and rigorous methods of science.

It is in the context of these concerns and debates that we asked our diverse range of survey respondents to tell us what inspired them to take up science, and by extension, what might inspire the scientists and thinkers of the future. (Also see the overview of the survey launch event and concluding responses.)

  • Inspirational teachers and mentors

The most common response to the question ‘What inspired you to take up science?’ – given by respondents including Dr Colin Berry, Peter Cochrane, Jorge Mayer, Simon Singh and Christopher Llewellyn Smith – is that they were inspired by teachers or mentors. Typical of such reponses are Alom Shaha’s description of ‘gifted teachers, whose enthusiasm for their subjects was relentless and infectious’, and Michael Wilson’s account of ‘inspirational and rigorous teachers in high school, who engendered an insatiable intellectual hunger for factual knowledge, and who encouraged observation and deductive thinking’.

Survey respondents often point to one or two particular individuals who made a lasting impact. Josef Penninger, for instance, was inspired by ‘a great mentor and teacher’, and argues that ‘most of us became what we became because of one dominating person, who moved us into a certain direction’. Frances Downey, James Enstrom, Pat Norris, John Zarnecki and Anton Zeilinger describe inspirational mathematics and physics teachers, Thomas Addiscott and Eliot Forster discuss inspirational chemistry teachers, and Kenneth Freeman had ‘a very capable and very overworked teacher’ who taught him mathematics, physics and chemistry. Meanwhile, Professor Sir Colin Berry, Keith Davies and William Ledger found inspiration in their biology teachers.

Not all teacher figures were regular schoolteachers. Pioneer of radio astronomy Bernard Lovell was inspired by school outings where he witnessed a series of evening lectures on the electric spark. Brian Charlesworth was inspired by two substitute teachers taking one-off classes, who just happened to give compelling accounts of gravitation and of amoebas respectively. Jennie Luebke was inspired while working summer jobs in laboratories, by ‘several mentors who appreciated my great enthusiasm for science’. And Daniel Price was ‘inspired by a family friend who was a lecturer in astronomy, and who always encouraged my interest’.

It is worth noting that many inspirational encounters with teachers involved the teacher taking a special interest in the student, and giving the student individual attention, as in the following account by James Trefil. ‘My high school chemistry teacher…was the first person to say: “Hey kid, you’re good at this. You can be a scientist.” He encouraged me and a couple of friends (now all PhDs), let us mess around in the laboratory after hours, and gently guided us through the college application process.’

Likewise, Marcus du Sautoy credits ‘the effect of a teacher taking a personal interest in me’ with having inspired him, and describes how his mathemetics teacher ‘took me round the back of the maths block…took out a cigar from his pocket…lit it slowly, turned to me, and said: “I think you should find out what mathematics is really about”.’

This kind of intimacy between teachers and students seems less likely to flourish today, when teacher/student relationships are often characterised by regulation and mistrust. Certainly Sophie Petit-Zeman’s description of ‘falling in love with my biology teacher when I was 13’, and her assertion that ‘there’s nothing like falling in love for overcoming challenges in education’, rests uneasily with the present climate in teaching.

A number of survey respondents, such as Michel Cabanac, Gareth Leng, Channapatna Prakash and Vadim Rotenberg, describe relationships with mentors that flourished during higher and further education. Marlene Oscar Berman argues that ‘the trusting support of a young student by a revered professor can be critical’, and describes how she came to experience ‘the powerful influence of a mentor relationship upon growth, creativity, and development’.

Several survey respondents discuss the importance of being challenged, rather than spoken down to, by teacher figures at school or at university. David Murphy praises ‘the nurturing efforts of teachers who challenged me intellectually, and who encouraged merit and excellence’, while Mark Miodownik liked being asked ‘questions that had no formulaic answer’.

David Perks notes that ‘I was treated by my tutors as if I could make sense of everything they knew about physics’, and that ‘this was the greatest respect they could have paid me’. He went on to become a physics teacher himself, and explains that in his endeavours to challenge his students and get them to think for themselves, ‘I find myself teaching outside of the syllabus’.

