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(This post has been repaired, and its missing seven paragraphs restored.)

I’m still not ready to resume ordinary blogging.  Sorry about that.  The copyediting crush is intense, but even more intense is the graduate seminar crush: freewheelin’ fellow though I appear to be, I have actual teaching duties, and for some reason I have to take care of them before I have myself any bloggy fun.  Why, I’m even doing a one-on-one independent study this semester, too.  So I probably won’t have any time for new stuff before Thursday.  In the meantime, I want to thank a pair of commenters in the previous thread for giving me such a commanding lead in the race for the 2006 Cobb Awards in the “Worst Community” competition.  I also want to nominate a late arrival to that thread for a brand new award, “Worst Laura Kipnis Impersonation.”

While I was away, Janet was hit with one Jamie science project after another.  I would call home every night and ask how things were going, and Janet would say, with a sigh, “he has to construct an ecosystem by Friday,” or “we had to replicate the Larry Summers ‘two trucks’ experiment,” or “we were up late trying to isolate Bismuth-38.” Maybe she was putting me on.  It’s hard to tell.  During my two-day sojourn at home, mid-March, I was charged with helping Jamie set up his mold experiment; this time around, I was told that I had to help him construct a model of an angiosperm.

One brief note on that task.  Though no one sent me the memo, yesterday was Staring Day.  Jamie and I did our usual drill, swimming at the Y, playing basketball, and running sundry errands around town, and two or three times in the course of the day, people just gawked at him as if they’d never seen a person with Down syndrome in public before.  When we were in Target getting some of the materials for his science project, one kid, who looked about 10 or 11, stopped in his tracks, backed up a few steps, and peered around an aisle to look at Jamie.  So I decided to give this kid something to think about.  “Jamie,” I said.  “What are we supposed to be building again?” (This was a real question, by the way.  I kept calling the thing an “angioplast,” because I am not always so wise in the ways of science.) “Angiosperm,” Jamie replied.  “Right,” I said.  “Monocot or dicot?” “Monocot,” Jamie said.  “OK, and do you want purple or blue for the petals?” I asked.  “Hmmm,” Jamie mused, “maybe aqua.” We left that kid mid-aisle in a slack-jawed stupor.  In a pleasant way, of course.  Let’s hope we advanced the common good.

So, then, while we’re on the subject of science projects, here’s an ancient post (from almost exactly two years ago).  I do hope you will all find the final paragraph amusing beyond measure.


April 1, 2004

Today Jamie presented his science project to his fifth grade class.  Which means, of course, that Jamie presented the science project that he completed with the “help” of Janet.  I was pretty much out of the loop on this one, although I did have the presence of mind to point out that we could help Jamie construct a model volcano—for that was his assignment—out of the Volcano Kit he’d received as a birthday present from a classmate 18 months ago.  So last night he and Janet built this volcano out of concrete mix, ran the little plastic tube through its center, and painted the sides of the volcano green and brown (leaving the top white—his model was supposed to be Mount Fuji).  This afternoon Janet and I showed up at his classroom at 1:30 to help him with the demonstration, which involved putting baking powder in the cone and then running vinegar, dish soap and food coloring through the tube—Insta-Magma.  I spent half an hour this morning doing the lettering for his sign, “Jamie Berube Exploding Volcano,” realizing as I worked on the “lod” of “Exploding” (I remember from graphic design class that you do your lettering from the center outwards) that volcanos don’t explode, they erupt, and that this was in fact one of the lessons the science project was supposed to impart.  So I fixed the sign by taping one oaktag poster over another, and stenciling “Erupting Volcano” over “Exploding Volcano.” Janet brought examples of the three kinds of volcanic rock for Jamie to distribute to the class (pumice, basalt, obsidian, of course); all month long they’ve been doing plate tectonics, earthquakes, volcanos, trenches, fault-block mountains, and varieties of igneous rock.  Jamie’s fifth-grade class will be tested on their knowledge not only of the characteristics of the Earth’s core, mantle, and crust, but also of the names of all the plates shuffling around under our feet (we’ve been having Jamie decorate each plate with a different color—we think the Juan de Fuca Plate looks best in turquoise).

