Science Anecdotes for 9-year-olds
August 15, 2008 9:01 AM   Subscribe

Help me brainstorm anecdotes from the history of science that kids will enjoy.

I've found that one interesting way of teaching science to my 4th-grade students is to tell them anecdotes from the lives of scientists. I don't mean the autobiographical curios; I mean episodes when they behaved as scientists and, perhaps, reached a profound insight. I invite the kids to think along with the scientist and share in the sense of discovery. The kids really enjoy these.

The only problem is, I only have a few of those (and some of them may be dubious historically). Some examples:

-- Galileo, daydreaming in church, observes one of the lanterns swinging as a pendulum. He decided to measure the timing of it movement against his heartbeats and discovers that its sweeps, long or short, always take the same amount of time.
-- Archimedes, bathtub, "eureka." (I explain it's probably fictional.)
-- Newton, apple, universal gravition. (Ditto.)
-- Hippasus thrown overboard for proving that the square root of two is irrational. (Lots of legends in science, eh?)

They don't have to be canonical moments with famous scientists; they can be obscure, as long as they're revealing and illustrate something about scientific thought. Any suggestions?

(p.s. Yes, I've read A Short History of Nearly Everything and am flagging pages.)
posted by argybarg to Education (31 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
The discovery of radium by Madame Curie is pretty much the Gold Standard (so to speak) of this sort of thing, yes?
posted by Guy_Inamonkeysuit at 9:10 AM on August 15, 2008

Seems like a rich source of these sorts of anecdotes would be television programs like James Burke's Connections or the similar parts of Carl Sagan's Cosmos.
posted by XMLicious at 9:14 AM on August 15, 2008

from wikipedia on Pythagoras

According to legend, the way Pythagoras discovered that musical notes could be translated into mathematical equations was when one day he passed blacksmiths at work, and thought that the sounds emanating from their anvils being hit were beautiful and harmonious and decided that whatever scientific law caused this to happen must be mathematical and could be applied to music. He went to the blacksmiths to learn how this had happened by looking at their tools, he discovered that it was because the anvils were "simple ratios of each other, one was half the size of the first, another was 2/3 the size, and so on." (See Pythagorean tuning.)
posted by francesca too at 9:20 AM on August 15, 2008

Flatow's They All Laughed is chock-full of anecdotes and would be required reading for any kids I had.
posted by yort at 9:20 AM on August 15, 2008

Also, Burke's TV shows are also books. Circles, The Knowledge Web, etc.
posted by yort at 9:23 AM on August 15, 2008

Some raw material for you

Anecdotes from history about scientists

posted by lalochezia at 9:26 AM on August 15, 2008

In 1854, Dr. Snow gets a water pump handle removed and ends a cholera outbreak. His use of statistical information overlayed with maps moves epidemiology and public health forward.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 9:35 AM on August 15, 2008

A Short History of Everything also has tons of anecdotes of the type you describe from pretty much every branch of science.
posted by katyjack at 9:41 AM on August 15, 2008 [1 favorite]

They don't have the razzle-dazzle of running into the street naked shouting 'Eureka!,' but Mendel's pea-plant experiments in genetics appealed to me as a youngster.

And there's that thing about burrs and the invention of Velcro.
posted by box at 9:52 AM on August 15, 2008

DERAIL/re Bozoburgerbonanza's link: In 1976, the microwave oven became a more commonly owned kitchen appliance than the dishwasher, reaching nearly 60%, or about 52 million U.S. households.

1976? That early? I remember microwave ovens still being a big deal--an exciting household purchase--in the late 1970's and even into the early 1980's. (..And it took an entire roll of holiday wrapping paper to wrap one of those monsters.)
posted by applemeat at 10:02 AM on August 15, 2008

A favorite of mine was always Kekulé's having realized that benzene had to have a ring-like structure during a dream/daydream/vision of a snake biting its own tail. Some historical dispute there, but he claimed it at any rate.
posted by el_lupino at 10:06 AM on August 15, 2008

To myself I am only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me. --Isaac Newton
posted by metastability at 10:19 AM on August 15, 2008

The story of Barry Marshall's discovery that Heliobacter Pylori is the cause of most stomach ulcers is a wonderful anecdote that illustrates the scientific method, the value of persistence in the face of conventional wisdom, and has a bonus gross-out factor that ought to appeal to 4th-graders (SPOILER: he drank a vial of bacteria to test his hypothesis on himself).

The New Yorker published a good little article on the story a few years back. Abstract here. I might I have a pdf of it somewhere if you're interested - mail me.
posted by googly at 10:21 AM on August 15, 2008

Well, before people used anesthetics for anything useful, ether and nitrous oxide were used as recreational drugs. The story goes that William Morton was at one of these ether parties one day when friend of his broke his leg but didn't seem to notice or care while he was all up on the ether. Morton decided to start using ether in his dental practice as an anesthetic, and now we don't have to be awake for surgeries anymore.

Ignaz Semmelweis worked in a teaching hospital with two maternity wards. The women and babies in the ward treated by midwives were thriving. The women and babies in the ward treated by medical students were all dying of puerperal fever. Semmelweis conducted a series of observational experiments and realized that his medical students had dissection lab every day before seeing the mothers (these were the days before anyone ever washed their hands). He made his students wash their hands in chlorinated water before and after seeing every patient. People died less. It was geat. (No one believed him, though.)
posted by phunniemee at 10:31 AM on August 15, 2008

I always found the science-related deaths of scientists to be quite fascinating as a kid. Archimedes was slain during the siege of Syracuse when he asked one of the invading soldiers to move, since the shadow the soldier cast was obscuring Archimedes' diagrams. Sir Isaac Newton left a pot of mercury boiling next to his bed (for an experiment, one presumes), and died a lunatic from inhaling the fumes. Thales, an early astronomer/naturalist, was so absorbed in looking at the stars that he fell down a well.

