My son’s elementary school had its first science fair in many years, and it was a hoot. Never mind that the participants were crammed into an upstairs hallway while the gym (excuse me, “All-Purpose Room”) was booked for Lip Sync rehearsal. (Welcome to DC public schools!) The kiddos put a lot of work into their presentations, which ranged from explorations of how smell affects the taste of chocolate to RG3′s knee surgery to how many balloons it would take to lift a cat. Many boxes of cornstarch were sacrificed for my son’s team’s green goo experiments, and one young prodigy even built a hovercraft. But the germaphobe gross-out award went to a few budding young scientists who explored bacteria in our everyday lives; one cultured microbes from surfaces in public spaces like the Metro and MacDonald’s (big ugh), and another determined that anti-bacterial soap is not as effective as good old-fashioned hand soap.
That was the first question my friend Lisa Burke and I asked a group of second and third graders in an after-school Hands On Science program last fall at my son’s school. Titled “Action Attraction,” the eight-week series was about natural energy, which the kiddos took to, well, naturally. Perhaps that’s because a lot of the experiments, designed to demonstrate concepts like gravity, magnetism, static electricity, and water pressure, seemed deceptively silly – blowing air through a paper cone to levitate a Styrofoam ball, poking holes in a paper cup of water to simulate a turbine, pulling iron filings through a maze with a magnet. They were delighted that we not only tolerated their getting down on the ground and making a mess, but required it. Then somehow during that magic hour, they would, one by one, Get It. I’m not sure many of these budding scientists would be able to spout the technical definition of the Bernoulli Effect or a “meniscus,” but that’s not the point. At this age, the goal is to leave them thinking that science can be fun.
The USS Enterprise, that is, not the Starship Enterprise, although as a child I often got them conflated since my father logged many months — years, actually — on “The Big E,” the first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, back in the 1960s and ’70s. Before returning to homeport at Naval Station Norfolk, Va., this week, the Enterprise sailed around the globe for more than five decades and served in every major military conflict since the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s hard to comprehend what a monumental piece of engineering an aircraft carrier is, and even today the concept of one with eight nuclear reactors boggles my mind. It will take four years to dismantle her for scrap metal, which despite my support of recycling and misgivings about nuclear power, just seems a sad ending for a fine lady. But she did serve us well. Notice in this picture, taken in the Mediterranean in 1964, what’s spelled out on the flight deck.