Science (Fiction) Fair

My daughter just got third place in her school’s science fair.

Not that it’s a competition. But since they rank them and all that, I guess it is a competition. So there.

But I’m not here to write about her; she just tends to worm herself into whatever I’m writing. Or if I’m trying to pet the dog. Or sneak a cookie.

But it got me thinking about the only time I did a science fair project as a child, at least as far as I can remember. And it was inspired, as much of my writing is, by Madeleine L’Engle. In A Wind in the Door, the follow-up book to A Wrinkle in Time, high schooler Calvin O’Keefe talks about the science fair project he did in 4th grade, where he basically hypothesized that showering love on a plant would make it grow better. Not sure I bought it then, but me and a friend decided to repeat the experiment.

We made no great new discoveries, except that if you’re threatening growing plants with lit lighters and you bring those lighters under their leaves, then they do blacken some and don’t grow as well (you are welcome to cite that). More importantly, books like these helped nurture my love of science. I had started fantasy books because I loved the discovery of new worlds, ever since opening that wardrobe in that spare room. But books that brought science into focus helped show that new discoveries were possible in the real world.

And not just in science fiction novels.

Dallben studying The Book of Three and Gandalf exploring ancient texts in Minas Tirith (although Saruman was, of course, the better experimentalist) were researching and analyzing in a scientific way. The isle of Roke in the Earthsea books was a school of wizards, but what are the mages of the archipelago if not scientific linguists? Or perhaps linguistic scientists? I loved the Merlin of Mary Stewart’s retellings best of all because he almost objected to the mystical aspects of his skills; he wanted good explanations of all he did.

But it was Madeleine L’Engle who really incorporated the fantastical and science fiction aspects of all those stories (I’ll give a shoutout to Andre Norton another time). The senior Murray’s are groundbreaking scientists and advisors to presidents (although the father’s work makes him frequently absent from family life, forcing the mother to win her Nobel prize while cooking dinner on the bunsen burners to feed the family). Meg Murray and the gang want to analyze the world around them scientifically, even when the world betrays all the scientific laws they have ever known. Learning that length and size are basically illusions or the importance of love don’t cause them to turn away from science, but rather to expand it.

It was these stories (and many others) that led me to a lifelong love of science. I may have made no great discoveries, but I’ve tried to nurture in my students both that love of science and an understanding of how science works. Hopefully they’ll grow up with a curiosity of the world around them and the ability to weigh evidence objectively.

And maybe it all starts with a science fair experiment, no matter what place you get. But third place is really good.

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