Looking back at the time, nearly seventy years ago, when the love of science took hold of me, I think of no big event but of many small things that influenced me. As a child I read books and learned lessons, but I did not have much curiosity about the natural world. That began to change when I looked at the stars. In Australia, where I grew up, the skies are often clear. I learned to recognize the stars and the constellations, and I chose a book about astronomy for a school prize in 1931. The stars are there, you cannot change them, you can learn about them only by measuring their positions and analysing the light that comes from them. But they taught me a lesson in science when I learned about the solar system and was able on a clear night to picture myself as a mote on a rotating globe, carried along the earth’s orbit and looking outward.
I began to be interested in chemistry soon after that. And at school my chemistry teacher was able to interest his class and he encouraged us to think and experiment. At that time one could buy small amounts of many common chemicals and I made a little labotatory at home, with improvised equipment, to study chemical reactions. I soon discovered that the organic chemicals were the most interesting. With the help of a textbook on practical organic chemistry I made many preparations, using cheap chemicals to prepare those that were too expensive for me to buy. This was more satisfying than astronomy, you can change things by your own effort. At that time I was rapidly losing my hearing, so I suppose that the work attracted me also for its impact on the other senses: the beauties of crystals and distilled liquids, the colours of dyes, and smells both good and bad. As a carpenter or carver learns to work with the grain of wood or bone, I learned that each substance has its own nature and can be easy or difficult to handle according to the procedure chosen. I began to see experiments as I see them now, not only as procedures to answer questions or to make compounds but as opportunities to observe what happens and to learn from mistakes.
When I went to Sydney University the most important event for me was access to a library of the chemical literature. Because by this time I could not hear any lectures, I learned from handbooks and journals. Many of them were in German, which I did not know. So I found a German dictionary and looked up each word until I understood them all. Reading the literature helped me to become a scientist because it showed me the evidence behind the things that we had to learn; and some of this evidence was incorrect. I began to see science as a continuous process of discovery and correction.
At that time I used to walk with friends in the Australian bushland. One morning we were resting beside a river. I turned over so that my face was close to the grass, and I began to count all the different kinds of plant that I could see. There were more than twenty of them, all different, each beautiful in its own way. This was really the beginning of my curiosity about living things. I brought back from these walks some fruits — wild grapes, and some berries with a bitter taste — and took them into the laboratory and extracted pure compounds from them. This was not a very good way to study the chemistry of life, but I began to be interested in the life sciences and to read biological textbooks. At that time they mostly described and classified things that nobody understood. But later, when I started to work with life scientists, I could understand their viewpoints and could use my chemistry to solve problems that interested all of us.
All this time I was learning more and more, as I still do, about the detail of chemistry. There is so much detail that you cannot keep all of it in your head, although it is very helpful to know how to look for it. What you can do is to form in your mind an idea, a pattern, of what is possible and what is not possible in chemistry. This helps you to make new compounds and to understand new reactions and structures. When the literature, or one of your own experiments, presents you with a new fact, you compare it with the pattern in your mind. Often the new fact fits into the pattern easily. But sometimes, the fact does not fit. Then you check, and sometimes you find that a mistake has been made. But if there is no mistake, you must change your pattern to fit the new fact, and you learn more about your science on these occasions than at any other time.
I am sure that many other people became scientists in much the same way as I did. It starts with curiosity: you ask questions, you read what other people have written, and then you begin to find ways of answering your own questions.. You never stop learning. All the time, everything becomes more interesting and beautiful the more you understand it. And best of all you become part of a great company of people, all over the earth, who share your curiosity and your search for truth and who will share their knowledge with you whenever they are allowed to do so,
- John Warcup Cornforth