childhood, exploration, science

Experimentum Periculosum

Continuing with Hippocrates’ pithy philosophical statement, we find that experiment is dangerous. As I am working in a chemistry lab, I have to say that indeed, it is. Even tried and true methods will occasionally fail, and many use dangerous chemicals in the course of carrying out an assay. But yet, we continue. Safety is king, proper personal protective equipment is required, and still…

Experimentation in life takes many forms. It’s not just science that conducts experiments. My son had four friends over for a sleepover this last weekend. It was noisy good fun, more food was consumed than I would have thought possible a few years ago (but I was prepared!) and they all had a good time. At one point early in the morning before the parental units had emerged from the bedroom, I heard the dog barking, but it wasn’t a bad bark – just the excited happy noises she makes when playing. I decided I could safely ignore it. So I was amused later when the boys told me what they had discovered. They’d all slept in the living room, on the couch, inflatable mattresses, and floor – a puppy pile of boys! – and the dog just curled up in the warm bodies for cuddles. When one boy woke up early he decided to wake my son up by poking him. The dog barked at him as my son made sleepy protests. The boys, interested in this protective reaction from our normally laid-back and lazy pooch, decided they would formally experiment on her. So one kid pretended to hit my son, while my son yelled and pretended to be hurt. The dog barked and chased the aggressor. Ok, that’s normal, you’re thinking. Dog is protective of pup in pack. But then the boys switched it up, and my son pretended to hit his friend… dog chased him, barking. So the dog thinks they are all puppies? Makes sense to me.

An unscientific experiment, perhaps, but they are twelve. And the dog loves all of them. I was thinking, as my son is alternating between cute and getting grown-up and absolutely a PITA and annoying, that children are perhaps the greatest experiment of all. We don’t know what will become of them as they grow: they are, after all, fully functioning human beings with their own free will and a mind of their own. I would no sooner attempt to dictate their future than I would accept someone doing that for me – but as their parent, while they live under my roof, they abide by my rules. Once they leave and are out on their own, only then will I begin to see the results of the experiment bring forth fruit. The First Reader and I talk about this coming age of independence, and the Millennial concept of ‘failure to launch’ fairly often. We worry over the children we’re experimenting on. Do we show tough love and push them out of the nest as soon as we can? What if they aren’t fully fledged? By providing a support net to keep them from splattering on the hard, unforgiving ground of reality, do we prevent them from fully developing their flight muscles? The idea of watching one of my children flounder hurts, but I also know that sometimes the only way to learn is to fail a few times until you learn humility and persistence.

The very concept of experimentation means that you do not know the outcome. You can guess at it – and you can make very good educated guesses if you understand the underlying concepts. Say I’m developing a new recipe, as I do, and I experiment with ingredients I’m mostly familiar with. I can guess that if I substitute baking powder in for baking soda and lemon juice, it will still provide leavening to the whatever-I’m-making. On the other hand, the first time I made churros I had to take it on faith that these things weren’t going to have the approximate density of rocks, since they have no leavening in the recipe. They weren’t the fluffiest things, but they were good, and later I learned that yes, they are always a bit dense and moist. Crunchy on the outside, though. Experiments with food are fun – that’s why I’m doing the Vintage Kitchen series, because I missed food blogging.

Experimenting in life can be switching jobs – you know that the one you have is adequate, but not spectacular. The new job looks good, but is it really? You don’t know, until you make that experiment. Marriage is an experiment. The First Reader reminded me this morning that had we kept to the original wedding date, we’d not yet be married, that it wouldn’t happen until December. Neither of us have any regrets about accelerating the timeline, and so for this experiment is working out just fine. He was musing that he’s become what he wanted to be when he was a kid, but it doesn’t feel like he thought it would. Life is an experiment.

There are ways to reduce the danger in experimentation. Here in the lab, we use hoods, which are essentially cabinets that offer airflow which will pull fumes away from the analyst, glass doors to keep spatter (mostly) off the person, and labcoats to catch what the door doesn’t. In life, PPE takes somewhat different forms. Always (always, and I cannot emphasize this enough) wear a life jacket when out on the water. Even canoeing in a knee-deep creek, Dad insisted we all wear them. When walking in hunting season, wear blaze orange (although even that is insufficient when you encounter a moron with buck fever). My grandmother famously painted ‘COW’ on the sides of her jersey heifer in hunting season with neon spray paint. While driving, wear seatbelts. This list could go on and on.

Where the danger comes in is when we introduce new elements, or when we get too comfortable with our routines and complacent. it is all too easy, once we have the muscle memory in place, to get into the habit of doing things on autopilot. I think we’re all familiar with arriving at work – or home after a long day – with no clear memory of how we go there. The brain checks out, and that slows reaction times. Or when it’s raining hard, but we’re running late to work… when I was commuting 45 minutes to work and most of it on the interstate, I quickly learned that if I saw it would be raining in the morning, to add an extra ten minutes, and go the back way. Rain brings out all the idiot drivers. That’s not an experiment I wanted to run. Could I get to work on time? Maybe, and maybe I’d wind up on the side of the road with a banged-up car. Or worse.

I like experiments. You never quite know what you’re going to get. And when you come up with something wholly unexpected, trouble-shooting the process and investigating the ‘why?’ is a good mental exercise. Doing this in small ways, like the kitchen, can be good preparation for larger experiments in life. Teaching children to self-analyze when something goes wrong, rather than melting down, and to persist past failure into accomplishments… that’s what makes experiments at home important. Even with the inherent risks. And then when they do succeed, have them do it again, because the scientific method doesn’t rely on one piece of data. They need to be able to reproduce that perfect pancake, and to understand the variables of what made it work, because that can lead to more successful experiments in other ways, through learning how to think critically and apply logic.