Experiments, hypotheses, volcanoes, newtons and free downloads

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.

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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…

About Steve Caplan

I am a Professor of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska where I mentor a group of about 10 students, postdoctoral fellows and researchers working on endocytic protein trafficking. My first lablit novel, "Matter Over Mind," is about a biomedical researcher seeking tenure and struggling to overcome the consequences of growing up with a parent suffering from bipolar disorder. Lablit novel #2, "Welcome Home, Sir," published by Anaphora Literary Press, deals with a hypochondriac principal investigator whose service in the army and post-traumatic stress disorder actually prepare him well for academic, but not personal success. Novel #3, "A Degree of Betrayal," is an academic murder mystery that is now in press! All views expressed are my own, of course--after all, I hate advertising. http://www.stevecaplan.net
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6 Responses to Experiments, hypotheses, volcanoes, newtons and free downloads

  1. cromercrox says:

    It’s neither copying, nor even plagiarism, but a very creditable replication. In my own experiment, my publisher (who is also my agent in this case) offered my Kindle book ‘The Science of Middle-earth’ up for free for 24 hours (which in Amazon-speak is more like 48h). Throughout the day concerned (Feb 6) I touted the book vigorously on Facebook, Google+, Twitter and LinkedIn, encouraging people who downloaded the book to share the link with their friends. I do not know yet how many people downloaded it, but it did get quite a few retweets, and a couple of people blogged about it. Of course the exercise will only succeed if paid sales following the promotion are generally greater than they were before. Stay tuned.

    • Steve Caplan says:

      Good luck! I suspect that in my case, the promotion will ultimately not alter sales very much, but as the financial side is secondary to the exposure, to me it’s a success. The more that read the novel the happier I am. And unlike paper, I can occasionally give away the e-reader copy for free…

  2. Argh, the Science Fair. I used to absolutely hate having to participate in these things. The whole idea of being judged not only on how good your idea was, how rigorous the science, and how well you put together the big folding thing to present it… *shudder*.

    How little did I know what the future held. :D

    • Steve Caplan says:

      I have to say that the wonderful woman who volunteers to work with the children and their parents (obviously not needed in our case, where both parents are scientists) makes this competition extremely fun for the kids. It is not a “competition” in the sense of competing; all the children (and we are talking k-6) come out with medals, and the judges are university science/teaching students who make only positive constructive comments (even in the case of ‘volcanoes’) so none of the kids feel threatened or frustrated. I just can’t help wondering how it could be better emphasized what the point of the exercise is for those parents who don’t really choose an appropriate topic. But alas, my son will go off to ‘middle school’ next year (to be distinguished from Henry’s Middle Earth), and I assume that will be the end of such science fairs. Until a few years down the road when he gets to Gordon Conferences, ASCB and ASBMB meetings and whatnot…

  3. cromercrox says:

    Spurred on by your fine example I have enrolled my gothic horror seaside lablit mystery ‘By The Sea’ in Kindle Select, which means I’ll be able to give it away for free during the annual Cromer Crab Festival, which happens between 15 and 17 May this year.