Monday, July 23, 2012

Summer Homework: My Life in Science

Julia has a very interesting blog about the life and times of a biology lecturer, called Stages of Succession. She has, very modernly, assigned her students some summer blogging homework assignments. The first of these is as follows:
"Introduce yourself (to the extent that you are willing to be identified). Write about your earliest memories of science. How have these influenced you to study the sciences? Do you wish to continue to study sciences at university? If so, what made you choose this subject? If not, what has captured your mind more than science?"
I was intrigued by her own response to this, and I thought it might be interesting to write my own. I'd be really interested to read responses from anyone else who might feel the urge, so please comment and link to them if you give it a go yourself!


Hi, I'm Tom. You might* know me from such internet publications as Blogstronomy and The Actual Maths. I'm 29 years old, play guitar in a local rock covers band, and have an interest in all things sciencey with a distinct bent towards the astronomical. I'm a maths teacher** and have been for the last five years, before which I was a Teaching Assistant, before which I was a lab technician, before which I was desperately seeking employment for six months, before which I completed a Bachelor's degree in Mathematics with Astronomy.


My dad tells me semi-regularly that the first question I ever asked him was "why is the sky up there?" Neither of us can remember what his answer was, but that isn't the point. He always had a passing interest in space-stuff, and I like to think I picked up where he left off. I remember staying up late and watching for Leonids (but not seeing any); I remember walking down St Catherine's road and seeing Comet Hale- Bopp hanging in the sky. I don't quite remember when it was that he started asking me the questions.

I remember my dad having a scruffy, old pocket-sized book that had lost its dust-jacket and contained all sorts of weird and wonderful information about the sky. It may even have been written by Patrick Moore. I remember my dad buying me a book that I still have in my academic book collection: the great big, hardback National Geographic Picture Atlas of Our Universe. It's dated 1980, but that wasn't when I got it as I hadn't been born then. I distinctly remember the section on life in the universe and its vivid descriptions (and illustrations) of the kinds of life we might find in other locations in our own solar system, and how the vastly different environments out there might shape the evolution of such creatures. The book came with, attached to the cover, a record (yes, that's a vinyl record) of Sounds of the Universe which was, as far as I can remember, a collection of recordings made by space probes. I don't know where that disk is now, but I'll bet it's in amongst my dad's record collection somewhere.

It strikes me now, though it hasn't before, that I got at least the spark of my interest in space and science from my dad. Weird.

I also spent a lot of time reading about the paranormal. I was into telepathy and aliens and ghosts and the lost city of Atlantis and ancient visitations and all sorts of other fantastic and wonderful rubbish. Most of all, I was interested in finding out what was real and what wasn't. What was true and what was false. Back then, science and science fiction were one glorious whole to me, and looking back I realise that going deeper into the science could have blown apart my childhood, but thankfully it didn't: I'm still into both, and I'm still largely childish, though I'm happy with what's fact*** and what's fiction. Even now, though, it's the blurry bit in the middle that really gets me going.

Continuing in science

I did study science at university. I never really had a clue what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew I wanted to go to university, and that I wanted to study something that interested me. So much interested me, though, it was a difficult choice. When we did our year 9 SATs I was in a middle-ability group and as such took the Level 5-7 paper. I came out at the end with a Level 8, and was instantly moved into the fast-track maths set, where I joined in with the other boffs who had started their GCSE a year early.

Being a lazy-but-capable student in an exam factory of a school, at the end of the following two years I had achieved good but not outstanding grades in two maths and five science GCSEs, and chose to study maths, chemistry and physics at A-Level.

When it came to choosing my degree course to follow, I was doing better in (or rather failing less at) maths, so I chose that. I didn't get the grades I needed, but they let me in anyway as maths isn't exactly oversubscribed at the best of times. I hated my course in the first year, and actually tried to change to history. I have no idea why I tried to change to history of all subjects, and I'm glad it didn't work because now, six years later, I feel that I actually understand things, and I have maths to blame for that.

Maths, you see, is the study of everything. However well you understand something, having a real understanding of maths can help you to get your claws into it that little bit more firmly. It's difficult to describe, but it's a bit like that bit in The Matrix with the 0s and 1s scrolling down the screen, and one of the characters says he doesn't see the numbers any more, but blonde, brunette, redhead...

This is especially true and demonstrable with my real passion, astronomy. It's one of those areas of science for which you simply can't wander out there and do it with a ruler, a set of scales and a bell jar**** because it's just too far away and deadly. If it wasn't for maths we, as a species, would have to have given up long ago and just settle for it all being a load of pretty lights in the sky. And that would be a massive shame.

But anyway, I think that's what made me choose maths: deep down, somewhere in the back of my mind I realised even then that maths was the root of all science, and that science was the key to making sense of at least bits of the universe that we find ourselves in. Maths is the thing that carries on unhindered in all directions when other sciences have to stop because things get too small, too far, too big, or too close to carry on. Maths is what bursts through the window in spandex and a cape when physics, biology and chemistry are scratching their heads trying to figure out whether this result is always true or just an anomaly. Maths is the big spiked bat that beats to a pulp poor and illogical arguments, and maths can be wielded successfully by the puniest, weediest nerd against the butchest, richest, most morally corrupt politician.

I'm a musician*****, and maths helps me to understand that better. Maths keeps my mind open to viewing things from a different angle, and often gives me some other angles to try. It helps me to work out exactly where Daily Mail reporters are going wrong in their appraisal of a situation, and lets me understand why weather reports are little more than random statement generators, and that I should probably take an umbrella along anyway. When I don't know something, rather than being happy with continuing to not know it, maths gives me a framework in which to work towards finding out an answer. I get asked a lot about what relevance maths has to real life, because so many people can't see a link. I feel very sorry for these people, for one reason:

Maths is real life.

* But probably don't.
** But watch this space...
*** As in currently best accepted theory.
**** One does not simply wander out into space.
***** O.k, I'm a guitarist. They're not the same thing.