The Young Scientist exhibition is a wonderful event on our nation’s calendar. It’s a time when we come together to marvel at the brilliance of the next generation, feel shame at our own intellectual failings, and then reassure ourselves that whoever won had biochemists for parents, grew up in a lab and had a mind that was more CPU than brain.
Science is not my thing. I only develop a sudden interest in it when arguing with my wife about homeopathy or over-priced fish oils that have no discernible effect on our intellect. It’s not so much that my right brain is dominant that I think someone might have removed my entire left brain to make space for all the terrible creative ideas oozing out of the other half. I struggled with all the sciences in school, which made my daughter making it to the Young Scientist exhibit all the more unusual. My enormous swell of pride deflated slightly when I started to ask her what her exhibit was about and it became clear that she was really just a roadie for the brainiacs in her group. She mumbled something about gender identity, then trailed off before asking me if we had any jaffa cakes. Albert Einstein once ate a grasshopper, I told her, maybe she should eat that instead of those orange sugar discs. ‘Who’s Albert Einstein?’ was her reply. I won’t hold my breath on that Nobel Prize for science.
My daughter is not unlike me. I see more of her mother in her, but my wife reliably informs me that her appalling attitude, disinterest in her studies, internet addiction and general sloth all come direct from me. At least I think that’s what she says, I don’t usually pay much attention, as I’m knuckle deep in an argument with strangers on Twitter. But a report that came out over the festive season brought some great science news – thanks to me, my daughter may also end up with crippling depression. According to a study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry and co-authored by Professor Paul Ramchandani of the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge, identified a link between post-natal depression in men and depression in their daughters as they reached adulthood. Good old science, publishing depressing reports in the middle of Christmas, the time of year when we all hate our families the most. Brilliant, this is just what my daughter needed, another reason to resent me, as if being cursed with my oily skin, unruly hair and general sloth wasn’t enough. The research, based on a sample of more than 3,000 families in the UK, identified a link between post-natal depression in men and depression in their daughters as they reached adulthood. Given that her mum and I were only together 15 months when my daughter was born, and that I was still in college and had zero prospects, I wasn’t so much post-natally depressed as I was just depressed-depressed.
I’ve grown quite philosophical about my mental health as I’ve gotten older – I saw it as a source of torment in my youth, but I realise now that it is also the source of many of my gifts. I don’t want to romanticise self destruction, or suggest that you have to suffer to create, but I can see that many of the things I like about myself come from the same place as the things I do not like. As time has gone on it has simply become a matter of working on the parts I dislike and working with the parts I like. I’m now at the point where I can say that the decades old scars on my arms are as much a part of my professional and personal success as anything I did in college. This isn’t to say that ‘ability to be deeply unhappy’ is now worthy of inclusion in your LinkedIn skills cloud, but it doesn’t hurt to hurt a little once in a while, especially now the robots are coming for us.
Science, apart from ruining Christmas with poorly timed reports, is also planning on taking all our jobs. Every day there is a new headline about how our job will be done by a tin can and some circuits in a few years. All our interactions will be with robots, they warn. It seems unlikely, given that even my fridge beeping to tell me I left the door open makes me want to take it outside and batter it until its HFC-134a seeps into the tarmac. I think if it had actual sentience enough to explain to me in a HAL 9000-style monotone that the milk was going off, I would burn the house to the ground to get away from it. But the one consolation is that the robots may take many millennia before they finally become as human as us, to feel as we do, to suffer and to struggle, and to create beautiful things. And, thanks to chancers like my daughter holding science back with spectacular aplomb, it looks to be some time before my fridge goes from irritating beeps to writing a column for a newspaper about its own ennui.