It’s been an exciting week of experiments: in the lab and at home for my son’s school science fair—and for the psychology of marketing. But I’ll come to that later. Let’s start at the annual school science fair.
An elementary school science fair is a wonderful thing. It exposes children at a very young age to the joys of discovery, and allows them to expand their curiosity of the world—something babies do naturally—but they learn to do it in a structured and analytical fashion.
In general, it’s a joy to see a child, proudly standing in front of a poster, explaining and showing her/his project, and taking ownership of it.
Now I am a fan of the many advantages of the internet (aka interwebz on this site). But unfortunately, it can be a confusing source of information, particularly in the realm of science. So while many parents (mostly non-scientists) manage to help their children find or modify some nice experimental projects, others have difficulty with this. Nice experimental systems included determining the amount of salt needed to make an egg float, optimal conditions for the growth of fungi on cheese, testing growth of plants under various conditions, and so on.
My son, with a laboratory at his disposal, ordered up some agar plates and decided to test what spreads bacteria more readily, coughing or sneezing. While the experimental system sounds easy, he spent a lot of time researching how to sneeze on demand and working out the conditions. Pepper did not help, but gliding a rolled piece of tissue into his nostril at just the right angle—while looking into a bright light did the trick. The results, shown here, are atypically clear for the life sciences! Average of ~100 bacterial colonies per sneeze, compared with less than 10 for coughs and zero for the control plates (open to air for the same time).You can cough in my face, but don’t sneeze in my vicinity, please.
But in addition to many nice projects, I saw too many ‘volcanoes’ (the old showy acid-base reaction). Too many demonstrations that merely depict an interesting phenomenon with asking a question. Obviously, this misses the point. So while the children nonetheless become excited about their projects, they are really being taught that science is about “getting something to work the way you know it will,” rather than asking a question and testing, measuring, determining the answer. Hypothesis-driven science starts in the cradle…
Of course these issues of grabbing a ready-made project reminded me of my undergraduate studies in Jerusalem (in the pre-internet era), where in a microbiology lab course I was asked if I had any ‘Newtons?’
“What are Newtons?” I hadn’t a clue. Turns out that they were the term for previous years’ lab reports, because they had been copied and passed down from year to year ever since the days of Newton…
And in the psychological/social sciences–another experiment: well, I did what Henry did—but I only read his blog afterwards, so I didnae copy him. I put the Kindle reader version of my novel, Welcome Home, Sir, on promotion for FREE for 24 hours. Not that it’s a gigantic saving from the regular-priced $2.99. But I was curious. I sent out perhaps 10 pushy, irritating Tweets over the course of the 24 h to advertise for my promotion campaign. Hoping to jump start the marketing process, get more readers, reviews and perhaps actual sales later on.
I didn’t know what to expect. 5 free downloads over the 24 h? 10? Perhaps 20? How many could there be when I have barely 600 ‘followers,’ a small fraction of which are likely to see any one of the ~10 tweets that I sent out.
Not only was I surprised, but I was absolutely flabbergasted to find a run on the novel, with 105 free downloads in 24 hours. Even with a few kind retweets, I still can’t understand how SO MANY people actually downloaded the novel! It’s quite thrilling, and wonderful, but also rather strange. So many people who are interested enough to download the novel, presumably to read it (what else is there to do with it)—but who otherwise would have been unwilling to fork out $2.99 for it. To me that seems bizarre!
But then I recall years ago a student in my lab—who made a face when I took the lab out for a light lunch at a café, couldn’t/wouldn’t find a sandwich or soup that agreed with her. And yet—she walked around campus with a sheet of paper detailing every seminar that served a free lunch, and she would walk across campus for a soggy tuna sandwich on airy white bread. Go figure.
So in all, it’s been a busy time for experiments. Now if only I could get the ones in the lab done with such efficiency…