Glasgow Science Centre’s Claire Gemson hears what some of the city’s scientists found under the tree as children, and learns if gifts aimed at budding scientists really can provide a spark of inspiration….

Rustling in the depths of a cupboard, amongst all the faded Christmas baubles and tangles of retired fairy lights, have you ever stumbled upon a favourite childhood Christmas gift or two? A quick poll of parents brought forth a jumble of fond memories of well-loved Christmas gifts from Scalextric to Action Man, Rubik’s cubes to Sinclair ZX Spectrums. It seems that the memory of wishing for something is almost as vivid as receiving it.

Every year, a list of the most-coveted toys is published. Scientific toys feature prominently. Gifts such as a 3D star system jigsaw puzzle and construction toys which blend science and engineering, top the Santa-list charts for Christmas 2021. One retailer reports* that sales of construction toys and puzzles have risen 50% in the last 12 months. Games that can be played by the whole family are also sought-after. Scientific gifts are invariably a popular choice. But what gifts inspired some of our city's own scientists?

Glasgow Science Centre’s Dr Gillian Lang, a physicist, understands the lasting appeal of construction toys: “I had a little toolkit like my dad’s- complete with hammer, drill and plane. I loved making stuff (drilling holes mainly!). Another favourite was the game ‘Mastermind’. I still love it. It’s rooted in problem-solving and critical thinking – vital skills for a career as a scientist.”

Lang has her ‘Mastermind’ game to this day. The idea that well-loved toys from a childhood Christmas past can still be enjoyed by grown-ups is an idea Professor Martin Hendry seconds: Hendry, who is Professor of Gravitational Astrophysics and Cosmology at the University of Glasgow, recalls toys that not only encouraged an early interest in astronomy but have remained important: “I got a telescope when I was ten and a toy physics lab when I was 12. There was the Lego lunar module I got when I was 8. That has a nice story arc I guess because of the modern version of the lunar module was what the department got me when I stepped down as Head of School last year.”

Professor David MacMillan, originally from Bellshill, hit the headlines this year when he was jointly awarded the Nobel prize in chemistry. MacMillan is now Professor of Chemistry at Princeton University in the US. The big question is, did Santa leave a chemistry set for him under the tree when he was little?

MacMillan reveals the answer: “My mum and dad did buy me a chemistry set when I was about 9 or 10, but I destroyed it immediately by mixing all the wrong stuff together. My brother made soap and all that stuff, but I didn’t have the patience.”

It wasn’t the chemistry set that directly provided MacMillan with inspiration but something quite unexpected as he explains: “I learned to count with playing cards before I went to school. During the miners’ strike in the early 70s, we would go to our next-door neighbour’s house and play cards (mostly games called Switch and Spanish) by candlelight because there was no electricity at night time. It was totally magical to a young boy. That was how I learned to count, playing with all the teenagers who taught me, and I can still count reasonably fast. And I still love to play cards to this day.”

MacMillan’s words echo the importance of games enjoyed by the whole family- a trend that seems to have found new life during the pandemic. These games have a whole host of things to teach children. The gift of science can be found in unexpected places and in something as simple as a pack of cards. Perhaps then, it’s the memories of playing these games which provide the best (and most lasting) Christmas present of all.

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