Scientists’ stories of their childhoods: Oral History Society/Institute of Historical Research seminar

Posted on 28/11/2014 by


To what extent do our childhood experiences lay the foundations for our future selves? This was one of the questions posed by Paul Merchant, who led the most recent Oral History Society and Institute of Historical Research joint seminar.

During the seminar Merchant, who has conducted a series of long interviews with scientists for the British Library, some lasting up to 25 hours, focused on scientists’ childhood experiences and whether they “were formative in the production of their adult self”.

In the seminar he used extracts from his interviews to show that interviewees were keen to provide examples of scientific enquiry and discovery in childhood. One of his interviewees, the meteorologist John Kington, showed Merchant a childhood sketchbook, among whose pages were drawings of clouds. A geologist also remembered picking up fossils on Brighton beach with his father.

While it is tempting to say that these memories demonstrate nascent scientists, Merchant questions this theory. The interviewees may simply be selecting these memories because they chime with adult senses of self or because they think such stories might be expected.

Later on in the seminar he revealed that John Kington’s sketch pad also contained drawings of notorious criminals of the time, famous people and buildings. Kington’s observation that “every day the first thing I do is look out of the window and look at the sky” prompted Merchant to claim that far from formed complete in childhood, this scientists’ “scientific self is constantly performed or asserted. It’s renewed daily.”

Merchant played a clip from an interview with Maggie Aderin-Pocock, the astronomer, where she talked about why she became interested in space as a child. In this story, told elsewhere, she relates her love of the television shows the Clangers and Star Trek.

She also explained why she identified with space as the child of immigrants and the interview is a good example of how interviewees trace a line between their adult and childhood selves. “When you’re in space you’re not a lost Nigerian. You’re just a member of the human race and that’s what counts,” she says.

  • The next seminar takes place at the Institute of Historical Research at 6pm on January 6th and will be led Dr Amy Tooth Murphy from the University of Roehampton. This is a joint seminar with the History of Sexuality and the title is: The Continuous Thread of Revelation: Chrononormativity and the Challenge of Queer Oral History. For more information go to the OHS website.
  • Podcasts of previous seminars are available here.
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