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copyright 1999, Lois June Wickstrom

Ghosts and Science Fairs

by Lois Wickstrom

I have heard a ghost singing. Does that disqualify me from judging science fairs?

The ghost was singing a Romantic language that I didn't understand at a window of Dover Castle on the southeast coast of England. She had a lovely voice, sort of dreamy and sweet. I had walked away from the crowds to explore a sideópassage on the second floor of the castle. The view from this narrow window was especially green and from Its vantage no traveler could approach unseen. I leaned into the window, and there I heard the song. Startled, I stepped back. And the voice stopped. I returned my head to the window. The singing continued. I leaned out the window. No one stood beneath the castle window. I glanced around the room. No one was in sight. I examined the window crevices

for wires or a loudspeaker. All was stone, except for a bit of dried bubble gum. The song continued. and I pictured a young woman combing her long hair, gazing longingly out the window, hoping for a suitor or even a visitor, to entertain her in this rambling unheated castle.

Just then, a five-year-old cowboy galloped through the chamber, shouting instructions to his horse that echoed off the walls, and drowned out my ghost He left, and she continued singing. He made a return pass, and she ceased her song.

In England, ghost is the standard explanation for this type of phenomenon. In England. if you say, "I don*t believe in ghosts." You will likely receive the response, "You just haven*t experienced one yet.* There may be other explanations for what I hoard, but I am content to say. "I heard a ghost. And I liked it."

Still, I am invited to judge science fairs and help grade- school students design and conduct scientific research projects. I approach those projects with an open, experimental mind.

When shown four waxócoated needles floating in water, all pointing the same direction. I put my finger into the water and spun the needles. When I was done, none of the needles pointed In the original direction. The project claimed that If you want to know which way North is you just have to put a wax-coated needle onto a water surface and It will always point due North. The experimenter said nothing about magnetizing the needles flat. But, s/he did say that s/he had done the experiment fifteen times, and that It had worked perfectly every time. S/he had even drawn a graph to prove it. The child wasnít there for me to ask if a ghost had been there to point the needles.

I didn't used to believe people who said they had experienced ghosts, I merely conceded that they might have experienced something they didn*t understand. And I harbored the conceit that perhaps they were making it all up in order to get my attention. or even to pull my leg, But now I have become one of them. and I now experience the skepticism that I used to show others.

A child at another science fair showed me three plastic glasses filled with raw yeasty bread dough. They looked a bit like glasses for the three bears. One had only a tiny dollop. One was filled to the middle, and one was filled nearly to the top. All the dough samples looked like they came from the same batch, They were equally puffy, and nearly ready to be punched down. The child told me that all three glasses bad been filled the same amount when he started the experiment. The glass with the least dough had been put into the freezer. The glass with the most dough had been in a 350į oven for an hour. And the middle glass had been left at room temperature.

I asked when the first glass had been removed from the freezer. The boy said he*d removed it only hours ago, and the dough was still frozen, I touched the glass. The glass was the thin flexible sort of plastic that is sold for party glasses. It was room temperature, and felt the same as the other two glasses, The boy suggested my fingers were still cold from outside. I didn*t push the point.

Even my husband and children do not believe I heard a ghost. The only people I have found who believe me, are the ones who have also experienced ghosts. And Iíve already said that I donít find these people particularly believable, myself.

I told the boy Iíd once melted a plastic bowl in my oven, and that it had only take a few minutes for me to smell the catastrophe. I asked if heíd had a similar problem. He assured me that the plastic glass on the table was indeed the very glass that had been in the oven. I asked if he was sure the oven had been on. He was positive. I asked how long he thought it would take to bake his dough into bread, if after one hour at 350į it was still raw. I mentioned that my dough muffins only take 18 minutes to bake all the way through. The child didnít wat to guess. I didnít ask him if he thought a ghost was in his oven keeping the spot cold where his plastic glass of dough had sat.

At the time, I didnít say anything to their teachers to suggest that I thought the children had faked their experiments. But, even though I have heard a ghost sing, I do not believe that these children reported their experiments honestly.

One student whose project I judged was inspired by a teacherís statement that there is no electricity on Mars. "How," the child wondered, "will I be able to hard boil an egg on Mars?" Her solution? She would bring a microwave oven on her journey to the red planet. Her experiment consisted of trying to hard boil two eggs in a dish of water in her momís microwave at home. They came out soft-boiled. But, she thought, with practice and more time, they might have become hard boiled. She hadnít thought about the fact that microwave ovens use electricity, just like electric stoves. She hadnít considered that the decreased gravity and atmosphere on Mars would lower the boiling temperature of water, and therefore lengthen the time it would take to cook an egg.

Is there something Iím not considering, that would be equally obvious to another, when I say I heard a ghost?

How can I fairly judge childrenís science projects? Somebody has to judge these things. Contests help more than just the winners. They encourage excellence. They encourage risk taking. They encourage children to become scientists. The projects I judged to be frauds or victims of sloppy thinking wouldnít have been prize-winners if they had been truthful. They only involved an afternoon of work. The winning projects involved weeks of thoughtfully designed experiments with carefully controlled variables, and progressive modifications.

But, should I be so quick to say that there is no way to discover North from an unmagnetized needle? Is it impossible to put a plastic glass of dough into a 350į oven and not have it cook, or the plastic glass melt? Are these children onto something that we donít yet understand?

Science is supposed to be duplicable. The experimenter is supposed to write down exactly what he or she did, and another person is supposed to be able to copy those steps and achieve the same results. I went back to that window in the castle at Dover, accompanied by my disbelieving husband. The ghost did not sing for him.

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