Flashback: My science toys, part one

I lived on the West Side of Columbus, Ohio, from my birth until the summer of 1977. During that time I ran with the boys on the block — not much choice, since there were no other girls.

I got my dose of “girl” via Camp Fire Girls and school, but after school and all summer long I was almost one of the boys. We rode our high-rise banana-seat bikes, staged mock battles, played “S.W.A.T.” and “Happy Days,” and basically chased each other around until dinner time.

I don’t remember having any science toys during this time; I was much more focused on baseball. I intended to be a professional baseball player when I grew up, and thank goodness that nobody told me I couldn’t. But when I wasn’t hitting baseballs or practicing my backhand against the side of the garage I did wander in the park, look under the garden rocks for worms and pillbugs and ants, run a short-lived ant farm, and watch for birds. I watched a moth hatch from a cocoon, and raised tadpoles from little pea-like things to doomed critters with lungs that developed a little too quickly for me to anticipate (sorry, guys).

Through Camp Fire Girls I did get to go to day camp in the summer. I learned lots of outdoorsy skills that I had little chance of putting to use, such as splicing rope and making dipped candles from melted broken crayons. I made a library out of my books (an archive, actually, because I didn’t trust anyone enough to let them check out a book), made designs on the Spirograph and Lite Brite, and wandered around COSI at every opportunity. When all the other girls at the COSI Camp Fire sleepover went to see the mass-appeal kid movie, I went by myself to the other theater to watch Fantastic Voyage.

Our local community center offered all kinds of lessons and courses. In no particular order over the years I took softball, pottery, piano lessons, gymnastics, dancing (a torturous deal I made with the devil in order to be allowed to take gymnastics, which was also a colossal failure due to unanticipated vertigo), and table tennis, each for a single session.

I did have my own manual typewriter and on at least one occasion I decided to create a neighborhood newspaper on two sheets of onionskin paper (remember that?) glued together. So although it wasn’t exactly science, I kept my little self pretty busy.

There was also an interest in weather and astronomy. I got up quite early one morning because Joe Holbrook promised there would be an excellent view of Venus to the east. The best view was from my parents’ bedroom, in which I was not usually allowed. They were none too happy this time, and I didn’t see Venus anyway. My weather interests centered on tornadoes, which spent the middle 1970s threatening the Midwest and destroying the city of Xenia. I never got to see a funnel cloud; I was shuttled to the basement to play Scrabble with my mother while my younger brother dragged every possible valuable item to safety and my father scanned the horizons from the front porch. I had a weather radio with a silver collapsible antenna and a big square orange button to press to get the current forecast.

At this point I was a rule-following little girl who liked animals and baseball and had mostly mainstream interests with only the occasional oddity. My grades were good, and I aimed to please. But I was on the verge of a great change of circumstances.



In August 2011 I learned that my idol, Richard P. Feynman, read the book The Boy Scientist as a young man and performed all the experiments in the book. Having known (and was married to, for a while) someone who had the same goal for The Boy Mechanic (which his annoyed mother renamed “The Boy Maniac”), I found this especially charming.

Also doable, since the local Ben Franklin Crafts store stocks the Popular Mechanics reprints of Boy Mechanic, Boy Scientist, and Boy Magician. Within a week I had my own copy for $10 and started vaguely thinking about, well, doing all the experiments.

When? Well, I’m not sure. I have four school-age kids to nurture, a B.S. in physics to start, a huge social event to organize in a couple of weeks, Doctor Who to watch, and, frankly, a long queue of tremendously geeky knitting to work on. I don’t have a space cubic foot in which to set up my laboratory. But one thing’s for sure, I will do the projects in order as I have time, and I’ll take lots of pictures. I’m slow and short of time, but I make up for it with earnestness and stubbornness.

If you already know me, it’s probably through real life, Ravelry, Facebook, or my first blog, Chocolatesheep. I won’t be sharing geeky news or funny knitting patterns on this blog — it’s strictly for (a) working through the experiments in this book in order and (b) ruminating on my identity as a mom-scientist and mom-physicist. I might include links to these things, mind you — the first bloggish thing I read was by Robert X. Cringely, mind you — but it won’t be a Facebook wall.

It will be physics, ma’am — all the way down.