Celia Rivenbark: I blinded him with science

My young friend, Preston, wants to be a chemistry professor one day, but first he has to finish high school and complete the mandatory senior project.

Preston thought it would be fun to jazz up his project on scientific literacy by testing the local humor columnist on her own scientific smarts, so he dropped by to make his pitch.

“I’d like to do that, Preston,” I said, while wiping nacho sauce off my foot (don’t ask). “But I’m very busy, as you can see, with this nacho sauce. You want a beer? Wait. Sorry. It’s just that you seem older.”

“I’m not sure what scientific literacy means,” I said as Preston set up an easel and chart in my living room and adjusted his notes. Clearly there was no graceful way out of this.

“Let me explain,” he said. “It’s basically a person’s comprehension of scientific concepts as it applies to personal decisions. You see, we live in an age of ever-advancing science and technology. A public that is scientifically literate will be better able to make more informed personal and public policy decisions.”

“Do what?”

“Sure, we all know the earth’s axial tilt is 23.4 degrees, but applying this basic knowledge to make the conjecture that Earth’s tilt results in seasonal weather patterns, well, you can see…”

“Right!” I said. “I was going to say 23.5 degrees but, yeah, I think you’re right.”

The quiz started easy. Which was a “pseudoscience”? The choices were astronomy, astrology, chemistry or meteorology. I knew it was astrology because my horoscope always says I’m going to lose weight and it never happens.

Next: Assuming no accidents, which kind of power-producing plant produces the most radioactivity? I guessed nuclear. Wrong. It was coal.

“Easy mistake,” said Preston. “Sometimes you can forget that there is such a high concentration of uranium and thorium in fly ash.”

“I know, right?”

“If you boil a pot of water in Denver, which is a mile above sea level, will it take longer, shorter, or the same amount of time as boiling the water at sea level?”

Did I look stupid?

“Preston, as I recall from my own science classes, water boils at approximately 212,000 degrees so, ipso facto, it wouldn’t boil any quicker just because of the Broncos being Super Bowl champions.”

(Wrong. It boils faster. He told me why but I forget.) “True or false: Can antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria?”

“No!” I said, a little too loudly.

“You’re right!” Preston said. He sounded relieved. “How did you know that?”

And then I told Preston about all the times I had taken the Princess to the pediatrician for this or that snotfest and knee-begged for antibiotics only to be told she had a virus and antibiotics wouldn’t help.

When it was over, I’d gotten a little over half the answers right. Which, my math skills tell me, means I aced it. Which is awesome.