Anyone can tell you, the surest test of your science chops is your ability to make a kid understand it. Science, at its most fundamental, can be understood by anyone if explained properly. Science is, for the most part, conceptual. The math is relatively unimportant as long as you understand why things work the way they work.
I bring that up because it's not always kids doing the learning. Most science questions I can answer pretty easily. I have a broad base of knowledge and one of those brains that recalls everything. In the age of Google that's relatively unimportant. Today, sub-literate sock monkeys who can barely spell their names can cite sources and keep a whole bookmark file full of facts in order to look smart. Luckily, most of them write about politics rather than science ( Huffington Report, RadioAmerica, I mean you ) so science is usually populated by people who know what they're talking about.
That's not to say we can't be stumped. I had a recent question I couldn't answer without some significant research. I figure if I don't know the answer, maybe you don't either and we can all get a little smarter. So here it is:
Why does the fat opera singer's head shrink when Bugs Bunny sprays Alum in his throat? This came up during the classic "Long-Haired Hare", after Bugs has had just about enough of Giovanni Jones breaking his banjo.
Bugs Bunny, I want my 4 hours of research back
Well, I wasn't sure. I never used Alum, I have no Alum in the house. I know they used to put Alum in water, 2500 years ago, and it would work pretty well today. Did the coagulating symbolize this head shrinking? I wrote a chemistry acquaintance but knew I wouldn't hear from him until morning.
It doesn't help to have two smart people in the house. "Maybe Alum was the chemical used by Jivaro tribesmen to shrink heads in the Amazon," Lady Scientist offered.
Actually, that made perfect sense. Bugs Bunny cartoons were always topical and almost every movie matinee serial had some tribesman or another as a villain, so shrinking heads using Alum may have been well known to kids and adults then.
I did some research - I might as well have chewed some Ayahuasca. They apparently boil these 'heads' ( skin with the skull removed ) in Chinchipi juice and water. I spent an hour reading on the taxonomy of native plants in Ecuador but I couldn't find anything that said they had anything similar to Alum in them. Dead end. But I am not a total tease so here is the recipe to make your own shrunken head. I suggest you use a dog or something rather than attack your neighbors:
1. Slit the head at the back from the base of the neck to the crown. Peel the skin from the skull. Throw the skull/brains into the river as a sacrifice - to the spirit of the Anaconda. These people were vicious but they knew what they were doing so even if you're in upstate New York I suggest you fly to Ecuador and find a river.
2. Turn the face inside out and remove all fatty tissue.
3. Tie a rope to the top of the head through an incision. Lower the head into a pot of hot water and Chinchipi plant juice. Simmer for up to two hours, taking care not to leave it in too long or the hair will fall out.
4. Sew up the back of the neck and the eyelids with thread and seal the lips with three bamboo pegs. I suggest you go to Pier One and chop up some furniture in front of a sales associate to get these pegs. When you explain why you need it, they will let you alone and you pulled a great prank.
5. Insert hot pebbles into the neck cavity and whirl the head around by the hair to keep the stones from burning the flesh. Then do it with hot sand when it shrinks too much to use stones. It will take about 20 hours, over 3 - 7 days.
6. Polish your shrunken head up. It will be a little larger than an orange. Brag to your friends
Congratulations! Your first shrunken head.
Anyway, South American tribesmen were clearly a dead end. I went back to Chemistry. Alum has been around a long time so a lot of things get called Alum. Aluminum Sulfate is used in water but that seemed awfully obscure. Kids laughed when they saw the head shrink and I am betting they didn't know about Aluminum Sulfate. Deodorants, astringents, spices - this stuff is everywhere.
Finally, I swallowed my pride, gave up on science, and cheated.
I called my mother.
Cash: "You remember in cartoons when they would use Alum and someone's head would shrink, right? It had to be common knowledge then but I can't figure out why they used that image to represent what Alum does."
Science Matriarch: "You did it a hundred times when you were a kid. When we made dill pickles we put whole cucumbers in the jar with Alum and water and it makes them shrink. It's a pickling spice. Everyone did it back then but I don't think people make their own pickles any more."
Cash: "Oh. I should have known that. I didn't get this sweet eating dill pickles, though."
Satisfied that I had done hours of research for ... nothing ... well, something that all 7-years old knew in 1949 ... I decided to grab a beer.
I take a sip. It is cold. Really cold. It says "Miller Genuine Draft" and "unique cold-filtering process."
"Wait. What's so great about cold-filtered beer?" I thought.
And I found out. But this is already way too long so it has to wait until Part II.