Needless to say, Jamie needed help with his project not because he has Down syndrome but because the real purpose of “science projects” is to get parents to build volcanos and solar systems and working models of radioactive isotopes and so forth.  And needless to say, it was pouring rain this morning, so we had to stuff everything into plastic bags and bring it into school while hunching under our umbrellas.  When we got to school and brought Jamie’s volcano into his class, we realized that—as we should have anticipated—the other kids had produced enormous, gorgeous papier-maché renditions of Mauna Loa and Mt. St. Helens, complete with villages, flora and fauna, and oaktags full of geological information (we’d managed to neglect the whole “provision of geological information” thing entirely, and will have to work with Jamie on putting this together over the weekend).

All of which reminds me of the story of Nick’s third-grade science project back in 1995.  Well before he’d heard of the classic Monty Python and the Holy Grail routine, Nick decided that he would demonstrate What Floats in Water.  In part this was a response to the inconceivably bad science project I’d “designed” for him in second grade, involving a black piece of plywood with two “chutes” as a backdrop for the demonstration that objects of different size and weight fall at the same rate of speed.  Because Champaign, Illinois is a college town, of course, Nick’s classmates presented things like “Particle Accelerators You Can Build At Home” and “Controlled Nuclear Fission Can Be Fun.” The plywood eventually found some use as a golf bag holder in a deep recess of the garage.) His flotation project was just fine, and thanks to the wonders of pi, he managed to come up with the following data:

BEACH BALL:  weight 100 g, circumference 59.8 cm, radius 9.51744 cm, volume 3611.364 cc, density 0.027690.

COPPER CENSER:  weight 75 g, circumference 32.0 cm, radius 5.09295 cm, volume 553.373 cc, density 0.135532.

RUBBER BALL:  weight 70 g, circumference 27.6 cm, radius 4.39267 cm, volume 355.054 cc, density 0.197153.

TENNIS BALL:  weight 55 g, circumference 20.5 cm, radius 3.26267 cm, volume 145.489 cc, density 0.378035.

CROQUET BALL:  weight 250 g, circumference 26.4 cm, radius 4.20168 cm, volume 310.727 cc, density 0.804565.

GOLF BALL:  weight 45 g, circumference 13.4 cm, radius 2.13267 cm, volume 40.633 cc, density 1.107474.

BALL BEARING:  weight 5 g, circumference 3 cm, radius 0.47746 cm, volume .516 cc, density 9.689922.

TAE KWON DO BOARD:  weight 150 g, volume 438.672 cc, density 0.341941.

BOX OF PAPER CLIPS:  weight 50 g, volume 77.832 cc, density 0.642409.


All the objects with densities greater than 1.0 sank in 3000 ml of fresh water.  The golf ball sank slowly, and the ball bearing plummeted.  Of the objects that floated, the croquet ball was the only one that floated in the water more than half submerged (only a few cm of it were visible above the water line).

When 3000 ml of water was mixed with 100 ml of salt, all the objects were immersed a second time.  All the objects that sank in fresh water also sank in salt water, but the croquet ball floated visibly higher (.5 cm) in salt water.

Now at this point you should be asking, how come you still have this data set on your hard drive after all these years, Michael? Well, I’ll tell you.

The night before the project was due, I stayed up until about 3 am typing and formatting his poster material, including those data.  At the time, Janet was out of town.  And weirdly enough, I had to host a lecture by Tricia Rose the next day; her book Black Noise:  Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America had just been published, and I was scheduled to pick Tricia up at the airport, drive her to her hotel, pick her up at 3 pm for an interview at Champaign’s only black-owned radio station (WBCP-AM), then drop her off for a book signing at the university bookstore, take her to dinner, and then introduce her lecture. 

The Tricia Rose part of the day was great.  She was the Hardest Working Woman in Academe for her visit, and the lecture, which was terrific, drew about a hundred faculty and students.  She was also much fun to talk to.  But the entire day was almost derailed by the croquet ball.

You see, after Nick had conducted his experiments, he had to bring a fish tank to school so that he could conduct them again.  Of course we wouldn’t bring in a fish tank full of water; Nick would fill the tank at school.  So while I was dropping off then-three-year-old Jamie at day care, Nick dumped the contents of the tank into the kitchen sink—including all those balls, the golf ball, the tennis ball, the ball bearing, the beach ball, the rubber ball, and the croquet ball.

The croquet ball, it turned out, was exactly the diameter of our kitchen sink’s drain (I guess that would make it 8.40336 cm).  When I returned from First United Methodist Day Care, therefore, I found a sink full of water and a drain clogged with a croquet ball that simply would not budge.  Cursing in a colorful but family-friendly fashion all the way, I drove Nick to school and assured him that I would get the croquet ball to him in time for his presentation.

