Science Unfair

Let me tell you about the time I flunked the science fair.

This is counterintuitive, I know, as my understanding is that most science fairs are voluntary affairs and are judged for prizes, not scored for grades in science class.  But no, my 8th grade general science class made entry into the science fair mandatory, and we were all to be graded.  Five years later, when my perpetually overachieving younger brother came through the same class, he just did the same experiment that he submitted for his 6th grade science fair where he measured the amount of mold that grew on different loaves of bread made with different sweeteners.  I seem to recall he went all the way to state finals with that or something, but I don’t quite remember.  I was an extremely inattentive older brother, apparently.

Me, on the other hand, I had never done a science fair project before, and I was determined to do something truly amazing.  After all, I was reasonably certain that I was going to grow up to be a scientist.  You know those aptitude tests they administer in high school to give students an idea of what kind of career they want to shoot for when they get into college?  I purposely answered everything that would skew the answers towards scientist. My father is a scientist.  My grandfather was an engineer.  My grandfather’s twin brother was a test pilot, which I guess is kinda science-y if you want to really stretch it.  My great-grandfather, I’m sure he did some technical shit or something.  But my dad is a chemist, that’s the important take away here.  Inattentive, remember?

Side note:  I eventually succeeded in my dreams of becoming a scientist, and I sort of hate it.  Looking back, this incident foreshadowed my impending ineptitude in the scientific fields, but I learned far too late that liking science factoids and being a scientists are two beasts of vastly different natures.

Anyway, in my quest to discover the Totally Awesome Science Fair Experiment That Would Totally Win Me The Prize (it would have to be pretty fucking awesome to win a prize since there was none), I raided some of my dad’s old science books and found one nominally about science experiments for children.  Judging by the contents of this book, kids in the 50’s were into some pretty hardcore shit for science experiments.  While we all grew up with dehydrated brine shrimp eggs and sugar crystals and stuff, this book was full of some high concept stuff, like building your own fucking Geiger counter or something.  I leafed through it, and eventually found an experiment that I thought might be possible without already having achieved a post-doctorate degree at the age of 14.  I was going to build an atomic particle detector.

No seriously, this was an actual experiment listed in the book.  You took a coffee can (which I painted black for reasons I can’t recall.  Maybe because I was 14 and thought everything was cooler when it’s painting black), and you cut some viewing holes in it which you cover with cellophane or the equivalent.  Then you take this ghetto particle-viewing chamber and put it on top of a block of dry ice.  The sublimating carbon dioxide fills the bottom part of the coffee can with vapor, and theoretically you’re supposed to be able to view the wake of particles as they zip through the gas.

Yeeeeeeeah, it didn’t exactly work.  My knowledge of physics isn’t that robust, but I’m not entirely clear on how this was ever supposed to work.  Seems to me if you’ve got particles energetic to penetrate a coffee can and leave a wake visible to the naked eye in some cold CO2, then you probably need to be wearing a lead vest.  But what do I know, my degree is in zoology (because fuck plants).  Regardless, this was my science fair project.  So I wrote up a little experimental protocol, outlined my equipment and methodology, took some pictures of me holding it up to some random shit trying to detect particles, made notes of my observed results, and called it a day.

When the day of the science fair arrived, I was waiting for the bus with all my experimental equipment and write up in a cardboard box.  The bus came a little bit early that day, and I couldn’t help but notice that it was quite a bit smaller than usual.  Much sleeker, too.  Plus it had a turbine engine, and was painted matte black.  Wait just a damned second, that’s no school bus, that’s the BATMOBILE!  And sure enough, the canopy slid open and the caped crusader himself vaulted out of the driver’s seat right in front of us.

“Please tell me that’s a particle detection chamber you have in that box,” he said to me.

“Well yes, but—“

“Look, you gotta let me borrow that for a while.  I have this thing going down with some irradiated bills, and my own particle detector picked the worst possible time to break down on me.”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t—“

“I know, I know, they don’t come cheap.  Well, maybe yours did, it looks homespun.  Here kid, here’s twenty bucks, buy yourself something nice.”  Before I could even blink, the box was no longer in my hand, replaced as though by ninja magic with a fresh twenty spot.

“But Batman,” I pleaded, as he leaped back into the car, “the thing doesn’t even work!”  But it was to no avail, he couldn’t hear me over the roar of the jet engine as the Batmobile streaked down our residential street well in excess of 180 miles an hour.  Only then did I realize that he’d not only taken my particle observation chamber, but my entire project as well.  I tried to replace it at the last minute as best I was able, but regrettably my crudely drawn illustration of where rain comes from on a piece of binder paper was deemed inadequate for a passing grade.  Later that night, there was a news story about the failure of some scheme to track funds being laundered by the mafia, being attributed to a fault particle detector.

Also, apparently the $20 Batman gave me turned out to be one of the highly irradiated marked bills, and I got lymphoma.