My expensive and occasionally dangerous fascination with science goes back to my childhood. In those pre-Internet days, before TED Talks about the power of introversion, YouTube videos of science tricks, and the ever-awesome Wikipedia, the broadcast documentary output of the BBC was the only way to see science in action, and—in one of the poorest areas of Cornwall, almost two hours’ drive from the nearest university—get a sense of what scientists looked like and how they talked about their work.
One science-loving friend—or ‘known associate’, as Dad called him—was Paul Johns. We were peerless in our knowledge of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Airplane!, and, not least, science. We once had a blazing row about artificial intelligence and didn’t talk for days; we agreed that substance dualism was codswallop before knowing its official name; and were only too happy to inform the interested, and many of the uninterested, that the longest word in English is pneuomonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanoconiosis. We were, in short, insufferable.
In the first paragraph, I mentioned that my fasincation with science was occasionally dangerous. The danger began when Paul and I tried to make silly putty in his parents’ garage. The fumes made me dry-heave for several hours. The danger increased during a maths lesson, when Paul showed off a trick syringe whose needle retracted when pressed against a confederate’s body; unfortunately, the plunger pushed it right out again, which Paul proceeded to do, into my leg. Finally, during another maths lesson, Paul produced a thermometer and managed to break it over the back of my hand while demonstrating some kind of technique to re-settle the mercury by flicking it. Cue long conversations in the science technician’s room about the best way to get mercury out of my bloodstream.
Paul went on to a career in medicine. I was on the same track, but somehow ended up as a psychologist. A physician might argue the mercury poisoning played a role. A psychologist, on the other hand, might say I have a conditioned fear of medical equipment.
Last night, my friend Paul, who is now Consultant Neuropathologist at St George’s Healthcare NHS Trust, Senior Lecturer in Neuroanatomy at St George’s University of London, creator of an internationally-acclaimed neuroscience course, was featured on an episode of Horizon talking about the neuroanatomical structures implicated in obsessive compulsive disorders. I marvel to think what we as, teenage boys, would have thought of this.
At university, we reach out to people who might not otherwise think of higher education. We want to show there are systematic ways of thinking, of looking at the world, that can take us beyond the obvious and beyond common sense. For young Paul Johns and Ian Hocking, each the first in our respective families to attend university, programmes like Horizon were important in showing us the potential of those new world views. There are more avenues to knowledge now—Wikipedia, YouTube—but they share the same sense of wonder, possibility and fun.