The appliance of science

IT’S funny, having children . . . I phrased that badly: I know enough women to realise that giving birth is definitely not a barrel of laughs. What I mean is that combining a mother and father’s DNA – and tossing in a fistful of fairy-dust, a dollop of luck and a big slice of complete randomness – is like genetic Lucky Dip: you never quite know what you’re going to get once you’ve brushed off the sawdust.

In some ways she does – not-so-attractive traits we won’t mention here, thank you very much – but in terms of scholarly preferences we’re poles apart. English lessons – reading plays and writing stories – Emma detests with a passion, and even she admits her spelling is dreadful. (Or, as she’d have it, dredfull.)

She’s even upset that her new form master is an English teacher, even though she’s not having him for lessons. Ticking the register is enough to make him an enemy of the state.

Academically, she’s more a watered down version of her mum: proved recently by a heartening GCSE half-time report.

I don’t begin to understand why pupils now take mini-exams (ones that count) at the end of year 10 (fourth year in old money) – our all-or-nothing O-level tests at the end of fifth year were so much more exhilarating, as you had to fly by the seat of your pants – but Emma’s performances were great.


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Results in maths and science units were equivalent to an A grade and strong Bs – proof she has her mother’s dominant sciency genes (A-levels in biology, physics and chemistry, the swot) rather than my more mercurial collection of passes (just about) in English, French and (ahem) sociology. (Like history, but harder, I always argue.)

While I was reflecting on my place in the new order (relegated to number three in the household league table on matters scientific) I chanced upon a new book by Ian Crofton called Science Without The Boring Bits (�12.99 from Quercus) – nuggets of colourful stories, such as Darwin’s work on the musicality of earthworms and the French physician who injected himself with guinea-pig testicles.

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This is the stuff I needed to hear all those years ago, to ignite the fires of my imagination and fan the motivation that would later see me filling in the gaps by learning proper facts and formulae.

For when you read that some species of amoeba have as much information in their DNA as 1,000 volumes of Encyclopaedia Britannica, you can’t help but want to find out more.

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