In the third part of our series sponsored by the Generation Science Club, Ian Ritchie tells of his early childhood inspiration
PICTURE THE SCENE. It is the grim 1950s in a central Scotland still struggling to recover after the huge economic damage done during the Second World War. The schools are still Victorian and the world maps on the walls still largely coloured red to mark the British Empire that was, by then, being dismantled.
At this time, I lived in a village in which all the houses were owned by the local council, and were occupied by people, including local managers and teachers and, as it happens, the main team goalkeepers of both Rangers and Celtic. And it wasn’t just the housing that was state-owned; much of the economy was also owned by the government: steel, coal and so on.
It was to Scottish Oils, British Petroleum operating under its Scottish subsidiary, that the community looked for its livelihood. The local economy was completely dependent on the extraction of petroleum and other hydrocarbons from shale oil which was dug up from under the ground and, once spent, piled into heaps on the surface. These bings, as they are known locally, still scar the country around West Lothian.
My father was a shale miner and my oldest brother worked as a lab technician with Scottish Oils. The opportunities available to a bright kid like me seemed a bit limited. But my brother, Alex, had other ideas; despite being forced to leave school to “get a job”, what he really wanted to do was go to university and become a scientist. He was a very enthusiastic amateur fossil hunter, and what he really dreamed about was to become a professional paleontologist. He got himself accepted to study geology at the University of Edinburgh and started on the road to achieve his goal, later rising to the top of his profession, as the curator of fossils at the Australian Museum in Sydney.
I wasn’t remotely interested in rocks and fossils. They did, and still do, leave me cold. What excited me, however, was that I saw my brother develop as a scientist, and, as a result, I knew exactly what I also wanted to do.
The creation of new knowledge, from initial conjecture and theory, through testing by competing theories from fellow scientists, to becoming accepted by publication in learned journals, all seemed so very exciting and so relevant somehow to the development of the modern post-war economy.
As a result I was determined to follow his lead and to go to university to study science. I signed up for one of the very first courses in computer science at Heriot-Watt University. The reason that I recall these details is to note how I was inspired, in my case by my brother’s lead, to go into a life of science and technology. I wonder how children today can be similarly inspired to pursue science as a career.
Many kids might never meet a scientist, and applications to study science at university are dropping worryingly, unlike in competitor economies such as India and China. Very few primary school teachers have had any scientific education and don’t feel comfortable trying to introduce scientific principles into class lessons. Scientists are rarely portrayed attractively in TV and movies - usually, they are shown as geeks wearing lab coats, with few social skills.
Which is why, along with a couple of dozen others, I was so keen to support the Generation Science Club when it was established a few years ago. Generation Science is the school-touring programme of the Edinburgh Science Festival — it takes dramatised science demonstrations on the road to be performed in schools, giving pupils what might well be their first experience of science as fun. The Edinburgh Science Festival has led the way in this for many years-targeting its efforts on young school children and trying to get them ex
cited about science.
The various science centres also provide engaging and fun experiences which help to reinforce the message, but I like to feel it is the Generation Science visits arriving at the school and blowing the kids away, that might have the same effect on today’s children that my brother’s choice of career had on me.
• Ian Ritchie is chief executive of Coppertop and chairman of the Generation Science Club.