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Kerry McLean: How a train journey with a retired teacher rekindled my interest in appliance of science

Science is a wonderful subject
Science is a wonderful subject

By Kerry McLean

It’s been a great week for anyone who has so much as a passing interest in science and, let’s face it, that’s all of us. Now, you may be thinking that doesn’t include you, that it’s not a subject that’s ever floated your boat but if you’ve so much as po ndered why the sky is blue or how planes manage to stay up in the air, the latter query often arising to terrify you mid-flight if you’re anything like me, then trust me, you’ve an interest.

This week saw the NI Science Festival take over our wee corner of the globe with workshops, talks and activities taking place all around the country.

Discussions were had on everything under the sun, from how the food we eat is evolving, to how to run our cars on rubbish and there was even a bit of exploration on how astronauts bake in space.

From the weird to the truly wondrous, I’ve loved it all, a declaration that I’m sure comes as a massive shock to my old chemistry, biology and physics teachers.

To be fair to them, my exam results didn’t exactly scream ‘get that woman a lab coat’ and, I’m sorry to say, as soon as the option became available I dropped the science subjects like three very hot bricks.

My opinion changed radically a few years ago when, by happy chance, I found myself seated opposite an elderly gentleman on the long train journey between Glasgow and London.

 I’m one of those desperately annoying people who enjoys having a natter wherever I go (be warned if you ever find yourself seated next to me. Pretend to be asleep — I’ll get the message eventually!).

This poor soul had all of 10 minutes peace and quiet before I was quizzing him about his life. He had been born in Glasgow, had never married, had recently retired and was missing his vocation, a life working in rough schools in the south of England as a science teacher, trying to fire up his pupils’ enthusiasm.

I’m guessing he was one of those teachers who left a lasting impression with the kids in his care because in the few short hours I knew him, he certainly changed my way of thinking.

I told him about my indifference when it came to science, my lack of ability and understanding and in return he stated that he had always believed a good scientist’s main attribute was being unafraid to ask questions, hundreds and thousands of them, and then attempting to identify at least some of the answers.

He said, given my natural inquisitiveness, I had at least half the job description covered. It’s the nicest way anyone’s ever told me that I’m nosey!

By the time we disembarked at Euston station, we had talked about subjects as vast and varied as electricity, energy and evolution.

He had rekindled an interest that I had last felt when, one Christmas morning, I discovered Santa had left a chemistry set beneath the tree for me. I still remember the absolute joy of opening that box and uncovering the goggles, test tubes and strange smelling chemicals within.

It was the early 1980s, a time when health and safety concerns were in their infancy, when you were encouraged, as an eight-year-old, to carry out experiments from which all but the bravest of today’s adults would baulk. 

From the contents of that box I made my own itching powder, stink bombs and even small explosions. I mixed potions, lotions and burnt a blue hole in my mother’s dining table.

It was so much fun.

That joy of experimenting has continued on with the next generation.

My daughter recently built an exploding volcano which she erupted in our bathroom.

She was a little too liberal with the baking soda, resulting in a larger than expected detonation and a hefty dose of red food colouring ‘lava’ splattered across the walls and ceiling.

 Try as I might, it won’t wash off and the room has been left looking like a ‘CSI’ crime scene but, hey, walls can be painted and I refuse to dampen her scientific enthusiasm.

Long may she and all the other little scientists keep asking questions and searching for new answers.

Belfast Telegraph


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