I have wanted to be a scientist almost all my life.

I think I must have been seven, or thereabouts, when I announced to my parents that I wanted to be a ‘naturist’ when I grew up. Their hilarity was understandable. But what they didn’t initially grasp was that I had been trying to say ‘naturalist’. It was a word I had seen in the Willard Price books I was then addicted to, and my pronunciation of it just happened to sound like, well, like someone who enjoys walking around naked. Unfortunate that.

They gave me a Thomas Salter chemistry set for my seventh birthday. These were available in ‘levels’ which were gauged to age and supposed responsibility. To my delight, they had bought me one which was recommended for older children. In my recollection, somewhere during Thatcher’s first term I am sitting in front of John Craven’s Newsround on a wet afternoon, taking a match to a tube of hydrogen and delighting in the resulting <<pop!>>. I had a lot of fun with those tubes of copper sulphate, tartaric acid and the like.

In contrast the microscope I was given the next year never grabbed me until I was much older, and realised that the pathetic little mirror was never going to reflect enough light to see much, especially at the higher magnifications. Once this had been sorted out with a desk lamp I spent hours looking at Daphnia, mosquito larvae and the like. Eventually, an even geekier friend introduced me to rotifers, those gorgeous little living jewels that look like they run on some clockwork mechanism, and which are to be found in the tiniest drop of water. It was not until much later I learned and appreciated the word ‘animalcule’.

“Science isn’t what you think it is,” warned my Father, sat in front of the deep red seventies curtains which ran in front of the sliding doors in the living room “it’s not all making discoveries. When you come down to it, it’s much like any other job.” Again, in my unreliable memory, the news in the background is talking about the university cuts of the 80s, bringing his next words into sharp relief “You could work all your life and not discover anything. And it’s not easy to get a job in science, and if you do you won’t get paid much for it. Accountants, on the other hand, people will always need accountants.”

He was right. And he was also wrong.

Science is not well paid. For most of us, it is an insecure lifestyle. We are prey to the vicissitudes of the reviewers of our papers and our grants, or the grants of the people who employ us. And yes, most days it has a lot in common with other jobs; writing reports, meetings, sending emails, doing expenses, getting along with the people you are thrown together with, I could go on. And yes, people will always need accountants.

But then there is the way it isn’t like other jobs. You have to find time to look at the world. Really look at it. And then find in the great edifice of our knowledge, some small space everyone else has missed that you can shine a light into. Whether you will reveal a tiny detail or some vast roomy space to explore, ah, that’s the fun.

My Father was right: discoveries do not come every day. And yet I have been lucky enough, once or twice, to feel like I am catching a glimpse of something fascinating and unknown. It doesn’t happen all at once. Some of my best work has lain unexamined on my desk for the best part of a year before I got around to doing something with it, and then I of course kicked myself for having not seen it before. Other times I have felt almost bowled over by the surge of insight, which has then proven to be so far of the mark as to be completely unfounded, or near as dammit.

There’s a line from Beckett “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

I think I might have noticed something earlier today. I can’t wait to try again.