Other survey respondents approve of teaching beyond the nominal parameters of the syllabus in this way, with Jack Pridham explaining that ‘inspiration came from a primary school where, unusually, there was a teacher with extracurricular leanings’. A similar attitude was appreciated at university by John Zarnecki, who describes how his university tutor would put standard undergraduate work aside in order to ‘talk about his own astronomical research’.

What are the obstacles to such inspirational teacher and mentor figures flourishing today? Simon Singh is concerned that ‘schoolchildren are less likely than ever before to have a decent physics teacher’, and that ‘budding boffins in today’s classroom will miss out, because they won’t have an inspirational physics teacher explaining the secrets of the universe’.

What might the solution be? According to Pat Norris, ‘it’s simple – top quality secondary school teachers will ensure that lots more children follow the path of science and engineering’.

  • Hands-on experience and experiments

Many survey respondents discuss the crucial role of hands-on experience in inspiring enquiring young minds to take up science. Fiona McEwen recalls that ‘as a young child, the idea that most appealed to me was being able to find things out for myself through experimentation and observation, rather than simply having to take someone else’s word for it’. Zbigniew Jaworowski describes a ‘strong drive for practical activity, and for understanding the world by results of observation and experiment’.

Ian Fells explains that he ‘was inspired by the rigour of studying physics and chemistry, and carrying out some of the fundamental experiments myself rather than having them demonstrated to me’. And David Deutsch was similarly attracted to ‘the idea of finding out for myself what the laws of nature are, and how they work’.

There are accounts of such endearing early experiments as a four-year-old Sharon Ann Holgate imitating a method of water displacement that she saw in the children’s TV programme Fingerbobs, Alan McHughen dismantling his parents’ alarm clock, and Fiona McEwen disproving the existence of the tooth fairy. There are also accounts of thrilling and potentially dangerous experiments, that children had far greater latitude to conduct in a less risk-averse era. Jack Pridham recalls that ‘as a child I was free to pursue scientific activities – some of which, today, would attract the attention of antiterrorist officers’.

As might be expected, several survey respondents had inspiring hands-on experiences during school science classes. Eliot Forster recalls lessons ‘brimming over with hands-on experience’, Anton Zeilinger had a physics teacher who ‘showed us thrilling experiments all the time’, and Neil Bartlett was inspired by ‘my firsthand experience of my first chemistry laboratory exercise’, in which ‘we 11-year-olds were instructed to make a solution of light blue copper sulphate crystals’.

A recurring theme is the excitement that was elicited in survey respondents by spectacular and explosive experiments. Simon Singh, for example, praises teachers of his who were ‘willing to stick chemicals that made a loud bang in test tubes’.

But not all audacious experiments had to involve explosive reactions. Stuart Derbyshire found inspiration when, aged 10, one of his teachers blindfolded him and deceived him into thinking that his hand had been plunged into boiling water. He recalls that this ‘was a bold experiment that energised the class for the remainder of the day, as we argued about the relationship between expectation and experience’.

In addition to classroom experiences, experiments were often performed at home. Jorge Mayer remembers ‘trying to produce crude oil in a test tube using garden debris’, and ‘putting together a small chemistry laboratory in a garden toolshed that wasn’t big enough for me to stand in’. William Bains recalls ‘chemistry sets and explosively dangerous experiments in the garden’.

Jack Pridham describes the refreshing free rein that was once enjoyed by the enterprising young chemist: ‘My father…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.’

Some accounts of inspiring home experiments verge on the alarming, but are all the more vivid for this. Julien Clinton Sprott ‘carefully spread a hairpin apart and inserted it into an electrical socket’. William Chaloner ‘made electrical circuits and explosives (acetylene bombs were very popular with my contemporaries), distilled alcohol from meths, and made chloroform and ether using a still with a spirit lamp in my bedroom’.

