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He Blinded Me With Science

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In 2006, in spite of being too dumb to know that I should have given up earlier: things had finally started to percolate, career-wise.

The small tech business that I’d started a few years earlier was finally beginning to see a bit of good fortune.

A modest venture, it certainly wasn’t going to be the next Commodore or Gateway. But it did put food on the table and pay the health insurance for a group of loyal employees.

In our sleepy town, this meager success was apparently noticed by at least one person. One late-fall day, my assistant buzzed me and said that a sister was on the phone.

I was puzzled, but after a moment, it started to make sense. It wasn’t a sister. It was a Sister.

“Hello, Mr. 58? Good day, sir. This is Sister Agnetha from the Catholic School. I’m calling to ask you for a favor. We know that you run a business that is involved with computers…”

I know what’s coming next. And it’s OK – with success comes an implied fiscal responsibility to the members of one’s community.

(Just ask The Members Of One’s Community. They will concur.)

As I was about to ask what kind of donation she would prefer: some software? Maybe a spiffy new PC? Or just a check?

She surprised me as she continued in an unexpected direction.

“Our students would be grateful if you would consider being a judge at our Annual Science Fair next Thursday evening.”

I had no idea why she would call me for this. It was true that I was involved in technology. But, ”a judge?” I would barely qualify as a defendant. And probably get a talking-to.

“And, sir: This is not an Eminem show. Lose the hoodie.”

I began to swiftly compose an “I’m so flattered, Sister, but…” to her request. But on that day, my mouth had a mind of its own.

“Why, um, yes, Sister. That’s a very kind invitation, and I would love to! I’ll be there.

I arrived at the school early, dressed for statistical jurisprudence.

Sporting a perfectly geeky-looking periodic table necktie, I was escorted to a classroom where I met my fellow judges.

The assembled characters were right out of central casting:

  • We had a pair unsure moms who kept repeating that they didn’t know a thing about science.
  • Two bored looking dads stood silently.
  • And for a healthy demographic mix: an older, a senior couple who insisted that they be called “co-judges,” and would be working as a team.

After receiving some basic instructions, we made our way out to the crowded gymnasium floor. There was a tri-fold foam board on nearly every table. Examples of serious, scholarly and scientific discovery were everywhere.

There were some classics…

Others went to some… odd places…

Others… Hmm…

…while others were clearly vying for the coveted, “Honorable Mention for the Most Meta Presentation” award.

I was having a great time, nodding and looking very sincere as I listened to the kids explain their work and methods.

Most were very nervous. While I tried to appear objective, it was the timid and scared students that I enjoyed talking with the most. They were taking it all very seriously. I enjoyed asking questions, and encouraging their effort.

I had one final student on my list. He was literally tucked away in a corner, smashed up against a portable coat rack full of fall weather gear. But before I could introduce myself, and hear his presentation, there was a sudden commotion in the middle of the gym.

OK, it’s fixed. It’s ready,” declared a loud teenage voice. We all turned to see what was going on.

Well, nothing to see here. It was just your everyday, allegedly homemade, Van de Graaff Generator.

Yikes.

For the uninitiated, I’ll defer to Wikipedia:

If you’ve ever seen one of these contraptions in real life, you know that they are very impressive. And very loud.

There was a sharp crackling noise, followed by a sparky flash. It was all quite exciting. How could something so huge and over-the-top not take first place?

But there was a problem. It didn’t exactly have that kitchen table, “homemade” look. The finish and the ultra-tight lines of this thing would make the Apple Design Team green with envy. And the accompanying write-up? It was just an enlarged photocopy of an encyclopedia page. It didn’t help that the student’s father was in subtle, semi-takeover mode for the whole affair, acting like a cheerleader.

I’m certain that he was a nice kid. But this was just too much style over substance.

I turned to continue with my last student. He was looking at Van de Graaff Generator Kid with a thousand-yard stare, the one that told you immediately: no matter what his project was, it was going never measure up with that.

But to his credit, he regrouped, and became very focused. In a quiet voice he told me about his work. It was about batteries. His idea was to test different brands, to see if the nationally advertised ones were indeed better than generic, or dollar store versions.

He did everything correctly.

He noted the chemistry type of each battery, the expiration dates, and many other variables that I wouldn’t have considered.

There was a very old and tired looking voltmeter on the table to demonstrate the capacity of the different cells. He had dozens of spreadsheets and graphs in a binder, and could answer very specific questions about all of it.

For every query posed, there was a confident reply. But there one response that sealed the deal for Your Honorable Judge:

When I asked if there was “any difference in performance”, in consideration of ambient temperature, his reply was perfect:

“I don’t know. I don’t have the data to properly answer.”

  • No nonsense.
  • No making-it-up to try and impress.
  • Just the facts.

