Wednesday, October 01, 2014 • 8:49 AM Post a Comment

Poke things with sticks

posted by Caleb Rounds

Eons ago before I had even met the boss, before, in fact, I knew I needed a boss, a friend and I spent a week in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico. We made all sorts of poor choices while there, I like to tell myself I am a better person for them. But one good choice was a day trip to an abandoned silver mine nearby. I have no recollection of how we hooked up with the guy who drove us up there in the back of his pick up– maybe he had something to do with the hostel where we were staying in.

The silver mine, if that’s what it was, included many very deep holes that were encircled by low stone walls. It was unclear whether these were used to lower miners, let air or light in, or whether this in fact had nothing to do with mining silver. The bottom of the holes couldn’t be seen, though like the immoderate “fool of a Took” Pippin in the mines of Moria, we dropped small stones in to get an idea of how deep they were. How can one resist; we are a curious species.

One of these holes had a shrub partially obscuring the opening and wrapped in this tree was a three or four foot long snake. I have no idea what type of snake it was, but I remember it as rather slow moving and thick. I’m going with: not a rattlesnake. My friend spotted the snake, picked up a stick and began poking. Why wouldn’t he? It hadn’t already attacked us and he wanted to learn something about the snake. You can’t get a lot of information from a stick, but it’s safer than poking with your finger. Poking things with sticks is essentially the first step in the scientific method (right before cutting things open). For babies the first step is put it in your mouth. We didn’t try that with the snake.

Any scientific educator wants his or her students to have a depp understanding of the scientific method. Essentially, you ask a question, gather information, formulate a testable hypothesis, test the hypothesis, ask a follow up question, gather more information until your grant runs out or you get more funding. To understand snake and hole we didn’t have the internet so we gathered information using sticks and rocks.

This weekend the whole semi-indigent rounds collective turned into rock and stick wielding scientists after the appearance of a sink hole in our backyard.

While mowing I discovered a soft spot in the grass about 8” on a side. I poked it. It didn’t poke back, so I removed the grass and discovered that there was a deep hole underneath. The boarders and boss were soon summoned. After some fruitless flashlight work, we broke out the sticks and began exploring. It was about 3.5 feet deep and at least as much in diameter. There did not appear to be any means of egress below the ground and there was no apparent loose dirt. The soil had vaporized. At least that was one idea (not a hypothesis as it wasn’t testable).

It was decided (I decided and the boss approved) to widen the hole, determine whether it was dangerous or had sewage in it, then fill it. So I widened it. This proved an irresistible lure for the youngest indigene and his sidekick. They wanted desperately to get in, but I was afraid that it might have a thin bottom that could give way again.

I didn’t want to dissuade them from playing in the dirt, or poking at it with sticks. I was working in the garden so it was pretty easy to keep an eye out. At one point I stepped inside to check on something and when I re-emerged, I spotted Elliot vaulting out of the hole. I guess the bottom wasn’t going to give way. He says he “forgot.” He had moved on to the next step: he poked, determined it was hard and thought “I’ll bet it’ll hold me” and jumped in. The experiment supported his hypothesis.

Poking things with sticks is the perfect science for their age. You learn whether it bites or is soft. It’s what they have to do with the world. But all good holes must come to an end, so we filled it in and are pretending it didn’t happen. We’ll have to find something else to experiment upon.

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