Sunday 5 May 2013

Who is this Bob, then?

I wasn't always Bob and I wasn't always a scientist. I became a scientist rather suddenly at the age of 16.  I have written before about my very expensive education, and the little good it has done for me since.  I spent the years between 15 and 18 in a state that would have been diagnosed as clinical depression if anyone had cared to look closely at a teenager who spent 14 to 16 hours a day asleep, who didn’t eat in the school dining room and might be found in the lee of a hedgerow writing “poetry” as the sun went down.  In those days, you had to decide ridiculously early whether you were going to join the Arts or the Science stream and your formal education got increasingly constrained and funnelled as you progressed from “O” to “A” Levels.  I’d been put off science by an unfortunate early encounter with a well rotted turkey fetus which should have been fresh for dissection and so was trudging through the curriculum of History, Economics and Politics. . . and Maths.  When I returned to school for my final year, I was called for the vocational interview by the feller who should rather have looked at my lonely and disaffected 16-year-old self and sent me to a psychiatrist instead.  John Seymour's Self-Sufficiency had been published earlier in the year and I'd bought its dreamy vision of detachment from unhappy reality. I had also recently discovered a great way to needle those in authority to achieve a rather sad measure of self-esteem: whenever I encountered anyone higher in the elaborate pecking-order (Versailles under Louis XIV was in the ha'penny place compared to the school) I would 'umbly tug my forelock.  I'd recently done this once too often with The Feller and he had belabored me about the head and shoulders crying "Don't <tok> ape <thunk> peasant <wup> gestures <wack> boy <ding>!".  Yes, the education was so expensive that adults involved were allowed to assault the students. ANNyway, when asked what I intended to do when I left his, and the school's, care, I replied "I want to be a farmer" fully expecting to be struck again or at least mocked for being totally adrift from the practicalities of my situation.  Instead, my off-hand remark was taken at face-value, my parents were consulted, and I was untimely ripped from a warm bath of Disraeli, the American Civil War, and Walter Bagehot's magisterial The English Constitution and dropped back a year into Chemistry and Biology.  My first chemistry lesson was pure maths - working out exactly how the number of topological permutations of alkanes increased as carbons were added to the chain of organic molecules: methane, ethane, propane, butane, pentane  . . . octane.  I was in my element.  Later the same day I met Mr Wilkinson, my first mentor and role model who had studied biology under the late great Peter Medawar. Wilkinson was pretty odd but so was I and I relished the oddities of biology as he presented them.  My off-hand, cynical remark had catapulted me into science.

Fast forward 30 years; my travels in Science had taken me from England to Dublin, to Rotterdam, to Boston, to Newcastle upon Tyne and back to Dublin. In 2001 I was, to my considerable surprise because my scientific output hadn't been stellar, hired to work in one of the first labs funded by the lavishly endowed Science Foundation Ireland.  SFI had a new policy to cherry-pick the smartest handful of bioscientists and give them some million$$$ to really push the frontiers by hiring the brightest and best people who were prepared to work in the Republic.  The new lab was no warm bath, it was HOT, and populated by native and repatriated Irish, with a short handful of continentals and me - and I was definitely not the smartest boy in the room.

I was at my desk early one the morning (I had to start early just to keep up) when the (brilliant) eSpanish post-doc arrived for work.  He asked if he could run something by me for feedback and pulled up a chair.  For the next half hour I sat and nodded while he tried to articulate the abstruse conundrum that was wrecking his head.  My contributions were "uh-huh . . . mmmm . . . yes . . . no, of course it couldn't . . . errrm . . . ???".  After a while  he paused, cried "Of course! that's it!, THANK YOU SO MUCH" and went off to write it all down.  I came to the conclusion that every lab needed a stuffed dummy in a white coat called, say, Bob The Scientist that could be wheeled about to help creative people thrash things out. The other creative people being busy enough with their own problems. When not in use Bob could be parked in a director's chair with his name on the back.


  1. When I was younger and you told me of the invention of Bob the Scientist, I honestly thought you had a stuffed dummy in a lab coat sitting somewhere in Trinity that could talk.

  2. Is there a story about Bob the Scientist that I haven't heard or heard and skated over? How did Bob earn his appellation?

  3. Bob's got a better lilt than Scheveningen The Scientist. Look no further, that way madness lies.