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Book Learning

This is a talk I gave at the 2018 Young Scientist Awards, an event organised by the Science Teachers' Association of NSW.

I would like to start off by congratulating everyone in the room – the students who are all winners even if they don't win first prize, the parents for encouraging their children's interest in science and the teachers for teaching the science.

I'm going to quote from a novel written a long time ago. The central character is probably the most well-known fictional scientist in all of literature. When the character first goes to university he is undecided about what he wants to study but hears the following words from a professor of chemistry describing science:

"The ancient teachers of this science promised impossibilities, and performed nothing. The modem masters promise very little; they know that metals cannot be transmuted, and that the elixir of life is a chimera. But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature, and show how she works in her hiding places. They ascend into the heavens: they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers; they can command the thunders of heaven, mimic the earthquake, and even mock the invisible world with its own shadows."

This inspires the student to study science, and he expresses this inspiration with the words:

"So much has been done, more far more will I achieve treading in the steps already marked. I will pioneer a new way, explore unknown powers, and unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation."

The novel was Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, and as I said Viktor Frankenstein is probably the best known fictional scientist of all time. Another point of inspiration about the book is that when it was written the literary world was almost totally dominated by men. (Mary's husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley is still famous today.) The legend is that at a party full of the leading lights in literature of the day, Mary was challenged to write a story, and the story she wrote is still in print almost 200 years later.

So please, when offered a challenge take it up and continue to unfold to the world the deepest mysteries of creation. But please try to do it without digging up body parts and stitching them together to make a robot.

Thank you.

The night's program showing all finalists and winners can be found here.

I speak at a lot of events and this one gives me the highest dose of stage fright. Maybe it's because I only have a very short time (3-4 minutes) to get my points across. Maybe it's because the audience is full of people a lot younger and a lot smarter than I am.

By pure coincidence, this talk was presented on Halloween, an occasion when Frankenstein himself might not be remembered but his monster is.

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