But this proved to be more difficult than I’d imagined.  The ball was almost perfectly, completely wedged into the drain—it was allowing water to drain slowly, but I could not get enough traction on it to pry it loose by hand or with a butter knife.  And to make matters worse, it wasn’t even our croquet ball.  It had been loaned to us by friends, who let me know—when I called them and asked if I had their permission to drill through the ball so that I could pull it out with a small metal rod—that they were quite fond of their rather expensive croquet set and were very much looking forward to my returning the ball in the same condition in which it had left their house a few days earlier.

Fortunately, thanks to my personal history as a struggling musician, I hit upon a solution: duct tape.  Duct tape fixes everything, you know.  Attaching little ovals of duct tape (sticky side out) to each of my fingers, I managed to wiggle the ball loose and pluck it out of the drain.

Unfortunately, I did this before removing the golf ball and the ball bearing from the sink.  Sure enough, the moment the croquet ball popped out of the drain, the ball bearing and the golf ball disappeared, rolling briskly right into the goddamn garbage disposal.

I had to teach a class at 10 am that morning, and by now it was 9:30, so I gave up and dashed off to school.  Rushing back home for a band practice at noon, I tried scooping the balls out of the garbage disposal; I got the golf ball but had no luck with the ball bearing.  So in desperation I hauled out the vacuum cleaner from the basement, thinking that I could suck the ball bearing out of the drain and buy Nick another one for his demonstration.  My bandmates, Jonathan Sterne and Kevin Carollo (currently issuing The New Instructions), showed up as this hare-brained scheme was getting under way, and assured me that they would tell everyone, for years to come, that I spend part of my day fishing for ball bearings in my sink with a vacuum cleaner.  After a few obligatory minutes of mocking and deriding me, they pitched in to help, persuading me that if duct tape saved me once, it could save me again.  We attached more little sticky-side-out ovals to various kitchen implements, and after about ten or fifteen minutes managed to get a hold of the ball bearing and—more amazingly, and after only a few heartbreaking failures—thread it carefully through the rubber flaps of the drain, using the manual skills we each had developed by playing the board game Operation as children.

So Nick’s demonstration came off all right, we retained our croquet-playing friends, and I was able to fulfill my duties as Host of Tricia Rose for the rest of the day.  Thank goodness it wasn’t raining.

Anyway, today might just be the very last time we have to help a child of ours with a science project.  I will implore all known deities, yea, even unto Moloch and Ba’al, to make it so.

Posted by on 04/03 at 07:25 AM
  1. I don’t mean to brag, but my wife received a blue ribbon in our daughter’s school’s third-grade science fair, and she recieved a red ribbon in the district fair.

    She bested her K-2nd performances.  We’re all very proud of her.

    Posted by  on  04/03  at  09:50 AM
  2. ” volcanos don’t explode, they erupt,”

    Aw c’mon.  Let’s build a working model of Krakatoa!

    Posted by  on  04/03  at  09:53 AM
  3. I left the 4th-grade volcano help to my daughter’s dad who is a geologist: it involved chicken wire and plaster of paris but didn’t explode or erupt.

    Posted by  on  04/03  at  12:16 PM
  4. When planning to help my older son build a Pinewood Derby car in Cub Scouts, I happened upon a father son pair. The father worked as an engineer at Locheed and was planning to test his son’s car in a wind tunnel to make sure it had a minimum of air drag.

    Since we were planning to just use a pocket knife and some sand paper on a block of pine, I became worried about the final results.

    When the Scout Leader asked if we had any questions, I was moved to ask: “Is there a liberal arts division in this competition?” Sadly, there was not.

    Posted by Dwight Meredith  on  04/03  at  12:24 PM
  5. I like the What Floats in Water project, and if I’d give it high marks if I were judging in one of his competitions. Simple and clean is always better than complex and messy, I say.

    I also have to say that the Juan de Fuca plate has always been my favorite.

    Posted by PZ Myers  on  04/03  at  01:40 PM
  6. Dwight, you are really on to something there. I think there ought to be far more competitive liberal arts events in both academic and civic contexts. We need a fair distribution of unfair advantages. I’m thinking open mics, poetry slams, history quizzes. In our schools, in our universities, in our Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts and our Future Farmers of America. Or how about typing races? Michael could both assist and impress his sons with his legendary typing speed.

