Star gazing

As a small boy I desperately wanted a telescope. I loved looking at the stars and the Moon. Light pollution meant I could only rarely make out the Milky Way – when I did it just looked like light cloud – but I really wanted to see it in more detail. I’d also heard that the stars had different colours. These weren’t visible in the town I grew up in.

But telescopes were well outside the financial resources of my family. I had a toy one – sold as a ‘pirate telescope’. But it was totally inadequate to what I wanted to do with it.

I tried to make my own. I got hold of spectacle lenses from somewhere, but they all turned out to be concave. They made things look smaller, not bigger. I looked into the history of them as far as I could. I only had the books of a small public library to refer to. But I contemplated grinding my own lenses from some left over panes of glass from the greenhouse my grandad had built. The process is simple in principle, and I think I just assumed that if I worked at it long enough I would finally end up with the desired result. I couldn’t buy the required abrasives in shops, so I started getting hold of Exchange and Mart on the off chance some would be for sale somewhere.

But it all came to nothing in the end. I have still never owned a telescope. My intense research for a way to satisfy my yearning did however introduce me to Galileo. I learnt the story of how the telescope had widened people’s horizons and allowed us to discover just how wonderful and big the Universe is. It was all very exciting. Later when I got to secondary school I learnt about x-ray crystallography, chromatography and spectroscopy. I saw straight away that these were equivalent to the telescope. They were new ways of looking at things enabling us to see what had never before been seen. The use of crystallography where you can analyse the pattern of the light through a substance to get an idea of its structure particularly struck me. The elucidation of the structure of DNA was still recent enough to feel like news. I loved it.

This led to me adopting a scientific career. I wasn’t particularly drawn to the acedemic side of things. I just wanted to know how things worked, and what they were really like. I also wasn’t influenced by the utility of scientific knowledge to getting a job. If anything it was the contrary. Nobody was a scientist where I came from.

But in fact I’ve managed to make a reasonable living from science. It hasn’t made me rich but I’ve done well enough to now have my own modest lab and to employ a couple of scientists and a couple of support staff and to make sales all over the world. So I am well aware that science has commercial potential. I spend a fair bit of my time looking for it. I don’t however attribute my success such as it is directly to my scientific knowledge, again such as it is.

It is much more to do with the frame of mind and the attitude that I have derived from it. The Universe is big and compared to our size, abundant. Everything we could ever want is out there if we can work out the way to get it. Curiosity is the key to understanding, and understanding enables you to solve problems. People who get things done are the ones who ask questions and who think things through. Science is a great route to this mindset. But there are plenty of others. Music, history, literature and handicrafts all teach the same lessons in the end.

One thing I’ve learned is that beauty can be abstract, or practical, or theoretical. A good tool is a thing of great beauty. The Bragg equation, the basis of crystallography which opened up the shape of molecules to chemists, is not only very useful it is knicker-wettingly elegant.

So when I see the UK government cutting resources to arts education and transferring it to the STEM subjects, despite being as STEMy a person as you can imagine, I am filled with a white hot fury. Science is a great thing, but it isn’t great because you can make money out of it. It is great because it is one of the most sublime ways of satisfying our curiosity. I want to know what DNA looks like because it is DNA, not because of how useful that knowledge is. The usefulness is a bonus not the objective.

The dog-breathed knuckleheads who come up with these kinds of ideas – and I use the word idea there quite wrongly, it’s actually lack of ideas – simply don’t grasp the way the world is. You don’t get anywhere by training people to follow rules. You feed their curiosity and they’ll work out the rest. And they’ll enjoy themselves while they are doing it. Force them to do stuff simply because it is supposed to pay off not only crushes their spirit, it also won’t produce the people you need.

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