Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Great Discoveries While Researching

When it comes to kids’ hands-on science activities I’m like a well-seasoned cookbook author. It’s hard for me to find a procedure I haven’t seen before in some incarnation or other. I own a library of kid’s activity books going back to the 19th century. I’ve scoured children’s magazines and the internet collecting files of printouts for future use. And of course there is my own extensive experience of prowling up and down supermarket aisles looking for products that could reveal some scientific principle other than the consumer objectives they are designed to meet. Often, at schools, kids will share the science tricks they know with me. So far, thousands of tricks later, there have been no surprises. So when I come across something simple to do and very revealing about a familiar subject that I have never known before, it is a true “Eureka!” experience, which I figure is worth the price of the book. Here are a few of them.

While researching one of my newest books,
Your Body Battles a Cold, I was speaking to a children’s cold researcher, Dr. Birgit Winther, at the University of Virginia. She told me that the nose is like a computer. If you breathe down on a mirror, your nostrils will leave two circles of condensation, one larger than the other. That’s because one nostril is dominant and taking in more air than the other one. If you do this several hours later, the other nostril will be dominant. In other words your nostrils take turns, alternating the one that takes in the most air and you don’t even know it! I had a dentist appointment on the day I learned this delightful factoid so I was I excited to share this discovery with her. She was equally delighted to learn it because she looks a people’s nostrils all that time and had noticed the discrepancy in size. Now she knew why.

Whenever possible I’ve learned there is nothing like first-hand research. So I visited a Herr’s potato chip factory while researching
Junk Food. Proper packaging is the secret to giving potato chips a shelf life. To stay fresh, chips must be protected from light and oxygen. (If you want to see for yourself, just leave a bowl of chips in sunshine for several hours and then taste them. ) So they are sold in foil-lined light-proof bags filled with nitrogen gas, which also cushions them against breakage. “Aha!” I concluded. Since nitrogen doesn’t support combustion I figured that you can extinguish a flame with the gas in a bag of potato chips. The procedure for doing this is in the book.

Interviewing scientists at the
Monell Chemical Senses Center, I discovered that you can taste hot peppers with your wrist! Here’s a video I made to prove it. This past weekend I edited yet another video to prove that you can toast a marshmallow with a nut. And here’s one that shows the difference between regular and diet sodas as measured by density. Most of the time I don’t include the scientific explanations in the videos but in this one, I thought I could take one small step in fighting childhood obesity. My book We DareYou! is full of such discoveries.

The great joy in my work is stumbling across new insights about the nitty-gritty of daily life that most people never stop to think about. I learned how to do this in elementary school. As an adult I recreate what I loved most about school for myself on a daily basis. There are more of these unique discoveries in my books than I can count. I love that I can share them with my readers and I hope my writing conveys my enthusiasm with the implicit invitation: “You gotta try this!”


April Pulley Sayre said...

Vicki, this stuff is wonderful. I'm going to be thinking about that nostril fact all day. No, I'm going to open a bag of potato chips and see if . . .
Well, first I'll get those books and make my nieces and nephews put them into motion. Thanks for making science hands on.

Linda Zajac said...

This certainly was a post filled with very interesting and entertaining facts.

Jennifer said...

I love finding books that encourage the kids at my library to explore the world and try new things! We Dare You is one of our favorites!

Linda Salzman said...

My son took the challenge from your book and toasted a marshmallow using a nut. To quote the kid, "awesome."

Rosalyn Schanzer said...

Go Vicki! I just watched your videos and I'm off to the kitchen to get some hot peppers. Amazing!