    I’ll casually mention here, because after all it’s highly appropriate and that’s my story and I’m sticking to it, that I won a spelling bee in a bar / art gallery on Friday. My academic life has provided a few, but not many, comparable highs. Words I spelled correctly included “changeable,” “pellucid,” “quidnunc,” “macchiato,” “peripeteia,” and, my favorite, “tchotchke.” The word I won on was “piscivorous.”

    I did misspell “maieutic,” because I’d never heard of the damn word before, which is embarrassing given that it means “pertaining to the Socratic method” and I’m a teacher. I made a wild guess and spelled it “meiudic,” thinking it might be some kind of progeny of “meiosis” and “ludic.” Instead, as I now know, it’s the descendant of “Maia” (because Socrates could, like, midwife understanding out of people who were screaming and cursing and feeling like they were passing a basketball in the process, all the while wearing unbleached linen and not causing puerperal fever) and the same “-eutic” that I’ve seen a million times in words like “hermeneutic” (ah, Hermes, that wag).

    Luckily for me, my deadly rival, the fearsome Richard, also misspelled his word on the same turn: clearly not a cloud-gazer, he spelled “nephelometer” “nephilometer,” and I was back in the game. Then, later, he spelled “proem” “proegm,” and therefore I won. But this is the same man who managed to spell the word “eurotophobia” correctly, and that word isn’t even in the Oxford English Dictionary. He scares me. I feel lucky--yet, at the same time, smart.

    Posted by  on  04/03  at  01:49 PM
  7. The common good has always been advanced by such antics! In my late 50’ and with a “rhino” that belittles Pinocchio, I, it, have been the object of much attention and often ridicule. I t has always given me much pleasure to offer my unusual Physiogamy for the wonder of those interested. Mostly the children dare whilst the adults cleverly hide their musings. A cleverly place handkerchief and some strongly exhaled air through the lips, thereby making rather rude sounds, usually turns the inquisitive away in pure shame for my predicament and I smile all the way to wherever I am going! Alan.

    Posted by  on  04/03  at  02:05 PM
  8. tsk...tsk.  baking soda, not baking powder.

    Posted by  on  04/03  at  02:26 PM
  9. Being trained in geology, I suppose it’s my duty to mention that pumice, basalt, and obsidian are actually not “the three types” of volcanic rock.  They represent three of several textures: vesicular, aphanitic (made of crystals invisible to the eye), and glassy.  But rocks are classified by mineral composition, not by texture.  In terms of composition, the three major types of volcanic rock are rhyolite, andesite, and basalt.

    Also, as Njorl pointed out, some volcanoes truly explode.  But you wouldn’t want to model that in a fifth-grade classroom.

    Posted by  on  04/03  at  02:58 PM
  10. Thanks, Root 66.  Though I hasten to remind you of the First Principle of Science Projects:  the parents’ understanding does not exceed that of the grade level.  From me, therefore, you will get no more than a fifth-grade account of the “types” or “textures” of volcanic rock.  Which brings me to:

    baking soda, not baking powder.

    There’s a difference?

    Captcha word:  learned.

    Posted by Michael  on  04/03  at  03:14 PM
  11. First i want to congratulate Monsieur Bérubé for the wonderful tribute accorded him on the Wampum site announcing the Koufax Awards for 2005.  The commentary is truly worth more than the award honors; okay that might be a bit over-the-top. 

    Angiosperms manufacture great alkaloids, though most science fair project supervisors would reject that as being inappropriate; same with those produced by fungi.  But what would really rock (though not so much rock as gas) would be to create a miniature pyroclastic flow project. 

    So is next up the usual sodium dropped in distilled water reaction???

    Posted by  on  04/03  at  04:01 PM
  12. Hooray for your work (and Jamie’s), putting down the demons of stereotyping one by one. With youngest, we run across a lot of people who think her diagnosis of autims means she’s slow and think that she’s just looking at the science books for “the pretty pictures” and I’ve coached her to just start reading the texts when people come up and ask her what the book’s about. It’s gratifying to watch their chins drop when a nine year old with autism, whose intellect they’ve clearly dismissed, reads from a high school/university level astronomy text!

    Posted by Ancarett  on  04/03  at  04:05 PM
  13. AmandaF,

    Harh. Seems those things are spreading, although in which direction I don’t know. Friend of mine has been running one at Freddy’s Bar in Brooklyn for more than a year now. I often participate, but (because?) I always lose. Congrats on your capacious memory and fine guessing skills.

