Day 116: ladies of science

The younger was mad.

We had tried and failed to find an adequate bed for her doll (shoebox? “Too small.” pillowcase? “Too soft”) a task which she had been determined to complete before bedtime.

“Well you need to help me think of something else I can do before stories, then,” she demanded, glowering at me.

I was all out of ideas. It was looking like we were headed for a full-scale tantrum when inspiration struck.

“I know.” she said. “I want to do an experiment.”

I felt my patience start to ebb away. “We can definitely do some kind of experiment tomorrow,” I said as carefully and evenly as I could, knowing as I uttered the words that this would not be an acceptable option.

“No. Now. I want to put those candies I don’t like in water and see what happens to them.”

I thought about it. It sounded pretty easy, actually.

“Oh, fine,” I said. We went to the still two thirds full bucket of Halloween candy and the younger plucked out the despised brand. The tablets looked like Tums. I filled a glass with cold water and the younger dropped the three tablets in the glass.

“We’ll see if they disappear or not by the morning,” she said.

Finally, she was willing to get into bed for story time.

“Once upon a time there was a little girl,” I began, not having the remotest idea what would happen next.

“I want all the stories to be about girls who are scientists,” the younger interrupted.

“OK!” I said, grateful for direction.

“Her name was Ada,” I said. She gave me a funny look. “No no, this isn’t what you’re thinking, this is about a real scientist called Ada!” I said.

“Wait,” she said. “Is it Ada Lovelace?” she asked, her face scrunched up skeptically.

“Yes!” I said.

“Wait, she was a scientist?”

“She was a brilliant mathematician,” I said. “And her father was a famous poet called Lord Byron.”

“What’s a poet?” asked the younger.

That’s what Ada Lovelace probably asked Baroness Byron, I thought to myself. Also: how is it my daughter knows the word “scientist” and “mathematician” and not the word “poet”? Am clearly failing in inculcating respect for the humanities.

“Oh, it’s just a person who writes poems,” I said airily. “Anyway, she worked with Charles Babbage who was another scientist and they … well they did stuff, math, that helped make it possible to …. to make computers.

“Did they make a computer?” she asked.

I hesitated, suddenly aware that my grasp of the historical facts was dim.

“No. Well. I don’t know … I don’t think so? I think maybe they made some kind of … machine? But I think they mostly did a lot of math?”

I vaguely remember that Thomasina in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia was based on Ada Lovelace, and wrack my brains trying to remember the plot; but all I can remember of Thomasina is her waltzing with Septimus (n.b. swoon) and I’m pretty sure that wasn’t important to the math part.

“Yeah, so they did a lot of math and made important discoveries that helped us have computers.”

The younger looked bored. “All right, what’s the next story?”

“OK,” I say, determined to do better, “the next story is about this woman called Rosamund, I mean Rosalind. Rosalind … something. And she was a …. a biologist. And she helped discover something called DNA that is like, that is like a kind of code, a message written in your cells.”

I don’t feel that this is the most confidence-inspiring opening.

The younger interrupts. “I know what cells look like. Cells, like red blood cells, they’re little red dots in your body. Is DNA red? What does it look like?”

“Umm ….” Yes, I do know about the double helix, but somehow the word spiral momentarily eludes me and I can’t think how to describe it.

“Do you need a microscope to see it?”

“Yeah, you need a powerful microscope.”

“What does the message say?”

“It says. OK. Well, basically it’s a message in every single cell with instructions telling you to be you. So everyone’s DNA is different and in my DNA the message tells every cell how to be duck-rabbit-cells and in your DNA the message instructs all of your cells how to be younger-flopsy-duckit cells.” I feel conscious that a) as with Babbage’s Analytical Engine, I’m pretty fuzzy on how DNA works b) I don’t really know what Rosalind whatsherface’s contribution was and c) that the story is not terribly gripping.

Clearly the younger feels the same.

“OK, the next one should be a pretend scientist,” she says emphatically. “A pretend scientist called Moomoo.”

“OK,” I say, “so Moomoo was this little girl who made a rocket to go to …… the moon. And she made a new discovery about what the moon is made of.”

“The moon is made of rock,” declares the younger, authoritatively.

“Yeah, but remember this is pretend,” I say testily. The younger gives me a long-suffering look.

“Is she going to discover the moon is made of blue cheese?” she asks wearily. I am affronted.

“Yes, I said. Yes she is.”

“Fine,” says the younger.

