Monday, March 29, 2010


In Which We Defile the Laws of Physics...

One of my worst parenting fears has finally come to pass.

No, the Brownie is not suffering PMS (although it seems to me she’s been rehearsing for it for years). No, boys have not been sniffing around, pitching whatever passes for woo in the 21st century (although it would be just my luck right now, what with Blaze on the disabled list).

In fact, this particular fear has nothing whatever to do with the girls, but with the boy. Thomas has begun asking me for help with homework that is beyond my comprehension.

I can feel stupid pretty much any time I want to, of course, but there is something special—something that really ramps up the Imbecile Factor—about staring goggle-eyed at a 5th-grade workbook and realizing that you are as clueless, as helpless to aid your son as if you were in a medically induced coma.

Math and science are the big problems, as I always knew they would be. I studied these subjects, of course, even excelled at them. I got (almost) straight A’s in high-school algebra and even passed a beginning calculus class my senior year. In college I took two years’ worth of science classes and did well at those too (although most of those courses were such light fare as History of Science and a Geology lab so basic it was known, even by its professors, as “Rocks for Jocks”).

The problem is that as soon as I passed these courses, everything I learned passed too—right out of my head. I comforted myself with the idea that my brain, having a (very) finite storage capacity, needed to make room for all the swell words and turns of phrase and cutting remarks I’ve felt compelled to store up over the years. Still, it’s embarrassing. From time to time, as I’ve rummaged around in the Lost and Found box of my memory, I’ve only ever been able to pull out a handful of formulae that, sadly, make up the sum total of my scientific and mathematical knowledge base:





The worst part is, I don’t quite remember what they’re for. I’m pretty sure one is for calculating percentage change, and another is the equation for a straight line (or maybe a curved line). The only one I’m certain about is the second one, and that’s not even a real mathematical equation: it’s the secret formula that obscure 1940’s super-hero Johnny Quick utters when he wants to run like hell. Which is what I feel like doing every time my son plops his homework in front of me.

Luckily, I have a solution to my math problem (as it were). Any time Thomas presents me with math that’s harder than long division, I send him to his mother. If it’s harder than basic algebra, Her Lovely Self gives him the phone and lets him call his aunt, who taught high-school math and can calculate pi to 20 decimal places without using her fingers and toes.

But for some reason, I get stuck with science. Even Her Lovely Self won’t touch it.

“You were a health reporter for years,” she’ll say. “Of course you know science.”

“No,” I’ll counter. “I know how to copy down what real scientists say to me. And I’m very good at repeating the words, ‘Can you explain that in terms a 5-year-old would understand?’ Not quite the same thing.”

“Well, you can do plumbing. You fixed the upstairs bathroom when it was leaking that one time. And electrical work, like the time you changed the overhead fixture in the Brownie’s room. You have to understand some basic scientific principles to do that stuff, right?”

And I try to explain that being able to switch out the wax ring under the toilet does not automatically mean that I know the first thing about fluid dynamics. And being electrocuted by my daughter’s ceiling fan does not mean I can tell the difference between an amp, a volt, or a watt, no matter how many of them course through my stiffened body. But it doesn’t matter. She called dibs on math, and blindsided me with science.

So it’s been a difficult winter, of me staring over my son’s shoulder, reading instructions, and then shouting things like, “Chemical equations? In fifth grade? Are you shitting me?” or “Bernoulli’s principle? What the f--?”

But this past week, Thomas came to me with a pad of graph paper and an assignment sheet. “Dad,” he said, with just a hint of forecasted doom in his voice. “I have to build a science project. Can you help me?”

Well, as we all know, when it comes to the practical application of science, I’m—well, okay, I suck at that too. On the other hand, I was the only kid in my high school ever to observe and record a case of spontaneous mayermorphosis in science lab, so I had that going for me.

“What’s the project for?” I asked, then braced myself.

“I have to build something that demonstrates the difference between potential and kinetic energy,” he said.

The moment he said this, I all but jumped and screamed “Eureka!” (attributed, apocryphally, to Archimedes, 3rd century BC, when he was sitting in a tub in Syracuse, trying to figure out a way to measure the volume of a crown and determine whether it was made of pure gold. Thank you, History of Science). For in that moment, the Lost and Found box of my memory had tipped on its side, and out from under a bottom flap, shiny like a forgotten coin, was a whole scientific definition.

