OK, so…….what is a scientist?
The popular view held by most children is that the world of science is owned by wide-eyed, white-coated ‘boffins’  who spend their time poking in test tubes and looking into microscopes.
I opened my dictionary, looked up the word scientist, and read the following:
‘A scientist: a person having expert knowledge of one or more sciences, especially a natural or physical science.’
Mmmmm………not terribly helpful, I thought. That’s not how I would describe what a scientist is to a young child. So, let me make a stab at it. I know, for a start, that:
· Scientists are very curious about what they see around them.
· Scientists are collectors – they collect things and they collect ideas.
· Scientists read books to find out more about what they collected.
· Scientists carry out experiments.
· Scientists write notes and draw pictures to explain what’s in their heads.
· Scientists talk with other scientists and learn from each other.
I do ALL these things, don’t I? SO, I’m a SCIENTIST! Hey, hey!
Several young scientists attending my ‘I’m a Scientist’ workshops have asked me when did I become a scientist…….:)
Good question, yes? When I thought about it, I remembered how and when I became a scientist, someone who throughout his life has enjoyed exploring and asking and finding answers to the endless questions about the world of nature.
It was my parents and one teacher in particular who fanned my science fire and got me going as a young child, in Cornwall, England.
In fact, I can remember it as if it were yesterday.
OK, here goes……. my story:
WHEN I became a scientist…
On the day of my 5th birthday, Monday, July 14, a week before we broke up for the summer holiday, I was really surprised when my Dad, not my Grandma, met me at the end of the school day. Dad had never picked me up from school before.
He was in his driver’s uniform so I knew he’d come straight from work. My stomach turned over. Was something wrong at home? Was Grandma ill?
Standing by the gate in the iron fence, Dad smiled when he saw some of the kids rush out of the yard, up to the street corner, and turn and slide down back towards school, skidding on the cobble road, sending up a stream of yellow sparks from their hob-nailed boots.
“Hey,” he said, “Birthday walk for you, m’son!! C’mon – we’re going pebbling – c’mon, les go…..to the beach!!”
Just my Dad and me. Pebbling? On Lariggan Beach? After school? On my birthday? Could it get any better than that?
Thrilled and surprised, I looked up at him. I felt so special, and knew in my bones that something magical was about to happen. It was, after all, my 5th birthday treat.
And what a memorable, lifetime treat it turned out to be.
Smiling, Dad took my hand and we walked together in the afternoon sun towards the harbor, down the cobbled street to The Fradgan, past Uncle Steve and Aunty Flo Green’s white cottage, past the tall icehouse towering over the small inner harbor, and crossed over to the open fish market. We soon reached the small stone bridge by the Fisherman’s Institute at the end of Newlyn pier, where the Coombe River runs into the sea.
We leaned over and saw the swans and the seagulls dipping their heads into the refreshing, bubbling blend of fresh and salt water. Grabbing Dad’s hand again, we walked around the corner by the Austin and Morris Garage onto the seafront, then down the six smooth, worn, granite steps, onto the beach.
The sky was bright blue, and the sun a shimmering yellow. St. Michael’s Mount, way off in the distance, looked very majestic, its fairy-tale castle catching the late afternoon sun setting behind the Mousehole granite cliffs.
The tide was out and the smooth, black and grey and white pebbles were wet and shiny. As the greeny-blue water lapped back and forth, herring gulls squawked and squabbled as they looked for food scraps.
We stepped over the pebbles, avoiding the slimy brown and yellow strips of seaweed. and found a nice dry spot.
‘This’ll do,” said Dad. He reached in his pocket and brought out two of his OLD HOLBORN tobacco tins.
“Here,” he said, giving me one, “take this treasure tin and fill it. Just wishing rocks, mind you.” With a broad smile and a knowing twinkle in his eye, he said, “Bet I fill mine first.” 
