Putting Wile E. Coyote Physics To The Test
Don't ask how, but I once had a really nice long talk with Mr. Wizard's son in law about the state of science in childrens' lives. I complained that toy stores have few toys that aren't a character tie-in, and the aisle dedicated to classic hobbies and science is gone. No more chemistry sets or model rockets. In their place are what I like to call "boogerology" sets - playsets that lure kids into liking science by emphasizing the gross things that come out of all of us. That's fun, and there may indeed be some learning going on, but that kind of thing shouldn't be the only option.
We've seen lots of attempts to make science fun, of course. Even Mr. Wizard's low-key 1950's TV approach was fun, and made science practical and accessible. Today, Mythbusters is a great show with the same goal. They even upped the stakes by adding an explosive element to many of their experiments. I do genuinely admire their work, but sadly there are lesser shows that have only taken a single charred page from Mythbusters' book - that it's cool to blow stuff the hell up. Just don't try to make it seem more important by superimposing a poorly thought out science lesson on top.
I have no objection at all to making science more practical and fun - not just for kids, but for everyone. The danger is that the pursuit of fun and ratings can mean dumbing the original lesson down so far that there's little of practical value left. Also annoying is that some of the boogerology sets I mention above feature bufoonish "mad scientist" types which flies in the face of all the things I learned about respecting chemicals and electrical current, and that can't be good in the long run.
Now, let's give equal time to a discussion on behalf of buffoonery and blowing things the hell up.
Who knew that the field of launching 100 pound anvils into the air is crowded enough to have a world champion? It's Gay Wilkinson, and here's a video of him launching an anvil.
Black powder? Check.
Carved up legal pad + Acme Anvil Sealant (peanut butter)? Check.
Impossibly short fuse? Check.
Fortunately no one here is pretending this is science, though this is a case where it wouldn't be out of place to make elements of this "demonstration" into part of a physics lesson. Overall it reinforces one of the greatest lessons I ever learned in life. Learning is important, but sometimes it's just really cool to blow big stuff up.
[Thanks to my friend Eric Franks @ videopia.org]