17 February 2010

Tiny Bubbles

The Southern Fried Scientist recently updated his post explaining How to Brew Beer in a Coffee Maker, Using Only Materials Commonly Found on a Modestly Sized Oceanographic Research Vessel. For me, this post represents the essence of scientistness. It is the sort of innovation which is often found in research labs---but for very good reason, never makes it into the news. Scientists are playful creatures. We are problem-solvers. True blue MacGuyvers.

But there are times when we are too inventive for our own good. And @SFriedScientist's story reminded me of one such event. Where I taught, we often did a fungi unit in the fall. It was good timing as that point in the year had mushrooms springing up everywhere. Their variety, pungency, and shapes (I'm looking at you, Morels) was certainly attention-grabbing. So, in the spirit of the moment, we had classes make root beer. Mind you, I only did this once. Cost, storage, and less than stellar results were all enough to realize that this was an idea best left to others. One of my colleagues did not come to this same conclusion and continued to have students crank out root beer each fall as an extra credit project. This would not have been such a bad thing if the results had stayed in his classroom. They didn't. He would bring them to department meetings---old 2L bottles of root beer (made with baker's yeast, for cryin' out loud) and dixie cups, pouring shots for each of us as if we were involved in some sort of perpetual double dog dare. A circle of Hell undocumented by Dante. Eventually he retired, but the root beer lived on. Bottle after bottle was found squirreled away in his prep room. No dates. No official labels. No way we were opening any of it. I can't claim to have had root beer of any kind since then.

It is probably a very good thing that it wasn't real beer, as proposed at the start of this post. I think I would miss that. But I have to wonder how many similar experiments are going on in labs everywhere. I think there should be a poster session at the next ScienceOnline for people to share the various gerryrigged items they have constructed. I know there's more out there besides tiny bubbles.

2 comments:

John Spencer said...

I love the story! I've met a few science teachers like that.

SouthernFriedScientist said...

Thanks for the link! We had a Prof. abandon a chicken projects almost a decade ago. No one remembers what the experiment was, or why he needed chickens, but 10 years later it's a right of passage for new grad students to find whole chickens buried in the depths of random freezers with no labels.