Ian Hopkinson

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57 varieties

At the end of the last post I said it wasn’t important what sort of scientist I was. This isn’t entirely true, once you leave school you have to make a fairly definite decision as to what you will study at university. In fact, in the UK, you narrow down your options quite significantly at the age of 16, when you chose which A-levels to do.

This is a rather timely post since across the country thousands of students will be exchanging information on A-levels as they start at university, and it’s a pretty safe topic of conversation.

For my A-levels I did chemistry, physics and a double helping of maths. To be honest it’s a very long time ago that I decided to follow this path, so some of the thinking behind this choice has left me. I like playing with numbers (and computers) which explains the maths. Chemistry was just fun: involving fire, fumes, pretty colours, fragrant solvents and other cool stuff – okay cooking peas in different salt solutions and processing cabbage to measure vitamin levels and the thing with the liver and the apple were a bit unpleasant but at least gripping – I can remember them 20 years later. I don’t remember greatly enjoying physics at school, but it seemed to have great potential (astronomy, Einstein, gadegts and so forth). I really wish I’d done biology as well, I think I was put off by the “naming of parts” and the fact that most of the specimens for dissection had gone off a bit.

Of course as time passes the broad division of science into three areas (physics, chemistry, biology) seems awfully crude and as I progressed through academia I seemed to end up in ever smaller silos – hence the 57 varieties. Back in the good old days scientists ranged freely over vast areas, nowadays it feels like we struggle to find an ever smaller niche to call our own. I don’t really want to be master of one tiny corner, I want to be a welcome visitor all over town.

The Scientist

So I announced my scientist-ness in my profile to the right. Why did I do that?

It’s the tribe I belong to, the people I feel kinship with across the world, the badge I’m proud to wear, it’s the single word that says the most about me.

I’m told my first words were “oooo…look!”, this to my mind is the first half of the mindset of a scientist. Mark Carwardine has just illustrated this nicely on the rather wonderful TV programme “Last Chance to See“, they’re on Madagascar. He’s wandering around crying out “oooo….look”, pointing things out to Stephen Fry: a leaf-tailed gecko, a pygmy chameleon, sifaka… Okay, so he is varying his vocabulary a bit, but that’s the gist.

“Why?” is the other half of the mindset. In the case of Madagascar, it’s that way (rich in unique wildlife) because it split from the rest of Africa long ago. And in the glorious recursive way of it all those few words “…it split from the rest of Africa long ago” lead into another story of how the continents we stand on are gliding across the world (albeit very slowly).

To me it doesn’t really matter the type of scientist, it’s an artificial division. “oooo…look” and “why?” are the important things. Perhaps everyone thinks this way, but some of us have just had the fortune to get paid for it.