A Night At The Museum (In A Father-And-Son Kinda Way)

Roald Dahl’s children’s classic Danny The Champion Of The World is one that deviates significantly from his more usual bent towards the cruel and macabre. Gone are the gruesome un-necessities of many of his other books, replaced as they are by life-applicable illustrations of good parenthood. The five year old Danny idolizes his dad who, being the only adult in his life, has given his every ounce of attention to doing what fathers do best- loving on their sons. And drawing from his deep knowledge of all things car-related, Danny’s dad never misses an opportunity to teach: “A petrol engine is sheer magic..Just imagine being able to take a thousand different bits of metal and if you fit them all together in a certain way…and then if you feed them a little oil and petrol…and if you press a little switch….suddenly those bits of metal will all come to life….and they will purr and hum and roar…they will make the wheels of a motor-car go whizzing round at fantastic speeds” (1, p.15). Oh the joys of teaching children science!

For a parent to see a child’s eyes light up upon hearing facts yet untold is as precious a gift as they come. I learned this in the first weeks of the school year during an overnight cub-scout camp at a museum on the banks of the Mississippi river. A program of lectures, displays and close encounters with animals kept 25 restless scouts on the overflow level of their exhilaration quotas for an entire evening. And sleeping alongside alligators, Mississippi paddle fish and stingrays (all behind thick glass tanks of course) simmered up the adrenalin pot to a barely manageable temperature.

There is of course more to be grasped through our inquisitive minds than merely the comings and goings of a myriad of aquatic creatures in a glass tank as captivating as they may be. Humans are from a size standpoint located at almost the halfway point between the smallest and largest things we know- halfway between the sub-atomic building blocks of DNA and the gigantic galaxies that lie as remnants of cosmic expansion (2). My son has not only peered down the tube of a children’s compound microscope at sugar crystals and pheasant feather barbules but has also counted the stars that comprise, say, the Big Dipper or the sword of Orion. With the context of the super small and the super large he can better appreciate what is immediately visible to him- stars spawn off planets that supply the platform for sustaining life in all it variant forms.

As I guided a class of fifth graders through a science practical extracting DNA from wheat germ one cold morning in early autumn last year it was refreshing to hear them intuitively grasp the basics of genetic inheritance. “Your eyes are blue and mine are brown because our DNA is different” one child would say. Another would remark how thrilling it had been to learn that their cat’s fur pigmentation was coded for by book-like instructions contained within an unfathomable number of cells in its body. Beneath the ‘snot glob’ of DNA that they spooled out of tubes onto their spatulas lay a genome five times bigger than that of humans.

Sharing Your World With Wildlife is one of the achievements that all budding bear cub scouts must realize if they are to meet the grade and progress up the ranks of scouting. And once again the science teaching opportunity for parents is there for the taking. An entire box full of animal skulls, pelts, droppings and paw print casts was how our cub den chose to foster a desire to learn. As a clamorous group of boys was unleashed upon an inanimate collection of animal remains fertile imaginations took care of the rest.

What is next on the science-learning cards? In mid January my children and I will be taking a short nature hike around the University of Wisconsin’s arboretum and participating in the annual Pinewood Derby races with cars that they have helped cut, shape, sand down and spray paint. In effect, we now have two 4 oz slithers of wood that have all the weighted trimmings they need to help them get down a 10 yard track in less than 4 seconds. Momentum and traction will be of paramount importance if they are to win their heats. But of course winning isn’t everything. What the children will have learned from this simple physics experiment will serve them well in future years as they encounter real-life quandaries that only an analytical mindset can help untangle.

Danny The Champion Of The World ends with a delightful description of all the things that this little boy has planned to do with his father and the high regard that he has for this, his closest, adult companion:

“We would set off with sandwiches in our pockets, striding up over Cobblers Hill and down the other side to the small wood of larch trees with the stream running through it. And after that? Perhaps a big rainbow trout. And after that?  Something else again.  Because what I have been trying so hard to tell you all along is simply that my father, without the slightest doubt, was the most marvelous and exciting father any boy ever had” (1, p.214).

What a grand image of parenthood Dahl has given us. We are adjudicators of the future who can help shape science for the next generation. And for that reason alone, I look forward to the next opportunity for a night at the museum.

Further Reading

1. Roald Dahl (1975) Danny The Champion Of  The World, Puffin Books Edition published in 2001

2. David Malin (2004) Heaven and Earth: Unseen by the Naked Eye, Phaidon Press, UK, p.10

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Robert Deyes

Robert has been a Technical Services Scientist at Promega for over 10 years. He also worked for two years as a Technical Advisor at the Paisley, Scotland facility of Life Technologies Inc. After earning his Masters in Medical Genetics from the University of Glasgow, he spent 18 months at the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France where he did research into the molecular basis of the inherited disorder Spinal Muscular Atrophy. He also holds a BSc from the University of Portsmouth in England.

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