The competition was on. We walked along the seashore, stepping over the brown sticky seaweed, and we looked and we touched and we talked - and we collected. The beach pebbles were so endearing, so collectable. There were thousands – all small, round, smooth, and warmed by the late afternoon sun.
Soon my tin was full of wishing rocks (plus some heart-shaped pebbles that mum really liked) that I wanted to take home to show Mum and my brother. I so wanted to tell them I filled my tin before Dad filled his.
“OK,” said Dad, “you win. Keep the tin, you hear? Don’t lose it. C’mon, send your ma a wish ‘fore we go. Go and find one more real good wishing rock.”
In just a minute I spotted the best, the most beautiful black and white wishing rock. Sure was my lucky day!
I picked it up and rested it comfortably in the palm of my hand. I slowly wrapped my fingers around it and squeezed really tight. When my fingers warmed the pebble, I closed my eyes and, concentrating really hard, sent a really special loving wish to my mum and dad.
“Hey,” said Dad, when I opened my eyes, “did you just send me a wish? I felt it, you know, like a warm tickle right down my back. Thank you!!”
Wow! I thought. It really works! Wishing rocks are brill! Hope Mum got her wish.
And, knowing just that really lit a fire in my head. I was so excited.
“OK, time to go,” said Dad. “Ready? Got yer tin?
Just as we were leaving, I spotted something different.
There, lying with all the other pebbles was a bright yellow object. It didn’t look like any of the other pebbles. It was so different, more like a small slice of pineapple.
Whatever was it? It stared up at me, wanting badly, I felt, to be picked up, wanting to be touched and admired. By me!
And that’s what I did. I bent over, touched it, picked it up, and held it in the palm of my hand. It was lighter than a pebble. It really was another magical moment. I couldn’t believe my luck. Wide-eyed, I showed my dad.
Because I knew he knew everything, I asked: “What’s this, Dad?” He looked down at it, smiled, and then, half-closing his eyes, frowned. Dad had no idea what I’d found. “Dunno. Never seen that before. Good, though, in’t it?”
I thought that was really funny, because I knew he had seen everything there was to see. I couldn’t believe that Dad had never ever seen anything like the yellow stone before – and he’d been to the beach over a thousand times in his life. But Dad did know it was different and, therefore, very, very special. “Take it home, “ he said, “and show your ma. She might know.”
I stared at my orangey-yellow, rock-like, magical find. It looked soft. So, not wanting to scratch it, I wrapped it up in my white hanky and put it in the other pocket – it didn’t seem right to put such a special rock in the OLD HOLBORN treasure tin with the other pebbles I’d found.
Dad took my hand and we made our way back home. As I walked up the very steep hill, I kept feeling the Old Holborn tin in one pocket, and checking the lumpy hanky in the other. I KNEW I’d found something very special. I KNEW it was lying on the beach waiting for me to come along and find it. It was something that I KNEW belonged just to me – and would, forever. I KNEW it was a special day. I was excited! My discovery made my head glow.
When we reached #17, Trevarveneth Crescent, I skipped up the back garden path, past the three gooseberry bushes (one for brother Jimmie, one for brother Charles, and one for me), pushed opened the glass door, and ran straight into the kitchen. Mum and Grandma were standing by the white enameled cooker, waiting for the kettle to boil. Charles was sleeping in Mum’s arms. Jimmie was tucking into a jam sandwich. Beside myself with excitement, I shouted, “Mum, Mum, Grandma, Jicky, I beat Dad. Filled my tin first. See what I found. It’s brilliant.”
I took out my OLD HOLBORN treasure tin and showed them what I’d collected on the beach. “And, now, look at this,” I said, with a beaming smile as I unwrapped my hanky. I knew then by the look on Jimmie’s, Mum’s and Grandma’s faces that the yellow rock I had found was special. And I found it on my birthday, too!
“Where’d you find THAT? Dad, where’d he find that? You give it to him?” Jimmie asked. Dad shook his head. “Nope. ’E found it. Just as we were leaving the beach.”
