Today is Darwin Day, a day to celebrate the life of a man who built the foundations of the biological sciences we know today and a day to celebrate science and reason in general. I wanted to write something appropriate for the day but I couldn’t think of anything topical so I decided to step back in time and explain how I got interested in science.
When I started senior school (that’s high school in North American terminology) the sciences were still split into three subjects (combining them was a huge mistake as far as I’m concerned), physics, chemistry and biology. I was lucky enough to have excellent teachers in all three.
My physics teacher, Mr Williams, was probably close to retirement but he was still an inspirational teacher. His passion was electronics so we spent a lot of time on electricity but he still managed to cover the other aspects of physics. It was his fault that my bedroom was often cluttered with pieces of dismantled electronics.
My chemistry teacher, Mr Vine, was one of those scary, strict teachers (he once threatened to expel me for throwing magnesium powder into a Bunsen burner flame) but it was the kind of strictness that fostered respect. He also had a slightly inept side which caused at least two classroom evacuations: one when he accidentally dropped a large chunk of sodium down the sink and the other when he made mustard gas in the special gas chamber but forgot to turn on the extraction fan. He taught us well though, and I loved the practical aspect of chemistry but hated the theory side.
My biology teacher was my favourite teacher of all time. His name was Mr Tann. The last I heard he was an assistant head teacher, which seems a shame to me because teachers like that should be teaching, not becoming administrators. His teaching method involved sitting on his desk facing us, next to an overhead projector, scribbling notes and diagrams in many colours on the roll of transparency on the projector. Sounds dull but somehow he managed to make it a fascinating subject, and his practical sessions were always amazing.
Because of Mr Tann I also joined the pet club, a lunchtime club looking after the various animals in and around the biology lab. We looked after rats, hamster, gerbils, locusts, frogs, a piranha, ducks, chickens, rabbits and a hive of bees. It was because of this club, and the biology lessons themselves that I seriously considered becoming a veterinary surgeon. It was only the thought of having to spend another seven years at veterinary college that made me choose the easier option of computer science.
In my last year in senior school, Mr Vine the chemistry teacher took us on a school trip to London, and I discovered the Royal Institution Christmas Lectures. Sadly I don’t remember who the guy was giving the lectures that year, but I remember thoroughly enjoying the entire lecture we went to. There were explosions and strange chemical reactions and interesting scientific gadgets and gizmos and an animated and passionate speaker.
From that year on it became part of my Christmas tradition to watch those lectures on BBC2. There is a different speaker every year and so it was in 1991 that I got to hear Richard Dawkins for the first time. His series of lectures were, of course, about evolution and I learned a huge amount in those five days. I immediately went out and got a copy of The Blind Watchmaker and followed it up with The Selfish Gene.
I was fascinated by evolutionary theory, and I was equally fascinated by the fact that some people didn’t accept it. I read some of the reasons behind this skepticism and they made no sense to me. I spent some time on the talk.origins newsgroup trying to understand these arguments and eventually trying to persuade these people that they were just plain wrong. A futile endeavour, but at the time an entertaining one.
Since then I’ve moved from newsgroups to blogs, but I still have an interest in evolution and the attempts to create a controversy over it. I followed the Dover School Board saga with mounting dismay and was thrilled with the happy ending. However it was a small victory in an ongoing battle; right now in Florida several counties are trying to introduce creationism into the science classroom and I’m sure that’s not the only state with these problems. Even in the UK there have been rumours of creationists making inroads and I hope the rampant political correctness going on over there doesn’t make that alleged controversy easier to preach.