Science: It's just not fair

 

(This classic Dave Barry column was originally published March 22, 1998.)

TODAY'S TOPIC FOR YOUNG PEOPLE IS: How To Do A School Science Fair Project.

So your school is having a science fair! Great! The science fair has long been a favorite educational tool in the American school system, and for a good reason: Your teachers hate you. Ha-ha! No, seriously, although a science fair can seem like a big ''pain,'' it can help you understand important scientific principles, such as Newton's First Law of Inertia, which states: 'A body at rest will remain at rest until 8:45 p.m. the night before the science fair project is due, at which point the body will come rushing to the body's parents, who are already in their pajamas, and shout, `I JUST REMEMBERED THE SCIENCE FAIR IS TOMORROW AND WE GOTTA GO TO THE STORE RIGHT NOW!' ''

Being driven to the store by pajama-wearing parents at the last minute is the most important part of any science fair project, because your project, to be legal, must have an Official Science Fair Display Board. This is a big white board that you fold into three sections, thus giving it the stability that it needs to collapse instantly when approached by humans. The international scientific community does not recognize any scientific discovery that does not have an Official Science Fair Display Board teetering behind it; many top scientists fail to win the Nobel Prize for exactly this reason.

Once you have returned home and gotten your display board folded into three sections (allow about six hours for this), it's time to start thinking about what kind of project to do. The prize-winning projects are the ones that clearly yet imaginatively demonstrate an interesting scientific principle.

So you can forget about winning a prize. What you need is a project that can be done at 1 a.m. using materials found in your house. Ideally, it should also involve a minimum of property damage or death, which is why, on the advice of this newspapers legal counsel, we are not going to discuss some of our popular project topics from previous years, such as ''What Is Inside Plumbing?'' and ''Flame-Proofing Your Cat.'' Whatever topic you select, your project should be divided into three parts: (1) The Hypothesis, (2) The Part That Goes After The Hypothesis and (3) The Conclusion (this should always be the same as the Hypothesis).

The hypothesis -- which comes from the Greek words ''hypot,'' meaning ''word,'' and ''hesis,'' meaning ''that I am looking up in the dictionary right now'' -- is defined as ''an unproved theory, proposition, supposition, etc., tentatively accepted to explain certain facts.'' For example, a good hypothesis for your science fair project might be: ''There is a lot of gravity around.'' You could prove this via an experiment in which you pick up various household items such as underwear, small appliances, siblings, etc., and observe what happens when you let go of them. Your conclusion would, of course, be: ''There is a lot of gravity around.'' This would be dramatically illustrated in your science fair exhibit by the fact that your Official Science Fair Display Board was lying face down on the floor.

If that project sounds like too much effort, you might consider duplicating the one that my wife swears she did in the 7th grade late on the night before the science fair. It was called ''Waves,'' and it consisted entirely of a baking pan filled with water, and a pencil. ''You swished the pencil around in the water, and it made waves,'' my wife explained.

I asked her what scientific principle this project demonstrated, and, after thinking about it for a moment, she answered: ``The movement of the water.''

Impossible though it may sound, I did a project in 6th grade that was even lamer than that. It was called ''Phases of the Moon,'' and it consisted of a small rubber ball that I had darkened half of by scribbling on it with a pen. You were supposed to rotate the ball, thus demonstrating scientifically that the phases of the moon were caused by, I don't know, ink.

The total elapsed time involved in conceiving of and constructing this project was maybe 10 minutes, of which at least nine were devoted to scribbling. But it still might have been a success had it not been for the fact that some of my fellow students found it amusing to snatch up the moon and throw it, so that it became sort of a gypsy exhibit, traveling around the Harold C. Crittenden Junior High School gymnasium, landing in and becoming part of other projects, helping to demonstrate magnetism, photosynthesis, etc. So my project ended up being just a sign saying ''PHASES OF THE MOON'' sitting on an otherwise bare naked table, the scientific implication being that the moon is a very moody celestial body that sometimes gets in a phase where it just takes off without telling anybody.

Of course, if you want to get a good grade, you have to do a project that will impress your teachers. Here's a proven winner:

'HYPOTHESIS -- That (Name of Teacher) and (Name of Another Teacher) would prefer that I not distribute the photo I took of them when they were `chaperoning' our class trip to Epcot Center and they ducked behind the cottage-cheese exhibit in the Amazing World Of Curds.'' Depending on the quality of your research, you might get more than a good grade from your teachers: You might get actual money! Yes, science truly can be rewarding. So why wait until the last minute to start your science fair project? Why not get started immediately on exploring the amazing world of science, without which we would not have modern technology. Television, for example.

Let's turn it on right now.

(c) Dave Barry
This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Electronic or print reproduction, adaptation, or distribution without permission is prohibited. Ordinary links to this column at http://www.miamiherald.com may be posted or distributed without written permission.

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