Thursday, November 13, 2014

THIS ONE’S A GAS – The Home-grown Science of a Twelve-year-old

The human body has two ends on it: one to create with and one to sit on. Sometimes people get their ends reversed.  – THEODORE ROOSEVELT

Twelve-year-old boys, it seems, are especially good at discovering and exploiting the quirks of the human body.

One of my grade school pals showed me this truly odd little experiment applying both physiology and physics. First, you have to yawn. (We learned it’s pretty easy to make oneself do so on demand.) Yawning does several things: it opens your mouth; it draws your tongue back and up; and it produces a rush of saliva (tears too).

          Surely, this was science at its best, 
          though I’m not sure the rationale would 
          have held water with our parents.

While your mouth is still open and your tongue back, you force your tongue quickly down and forward. The little pool of saliva that’s collected in the soft pocket under your tongue gets squeezed, and, if you’re lucky, a few drops will squirt out, maybe a foot or two. Needless to say, we had contests to see how far each of us could squirt. (But Mom, we were just studying fluid dynamics!)

(I found out much later that we weren’t the first to discover this odd practice. In fact, there’s a name for it: gleeking. Go ahead, google it; I dare you.)

I’ll never forget my first lessons on the combustibility of methane and hydrogen. One day, at a friend’s house, he was all excited to show me something. I thought, oh, the lucky stiff; he got a new baseball glove. When we got up to his room, he shut the door, pulled the shades and slumped down in a chair.

     Usually, matches meant we were about to 
     light either a cigarette or a cherry bomb.

He asked me to hand him the book of matches on his desk. Usually, matches meant we were about to light either a cigarette or a cherry bomb. This time, he just told me to shut up, watch and listen. He tore out a match. Then he drew his legs up in the air. I could see he was straining, the veins on his neck standing out and his face getting red. For some reason this didn’t surprise me.

There was a dull flupping sound as he passed some gas. He quickly struck the match and moved it right to his crotch. Swear to God, a grapefruit-sized ball of blue flame poofed between his legs.

Surely, this was curiosity and wonder at its best—the way only kids can do it. I’m not sure the science rationale would have held water with our parents. But for me it was far more than science, more than an appreciation of the wonders of Nature that reside on us and in us; this was the stuff of legend.



jean said...

OMG, Jeffrey! My Dad (born in 1909) told me that he and a group of boys got together out in a field (lots of those back in his childhood) and spent their evenings lighting up! :) He described one colossal event where one guy produced a flame about 3 feet long! So not too much has changed with little boys over the centuries, it seems! :)

Jeffrey Willius said...

Hi Jean -- Hey, I guess that's better than "lighting up" cigarettes or doobies. Or is it? I always wondered if there was any chance of the ignition could pass from outside the body to any reservoir of gas remaining inside. Yikes, I've heard of a splitting headache, but that!....

jean said...

Now you've got me laughing, Jeffrey! Dad did say someone did get burned doing that, but I don't think there was any internal combustion! You should have heard him talk about how the boys made the track for their Flexible Flyers really slick! :) :)

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