Tag Archives: science

346. Science, just for fun

rat-hereTeaching should be fun for teacher and student alike. That’s my perspective, but I have to admit that I had it easy on that front because I taught science. Science is full of falling things, and flying things, and squishy things, and stinky things. If I had to teach English, or social studies, or math, I would certainly have a different view of how much fun teaching is.

Here is an example. CH4 is the formula for methane gas. Teaching chemical formulas could get a little obscure and uninteresting if you let it, but there are always “interesting facts” that you can throw in to help keep things rolling. For instance, methane is what comes out of the gas pipes that you cook with if you live in a city. It’s also what comes out of cows and ends up in the news as a bovine generated greenhouse gas. If you leave a stove on without lighting it, you smell it, but methane is odorless. How does this happen? The gas company puts a chemical in with the methane that stinks when fresh, but burns up without stinking if a fire is lit.

This is the point when some wiseacre will say, “If methane is odorless, why do farts stink?”

And you can answer with a straight face, “Well, if you consider where they come from, and what the gasses have to push their way through, and the little particles they are carrying with them . . .”

If you can’t make science fun, you probably shouldn’t be teaching it.

One of the things that come up in middle school science is the conservation of matter. Matter is neither created nor destroyed, except in nuclear reactions; it just changes form. Methane gas combines with oxygen to create carbon dioxide and water. You know the equation, and you’ve probably had to balance it. My students had to do it, too. You have to do the work if you are going to learn.

But there is nothing wrong with spicing things up occasionally with an illustrative story. Even Jesus used parables.

Consider the story of Billy, who never believed what he was told.

I would begin this story with a drawing on the board like the one at the top of this post, except that there would be a cartoon of a dead rat, on its back, where the word “rat” is.

The story begins — When Billy came into science class one day, his teacher had put a dead rat on a scale and covered it with a bell jar. The scale read 7262.5 grams, the weight of the bell jar plus the rat. Billy’s teacher said, “This is part of a two week long experiment. Don’t touch the setup.” Then he taught something else.

The next day, things didn’t change. After the third day, the rat had started to swell up. (I didn’t take two weeks for this. The whole story took about fifteen minutes. At this point I erased and redrew the rat with a distended belly.)

By Friday, the rat was huge, and it was all Billy could do to keep from lifting the bell jar and poking it. But he didn’t. Even though the rat was huge, the scale still said 7262.5 grams.

Over the weekend, the rat blew up. When Billy came in on Monday, there was nothing left but a skeleton wrapped in a busted skin, with a few oozing guts. The air around the rat was kind of brown and the scale still said 7262.5 grams

(At this point I had redrawn the rat to match the description. This was also the point when I elicited from my students just what was happening and why the scale still read the same.)

Billy just didn’t get it. He couldn’t understand why the scale stayed the same when the rat was reduced to almost nothing. His teacher had explained that the rat’s mass had been converted to gasses which were trapped in the bell jar. Since the gasses could not escape, the scale had no reason to change.

Billy didn’t believe it. It had to be a trick. While his teacher was across the room, helping one of his fellow students, Billy slipped up to the teacher’s desk, took hold of the bell jar, tipped it back . . .

There was a pop and a hiss as the bell jar came unstuck. The scale dropped to 6571.3 grams. The students in the room screamed, leaped up holding their noses and yelling at Billy, and ran for the back of the room . . .

You get the point. They got the point. And we had a lot of fun besides.

315. Apprentice in Science

fleming-schola-rs-1966For eight weeks in 1965, I was a Fleming Fellow (see yesterday’s post).

The gist of the program was that a Fellow was assigned to a research scientist as something like an apprentice. My personal research had been a hybrid of ecology and space science (see Tuesday’s post) Nothing like that was available in a medical research facility; instead, I was assigned to Dr. Gunnar Sevelius who was doing research on determining renal flow through use of radioisotopes. He had just finished editing Radioisotopes and Circulation the preceding year.

Dr. Sevelius gave me a small lab room and access to a supply of radioactive iodine, along with sensors for radioactivity and a strip chart recorder. He sat me down to talk about his work and tell me what he expected from me. He treated me as if I could figure things out for myself – which I could. I didn’t see him often after that, although I hung out with his young lab assistants.

I don’t need to give a lot of detail here. It has all been superseded.

Everything sophisticated in science was crude when it was being developed. Any kid in a high school metal shop today could reproduce one of Goddard’s original rockets — but only because Goddard taught them how. Any trained technician can slide you into a machine and look at images of the inside of your head — but only because to the work done by people like Dr. Sevelius. Everything at OMRF was cutting edge for 1965, and probably none of those machines are even stored in dusty basements any more. Science moves on, and quickly.

Computers? Video monitors? Forget it. A strip chart recorder had a moving roll of paper, a moving head with roll of typewriter ribbon and a striker that made a dash on the paper every time the sensor detected radioactivity. An image of a pair of kidneys looked something like this:


You can see a strip chart recorder at the top of this post. That’s me in 1965, with a haircut that was already going out of fashion.

I learned a lot that summer, not least that I would never again spend eight weeks in a windowless room doing repetitive research. I love the results of science, but the doing of it can be damned boring. I also got to test myself against other smart kids, and be satisfied with the result. Every other Fleming fellow had done more sophisticated work than I had, but they were the products of sophisticated high school science programs, or the children of scientists.

There were lectures and activities for us. I met a scientist who had done research on the reaction of elephants to LSD — two years before I chose to avoid it when it became mind candy.

I learned about Michigan State, and was encouraged to apply there. I got a tour of the basement where research was being done using a sensory deprivation tank. Fifteen years later that became the basis for my second published novel.

I learned about the infamous Dr. Sexauer. From a former fellow, I got the names of two of my former incarnations, in a late night seance. Tidac and Javernan became characters in my three fantasy novels. I wrote about that incident, and it led to an odd occurrence. The OMRF was trying to find all its Fleming Fellows to prepare for the 60th anniversary of the program. I had mentioned the name of the girl who seemed to be running the ouija board. The OMRF had googled her name, found my post, and connected with me. It was good to hear from them again.

When I returned to my tiny high school that fall, I had touched the larger world and I would never turn back.