Thursday, August 04, 2005

Science Experiments Gone Awry

This is not a post about recent cooking mishaps. Rather, it is a post about an experience which is probably now at least two decades old. It dates back to a summer day when I decided, in capital letters, that I was going to Conduct a Science Experiment.

The subject of my experiment needed to be something readily at hand. Dandelions were available in plenty. What would happen to dandelions, I wondered, if they were placed in different substances? Next, a substance to test. Again something was available: mud. So I plucked a handful of dandelions, put them in a bowlful of mud, and went to bed anxiously awaiting the morning and the results of my Experiment.

The next morning I arose betimes and went out in the early dew to see how my subjects had fared. Behold, they were all closed up! Clearly, mud caused dandelions to close their blossoms. Trembling with my new discovery, I immediately went off to exhibit my results to some older and wiser person.

This older and wiser person (I can't remember now who it was) promptly pointed out that all the dandelions visible in the fields in all directions had their blossoms closed at that hour of the morning. Oh. It suddenly also occurred to me that mud was, in fact, exactly what dandelions grew in. My Experiment was a complete, and somewhat embarrassing, failure. I had learned nothing from it.

Now that I think about it though, I probably learned more from that one very silly experiment than I could have from the most cleverly designed science course. I learned, in fact even if the terms came later, the necessity of careful design, of observation, of control groups, of peer review. I learned not to jump to conclusions or confuse correllation with causation. We did many fun and worthy experiments in later years, but I have forgotten nearly all of them. But the dandelions are still there every time I read about a new discovery or claim, helping me to ask the right questions.

And I still do wonder why some flowers close up at night. One of these days, I'm going to get around to finding out. Maybe it's the dark . . . ;-)

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