The Questionable Authority

It’s amazing how often doing good science walks hand in hand with looking like a bloody fool. It’s entirely possible that doing something that looks absolutely insane is a necessary step in the development of a decent scientist (if so, there are many good scientists who never escape this stage).

There are lots of good examples of this. A series of experiments published last year in the journal Nature demonstrated that some species of Amazonian ant are capable of gliding back to the tree if they fall off the trunk. Like many things in science, this was first discovered as the result of an accident, then confirmed by painstaking experimentation. The experiments involved scientists sitting 30 meters up trees in the Amazon, dropping white-painted ants from a branch one at a time to collect the data.

That’s a fairly spectacular example, but there are plenty of others. One scientist I know needed to find out if (and how much) certain crabs used their leg membranes in respiration. The solution: Revlon creme nail polish, carefully applied leg by leg to dozens of crabs. Some time back, my advisor spent quite a bit of time in the water following coral larvae to see where they settled. i-ea1c6cb94c47ce3a53859aafa91f77ca-snifftest.jpgLast year, I was doing some work with a local rock wallaby population, using non-invasive sampling methods to get the DNA I needed. Poop was the most convenient non-invasive DNA source available to me, so I spent a fair amount of time collecting it. Unfortunately, the techniques only work well if the material is fresh. As the picture to the left shows, sometimes a scientist’s gotta do what a scientist’s got to do. (Picture courtesy of John Wilkins.)

By now, I’d guess a few of you might be wondering what (if any) point I’m trying to make here. Actually, this post is by way of a heads-up for a post to follow tomorrow or Friday. Today, one of my neighbor’s children gave the mentos and soda geyser experiment a shot. His one attempt wasn’t a splashing success – there was a fountain, but not a geyser. This lead to a bit of an argument among the three school-agers in the group who had heard about the experiment already. The argument centered around the relative merits of caffine versus decaf and diet versus full sugar. To resolve the argument, we’re going to conduct some experiments tomorrow.

I’m really looking forward to this. The kids – particularly the one who started the whole thing – were enthusiastic about putting together a plan for tomorrow’s experiments. They’re excided and eager to do the experiments tomorrow, and since we’re going to be doing them at the playground, there should be a reasonably good audience. The experiments won’t really show too much this time – for reasons of pocketbook, I haven’t introduced them to the idea of ‘replication’ just yet – but they should still be educational. At the least, the kids are getting a sense of things like controls, and how science works.

And, of course, there’s a strong possibility that at some point tomorrow, I’ll wind up thoroughly coated in a soda-candy mixture of some type. I’ll try to get pictures and/or video of the mayhem for tomorrow.


  1. #1 pablo
    June 9, 2006

    I think your experiment with the neighborhood kids is outstanding!!! The world needs more people like you. Thanks for putting a little sparkle into my afternoon.

  2. #2 katherine sharpe
    February 6, 2007

    This is one of my favorite posts ever. And I completely agree with Pablo.

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