No Way, Dad!

One of the amazing things about color is that it doesn’t even really exist. What we see is the way light is reflected from a surface. Light is the thing.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t fascinated by color and when some science fair (fifth grade?) came around, my dad decided it was time for me to learn the difference between color in light and color in pigment.

Back when I was a kid my dad loved a particular catalog. It wasn’t very interesting for a kid to look through. It was mostly words and black and white drawings. I think it was the Edmunds Scientific Catalog.

He ordered red, green and blue transparent colored gelatin slides like those used in theaters, and we set about making a project with them. I was HIGHLY skeptical that three colors could equal NO color (how I viewed white at the time) but my dad said it would. He also said red and green would make yellow. Huh? I’d already learned THAT made brown!!!

“There is no brown in light, MAK.”

Right dad. Whether he was telling me the truth or not remained to be seen (ha ha).

We made a black box out of some boxes (the cardboard box is the foundation of much childhood architecture) set up the slide projector so there was a bright light we could shine through the colored slides. When I saw it with my own eyes, I was amazed.

“This is the science of optics, MAK.”

He’d also ordered some prisms so I could see that the angle at which light hit the prism made rainbows. My display was going to show all these mutations of color including a demonstration of mixing paint. It had a big sign that said, “Optics.” Well, it was my new word…

As you might expect the display we put together wasn’t very fancy. “It’s what it DOES that matters!” was my dad’s philosophy all the time about everything. It was also very technical. It wasn’t something you could just stop and look and go, “Wow, that’s cool. That kid is smart.” It involved demonstrating things. There was only ONE demonstration time in the fair and I had WAY too much to demonstrate.

Dad and I were also ahead of ourselves all the time. Enthusiasm pushed us to want to say EVERYTHING. Thinking about it now, I think the project probably needed an hour of class time, not a ten minute demonstration by a kid. A cardboard box, masking taped together, and painted black with tempera paint is not very inviting even with a couple of slabs of glass sitting in front of it.

No one even stopped to see except the judges who just wrote their checkmarks on the mimeographed papers on their clipboards, veni, vedi, vinci or something. It was disappointing, but as you might expect at this moment in my story, the important thing was doing the project with my dad — and what he taught me.

26 thoughts on “No Way, Dad!

  1. What a gift your dad gave you. The time. The thought. Perhaps he was your first (or close to it) art teacher. No it wasn’t about the fair at all. I love this. ❤️

  2. that is so cool, and how lucky you were to have a dad who shared these experiences with you. my ex husband used to get this catalog, he had a wonderful love of science

  3. I loved the “Edmunds Scientific Catalog!” I think I would have gotten on fabulously with your father. Of course, I couldn’t afford to buy anything from it.

    What little change I managed to pick up was spent on model rockets. Paper tubes and balsa fins and nose cones you had to glue together, sand and paint. You would insert rocket engines powered by a small amount of black powder. The lightest rockets with the strongest engines could hit 2000 ft. altitude but you’d never be able to find them after. Learned the basics of trigonometry, aerodynamics. and Newtons laws of motion in 5th grade. Estes Industries had a model rocket catalog and offered free shipping on orders of $5 or more. Be still my quaking heart!

    I learned all about optics later on thru my love of photography. Some people are satisfied to point the camera and press the button and that is just fine. I had to know everything there was to know about the equipment and the chemical processes.

    • Yep, if you were a curious little guy, and willing to learn, you’d have gotten along well with my dad. 🙂 Lots of my friends were into model rockets. I used to go watch them launch sometimes.

  4. That sounds like such a wonderful experience with your father. Like so many things in life, it’s hard at first when something that has such an impact doesn’t seem to have the same affect on others. But we at least can immerse ourselves in the wonder!

  5. I always take away something totally incidental to your post, I’m afraid. This time it strikes me that we do a bad job with awards. A science fair, or an art exhibition, award should reward children who are enthusiastic about the subject, not only the ones who do well. I guess that’s not possible when you declare that there will be only one, or three, or ten, prizes. We should just do away with awards. If there is money, we should give it equally to everyone who has the least bit of interest in what they are doing.

    • What you’ve described has been the trend in the US since the 80s. I have mixed feelings about that. Some of my own students at university said they KNEW when they were getting a “self-esteem” award. My teacher at the time gave everyone who participated something — I think a LOT of extra credit — as incentive to try. I think that was cool.

      • Being rewarded for making a genuine effort should not be taken as condescension. It also allows judges to think more deeply about each piece and person.

        I suppose that is also true of judges who think deeply about awards. But often it is just a matter of checklists. And then it is easy to game the system so that a lazy effort wins by being flashy.

        • I don’t think we’re going to agree here. In my experience, kids themselves can tell which projects are better than others. BUT the ONE thing I think matters (and we’ll agree) that when parents do the work so the kid will win (and it happens way too often) that’s very messed up. A few years later I did a clay model of the Tetons showing all the layers of rock and discussing how the Tetons came to be (because I was in love with Mt. Moran). I was awarded a prize by the National Association of Petroleum Engineers. I still have the project, their letter and the certificate. For me that was a lesson in not giving up. I didn’t get a prize from the science fair, however. 🙂

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