Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Testing a Hypothesis

Today, this photo came across my news feed, accompanied by the usual witty comments. (Kudos to George Takei for introducing me to the best tri-fold display ever.) My sister B wrote, "I remember the crying and yelling and the 'Quick! Find some food I can put a drop of iodine on!'" Our friend T said, "The one time nothing in the fridge has mold on it!"

I wrote, "In my case, 100% of the time, the parent actually did the experiment, and I provided the neat lettering for the board."


It's not that I wasn't a good student, or a generally capable one. I liked school. I read even the chapters that weren't assigned. I'd always finished the novel our class would be reading for the next month in the first 48 hours.

But the science project? Lord, have mercy.


Even though the science fair was something I knew was coming and could spot a mile away like a dust storm in a desert, I was somehow always completely unprepared. The trouble began with the whole idea of a hypothesis. Although I'd written down the term in my notes (highlighted, underlined, neatly aligned with the left hand margin), I couldn't fully grasp the concept.

My mother tried. She deserves much more than this blog-post-of-thanks as her reward. Usually, our conversations in the month leading up to the science fair ended up with the two of us sitting at the kitchen table -- me crying because I couldn't figure it out and my mother looking like this time, she might just strangle me.

Her questions ranged from the subtly encouraging, "But aren't you curious about anything?" to the subtly damning, "How can you not be curious about anything?"

There was really no way for me to answer. It was true, I was lacking the essential curiosity to approach every science project I'd ever seen. Although I admired the chutzpah of my classmates who cut a planarian in half to chart its regeneration, I was more interested in how a person could cut a wriggling, innocent creature in half than what happened to said creature later. I didn't particularly care how fast things happened, or why they happened at all.

In fact, each time the science fair rolled around, I nurtured serious doubts about my own intellect. What was wrong with me, that I couldn't summon a decent hypothesis?


What I came to realize over the years was that I wasn't defective (at least, not in any way that would cause great damage to my adult self), and that I was in fact curious. I was just curious about things that were of no use in the biannual science fair.

For example, I was fascinated by people.

"Don't stare," my mother would say, as I gaped at a woman talking to herself at a McDonalds. "That's rude." It might have been rude, but I could hardly look away. Did this woman know she was talking to herself? What was she talking about? Why was she alone? Had her talking-to-herself habit driven away all the people who loved her? Was she dangerous, or simply lonely?

At school, I was curious about the social status of my various classmates. I was a little too weird to be one of the popular girls, although I was smart enough and pretty enough to blend in most of the time. Even at an early age, I could see that I laughed at the wrong things, and made connections that others didn't make and couldn't understand when I tried to point them out. But I wondered endlessly about the popular kids. Did they ever doubt themselves? Did they get their strength from within, or from the praise of others? Could popularity be achieved through hard work, focus and determination, or was it an innate quality?

But there wasn't a way to graph loneliness or a method of growing popularity in a petri dish, so I was pretty much screwed.


It was impossible not to do the science experiment.

In thirteen years of teaching, I've met students who simply did not complete the single biggest project that had the largest effect on their grades, but this was never an option for me. Partly, this was out of respect for my teachers; partly, it was from the desire not to look like an idiot in front of my classmates. I attended a private school, and there must have been students who didn't complete the work from time to time, although I don't think I ever knew them.

But mostly, not doing the science project was impossible because of my parents.

Between the two of them, they possessed the ideal qualities necessary for success at the sixth grade science fair. Namely, my mother had all the scientific curiosity I was lacking, and my father could build anything.

This explains the complicated "ball-bearing racetrack" I submitted one year -- sheepishly, because although it was extremely cool to run ball bearings down a four-foot ramp (constructed, sanded, stained and varnished by yours-truly's-father), I could not explain at all what was happening from a scientific standpoint.

Another year, prompted by concerns about my father's smoking habit, my mother took the reins herself, and we (she) constructed a model of a human lung out of an empty dish detergent bottle filled with cotton balls. One of my father's cigarettes was taped to the spout, lit with an oven match (this was my favorite part) and then by squeezing the bottle, it was possible to simulate the experience of smoking. Over the course of this project, the cotton balls turned a nasty brown, and I secondhand smoked a few packs of my dad's Mores.

I can't say my father was especially impressed by the clump of brown cotton balls or what this was meant to suggest about the state of his own lungs. Somehow, my father's apathy supported my impression that what I was doing was not actually science. I was not so much proving a hypothesis as making my father very, very mad.


Did I mention that my mother LOVES science?

For the last decade of her life, even in retirement, she has been at the helm of her school district's annual Family Science Night. For years, she served as the science mentor for four elementary schools -- bridging gaps in the curriculum when the state became hyper-focused on reading and math. She had a permanent display in her classroom of what I liked to call "very cool science things" -- a petrified frog, the bones of such-and-such and the crystalline insides of a geode.

Even today, I marvel at the postcards I receive from my mother, on her various jaunts across the United States with my father. In one, she might describe visiting a national park; in another, she is in awe of the display at a rock and mineral show. I don't have one of her postcards handy at the moment, but here's the gist:

Paula --
Having a wonderful time in Monterey. Saw a group of 200 sea lions. This is not a typical migratory pattern for the sea lions, due to unusual weather conditions in the spring. I have been taking long walks in the morning while your dad sleeps. Amazing amount of birds, squirrels, butterflies on paths.
Love, Mom


The truth is, I would like to go back to the science experiments of my youth and really do them, and get a grade that I (and not my parents) deserved.

But while I've learned many things over the years, I suppose I haven't fully embraced the idea of scientific inquiry. I've simply adapted to my environment. I can upload and download; I can Tweet. I recently learned how to operate the Roku and even added a new channel to my viewing options. There's science at work behind each of these inventions, but it remains invisible to me.

Any experiment I might conduct today would probably involve my pets and their eating habits. I can see it now: a graph denoting the number of times I cleaned up vomit, versus the amount and type of food consumed.

Maybe I could get my mother to help me with the graphs.

And I bet my father could build one kick-ass display.