Meanwhile, when Vivian Moses was forced to abandon his chemical experiments in the home, he moved on instead to amateur experiments on animals: ‘Chemistry at home came to an abrupt halt after a flask of hydrogen blew up, but biology was more innocuous. Frogs, worms and other candidates for dissection were just a short walk away.’

There are fewer such opportunities for experimentation available to children today. Recent years have seen a marked decline in classroom practical experiments, with those experiments that are still conducted being strictly regimented according to onerous risk assessment procedures. Teachers now operate in a highly litigious environment, and child safety has become a paramount concern in the home as well. While such developments are no doubt motivated by good intentions, they have inhibited, if not altogether eradicated, a key avenue through which children were once inspired to take up science.

As Jack Pridham puts it: ‘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.’

  • Space exploration, social upheaval and scientific progress

Numerous survey respondents were inspired to take up science by space exploration, and by the extensive public enthusiasm that surrounded the space race during the 1950s and 1960s. As Fred Taylor puts it: ‘The space age was dawning, and I wanted to be part of it. In particular, I wanted to explore the planets, and to be involved in designing and building the rockets and other machinery involved.’ He eventually achieved his youthful goal, and is now ‘involved in exploring every major body in the classical solar system’.

Survey respondents Keith Devlin, Julien Clinton Sprott and James Woudhuysen discuss the particular significance of Sputnik 1, which was launched in 1957 and was the first manmade satellite to be put into orbit. John Zarnecki recalls a 1961 encounter with Yuri Gagarin, the first human ever to travel into space, who at the time was ‘the most famous man in the world’.

Eight years later, William Bains was inspired by the 1969 moon landings. And a visit to New York’s Hayden Planetarium proved inspirational for a teenage Victor Stenger, who was subsequently ‘hooked on astronomy and especially the prospects for space travel’.

Space exploration is not the only aspect of scientific progress cited as inspirational by our survey respondents. Stephen Barrett was inspired by ‘the rapid and amazing strides being made in the understanding and treatment of disease’, while Thomas Gartrell looked back in history and was taken by ‘the philosophy underlying the enthusiasm of the Victorians, and the scientific breakthroughs that this philosophy precipitated’. Kevin Warwick found inspiration in ‘the electrical experiments of Michael Faraday, the first telephone call of Graham Bell, and the design of the jet engine by Frank Whittle’.

Just as the space race was largely a product of the Cold War, so other landmark scientific endeavours have been intimately connected with periods of social upheaval and the trajectory of world affairs. Such strife and upheaval impinged upon the scientific careers of our survey respondents not only via corresponding developments in science, but also directly.

For example, Nobel laureate Jack Steinberger, one of the discoverers of the muon neutrino, originally studied physics in order to operate radar equipment during the Second World War. He explains: ‘This led to a career in physics, which I have very much appreciated since. But I have a terrible war, not my own inspiration, to thank for this.’

Radar operations during the Second World War also played a key role in the career of Bernard Lovell, who detected echoes while manning a coastal defence radar station. As he relates: ‘In the belief that those echoes might be from the ionisation of large cosmic ray showers, I borrowed ex-army radar equipment and installed it at Jodrell Bank in Cheshire to investigate these phenomena.’ This led to the construction of Jodrell Bank’s famous telescope, then the largest steerable dish radiotelescope in the world, with a 250ft-diameter dish.

Elsewhere during the Second World War, Zbigniew Jaworowski was a teenager in occupied Poland, where ‘Germans closed all of the secondary schools and universities’ and ‘imposed a death penalty for continuation of education’. Jaworowski pursued his scientific interests in these gruelling circumstances by becoming ‘a self-taught and private clandestine student’.

Subsequent conflicts were also to have a powerful impact upon the scientific careers of survey respondents. For instance, pioneer of phylogeography John Avise pursued his studies during the Vietnam War principally as a means of evading the draft.

Today’s world has its own share of conflicts and upheavals, and the prospective ascendancy of Asian industry in particular has helped to inject a sense of dynamism into fields ranging from space exploration to biotechnology. But at the same time, scientific ambition is often met with fear, suspicion or outright hostility today. Attempts to further our insight into, and extend our control over, various aspects of our existence – from nuclear power and nanotechnology to stem cell research and synthetic drugs – are often characterised as hubristic or dangerous.

