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The BEST Science Project EVER!

With school about to re-open in many districts, kids and parents ought to start thinking about what this year's science project will be.

My science-project ideas range from unworkable to stupid. So the kids consult my wife Betsy and leave me out of it. One day last year I went into the kitchen to investigate a mysterious crunching sound and found my 12-year-old daughter Marie using a tablespoon to grind up cornflakes in a cup.

"What's this?" I asked.

"My science project," she said. All around her was the fallout of creativity – opened cereal boxes, spilled cornflakes, crumbs, crumpled note paper, and the remains of an after-school snack. It was the kind of unrestrained mess that is made by budding scientists, brilliant chefs or wild bears. "I've got three brands of cornflakes, each with a different percentage of iron in it. I grind them up and use a magnet to see how much of the powder it picks up from the three different piles of powder. It's going pretty well. But the teacher said a science project has to answer a question and I can't figure out what question this answers."

I suggested, "How about: Is the iron in cereal, like, REAL iron?"

"Something like that, Dad," she said dismissively. Her demeanor lacked the respect that is due a battle-scarred veteran of the Cold War.

When I was in school, our country was trying to beat the Russians in the space race and every red-blooded American had to do his bit. For kids, that meant we all had to do science projects. Nowadays, of course, the goal is Global Competition.

Science projects were always hard for me because I never understood what they were (although I always knew one when I saw it).

My problem was most acute in seventh-grade because my teacher was the dour Mrs. Plantinga, a retired research scientist from DuPont. She took science seriously and sensed that I did not. Once, in class she ordered me to "Wipe that sappy grin off your face!" I felt that as long as I sat quietly in a listening posture, I had a right to grin sappily. I reddened with embarrassment.

Science projects would be no joke that year, and we'd have to present them in front of the whole class with Mrs. Plantinga watching in judgment, God-like, from the back of the room.

The day before my project was due, I was still pawing desperately through the World Book Encyclopedia seeking an idea. Then I found the story of Archimedes, an ancient Syracusan who was trying to figure out how to tell pure gold from a cheap alloy. As he lowered himself into his bathtub, he realized that pure gold was so dense that a pound of it would displace less water than a pound of a less-dense metal. Whereupon he jumped out of the tub and ran down the street, yelling "Eureka!" a scientific principle and a nutty genius running around without his toga. What more could I want?

The next day in science class Vicky Nestor presented the findings of a survey she'd done linking high grades to good breakfasts. Mrs. Plantinga beamed, and my Pop Tarts churned within.

Jim Delahanty then brought his candle-powered radio to the front of the room. He'd found the plans in Popular Electronics. Jim explained how it worked and lit the candle. Mrs. Plantinga put her ear down to the wires and transistors that were carefully mounted on a handsome wooden base, and said, "James! This is marvelous. I can hear music!" You'd think he had INVENTED Radio.

The teacher's smile faded as I set up a big Hawaiian Punch can brimful of water on the demonstration counter. "I will demonstrate Archimedes' Principle," I announced. "He discovered it and he ran around yelling about it. He was naked. This is a one-pound iron weight," I said, holding up a pinecone-shaped weight I'd borrowed from my mom's Black Forest cuckoo clock.

The class watched in fascination – as if I were a live mouse being fed to Mrs. Plantinga's classroom snake. I plunged the pound of iron into the can. The water level rose, but because of surface tension the water bulged up over the rim of the can and would not spill. "Uh, the water is supposed to run down into this measuring cup," I said lamely. But the surface of the water was as tough as bull-hide and nothing happened – except Mrs. Plantinga, disgusted by my lack of preparation, shoddy setup and incomprehensible explanation, snarled, "Sit down!"

About 10 years later I encountered Jim Delahanty and his wife in line at a movie theater. I reminded him of his science project, and he confided, "You know, I followed the instructions in the magazine, but the darn thing wouldn't work. So I bought a tiny transistor radio, turned it on VERY low, and built it into the wooden base. I figured no one would ever put their ear down there unless the candle was lit."

Up against American ingenuity like that, is it any wonder the Russian empire eventually blew apart like a paperdoll under a power-mower?

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