My best teacher

30th October 1998 at 00:00
When I was eight I went to St Andrew's, a boarding preparatory school in Pangbourne, Berkshire. There were, I'd guess, about 120 boys in this Victorian red brick building, which had turrets and a lovely view over what was then a green valley, but now has the M4 cutting through it.

Throughout my time there I had a marvellous maths teacher called J W Turner. He was Canadian, a little, precise man who wanted everything to be just so. He looked a little frog-like because he had his hair cut ridiculously short and wore very big glasses.

Mr Turner made maths exciting: tables, algebra, geometry - the whole thing. I remember looking forward to maths lessons more than other subjects, not least because another boy, Christopher Llewellyn Smith (who went on to become professor of theoretical physics at Oxford), and I were the class stars. Mr Turner appreciated that we were ahead of the rest and gave us harder things to do.

He may have taught us a bit of science, too, and when I was about to leave the school he came up to me. "I want to say one thing to you, Hart-Davis. Science. " At 12, I was a bit puzzled by that, but he was quite right that science was where my future lay.

I failed the Eton scholarship exam, but got in through Common Entrance and arrived in 1956, just as the Suez crisis broke. The first weeks were terrifying: 10 times as many boys as St Andrew's, 30 buildings instead of one, plus you're the youngest and you're wearing stupid clothes.

I had two good maths teachers there: Tim Card, who set us awfully difficult problems which I loved doing, and Mr Herbert. In my first year I had a chemistry master who put me right off the subject, but, happily, in my second year Dr Geoffrey Liptrot arrived.

He was from Bolton, had just completed his doctorate and was terribly out of place. You could feel he was looked down on by the other teachers and we were probably beastly to him because of his accent. But he was very patient and put up with it all. He was extraordinarily good at getting simple chemistry across: going through the alcohols, acids and so on. All my basic chemistry comes from him.

Then came John Pode, a live-wire - and a rather good off-spinner. He'd been at Eton some time and lived with his wife in a little house on the High Street. He was much more sparky and interested in the exciting parts of chemistry, and less good on the mundane aspects.

He got us to edit a science magazine for June 4 - Founder's Day. We called it Krypton, or something like that, and one of my contributions was to plagiarise an article called "The Magic Box", which my elder brother, Duff, had written for the Western Mail, about a speaker system invented by a Welshman.

I secured an Oxford scholarship at Christmas in my final year, which meant there was no point carrying on with normal lessons in the final term. Oliver Van Oss, a huge man, very arty, was ostensibly teaching me German. I remember all sorts of extraordinary things coming out of my contact with him - not least the thought that there's more to life than chemical equations.

It was the combination of Pode and Liptrot that eventually pulled me to chemistry, which I read at Oxford and then as a postgraduate. Until then I was set on physics, which I was taught by Dr Jack Goodier. He was in his 40s, skinny, always a bit scruffy, typically dressed in a frayed jacket and crooked tie - and always slightly out of control.

His lessons were fun and he used some lovely experiments. When he wanted to teach us what horsepower was he had some machine that was wound by hand. He hauled out the biggest rugby player in the class and said: "Wind this wheel as hard as you can." He wound away and clocked up nearly half a horsepower for a minute. I remember that to this day as an index for what horsepower represents.

Goodier was rather poor at maths, and we sometimes had to help him a bit with his integration. But the fact that he always worked from first principles was rather encouraging.

I've been living off my O-level physics for most of the past 20-odd years: first making science programmes for 15 years as a producer at Yorkshire Television, and now O-level physics is more or less what the inventions in Local Heroes are all about. So I could thank Jack Goodier for much of what I've done. He must have instilled that stuff into me so that it really stuck. He believed that science is a sensible way of looking at the world and I almost became a physicist because of him. I've been doing the same as him since I left the academic world: trying to make science accessible to people.

Adam Hart-Davis, 55, writer and broadcaster, has presented the BBC2 'Local Heroes' documentaries about pioneering inventors. The second, eight-part series ended on October 26. His 11 books include 'Thunder Flush' and 'Thomas Crapper', about the history of toilets. He was talking to Daniel Rosenthal

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