Author has the formula for making science fun

When author Sean Connolly gives a presentation to a classroom of kids, he knows how to captivate his audience.

"The usual stuff. Stuff that makes noises, slimy stuff," says Connolly, author of the wonderfully entertaining "The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science: 50 Experiments for Daring Young Scientists" (Workman, $13.95).

At one recent school stop, he says, "we were talking about vaccinations. A lot of that has to do with pus."

A transplanted Bostonian now living in England with his wife and three children, Connolly traces his affinity for science to two childhood experiences. One was MIT's Educational Studies Program, through which kids learned science by working with student instructors.

"That was really a neat way of showing us kids how much fun science could be because they're pretty wacky," Connolly says. "There's a lot of humor in science."

His other influence? Larry, Moe and Curly.

"I loved to watch them," he said, "with pies hanging from the ceiling, the way they mixed things together, how they'd read a recipe. 'Separate two eggs.' That was great. It was science gone wrong."

And that — "science gone wrong" — is sort of the basis for "Potentially Catastrophic Science." A lot of mankind's greatest advances have been just a smidge away from disaster. The Wright Brothers' flying machine, Ben Franklin's fiddling with lightning, Enrico Fermi's chain reaction. In the book, aimed at kids 9 and older, Connolly explains these discoveries and applies the concepts to scaled-back (and kid-safe) experiments that use common household items. Each experiment gets rated on a "catastrophe meter," so adults can judge the danger quotient and how much help they need to offer.

Budding scientists can learn about principles such as air resistance, condensation and the electromagnetic spectrum. But they learn because Connolly has them making a parachute that safely delivers eggs, crushing a can through sudden condensation or projecting an image of the bones in their hand on a wall. It's all done in an engaging, fun manner.

"I've had a number of people — parents at signings or someone at a presentation — come up and say the book is good because it gets girls interested in science and gets boys interested in reading," Connolly says. "So you've got two types of stereotypes you're trying to overcome."

Also on board is the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which gave "Potentially Catastrophic" its Excellence in Science Books award in the hands-on science category.

The Montgolfier Pingpong Experiment

French brothers Joseph and Jacques Montgolfier were pioneering balloonists. They heated — and thus expanded — air in a balloon, which made it rise. The same principle can be applied to repair a dented pingpong ball.

Materials: small mixing bowl, hot water from the tap, a dented pingpong ball, empty plastic drink bottle (without the lid).

1. Fill the bowl with hot water.

2. Drop the ball in.

3. Hold the plastic bottle upside-down with the opening touching the ball.

4. Slowly push the ball underwater.

5. Keep the bottle and ball in place until the dent pops out (usually less than a minute).

From "The Book of Potentially Catastrophic Science"

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