“I know that one!” I cried. “Potential is the energy something possesses owing to its position or condition. Kinetic is the energy something possesses because it’s in motion. And there’s a formula for it too—KE=1/2mv squared, but I don’t remember so much about that.”

Thomas seemed marginally excited at this news. “You really know about it?” he asked.

“Buddy,” I said, “I am so accident-prone, I am pretty much a slave to potential and kinetic energy. Mostly kinetic energy. But never mind. What do you have to build?”

“Well,” he said. “There are a bunch of things we can build, but I need to write a report about it too, and I’m supposed to explain the change between potential and kinetic, and when something goes from one to the other.”

“Oh, well that’s easy,” I said, hardly daring to believe that such words were coming out of my mouth in connection with a science experiment. “You can do it by example.”

“Okay,” said Thomas. “Give me an example.”

I suppose I could have sent Thomas to any of my previous posts involving me falling, or getting hit by something, but instead I cast about the room, and my eyes fell on our resident canine convalescent. “Okay, Blaze is a good example. When the dogs attacked us last week and he crouched down to get ready to fight, he was in a state of potential energy, right? Then when he lunged for the dogs, that potential energy changed to kinetic energy because he was moving to tear them a new—what’s wrong?”

Thomas had a look on his face, one I recognized because I saw it all too often when I looked in the mirror after any night that I was trying to help him with his homework. I couldn’t blame him for being confused—I didn’t know the first thing about kinetic energy until sophomore science class; in 5th grade, it probably would have fried my little brain.

But now Thomas wants to use Blaze as a kind of living science display, so over the weekend, he spent a lot of time with the dog, making careful observations, and asking lots of questions.

“Why are his ears sticking to the cone? Is that kinetic or potential energy?”


“So when he has an itch, is the itch potential energy, and the leg he scratches with is kinetic?”

“Look! Blaze is squatting to take a dump! So that’s potential energy. But when is it—oh never mind, here comes the kinetic energy.”

In the end, I think we’ll just put together some kind of apparatus involving marbles on a track. We’ll be sure to report our results here. All in the name of science, of course.

From Somewhere on the Masthead

Don't tell him I said so, but Blaze looks a little funny in that picture. Looks like static electricity to me.

Good luck with the science project. When in doubt, get one of those things with the marbles in a row where the end marbles swing and the middle ones don't move. That sounds like something to do with potential and kinetic energy.
MM, I totally have this one for you! I teach 5th grade AND we are currently studying Motion and Design. Do you have some K'Nex toys? We use them in our science unit to build a basic "car". Then, we take three rubber bands linked together from the front axel (which needs to be stationary with the wheels moving only) to be wound around the back axel (which needs to be able to move). Seriously...I can take pictures. :) The potential energy is when you wind the rubber band around the back axel and the kinetic is the car moving forward.

Good luck to you and Thomas! I am sure it will be a wonderful project no matter what!
good lord.
that made my day.
thank you mm.

I love science projects.
they make good comedy material.
I think "here comes the kinetic energy" will be a good phrase to remember from now on. Especially when I get junk emails from people I don't know.
I am truly thankful that none of my kids ever had to do any kind of project such as this as there is no way on God's Green Acres I could have EVER helped them do anything except fail! And then, probably not gracefully either.
LOL. I will forever remember potential and kinetic energy because Blazey took a dump!

Don't forget that YouTube is your friend now... there are TONS of great science and math tutorials - seriously - out there on YouTube.

And, don't forget to tell Blazey we still love him best and most of all the doggies coast to coast! :)
Potential energy is when you're sitting at the keyboard, writing. Kinetic energy is when we laugh.
As great as that whole piece was, the line that will stick with me the longest is "she blindsided me with science."

Brilliant, my man. Thomas Dolby would be proud.
i'm glad you managed to muddle through. you know, there are whole sections of the library devoted to science fair projects. just sayin...
and than I wonder about those parents that home school their children? JAG
hahaha :D I love poop jokes :>

And yes, "she...blindsided me with science" made my day :D
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