Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. There’s all the cooking and eating good food and so many opportunities for scientific exploration.
Maybe I’d better explain.
As a small boy, my grandmother often let me “help” in the kitchen. One Thanksgiving, she put me in front of the cupboard and asked me to sort all of the cans inside. While many were the same size, they were a dizzying array of colors and contents. I found them much easier to categorize if I removed all of the labels first, allowing me to neatly stack the bare metal cans any way I saw fit.
My grandmother was not amused. I thought it was a very creative and scientific way to efficiently solve the problem.
In my physics class this semester, I’ve been giving my students science experiments they can do over the holiday. My favorite is The Soup Can Race where you roll canned goods down an incline and see which one will reach the bottom first. Pick some cans of the same size and weight but contain different foods such as beef broth or whole tomatoes. See who can come up with a sure-fire way to predict the outcome. For some added excitement and uncertainty, you might even try removing the labels.
I love these types of activities because I’m always on the lookout for ways to engage more people in science. Whether it is making sense of climate change or learning how the internet works, everything in our modern world comes back to science.
However, the more I talk to people, the more it seems folks are willing to outsource all of the scientific exploration, something they are unwilling to do, with nearly every other aspect of their creative lives.
In the arts, there is a thriving industry of local musicians, community theatres, and art collectives. Many of these folks have yet to quit their “day jobs,” which may suit them just fine. We have spaces for artists of all stripes to pursue their interests even if they don’t — many times, precisely because they don’t — make a living doing so.
I find that nearly everyone pursues some art form in their spare time. They learn how to play a few tunes on the guitar or the piano. They take up woodworking or oil painting. They join groups to share their writing. Some of them aspire to “make it big” in whatever field they are passionate about. But the vast majority of them don’t, despite the extremely high quality of the work they produce. They merely love creating for its own sake, as it gives their life an added dimension of meaning and enjoyment.
When it comes to science, I’m well aware that school teaches us a very prescribed Scientific Method. I won’t go into the details here, but I can sum up my simple version: Try different things, record what happens, and tell others about it.
Framed like that, many people are doing science without even realizing it.
For example, I am surprised at how similar gardening is to scientific experimentation. Some try to grow specific species, varying the conditions until they find the precise habitat for it to thrive. Many, like me, will try to grow everything, and just edit the results until they get something, anything, to grow. Some of us write down the results to help with the next season, taking the winter to review our successes and failures.
Bakers, in the pursuit of the perfect result, try different kinds of flours, vary the type of leavening, and make careful measurements of ingredients. They take notes about different methods they might use, and often try things just to see what happens. In the end, they tend to eat what they produce, and perhaps that’s where the similarities between lab science and baking should end.
Then there are birders and rock hounds, mycologists and cheese makers, amateur astronomers and backyard inventors. They don’t get paid for what they do, and most don’t care to.
This Thanksgiving, try something like The Soup Can Race. Or try baking cookies of different sizes and shapes just to see what happens. Make sure you keep track of what you do, and see if anyone can explain the results.
To paraphrase Adam Savage from MythBusters, the only difference between messing around and science is writing it down.
And who knows, there may be some little ones around you who decide to make a living doing it.