My Best Teacher - Adam Hart-Davis

5th February 2010 at 00:00
He may have flunked history at Eton, but the author was inspired by a physics teacher who 'couldn't quite do the maths' but made learning accessible

I regret I never rowed at school. I thoroughly enjoyed rowing, I always have, and I'm quite good at it, but I played cricket instead. I was tubby and heavy and I was never a very good cricketer. I always thought I was going to do better and get into the team but it never quite happened, so there was always a slight edge of disappointment.

I'm afraid I was a bit of a swot: well behaved and hard working. I really enjoyed maths and science - it was always interesting and challenging and I looked forward to those lessons. Most of the teachers were terrific, but at Eton my favourite teacher was Jack Goodier. He was my physics teacher.

Jack was terrific: very enthusiastic without being over-the-top; he loved the subject and loved teaching it. He was slightly absent-minded and he would lose the chalk or the blackboard rubber and he couldn't quite do the maths so we had to help him out.

He went from first principles and explained things clearly and made it come alive. One day we were talking about power and energy and he said we measure power in horsepower, which was what we used to do in those days, so how much is one horsepower? He had a machine with a handle and it registered how much power you were generating. He got the biggest lad in the class and told him to wind this thing as hard as he could and he generated half a horsepower.

I remember to this day that a really fit man can generate half a horsepower. It was typical of Jack Goodier to have got that machine organised just to show what a strong man could do and how much more powerful horses are.

Once he set me the task of recreating J.J. Thomson's famous experiment of measuring the ratio of charge to mass of an electron and I got the answer wrong by a million, million, million, million, million, million times. It was wrong by a factor of 10 to the power of 35. I had divided by something that I should have multiplied by, or the other way around. He was always patient and he would try to explain things in the simplest way.

I continued with that approach when I started in television: we were doing large versions of the same experiments. The very first piece I did was about why banana skins are slippy. That was more or less directly from Jack Goodier. He instilled the idea and it was easy for me to scale it up. It is no good reading about stuff; you have to be hands-on.

We had very good teachers and I got a good grounding in all the things I needed, apart from history. I hated history and failed the O-level. The other thing was a sense of confidence. You really learn that at Eton. It is a place where you are surrounded by people from extraordinary backgrounds, such as members of the royal family and people who ran banks in the City.

You learn how to cope with being cooped up for seven or eight months of the year and how to cope with all sorts of other people, how to fit in and how not to be terrified of facing new things. Once you have done that you feel you can deal with anything. I haven't had a job interview for years but I wouldn't be scared.

Sometimes when you go to a new event you think it's going to be awful. Those things don't bother me and that is a very useful skill. Last week I went to a posh dinner at an organisation I hadn't been to before and it was wonderful. I didn't feel terrified at all.

Adam Hart-Davis is a writer and broadcaster whose credits include 'What the Romans Did for Us', 'What the Victorians Did for Us' and 'How Britain was Built'. He is editorial consultant for 'Science', published by Dorling Kindersley. He was talking to Nick Morrison.

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