Thursday, 18 September 2014

Blinded With Science...

Hello Friends.

Do elementary school children still have to participate in science fairs every year? When I was a kid, science fairs were mandatory. I don’t remember what all of my projects were, though I never did that copout, the volcano one. One year, my mother saved all the bones from a helping of chicken wings, and then I traced a picture of a dinosaur onto a piece of cardboard, then put glue over the tracing, then glued the chicken bones onto the picture. I’m not sure what about this project made it an experiment, exactly. I know people walked by my display and probably asked, “What is your project about?” and I probably pointed to the picture and said, “Dinosaur.” It really shed light on the age-old question, “Did dinosaurs have bones?”

There’s a picture of note in our family album from my third grade science fair. Little James, in his little sweat suit (my uniform of choice, apparently), standing proudly in front of a big folded cardboard display that we all used for science projects. On one side of the cardboard display, written in red marker in my finest all caps printing read, “ARE FINGERPRINTS DIFFERENT?” Below the text were fingerprints from various family and friends. On the other side of the cardboard display, written in green marker was, “YES.”  

All of us laugh at this picture when it appears in the family album, but no one can get on a better roll about it than my father, who lapses into hysterics. “Are fingerprints different yes! What the hell kind of project is that? Look at you, what a wiener!” Lest this paint a bad picture of Dad, trust that he was always supportive and encouraging to me when I was a child, and it truly is the most heinous science project imaginable. Are fingerprints different? The fact that this was my topic suggests two possibilities: one, even at eight, I was more interested in taking the easy route where projects are concerned and built a project based on a foregone conclusion or two, more troubling, I genuinely didn’t know that fingerprints were different! What a stupid kid! That’s literally the second thing you learn when you learn about fingerprints! A) They are prints of your finger and B) They are all different from each other! How could I have missed those facts as a child?

LITTLE JAMES (pointing to smudges on window): What’s that, Papa?
DAD: Those are fingerprints, James. When you touch something with your fingers, it leaves behind a fingerprint. And every person in the world has their own unique set of fingerprints. Nobody’s fingerprints are ever the same as somebody else’s!

Dream: Improve my grasp on science.

Goal: Not achievable. If trendy listicles are to be believed, science is really enjoying a cultural resurgence. My Facebook feed is littered with posts from a site called, “I fucking love science.” Everyone seems to be watching that show Cosmos and kneeling at the altar of Neil Degrassi Junior High.

My trouble is, I lack even the basic principles upon which scientific discovery is based. For instance, you could tell me anything about what bees do in the wintertime and I would believe you. Fortuitously, I found out in high school that a twelfth grade science class was not required for my university program, so I scraped by in an eleventh grade physics course before leaving science behind forever. Even in University, though a science elective was required, computer science counted as a science! I barely eked out a pass making animated gifs out in MS Paint. The point is, having never taken any courses, I still have a child’s grasp on chemistry, biology, geology, astronomy, and all mysteries of the universe. It is time, therefore, to start figuring out the basics for myself.

Plan: Develop a successful third grade science project. Look, I’m not going to do research for fun, or read any books, but the least I can do is try to erase the distinct impression of my fingerprints fiasco. Here are some hypothetical projects that I could undertake:

Does a Plane Stay In the Air? Yes. This project would actually be another cheat because I did hear something on the radio the other day that explained the phenomenon quite plainly. Airplane wings curve up slightly so that it takes longer for air to travel on top of the wing than it does for air to pass below. This creates stronger air pressure on the bottom so the plane cannot fall out of the sky. However, I wonder if the muffled farts of airborne travelers doesn’t also help somewhat.

Do Cellphones Give Us Cancer? Yes. It’s gotta be cellphones, guys. To think that we’re sending and receiving enough signals both determine our exact coordinates on the planet and also download the new Taylor Swift song, how can that be healthy for our squishy melon heads?

Do Animals and Babies Keep Us Healthy? Yes. I want to hold your baby. LET ME HOLD YOUR BABY! Also, can I pet your dog? I really think my daily worries would decrease dramatically if I could play with a baby and/or dog sometimes. Pets are no longer allowed in our building and the Doc and I aren’t at the parenting stage yet, but I just want to have a friend with a baby who lives close by so I can snuggle it and give it squishes. Sometimes a baby will reach out and grab your finger with its little fist and that’s better than any 2 for 1 drink special. And sometimes you’re worried about your job or how fat you are and a dog comes by and puts his head on your knee and says, “Hi, can we play?”

Further to this idea, I know a man who is originally from India and he told me, in half-apology for his irreverence, that in India, they refer to Alzheimer’s and dementia as the white man’s disease. There are conflicting studies on this issue, some suggesting that degenerative brain diseases simply aren’t properly diagnosed in other parts of the world, and some maintaining that they are actually more prevalent in Western society. But anyway, my friend said that the cultural expectation where he is from is that the elderly parent is moved into the family home, or is otherwise integral to the family life. There’s no, “Going to visit Grandma”, Grandma is as much a part of the family as Mom and Dad. This structure keeps Grandma sharp in turn, because there’s often a baby or young child underfoot. There’s no boring routine to settle into if there’s a baby around! Grandma’s mind is sharp out of necessity and constant stimulation. Anyway, science.

Can We Smell Better? Yes. I really don’t think we’ve hit the zenith of what perfumes, colognes, deodorants, and breath freshener can be. I know people will tell you those are chemicals and toxins and “you don’t need it!” but those people are wrong and they especially need it. How come some people carry off a great scent so perfectly from morning until night and the rest of us somehow lose the smell of our cologne by ten in the morning and smell like ham the rest of the day? For all the shit I give my former job, the cosmeticians who work in those big drugstores really know their stuff. They have to attend several workshops a year as put on by various vendors so they can both speak knowledgeably about what they sell and sell it. Anyway, from learning at their feet, I know that a lot of people choose the wrong scent for their body chemistry. Also, and this is fascinating, did you know that the pigment in a person’s skin determines how deeply they absorb the scent on their body? In other words, the darker someone’s skin, the more the smell of their cologne or perfume sticks around, the better they smell. I’ve worn Armani Code pretty consistently in my adult life, but I don’t know that it does me any favours. That said, I have to be ahead of the game somewhat if I’m not dousing myself in Axe. People still do that. A guy beside me at the gym had so much on that I was tempted to move from my machine, but Chopped was on and I can really only enjoy that while moving at a glacial pace on a bike screwed to the floor.

Is Science Necessary? Yes. Despite my reluctance to learn anything, nothing chaps my ass more than willful ignorance to scientifically proven information. I read recently that schoolchildren in the wealthiest part of Los Angeles had vaccination rates lower than the South Sudan. Are people insane? The long ago study supposedly linking vaccination to autism was debunked and the study’s own conductor admitted to fabricating all of it! Perhaps we don’t know the long term residual effects of some chemical combinations in vaccines but we know it sure as fuck prevents polio and whooping cough in the short term. And I sure hope members of the “No such thing as climate change” crowd were relaxing in Calgary two weeks ago when Sunday was a balmy 25 degrees and Monday saw the city covered in snow.

I can admit to a lack of both interest and aptitude in science, but I can certainly appreciate the tireless work of the people in that field. While I don’t think it is the worst thing to be stymied and confused by scientific discoveries, I do think it’s crappy to be incurious. Learning things makes me feel smarter, and being convinced you know everything already makes you a real dope in my book. Every person accrues a certain amount of information and expertise in their lifetime, and everyone’s base of knowledge is completely unique. No two are the same. Much like snowflakes.

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