Life, the Universe, and Coloured Pencils

Yesterday’s post got me thinking about what it is that makes scientists decide on their own speciality. It’s got to have something to do with the intersection between interest and aptitude, in that I think we learn gradually through our time at School that there are some things we can do well and others that we can’t but the things we can do well aren’t always things we find sufficiently interesting to make a career doing.

I suspect luck also plays a big part, in that the choices one gets to make must be taken from the options at a very particular time. I ended up doing research in cosmology after my first degree, but it wasn’t any kind of a grand plan that got me to Sussex in 1985 to do that but it just seemed the best choice to me out of all the half-a-dozen other places I visited.

Before I meander off the point again I’ll just pass on something that one of my teachers at school told me, and which probably had a big effect on an impressionable teenager. It was my chemistry teacher, Geoff (“Doc”) Swinden, that probably had more influence than anyone in making me decide to become a physicist.

By the way he was called “Doc” because he had a PhD (or perhaps a DPhil, as I think  he got his doctorate, in organic chemistry, from Oxford University). I didn’t go into Organic Chemistry, of course, but that was mainly because I hated the practical aspects of chemistry and pose a considerable threat to the safety of others when placed in any kind of laboratory environment.

Anyway, I remember very well a comment of Doc Swinden’s to the effect that anyone wanting to be called a proper scientist should avoid any subject that required the use of coloured pencils. That ruled out biology, geology and a host of others and left me firmly in the domain of physical science. I ended up going to Cambridge to do a degree in Natural Sciences, which allowed me to do chemistry and physics for a year and then decide which to continue. Obviously I went the way of physics.

I don’t regret going into physics at all, but I don’t think this bit of advice was all good. When I went to Cambridge to study Natural Sciences, I had to pick an extra subject to do in the first year to do alongside my main choices, chemistry, physics and mathematics. Among the options were geology, biology of organisms, and biology of cells but, mindful of the possibility that all of these might require the dreaded coloured pencil, I went for a course called Crystalline Materials. It’s true that I didn’t have to colour anything in, but it was the most mind-numbingly awful course I’ve ever taken. I very nearly failed it at the end of the first year, in fact, but still managed to get  a First-class mark overall.

Going back to yesterday’s post, I realise that one of the reasons I’m less gung ho for Mars exploration than some of my colleagues might be that it’s a bit too much like geology or even biology. It seems the ghost of the coloured pencil is still haunting me.

12 Responses to “Life, the Universe, and Coloured Pencils”

  1. Nope. Got me there. Don’t see how exploring Mars needs coloured pencils.

  2. telescoper Says:

    Probably only red ones

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    From my second year at grammar school I fell in love – it is the right phrase – with chemistry. But in my last term before commencing A-levels, I felt my allegiance changing within me at a very deep level to physics. There was no element of conscious choice in this. I continued to enjoy chemistry to A-level, and to learn mathematics which was obviously related to physics, but physics – and theoretical physics at that – was IT for me. My simple desire was to take it as far as I could, which I largely did.

    A friend told me that his physics teacher, at a fairly well known boarding school, committed the unforgiveable sin of criticising a colleague’s subject in front of pupils by referring to geography as “colouring-in” (at school level, anyway). It was impossible not to laugh.


  4. telescoper Says:


    There was a particular bit of organic chemistry that I really loved. That was designing synthesis routes to make complicated molecules from simple ones. I really enjoyed working through the homework problems on this, which were essentially logic puzzles with their own slightly bizarre rules.

    Inorganic chemistry was however very tedious, and physical chemistry was interesting only because it was physics, so I switched allegiance too.

    The joy of physics is also its frustration, that the more you learn the less you seem to know – because each step forward opens up more questions than the answers it provides.


  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    That’s different from me Peter, organic was the part of chemistry I hated at Cambridge (where, for other readers, we couldn’t specialise in physics or chemistry in the first year, but had to do both until 2nd year). I enjoyed inorganic chemistry as the nearest thing to the chemistry I had enjoyed at school, and I regarded physical chemistry as basically physics and therefore OK. Organic was fine at school, but at university the practicals took AGES (in our first term too) and the theory was based on those confounded curly arrows that I could never get my head round. I mentally gave up when one supervision assignment asked us to synthesise a certain compound from specific simple starting compounds, and the supervisor showed us how to do it – then noticed a misprint in the question and used the same starting compounds to synthesise the different compound that the question had *actually* asked for. It struck me at that point that there was no “uniqueness theorem” and, in my arrogance, I decided it was all nonsense. Not true, of course, but certainly not coincident with the way my brain works.


  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter: I appreciate the intellectual challenge of organic compound synthesis; it’s just that I personally didn’t find curly arrows (denoting valence electron motion during reactions) a good way into the world of synthesis. Neither, apparently, did the one man in my year and college who went on to become a professor of organic chemistry (currently at UCL, and specialising in synthesis). He was competent with curly arrows, of course, but he eschewed the books we were recommended such as Hendrickson-Cram-Hammond in favour of a 2-volume work by Finar which was specifically not recomended, because it did not use curly arrows.

  7. “Anyway, I remember very well a comment of Doc Swinden’s to the effect that anyone wanting to be called a proper scientist should avoid any subject that required the use of coloured pencils.”

    Somebody tell Dick Bond! Quickly!

  8. Just an example of some stuff from Dick Bond, the Picasso of cosmology:

  9. In particular, check out row 4, column 4.

  10. Should be row 5, columns 3 and 4.

  11. […] with from the latter is this picture, offered by someone who thinks that anyone in possession of a set of crayons is qualified as a […]

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