    I do remember the winning word of the inaugural competition: eleemosynary. Would that were my captcha word.

    Posted by  on  04/03  at  09:49 PM
  14. But what is science?


    Posted by  on  04/03  at  10:03 PM
  15. Missing quotation marks in the a href surrounding the link to Tricia Rose’s book have caused havoc in the above post, by the way.

    In wholly related news, two other words I spelled correctly on Friday were “majuscule” and “eczema.”

    Karl the GM, I would love to go to your friend’s Brooklyn bee someday. I only wish I had the formidable etymological investigative skills you displayed the other day re “cohort.” Valiantly fighting trolls at the same time! Brave warrior. Philology is inherently deconstructive, I’d say, whereas spelling is culturally conservative. But, in fairness to me, I don’t know shit about opera.

    Posted by  on  04/03  at  11:17 PM
  16. It’s OK, Amanda.  The missing close quote around the a href only dropped seven paragraphs from the story.

    Good grief.  I should stop copyediting already.

    Posted by  on  04/03  at  11:36 PM
  17. Michael wrote:

    “I should stop copyediting already.”

    Janet took that photo of Sandy Koufax?

    Posted by  on  04/04  at  12:20 AM
  18. Personally, I blame the three or four errant microrockets from this year’s Science Project on Vincent’s teacher, who told him that his original plan (which was to see if his bearded dragon had any chromosensitivity) was insufficiently quantifiable. Wonderful teacher for the most part, but figuring out how to work the little darned things was a nuisance, and how were we to know that even a 15-degree-from-vertical launch (which is on the edge of the National Rocketry Code variance from veritcal) would send the first rocket about 500 feet downwind and into the construction zone for the school’s new building?

    So be glad it was only an errant ball bearing you had to chase down the drain. On second thought, I won’t ask to switch.  At least rockets don’t plug pipes.  Well, not usually, though I’m sure I could be creative about it.

    And I notice that there is no acknowledgment yet of the erroneous predictions made about the tournament, ... no, no coverup.  None at all. It was merely bad intelligence.

    Posted by Sherman Dorn  on  04/04  at  01:50 AM
  19. What tournament?  Oh, you mean the one where the charming 11th seed lost in a game that was never in question, and then the upstart team who beat Duke lost in a game that was never in question, and then one of them beat the other in a game that was never in question?  I don’t know anything about that tournament, and I blame my small staff.

    Posted by Michael  on  04/04  at  08:05 AM
  20. Very much off topic, but let me be the first on this humble, yet dangerous blog, to gloat over the Hammer’s plans to resign from Congress. Do I see a trip to Brazil in the offing for ol’ Tom.
    Captcha is foot, as in the ass.

    Posted by  on  04/04  at  08:36 AM
  21. Posted by  on  04/04  at  11:29 AM
  22. The Hammer’s fall does remind us that “cohort,” as in the phrase ”[my/his/her] cohort in crime” commonly refers to a single individual, a “partner” (or “pardner” if you’re from Texas) in some illicit enterprise, rather than a group or band.

    A singular noun, a collective noun. “Cohort” certainly has a lot of explaining to do.

    Posted by  on  04/04  at  11:54 AM
  23. Janet took that photo of Sandy Koufax?

    Oh, for Pete’s sake.  I just caught that.

    Posted by  on  04/04  at  01:21 PM
  24. i love the jamie series, and was very glad to see the lovely recognition of it.

    for sheer comic entertainment, my daughter’s experiement with growing similar plants was a classic, and nobody accused her parents of faking the experiement to make her look good.  she had 6 plants—two received regular water, 2 got slightly salty water, and 2 were fed milk.  results:  regular water works best, salt kills these plants, and the dogs ate the milk-fed plants once they became sufficiently pungent.  the teacher good-naturedly used this as an example of unexpected results in scientific experimentation.

    Posted by  on  04/04  at  04:30 PM
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  27. Yeah..... But what is science? <a href="http://imgbit.com>funny pictures</a>

    Posted by  on  04/14  at  08:26 PM
  28. Yeah..... But what is science?

    Posted by Funny Pictures  on  04/14  at  08:27 PM
  29. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated and very broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

    Posted by Michael  on  04/12  at  03:59 AM
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