Dan G. and the Tectonic Soup

I was at work today executing a program that had, as a major component, hourly eruptions of a quite large baking soda and vinegar volcano.  (I swear I don’t make these things up.  Well, I don’t make most of them up.  I’m not making this one up.)  I was the volcano technician, decked out in a lab coat, safety goggles and what I refer to as the “giant astronaut gloves” – three sizes too big for my hands and made of slightly tacky black vinyl. I was assisting Miss Frizzle (yes, the one from the children’s book series), played by a college-age cosplayer who makes appearances in the character’s signature frizzy red wig and theme-printed dresses.  We were a sight to behold.

At the start of each eruption Miss Frizzle would produce, from under our volcano-bearing A/V cart, a globe with a wedge cut out of it, thus displaying the layers of the earth.  “Alright class,” she began, and then gave the shortest, most concise explanation of where the magma is in relation to the humans and how it comes out in the form of lava.  When that was done we asked for volunteers to place tiny rubber dinosaurs around the volcano, and then on cue I poured the vinegar into the baking soda-laden cone and everyone watched in a mix of horror and excitement as it wiped out the dinosaurs.

After the third rendition of this, as the Frizz and I were wheeling the volcano back into the prop room, I asked her what she had done to prepare for the lesson.  Her information on layers of the earth was quite accurate, as far as I could tell, and she was handling audience questions without flinching.  She confessed that she was merely a nerd, and that ninth grade earth science had just stuck with her.  I nodded, impressed, and then quickly did the math that revealed that, as a college kid, ninth grade earth science had been a lot more recent for her than it had been for me.  But, in fact, one of the few memories that is still with me from that time had to do with magma, lava, and the movement of the tectonic plates.

There was this kid in my earth science class, Dan G., who was also the kind of person who would describe himself as a nerd.  He was good at all the labs and the whole class, rather than teasing, couldn’t help but like him because he was always so cheerful and excited to be learning.  When we covered the lesson on volcanos Dan insisted that the movement of the crust of the earth was like boiling a pot of soup, with the vegetables and the foam moving in the same manner as the tectonic plates. For the first time our faith in Dan wavered.  Comparing the earth to a pot of soup was pure crazy talk.  But, he went on to do his whole end-of-year project on this concept, even bringing in a hot plate and a glass pot for us to watch the circulating broth.  I must confess, I did not see the similarity.  Most of us didn’t.  And I put the experiment out of my head for twenty years.

Fast forward to three weeks ago.  I was sitting at my desk googling formulas for maximum baking soda and vinegar reaction.  Some said add dish soap.  Some said add glycerine.  Some were “purist” and insisted on only the two classic ingredients.  And then I stumbled across one of those mom blogs that contained, in great detail, a secondary experiment to pair with your volcanic eruption that involved watching soup boil as an example of the way volcanos are made.  I leaped out of my seat!  Here it was, on the internet, from a reasonably reputable source, the final validation that Dan G. had not been talking crazy talk all those years ago!  There was real science to back up the idea that convection, which is what you are looking at when the cold things go to the bottom and the hot things go to the top, is the same sort of motion as the way the tectonic plates move around on the magma.  (This is not the same link I found but it covers the same concept and has a great experiment for the same age group we were doing the volcano with.)

So, it seems that Dan G. was just ahead of his time with his soup experiment, and extra innovative, as we didn’t have the internet to search these things back then.  I’d like to think that he’s out there somewhere getting credit for this, or at least being able to sit back proudly and say, “yep, I DID think of that first.”

As for Miss Frizzle and the volcano, I decided to keep quiet about the soup concept and stick to letting the kids marvel over the bubbles washing their dinosaurs away.




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