My father is a biochemist. When I was 5 years old, he hung a poster in my bedroom of the periodic table. It was probably 6 feet across. Big poster. My father also built my Murphy bed, which was suspended from the wall by piano wires. I would lie in that bed and stare at the periodic table, wondering how Sm could be the atomic symbol for samarium, while Sn was the symbol for tin. Every so often, the bed would slip its moorings and send me, in the middle of the night, crashing to the floor. Quite a shock.
I offer all this so you’ll understand how I came to dig science and be anal retentive. One could suffer from worse character traits (and I do), but I promised myself I wouldn’t scar my own children in the same way.
Here’s the thing, though. When you’re young, you make lots of promises to yourself. You will never wear a yellow-armpitted Hanes undershirt around the house, you will not withhold sex from your wife, and you won’t ever do your kid’s science fair project for him. But do you know what happens, despite all your promises? I’ll tell you.
You wind up prostrate on the kitchen floor, in your undershirt, drawing on poster board, doing your 8-year-old son’s science fair project for him. (Whether you’ve been withholding hymeneal affection or your wife is to blame won’t be clear for another few weeks, until after the fight.) Damn you, Fates.
In my case, the Fates brought me pennies. I was vaguely aware that The Boy had decided to study the rate at which they oxidize. Sunday morning, a day before the project was due, I was called in by My Fair Lady to do quality control.
I reviewed The Boy’s stated question, written in a spiral notebook in his own hand: “What makes pennies lose their shine?” His hypothesis: “The ones in the sun will have different amounts of corrosion. The dark will be the shiniest. I think the penny in the plain sun will be the next shiniest, then bubbles, then vinegar, then lemon juice.”
Not so much a hypothesis as it was a guess at how the data would turn out. If you don’t appreciate the difference, then I hate you as much as My Fair Lady hated me for pointing out that difference after she’d spent several weeks overseeing the penny project. I mean, acids and bases, anyone? Hello?
I skipped ahead to his conclusion: “I looked at all my data that I gathered, and I saw that I made one of my guesses right and four wrong. The thing that makes pennies lose their shine the most is lemon juice.”
It is? Because your procedure doesn’t indicate that you tested every substance known to man—or even half of them. How do you know that battery acid or pig snot or Rad Raspberry-flavored Go-GURT doesn’t make pennies lose their shine the most? Or, for that matter, putting the penny in your pocket and praying real hard for the shine to go away?
“He’s in the second grade,” My Fair Lady said when I pointed this out. “Just help him do the poster.”
So onto the kitchen floor I went. But since I swore I’d never do my kid’s science fair project, I had him do the lettering in pencil to accommodate mistakes and corrections. Then I went over the pencil with the markers while he shot baskets on the Nerf hoop mounted in our kitchen. When the ball wasn’t hitting me in the head, I was trying to keep my 1-year-old daughter from trodding on the project and trying to draw on it. About three hours into it, after The Boy asked if he could do some of the marker work and I said that if I let him do that it would lead to inconsistency, My Fair Lady asked me, “Have you gotten confused? Do you think this is your project?”
I’ve got a hypothesis. Here it is: my wife should shut her yapper when I’m trying to do a science fair project.
I’d have to go back and look at my data, but I think I stormed off the project twice. I sent The Boy to his room once for losing focus. And I came up with a brilliant decorative touch that disguised a juice stain. Start to finish, it took about five hours. The Boy got a participation ribbon for his efforts. I got nothing for mine. But neither did my wife.
It’s the little things that keep you going.