Needless to say, scientific endeavour continues apace, and human ingenuity is ultimately (and thankfully) irrepressible. But the difficulty we now experience in giving affirmation to scientific pursuits may well have the effect of curtailing young people’s enthusiasm for science.

Norman Levitt argues that ‘cultural ambience is the key factor in focusing the ambitions of gifted young people upon science’, and recalls that when he was younger, ‘the default assumption was that the route for a smart kid to take led to medicine or science’. Likewise, Stephen Barrett recalls that in taking up science, ‘I simply did what my cultural group expected of me’. Are similarly talented youths likely to find the same stimulation and encouragement in today’s circumstances?

Judging from the survey responses, perhaps the most significant aspect of the heyday of space exploration was not the part it played in making space science tangible and compelling – important though that was – but the fact that it bespoke the broader aspirations and achievements of society. As Keith Devlin says recalling the launch of Sputnik 1, ‘I didn’t really know what science was, but I knew it had put a spacecraft into orbit and I wanted to be part of that exciting new world’.

  • Family inspiration

A key factor that inspired several survey respondents was the influence of family. Perhaps the most notable survey respondent in this regard is Gustav Born, who comes from a family of distinguished scientists spanning several generations. His great-grandfather was the public health physician Marcus Born, his grandfather and namesake was the embryologist Gustav Born, and his father was the Nobel-winning physicist Max Born.

Several other survey respondents, including Roger Armour, Dr Colin Berry, Nina Japundžić-Žigon, Channapatna Prakash, Daniel Price, Vadim Rotenberg and Anton Zeilinger, had family members who worked in science or in related professions. These survey respondents were therefore exposed to scientific thought and practice from an early age.

Survey respondents such as David Murphy and John Zarnecki had parents who weren’t scientists as such, but whose interest and encouragement were nonetheless decisive in the scientific achievements of their progeny. Meanwhile, Vincent Crabtree, Peter Kuhn and John Stein had family members who were afflicted by debilitating conditions. These survey respondents subsequently pursued careers in science, out of a desire to help others who were similarly afflicted. In a similar vein, Ben Shneiderman was inspired by ‘the challenge of understanding a small part of our amazing world, with the goal of making life better for many’.

  • Science fact and science fiction

Scientific literature, both popular and specialist, was an inspiration to William Bains, Časlav Brukner, Keith Davies, James Jack, Zbigniew Jaworowski, Vivian Moses, David Murphy, Leslie Rose, Christopher Llewellyn Smith, Patrick Walters and James Woudhuysen. Science writers credited with providing inspiration include Isaac Asimov, Gilbert Beebe, WH Boulton, Arthur C Clarke, Richard Dawkins, Paul de Kruif, Arthur Stanley Eddington, Richard Feynman, Samuel Glasstone, Stephen Jay Gould, James Jeans, James Kendall, Steve Jones, Charles Medawar, Vladimir Paar, Carl Sagan, Burrhus Frederic Skinner and John Maynard Smith.

Keith Davies, Paul Parsons, David Perks, Patrick Walters credit factual TV programmes with having inspired them. Programmes mentioned in this context include David Attenborough’s The World About Us, Raymond Baxter’s Tomorrow’s World, Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man, Arthur C Clarke’s Mysterious World, Bryan Magee’s Men of Ideas, Patrick Moore’s The Sky at Night and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. Victor Stenger, meanwhile, was inspired by the space art of Chesley Bonestell.

Other survey respondents, such as William Bains, Mark Brake, Vincent Crabtree, Clifford Pickover, James Trefil and Kevin Warwick, were inspired by science fiction. Examples given include the literature of Isaac Asimov, Michael Crichton, Henry Hasse and HG Wells; Fred M Wilcox’s film Forbidden Planet; and the TV programmes Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica.