More topically, we have, in the field of biology:

Francesco Redi, who refuted the theory of spontaneous generation by showing that no maggots would grow in meat which was enclosed in a glass jar.

Jean-Henri Fabre, the famous entomologist/naturalist, describes his experiments (on things like discovering the existence of pheromones, or the ability of a honey bee to locate nectar and communicate it to the hive) in a very picturesque and anecdotal manner, full of childlike wonder. Selections from his writings would make a great reading assignment.

Darwin sailing around the Galapagos Islands and finding multiple species of finches which were very similar, but had subtle adaptations of beak size and shape, adapted to the food sources available on the island they were on - these observations helped him to develop the theory of evolution.
posted by Wavelet at 10:35 AM on August 15, 2008

Perhaps while discussing Isaac Newton and his light experiments, you could mention his invention of the "cat door" - his cat constantly wanted to go in and out of the room in which Sir Isaac was working (as cats are wont to do), but constantly opening and shutting the door not only took up too much of his time, it also let too much light into the room. He solved the problem by cutting a small hole in the door and covering it with a cloth which kept the light out but allowed Puss to come and go.

This could lead to a discussion about how even scientists have a soft spots for pets, and also how "necessity is the mother of invention."
posted by Oriole Adams at 10:38 AM on August 15, 2008

More in the accidental discovery line: Alexander Fleming's discovery of Penicillin
posted by genesta at 11:00 AM on August 15, 2008

2nding A Short History of Everything. Science is full of wonderfully odd characters and Bryson is a funny, engaging writer.
posted by hydrophonic at 11:17 AM on August 15, 2008

Darwin sailing around the Galapagos Islands and finding multiple species of finches which were very similar, but had subtle adaptations of beak size and shape, adapted to the food sources available on the island they were on - these observations helped him to develop the theory of evolution.

Another thing I'd read from Darwin's voyage, although this is more oddball-anecdotal than scientific -- Darwin had noticed that unlike other kinds of lizards, the marine iguanas on the Galapagos could swim, and wanted to make sure that the one he'd seen swimming wasn't just a fluke. So he spent a good half-hour at one point throwing this one iguana into the water again and again, watching it swim to shore and then throwing it back.

I just always wondered what the iguana thought.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:34 AM on August 15, 2008

James Starley being thrown into a ditch by the unequal pedalling of his son on an early two-seater tricycle caused him to develop the differential gear.
posted by scruss at 11:35 AM on August 15, 2008

I would certainly also mention Isaac Newton's cutting a smaller hole alongside after his cat had kittens. It's a funny anecdote, but there's a real insight there: Being confident you know the answer has little to do with knowing it, so always be ready to have a second look.
posted by eritain at 11:53 AM on August 15, 2008

Descartes got the idea for his coordinate system (i.e. the Cartesian coordinate system) while lying in bed and looking at a fly on the ceiling. He realized that a coordinate grid would allow him to describe the exact location of the fly, wherever it might land.
posted by oddman at 11:58 AM on August 15, 2008

Richard Feynman's autobiographies are full of stories like this. Tell the kids how he cracked the safe containing the atomic bomb secrets!
posted by Quietgal at 12:19 PM on August 15, 2008

posted by neuron at 1:03 PM on August 15, 2008

Didn't the astronomer Tycho Brahe basically just build a gigantic compass and hold it up to the sky so he could measure the angles between stars better? At any rate it had something to do with just building a much bigger instrument and being very methodical. He also a pet moose, and one day he brought it over to a friend's house and it got drunk and fell down the stairs. He also lost his nose in a duel and replaced it with a gold nose. There are rumors that he died from bladder explosion because he was too polite to excuse himself from a dinner party, but I think they're unfounded.
posted by creasy boy at 1:10 PM on August 15, 2008

Kary Mullis Nobel prize lecture on how he came up with the polymerase chain reaction while driving from Berkley to a cabin in the woods.
posted by francesca too at 2:56 PM on August 15, 2008

Richard Feynman's autobiographies are full of stories like this. Tell the kids how he cracked the safe containing the atomic bomb secrets!

The one where he made himself into a sort of paper-bus driver for household ants, in order to figure out how ants could find their way back home, is the sort of thing that kids can try at home. (Described in "Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman")
posted by -harlequin- at 4:47 PM on August 15, 2008

Wilder Penfield, applying current to the awake, neurosurgically exposed human brain, and provoking motor movement, or more dramatically, making patients relive childhood memories in great vividness. Mapping out the entirety of the cerebral cortex.

What a sense of wonder he, and his colleague the neurophysiologist Herbert Jasper, must have felt at that time.
posted by ikkyu2 at 8:52 PM on August 15, 2008

When I was in high school, when my geometry teacher finished her lesson early, she would fill the few remaining minutes of class time by sharing little facts about math and science. Once day she told us how Mendeleev put together the periodic table, and how his ideas made so much sense to him that he left slots for elements that weren't known to exist, but would have specific properties if they did. And then, years later, elements with those very properties were found. I found that beautiful and amazing, and I've remembered it for almost 30 years.
posted by kristi at 9:39 PM on August 15, 2008

They don't have the razzle-dazzle of running into the street naked shouting 'Eureka!,' but Mendel's pea-plant experiments in genetics appealed to me as a youngster.

Aww. Thanks!
posted by mendel at 1:46 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

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