He was almost painfully shy about the whole thing, never cracking a smile or making very much eye contact. But you got the sense that he wanted to power through it. And do well.

Which is why later that night at the big awards ceremony, I was elated when his name was announced as one of the evening’s finalists. It was all I could do to not jump up and pump a fist in the air. I was very glad that I had agreed to attend.

In life, there’s definitely a time for “the flash and the wow.” Van de Graaff Generator Kid definitely won the day in that respect.

But it was another student, a shy yet determined one, that I’ve thought about over the years. The underdog. The one that flies under the radar. Steady and determined. Dependable and thorough.

At the end of the night as I was walking out to my car, I saw Battery Kid.

His father was carrying the poster board, his mother was clutching the cheap trophy and accompanying ribbon that said, “SECOND PLACE.” They were all smiling and laughing.

And I just knew that a surprise road trip for some ice cream was coming up next.

The old Thomas Dolby song popped into my head, and at that exact moment, the kid caught my eye. I just smiled and nodded with a “thumbs up.”

And it took a lot of self-control to not be a goofball and not shout out:

“SCIENCE!”

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mt58

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Virgindog
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Virgindog
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March 6, 2024 9:10 am

Since everything in my world comes down to music….

https://youtu.be/4LNKldwf4aM

rollerboogie
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rollerboogie
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March 6, 2024 10:07 am
Reply to  Virgindog

Dang it! Beat me to it. I thought of this band immediately. I only know about them because they were mentioned in a exhaustive photo book/biography on Genesis I read years ago. Van Der Graaf Generator shared the bill with them at least once in those early days. This is a great track.

rollerboogie
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rollerboogie
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March 6, 2024 10:18 am

I love this story, mt. Brightened my day. Totally tracks that you would go for the no nonsense, just stick to the facts kid over the flash and dash. It’s heartwarming that he took 2nd.

Questions and thoughts-

Is Sister Agnetha her actual name or did you give her a fictitious name based on a certain member of a superstar Swedish quartet whose last name may or may not be Fältskog?

Do you still own that killer tie? If so, when the inevitable IRL gathering of TNOCSers happens, that tie is mandatory.

I had two married friends that both had doctorates in the sciences. When they invited us over for dinner, it was very on brand to see “periodic table” placemats at the dinner table.

Virgindog
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Virgindog
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March 6, 2024 10:37 am
Reply to  mt58

We’ll wait for that story!

Low4
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March 6, 2024 10:25 am

Oh man, this brings back a high school memory that I haven’t thought about in decades. I was forced to participate in a strictly voluntary science fair, and was not excited. On the evening before the fair, I decided that my topic would be intrinsic motivation. I tore out the card stock divider from a 3-subject note book, folded it into a tri-fold, set it on the table and put a sheet of paper with the word “motivation” on it in front of the tri-fold. Didn’t go down well with the powers-that-be. (But we all survived.)

Phylum of Alexandria
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March 6, 2024 10:27 am

Great write-up, mt.

As someone who eventually got into scientific research, I must shamefacedly admit that I did the staple “plant nutrients” study for my science fair exhibit. Hey, at that time, I thought I’d be a writer or an English teacher!

Those other entries at the fair you mentioned are a trip. I especially like the meta one about science fair turmoil. They get the trophy for creative smartassery!

I agree that battery kid was impressive as a researcher. Even in the adult world, the quest for fame and funding blinds many scientists from what it should really be all about.

As for Herr Van der Graaf, did the judges not suspect possible fraud? At least as a privately voiced concern?

lovethisconcept
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March 6, 2024 4:54 pm

I spent years with high school students, and I was always drawn to the quiet ones who were nonetheless passionately interested in their own pursuits and were just waiting to be noticed.

LinkCrawford
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LinkCrawford
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March 6, 2024 5:09 pm

I’ve judged science fairs before. Trust me, it’s more fun to judge a science fair than to help a child prepare an entry. I’ve had a wide range of experiences. Ones that were pretty interesting to ones that were very “unfinished” to ones that I did an uncomfortable amount of the work myself to ones that were completely done the night before. I’m in the sciences, Mrs. Crawford is a high school science teacher, but I did not love those days!

Judging was fun, though. Effort always wins the day. Whether it looked beautifully presented or not, whether they were shy or not, if you could tell it was the student’s work and that they were familiar with their topic, those were the winners. Kids are great.

cstolliver
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cstolliver
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March 6, 2024 6:47 pm

Lovely recounting, mt! Atta judge.

Edith G
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Edith G
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March 6, 2024 9:09 pm

Great piece Mt, science is not for everybody, but I guess Science Fairs are meant to help find talent in young people.
I’m sure you made this kid’s day.

stobgopper
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March 7, 2024 4:08 pm

I don’t know why it’s so hard for people to say ‘I don’t know.’ That kid was already ahead in life right there. Great story, mt!

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