  • Innate curiosity and predisposition towards science

Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, James Jack, Mike Ludwig, Henry Joy McCracken, Enrique Morgado, Clifford Pickover, Peter Raven, Hugh Sharman, Lee Silver and Patrick Walters, put their ispiration to take up science down to innate curiosity. William Bains, Časlav Brukner describes this quality as ‘a form of deep emotional excitement that I experienced when thinking about basic questions’, while while Piet Hut has long enjoyed ‘travelling to the edge of the known’.

Some survey respondents feel that they were predisposed from an early age to take up science. Peter Lane claims that ‘science was in my blood’, while William Graeme Laver recalls that ‘all I ever wanted to do was to work in a laboratory and discover new things’.

There are also autodidacts such as Leslie Rose, who says ‘I inspired myself’. And Nobel laureate Harold Kroto, one of the discoverers of the fullerenes, who simply ‘decided long ago that I would do as many of the things that interested me as possible, to the best of my ability’.

This sense of predisposition is by no means unanimous. Mark Lythgoe says ‘I was born to do science’, but the path that led him to science was by his own admission ‘circuitous’. Harold Gainer also took up science via ‘a slow evolution rather than a sudden passion’. And John Avise found that ‘my appreciation of academia and intellectual pursuits was a slowly acquired taste, that still seems to require conscious nurturing’.

  • The science of nature and the nature of science

Survey respondents were often curious about and inspired by particular aspects of the natural world. For pioneer of nanotechnology K Eric Drexler it was ‘the discovery of a wide range of biomolecular machines and devices’. JMD Coey was attracted to concepts of physics’, while James O’Brien ‘fell in love with the atmosphere’. Nobel laureate Paul Lauterbur, pioneer of magnetic resonance imaging, simply says that ‘the world was my inspiration’.

Pioneer of transgenic fruit breeding David James was always keen on genetics, while Ingo Potrykus, creator of genetically engineered Golden Rice, was more specifically interested in ‘the phenomenon of totipotency of plant cells’. Fernand Labrie had a ‘desire to understand how living matter works’, and Roger Armour, inventor of the Optyse Lens Free Ophthalmoscope, was inspired by ‘the beauty of living things and how one might help them when they go wrong’. John Stein, scientific adviser to the pro-vivisection campaign Pro-Test, was and is preoccupied with ‘how much we can learn about the human brain by studying the nervous systems of animals’.

Jonathan Jones, meanwhile, was inspired by the Periodic Table of the chemical elements. This is salient, because one of the most pointed criticisms of the UK’s new science curriculum is that it is no longer compulsory for children to study the Periodic Table.

There is some room for debate as to what actually constitutes science. Michael Baum recalls how ‘my brother Harold Baum, a distinguished biochemist, described to me the principles of scientific philosophy, and suggested – to my horror – that medicine might not be a science’. Psychologist Tana Dineen declares that ‘I don’t view myself as a scientist, but as someone who respects the limits that science can put on our ignorance’. And Peter Martin and Hugh Sharman are both careful to distinguish engineering from science.

Sonja Boehmer-Christiansen, on the other hand, makes the case for a more inclusive conception of science, believing that ‘”science” is not confined to the study of nature or machines, but includes the study of peoples and their relationships as well’. For Boris Kotchoubey, the defining characteristic of science is that it ‘combines the most important ideals of humanity – creativity and rationality’.

  • From being inspired to being inspirational

Many of our survey respondents have not only been the beneficiaries of scientific inspiration, but have gone on to inspire others with their own achievements and advocacy. Bernard Lovell explains: ‘Now, in my ninety-third year, I often meet elderly people long since retired, who tell me that it was the sight of Jodrell as a young boy that inspired them to a scientific career. As the electric arcs produced by Tyndall in 1928 changed my life, so the huge structures of radio astronomy and the investigation of the mysteries of the universe have changed the lives of many people today.’

But perhaps the last word should go to Nick Hayward, who was recently named the UK’s young scientist of the year, and who says: ‘Science inspired me to take up science.’

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Topics Politics


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