500 Columns: Lee Dye, Unusual Science Guy

My best friend, Frank Dalton, is a physicist who is among the world's leading experts on the dynamics of soil. But he also can build a terrific classical guitar.

We've talked for many years about science, and guitars, and golf, and it all leads me to wonder where the nonsense came from about scientists not being able to talk about their work in language that the rest of us can understand. Most scientists either have worked, or still work, as teachers, and they love to talk about their work. Sometimes, it's harder to get them off the phone than it was to get them on. They can be terrific communicators.

One of my favorites is physicist Hartmut Sadrozinski of the University of California, Santa Cruz. He couldn't get his teenage son interested in physics, so he found a fun way to do it. How do you make a kid appreciate something as arcane as electromagnetic fields? Easy. Zap the prof with lightning.

Sadrozinski came up with a suit of armor that looked like something from the Middle Ages. Then he toured local high schools, wearing the armor and allowing students to flip a switch that blasted the armor with lightning. The powerful charge made a terrific sound, produced the stench of ozone, but traveled around the outside of the armor to the ground in a perfect demonstration of how an electric field behaves. Sadrozinski was unscathed.

At last his son could hear, smell and see physics in action. But the last time I checked, he was headed for a career in marine biology. Can't win them all.

Elvis the Calculus Dog

And then there's mathematician Tim Pennings of Hope College, Holland, Mich., who announced one day that his dog, Elvis, could do calculus.

A basic problem in calculus is finding the quickest route from one point to another, weighing all sorts of variables. So one day Pennings lectured his class about calculating variations in speed when a route included some swimming, and some running.

A few days later, he tossed a tennis ball into Lake Michigan and watched his Welsh Corgi follow a convoluted course in retrieving the ball in the shortest possible time.

"I thought, man, that's exactly what I drew on the board," he told me. "He's doing the very same thing."

Elvis, he insists, was doing calculus.

You've got to love these folks. For them, science is an adventure, an intellectual journey through the wonders of life.

No doubt they've turned many young people on to science. They are probably among those I hear from regularly, asking me to send them all my "stuff" on some subject.

I wish them the best of luck. But I don't do homework.

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