Science inspirations

September 6, 2009

Why did you become a scientist? I am sure most scientists have been asked this at some point, and with the drive to maintain and increase the number of young people choosing science, its also a central question for policymakers. In a recent post on 2020science, Andrew Maynard revealed some of the key inspirations that got him hooked on science. Following a Twitter challenge to do the same, I tweeted my top three inspirations, but I thought I would expand a little here. So my top three are:

  1. David Attenborough. Or more specifically, the television programmes he presented. These programmes provided a window onto the natural world, and I loved the exploration, the exoticism and the obvious enthusiasm of Attenborough himself. It was through watching Attenborough that I gained an appreciation of the diversity of the natural world, and became fascinated in it. Why and how had that diversity arisen? How is the diversity maintained? And what will happen in the future?
  2. My chemistry teacher. Mr Jones taught me chemistry throughout my secondary school years, and he was a truly inspiring person. One of the things he passed on was a love of the experimental side of his subject. His chemistry demonstrations were legendary, and the explosions could often be heard across the school campus. He also made sure we spent lots of time actually doing experiments, and I learned my chemistry at the bench not at the blackboard or from a book. When I look back, he also taught me the scientific method – the ‘how?’ of science as well as the ‘what?’. In retrospect I think this was the most valuable thing I learned at school.
  3. ‘The Selfish Gene’ by Richard Dawkins. I can remember reading this book during my later years at school. I had always thought my interests in biodiversity and molecules were separate, but Dawkins helped me see the links between them. From this point I knew that life sciences was the discipline for me. Even 30 years on ‘The Selfish Gene’ is still a great book – if you haven’t read it pick up a copy here.

I would be interested to here about your inspirations to become a scientist in the comments.

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11 Responses to “Science inspirations”


  1. Three great inspirations Stephen.

    With a bit more space, I would have definitely included David Attenborough and at least one chemistry teacher in my list.

    Andrew

  2. Lon S. Cohen Says:

    I’m not a scientist at all but have a deep interest of science in all forms from the sidelines. That said, I was influenced by these three people in my love of science:

    1) Carl Sagan – When I was in high school I read Contact and it’s still one of my favorite books. Then I found out that Sagan was not only an author but a real astronomer and that “Cosmos” guy. It started lifelong love of learning about science that continues to this day.

    2) Steven Spielberg – OK. Don’t kill me for not picking all scientists for this list. But Spielberg’s movies instilled in my a sense of wonder about the natural world. Jaws made me love the ocean animals, both scary and benign. Close Encounters and ET made me wonder what was really out there in the canopy of the stars overhead as a kid. Indiana Jones made me think about cultures, myth and archeology. Fiction may not always get the scientific facts all right, but they do provide a great jumping off point for young minds to go further and find out about the physical world and sciences in real life.

    3) My mother – My mom has always taught me the importance of education. She kept the house well-stocked with books that I discovered at appropriate times growing up (including the Carl Sagan book mentioned at #1 on this list.) She also was a bit of a Star Trek and Sci-Fi fan herself so I grew up with a parent who encouraged both critical thinking and fantastical imagining. She influenced me to aspire to many of the things I am today (for better or for worse) but one thing I know is that it is because of my mom that I love to read and learn as much as I do. Both are endeavors that bring bring me great joy and satisfaction no matter what.

    Alternate: My high school Marine Biology teacher – This guy was funny and his passion came out in a way that I never expected. He was so into his science that he would crack bad jokes and puns about the subject even if he was the only one to get the joke. Everyone got a great grade in his classes because he really made learning about science fun, not rote.

    FYI: I blogged about this post here on my personal blog: http://cohenside.blogspot.com/2009/09/three-science-influences.html

  3. stevenhill Says:

    Thanks for the comments Andrew and Lon.

    Lon: I don’t think you should worry about having a non-scientist in your list, and I agree that good science fiction can be hugely influencial. I would agree with Andrew that Dr Who (in the John Pertwee and Tom Baker era) were influential to me. And I would also add Star Trek as one of my inspriations.

  4. James McGarry Says:

    I’m not a scientist either (though I have a degree in BioSci), and I don’t think you need to be one either to have a love of science. My inspirations:

    3. Stephen Jay Gould for his work in evolution, completing his big tome in time & being a great speaker. I managed to catch a brief talk of his just before the release of The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, he made relatively dry theory exciting.

    2. E.O. Wilson for seeing (and loving) the complexity of biodiversity. I keep reading Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge and The Diversity of Life over and over. The depth, richness and beauty of life on this planet is something science keeps bringing us, in spades.

    1. Richard Feynman, not for anything he discovered. Simply for his _love_ of science and making it fun. Every video, lecture, and book I’ve read or seen he seems to be having fun. He always seemed to have this smirk on his face that said, “I’ve got something neat to show you.” Whenever I was having trouble with a course or looking for motivation, I’d read one of his biographies with Ralph Leighton and some of the joy would come back, even with organic chem. 🙂

    I keep reading journals, and I’m always amazed by how far we’ve come and how neat all this stuff is.

  5. Sara Says:

    I think this article made some interesting points, I read a textbook directly related to this topic, its called Physical Chemistry for the Life Sciences by , I found my used copy for less than the bookstores at http://www.belabooks.com/books/9780716786283.htm

  6. Creola Rauhe Says:

    @John, I am with you really good article.

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