I imagine we all have those moments in life when we see something that makes us question our early life decisions. I get one every time I watch a program about space, or physics, or really anything science-based. Scientific documentaries leave me growling back in time at my teenage self, berating that idiot for not taking physics classes more seriously.
At these times I really wish I was a physicist.
My latest bout of wistful hindsight has been triggered by the arrival and all-too-soon departure of BBC 2’s Stargazing LIVE, which is a television programme I thoroughly approve of. It’s educational, entertaining and overwhelmingly positive in outlook. If I was in charge of television, I’d take all the horrible exploitative reality TV programmes and replace them with programmes where people just get really, really excited about science.
The world would be a much happier place. We could use the cast of Made In Chelsea to test the physics of a human body in a black hole, or see what happens when you expose Jeremy Kyle to the unfiltered light of a red dwarf star. That sounds like a much better use of everybody’s time than how things currently stand.
My seven-year-old self had it sorted out. My first choice of career was being a palaeontologist, because palaeontologists get to dig up dinosaurs and thus stand the best chance of all scientists of making a real-life Jurassic Park. My second choice of career was being an astronaut, because of course it was – astronauts get to go into space.
Novelists do not get to go into space. My seven-year-old self looks through time at my twenty-five-year-old self and sees a giant ball of disappointment.
It doesn’t even have to be space-related science that makes me wistful. Encounters at the End of the World is a film where Werner Herzog travels to Antarctica to a remote research base where scientists of different disciplines gather to do their various sciences.
There’s a guy who researches neutrinos, which are particles that may or may not travel faster than the speed of light. That’s super-interesting and super-important. I want to be that guy. There are some guys who listen to the the sounds seals make beneath sheets of ice, which is awesome because a) it sounds fucking cool and b) we can learn things about both seals and ice. I want to be those guys too.
I want to be one of the guys on the bleeding edge of some sort of theoretical science, who wears questionable jumpers and is kind of awkward talking to camera but it doesn’t matter because they’re researching something reality-defining and important whilst the rest of us worry about completely banal things like the price of petrol or birthday cards or UKIP.
I don’t get to be any of those guys. I wonder if there had been more programs like Stargazing LIVE around when I was a kid if I’d have been persuaded to follow a career in science instead of a career in not-really-having-a-career. At the very worst I’d have ended up being one of those kids with a huge telescope taking up most of their bedroom, which is still a hell of a lot better than not being one of those kids with a huge telescope taking up most of their bedroom.
It’s almost certainly too late for me to pursue a career as a physicist now. Being a physicist requires a fierce amount of education, and education as an adult requires more time and money than I’m ever likely to have. Perhaps in my retirement I will re-train as a subatomic particle researcher. That’d be awesome.
For now the best I can do is to keep abreast of all the excellent research people who are much more worthwhile than me are doing and find a way to package the excitement they feel about the awesome work they’re doing into a format that gets everybody else excited about it.
To me that’s the real point of science-fiction. Sure, it’s cool to have space battles and aliens and stuff, but what I like is when authors use the genre as a way to say ‘look, here’s this really cool technology that enables all this cool stuff to happen, and that’s a thing people are actually researching now.’
Did you know that people have found a way to store antimatter (only for 16 minutes, sure, but they’re working on that), which makes the possibility of using antimatter as an incredibly powerful and efficient fuel potentially achievable within our lifetimes? I did not until recently, but I’ve read enough science-fiction books with starships powered by antimatter to know that that’s a very important and very cool discovery.
I am still sad that I didn’t end up being the guy who gets to work in the antimatter factories. Instead I’m the guy who writes stupidly incorrect terms like ‘antimatter factories.’ But I do get excited about the concept of antimatter factories, and if I can use my words to get other people excited in things like that, then perhaps my seven-year-old-self will stop looking at me with such disdain.