Monday, August 28, 2017

Dr. Lucy Van Pelt, Scientist (Part 1/3)

Note: This letter is for a first-grade student. Click here to read a similar letter that I wrote for my high-school son last October. (Since I have four sons I have two more chances to get this right!)

Dear Brendan,

I heard your favorite class in first grade is science. I’m so proud that you’re interested in the same type of class I teach. As you learn about scientists, I thought I’d let you learn something from me about what science means to me. If you want to really understand science, you have to know how to listen to scientists. It’s like if you really want to understand how God works, you have to listen to Him (in the many different ways that He speaks!).

So to understand science, first you have to understand the words scientists use. You’re learning the words scientists use in science class. Sometimes the words are long but that can be part of the fun. Then the real fun begins, when you use those words to look at the world around you.

A scientist can take the world apart and put it back together again, like a LEGO set. It’s great fun, but there are some things that you can’t take apart like that. (For example, you can’t take God apart, right?) It’s hard to tell “what you can take apart” from “what you can’t take apart.” I’m not always sure which things are which myself. But this is also part of the fun of science -- you’re never quite sure.

To really understand science, you have to understand scientists. I’ve watched you read through our Fantagraphics Peanuts comic books. I think one of those Peanuts characters is surprisingly close to being a scientist, or at least thinking like a scientist: crabby big sister Lucy, of all people, thinks like a scientist!

It’s OK if you don’t think of Lucy as a scientist. I only just realized it myself. Let me show you why I think this:

For one thing, Lucy plays at being a psychiatrist with her “Psychiatric Help” stand. But she actually does science at one point. Did you know that Lucy is the only Peanuts character to win a science fair?

It’s true! First, she looked at the world around her and decided which part of it to study (click on it to read the whole thing):

Of course, I think you should ask him (and us) before you run any experiments on your little brother. Linus isn’t exactly happy to be Lucy’s science project, but Lucy takes charge:

Then, Lucy starts her experiment and takes careful notes, like a good scientist:

Then Lucy reverses what she did and sees something change. She writes this down, too:

Did you notice how much Lucy is enjoying what she’s doing? Yes, she enjoys annoying her little brother, but, other than that, it seems like she really likes science. Once Lucy finishes her experiment, she makes a poster and presents her project:

Q: What do you see on her project that the other ones don’t have? (Other than a sighing little brother.)

 A: I see more words and squiggly-lined graphs than on the other projects. It looks like good science to me. Notice the ribbon. Lucy won first place!

 On the other hand, Peppermint Patty is not quite the scientist that Lucy is:

Q: Which do you think is the better project? Why?

A: I think Lucy ran a good science project. Peppermint Patty’s wasn’t as good.

But you can make it better!

Q: Maybe you can come up with a better project to run with toast? How could you do that?

I think you could come up with a pretty good project if you did it like Lucy:

-- changing things one by one,

-- watching closely,

-- writing down what you do, and

-- measuring it.

It doesn’t matter so much what part of the world you’re looking at. You could experiment on a piece of toast, or on your little brother, or anything inbetween. (Just be sure to be nice to him, and pay him with candy or something, please?)

What matters in science is that you do your experiment back and forth, many times, and measure what happens carefully. In this story, that’s exactly what Lucy did.

Even without this story, you could tell that Lucy’s a scientist at heart from other comics. Did you know that there are many other comic strips where Lucy acts like a scientist? I’ll tell you about those in the next letter.

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