Sunday, November 6, 2011

Science Fair

     “Good morning class.”
     “Good morning Mrs. Buchner!” All twenty children said it in unison.
     After reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and taking roll, Mrs. Buchner made her big announcement. “Well class, as you all know, the state science fair is fast approaching.” A few murmurs spread among the children. She continued, “Only one student from our fourth grade class is eligible to enter, and this year the winner of the fair will receive a $1,000 college scholarship, and…” She dragged out the suspense as every face hung on her words. “And… will shake hands with the President of the United States!”
     The room went wild! Mrs. Buchner’s fourth grade class applauded and cheered. Lucy Johnson and Betsy Calder bounced up and down giving each other hugs. Daryl Stone threw his crayons in the air. Jeremy Miller actually stood on his chair to clap, and Mrs. Buchner didn’t even stop him.
     It took a full two minutes for the children to quiet down. They tried to sit still in their chairs, but their excitement still showed through their fidgety movements. Most of the class still wanted to shout their hoorays, but Mrs. Buchner prepared to speak again so they remained quiet.
     “Now, class, does anyone have any good ideas for the fair?”
     Once again, murmurs spread among the students. Whispering and sideways glances filled the room for what seemed like an eternity. Finally, David Wilson raised his hand.
     “Yes, David?”
     “Well Mrs. Buchner, how about a presentation in how formaldehyde can be used as a building block for the synthesis of more complex compounds and materials?”
     Mrs. Buchner thought this over. “Hmm, what kind of product generation did you have in mind, David?”
     David’s eyes turned down as her fiddled with his pencil. “Gosh, I don’t know… maybe a melamine resin?”
     “That’s a very good idea, David,” said Mrs. Buchner with a nod of approval, causing David to both grin and blush. Mrs. Buchner then looked around the room. “Does anyone else have an idea?”
     “Oh, oh!” Patrick Wallace shot his hand in the air, and looked as if he would burst if he couldn’t say what was on his mind.
     “Yes Patrick?”
     Patrick blurted out his idea. “I wanna do an experiment that shows how radio interferometry is necessary to achieve high resolutions of astronomical bodies with a single radio telescope! I could show how aperture synthesis mixes signals from a collection of telescopes to produce images having the same angular resolution as an instrument the size of the entire collection and—“
     “Okay, okay Patrick,” Said Mrs. Buchner, smiling. “That’s a great idea, but save it for the fair.” The class giggled at his spunky energy and Patrick beamed with pride.
     Next, from the front of the room, Sheila Adams gently lifted her hand, brushing back her gold curls as she did so. Mrs. Buchner called upon her right away.
     “Well, Mrs. Buchner,” Sheila started, “I always wanted to map the nervous system of gastropods. Their cerebral ganglia are located above the oesophagus and supply peripheral nerves to the eyes, tentacles, and other sensory organs in the head, but only a few studies have shown how the parietal ganglia supplies nerves to the gills and olfactory organs. It’s basically uncharted territory and it could change our whole perception of gastropod anatomy.”
     “Well said, Sheila! Well said!” Mrs. Buchner actually clappedSheila always made her so proud. “I doubt anyone can top that. Why don’t you start writing your proposal, and I’ll talk to the principal—“
     “Um, Mrs. Buchner?” Shy little Tommy spoke up from the back row.
     “Now Tommy,” Mrs. Buchner said, “it isn’t polite to interrupt. You need to raise your hand.”
     “But my hand has been raised the whole time,” Tommy said.
     Mrs. Buchner sighed. “Very well then, what is it?”
     The whole class turned to look at him. Tommy began to sweat, but he pulled together all of his muster, took a deep breath and spoke up. “I’d like to enter the fair by introducing a system that uses chemical reactions between polyethylene polymer chains to create a high density polymer that can be melted and continuously extruded into tubing that is flexible and resistant to scale, chlorine and corrosion.”
     There was silence. Every student in the class was speechless. Mrs. Buchner just stared at Tommy with her mouth open. Several seconds passed without a sound. Tommy’s heart pounded like a bass drum as he waited for a response. Then the first noise came.
     It came from Sheila in the front row. She was giggling. Moments later, the students sitting on either side of her were giggling, too. Then the students next to them started to giggle. Before Tommy knew what was happening, the whole room erupted in laughter. Even Mrs. Buchner was laughing, though she tried to hide it by covering her mouth with both hands.
     Tommy’s face reddened and he sunk low into his chair. The laughter continued for what seemed like hours and he thought it would never end.
     “Quiet down class, quiet down!” Mrs. Buchner finally said. She struggled to speak with a straight face, but she knew the class had to move on. “Tommy,” she continued, “When you get a real idea, let me know. Until then, I don’t want to hear anything about fairies or unicorns or imaginary high density polymer. I mean really, Tommy, I expected more—even from you.”
     And without another word, she moved the class on to their history lesson.

     Sheila Adams went on to enter the science fair, but she didn't place in the top ten and never met the President.
     Tommy was ostracized for his beliefs that polyethylene polymer chains could create tubing superior to metal pipe, even long after the fair ended. The rumors about his radical ideas followed him through high school and college, and he always had a difficult time making friends.
     But Tommy never wavered in his beliefs. He worked hard on his theories and devoted his whole life toward turning them into reality. One day, many years later, after much trial and many tears, Tommy showed them all. By now, you no doubt know who this story is about
     That’s right, it was Thomas Engel, and in 1968 he invented a process for producing chemically cross-linked polyethylene tubing that is still used in 10% of plumbing systems today.

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