“What a birthday surprise,” said Grandma, with a twinkle in her eye. “Good for you, Johnny Paull. Good for you.”
Mum looked at it again, sitting snug in the palm of my hand. “THAT beautiful yellow rock was waiting for you, Johnny,” she said, “just for you. It’s a treasure. A real treasure. Put it in one of your OXO treasure tins, Johnny, and keep it there, forever. Forever. You hear me? Forever and a day.”
I squeezed my treasure tightly in my hand and took it into the kitchen. I had never held such treasure before. I turned on the hot water tap and washed off the grainy sand with hand soap, then dried my special rock with newspaper, stroked it, and looked at it again.
I put it on the dinner table, next to my birthday tea treats - the big blue and white plate of bread splits, a jar of jam, Cornish cream, treacle, and yellow saffron buns. “What IS that, Dad?” asked my brother, Jimmie, again, looking at Mum and Dad. Jimmie picked it up and stroked the yellow pebble. Mum and Dad shook their heads and said they didn’t know, but, as Mum explained, the yellow discovery was something very, very special.
Dad told a story, when we settled down after my birthday tea, a story about his Dad working in the Botallack tin mine, near St. Just, digging in tunnels deep down under the blue sea. “Bet he never found a yellow rock like yours, Johnny,” he said. “Found good stuff, though.”
When I went upstairs to bed, I put the treasure into one of my small OXO tins, slipped it under my pillow, curled my fingers around it, and fell asleep with a smile on my face.
What a birthday it had been.
As I dressed in the morning, I put the OXO tin inside my left-hand trouser pocket, next to my favorite small seashell, to take to school to show my teacher, Miss Harvey.
I scoffed down my bacon sandwich and headed out the door with Grandma. Mum shouted from the kitchen,
“Got your yellow rock for your teacher, Johnny? Don’t forget it. Got your dinner, them OXO cubes, too?”
“Got everyfink mum.” I replied.
I couldn’t wait to get to school to show Miss Harvey.
Even before all the boys sat in their seats, I was standing by her tall desk, the OXO treasure tin in my hand, spluttering, “Miss Harvey, Miss Harvey, see what I found! I found it on the beach, after school, yesterday. You know, next to the harbor wall. I found it on Lariggan. Went there with my dad. You know, when the tide was out, when you can see what the tide brought in.”
Every word came out in a rush.
As Miss Harvey looked inside my scratched OXO tin, her eyes widened! It wasn’t, apparently a rock at all. It was, she said, ancient fossilized tree resin, and, it was called amber. Miss Harvey – who knew everything - knew that amber was millions of years old and came from the inside of trees.
Resin? Fossilized? Amber? Ancient? What beautiful sounding words, I thought. I rolled the words around in my head. Resin. Fossilized. Amber, amber.
Miss Harvey held my precious amber in her hand, smiled, looked down at me through her glasses that balanced on the end of her sharp nose, and said loudly, so everyone in class could hear, “THIS is AMBER…..it’s fossil tree sap………it’s been washed ashore after a long, long trip in the sea. Johnny Paull was the lucky one who found it.”
Miss Harvey handed the amber back to me and then wrote the word
A M B E R on the board. “Show it to everyone, pass it around,” Miss Harvey said. “Share it – that’s what scientists do. And, Johnny Paull, you’re a real scientist!”
What’s a scientist, I wondered as I passed my OXO tin around the classroom? Is that something dead good?
My head glowed. It was on fire. When I met Grandma outside at the end of school, I told her I was a scientist – and asked her what that meant!
“Yep,” said Grandma, “you sure are! You’re a scientist – cos you’re always looking for things!! That’s what scientists do.”
That was it. I was hooked. I’ve been a scientist - thanks to my amber, my mum, my dad, my grandma, and my teacher - ever since.
P.S. Many years later, when I was a teacher, one of my students renamed the treasure tins we had in our classroom.
He called them POCKET MUSEUMS.
And that’s what all my tins have been called since that day – POCKET MUSEUMS!