The final story of the night is always a “childhood” story. This night I tell the younger about the “experiments” I conducted as a child – which I also referred to, at the time, as “experiments.” I would conduct these experiments in the attic, where there was a sink because it had originally been fitted up as a separate attic flat. I would pour various colored inks in bowls of water, dip paper in them and then hang them up to dry. In my memory it is always late afternoon when I do these experiments and sun streams through the window illuminating the ink-stained papers that I have hung up to dry. I think they are the most beautiful things I have ever seen.  I definitely don’t think of them as art; I think of them as scientific experiments about color.


The next morning the younger is eager to observe the results of her experiment. The tablets have not completely dissolved but they have tinted the water. She is extremely pleased with the results.

“I need to do more experiments,” she says. That is exactly what a real scientist would say, I think to myself. Bloody scientists. So bloody dogged.

“Also I need to taste it.”

I about to protest that doesn’t seem like a standard part of the experimental method when I remember all those 17th-century dudes who ate their experiments, like Robert Boyle and his bloody phosphorescent veal.

“Also we need to make a special room for my experiments,” she says.

“All right,” I say, “let’s say that the bathroom is your experiments room.”

“Not the bathroom!” she says in a disgusted tone. “That’s already its own room. We need to make a special experiments room.”

I sigh. I feel exhausted just thinking about the idea. “Well how are we going to do that?” I ask in a defeatist tone.

She thinks. “We can use the tent.” I sigh again. I just don’t want to be arsed to put up the bloody Ikea tent in the middle of the room so it can be a holding ground for jars of fetid water.

“Seriously?” I am the world’s most unenthusiastic research assistant.

She is fixed on the idea. I put up the tent. In addition to the first experiment, there are now three additional water-filled vessels, each carrying its own despised form of candy.

Per the younger’s exact instructions, and because I don’t want her carrying the very full glasses of water into the tent herself, I carefully set up the glasses inside the tent on the shoe box, which though deemed unfit as a doll bed has proven to be an excellent workbench.

The younger is extremely pleased.

Yesterday the kids went to their dad’s house. This morning as I’m hurrying about trying to get ready to come in and teach Keats, and picking up stuff off the floor in advance of my cleaning lady coming, I remember that the glasses of candy water are still inside the tent. When I go inside I actually exclaim, “oh!”

I am struck by the prettiness of the assemblage: jars of pastel colored waters against the backdrop of the grey-stone patterned interior of the tent. I hesitate to throw them out. In the end I decide to take pictures; that way if the younger complains when she comes back and finds her experiments room shut down I will at least have photographic evidence of the results to show her.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty”:



5 thoughts on “Day 116: ladies of science

  1. Mahin says:

    This post made me smile :-). It reminded me of the time you recruited me as an assistant for one your attic “experiments.” As I recall, it involved making a gooey concoction out of colored sprinkles, food coloring, salt, flour and water. The end result resembled a rather unappetizing grey blob . . . which you generously decided I should get first dibs at “tasting.” I remember uneasily trying to figure out how to politely and diplomatically dissuade you from the idea, without hurting your feelings . . . and then breathing a quiet sigh of relief when we had to abandon the project because your mum had called us down for dinner :-).

    • Oh, Mahin, this made me laugh! It particularly made me laugh because would you believe that just last week A proudly presented me with a very special present: it was a dessert made of yogurt, cocoa powder and some other stuff. It was a greyish brown goopy concoction. She had made it at her Dad’s house and I was like, “you know, let’s leave it for Dad!” And she was like, no! It’s for you! So we dutifully brought it over to my house. Last weekend I made some brownies to take for an Oscar party and they didn’t come out quite as well as I’d hoped. A to the rescue! “Mom, we can bring them MY dessert!” she said excitedly. I spared our neighbors 🙂

  2. My experiments were always basement experiments, and I remember a particular one about trying to make a ski lift out of yarn and tape across the basement. It didn’t work. The photographs were a good idea here.

  3. A great and colorful experiment to try is to boil some purple cabbage (available at any grocery) in water. The resulting purple water is an “indicator” in that it changes color when mixed with acids or bases (this is how pH strips work). If you mix it with vinegar or lemon juice, it turns one color and if you mix it into a solution of baking soda and water, it turns another. The colors are rich and beautiful.

  4. Oh, we will totally try this! In fact, you are making me remember how my Mum’s red cabbage dish (with apples and bacon) would get brighter when she added the cider vinegar!

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