On one fine day in 1786 one of Galvani’s students at the University of Bologna was mucking around, as students do. Fortunately the startled student felt comfortable enough talking about his unusual experience. When he had touched a dead frog’s sciatic nerve with his scalpel the leg kicked. Now, perhaps this had happened a thousand times before but those students had either taken no notice or had thought that they should keep quiet because they had done something wrong. Perhaps on this occasion the student had been fooling around for a while because as it happens the implement that he used was holding a static charge.
Because the student owned up to what he’d seen a truly influencial idea came to light – the idea of animal electricity, which may have later been associated with animal magnetism; something that we try not to discuss in science classes. Nonetheless, this one keen observation by a student brought a new field into being, a field that inspired Mary Shelley to write Frankenstein – a rather romantic work that contributed to the idea of the Mad Scientist.
What does that have to do with science in our classrooms? I hear you ask. Well, it turns out that bacteria don’t need oxygen and sugars to play with electrons because some can grab these small charges directly from minerals and pass them back out. Some of these bacteria may very well be living in your stomach. It is clear that there is much more to know about our biome, about how little electricity life requires and how the kick of that frog’s leg is still making ripples.
So when we see students mucking about there may well be lessons to be learned, and not just lessons in achieving better class control. When we play with our food, or we play with our equipment we may open the door to discoveries that change the course of science. The key here is play, and recognising that it can be okay to muck around a little, providing you do so safely, of course.
Had it not been for my interest in mucking around I may not have beautiful children today – and not for the reasons that may immediately spring to mind. You see, at 15 I thought it would be fun to spend my holidays in a medical lab at the local university. The uni in question shall remain nameless for the reason I will now describe. I was running some blue gells and had no need to play with the geiger counter – that was the job of the technician who was putting radioactive iodine tags into the goop. But while I was waiting for a gel to run I decided to play with the lab equipment. I turned on the counter and scanned every bench in the department. One of the benches, a bench that I used regularly, was smoking hot. When I told the supervisor what I’d been up to he smiled, as I imagine Galvani might have, and asked “did you find anything interesting?” Soon afterwards that desk was quietly wrapped in plastic and taken to a prescribed waste facility. “It could have been serious”, he told me, “but we’ve run your radiation tag and you should be okay. The proof, he continued, is in the pudding, though, so let’s hope that whatever dose you did receive did not do any significant damage.” Fortunately for my childrens’ sake, my “pudding” turned out just fine, thanks, perhaps, to a desire to explore outside of the prescribed boundaries set out in the instructions.
There may be a lesson in that for all of us.
- Great discoveries are often sparked by play
- Play should not always be characterised as naughtiness
- Some bacteria take electrons directly from minerals