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Millikan's Maid in Fermi Format, Repercussions from Dhmo, Space Boosters and Sugar Cubes, an Experience with Eyelashes

by K. M. REESE
April 19, 2004 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 82, Issue 16



Millikan's maid in Fermi format

D. Richard Sears writes from Sierra Vista, Ariz., that he first heard the story about Robert A. Millikan's maid (C&EN, March 15, page 56) some 40 years ago, but with a slight twist. The maid worked for Enrico Fermi. She was riding the train from Chicago to Albuquerque, N.M., to rejoin the Fermi family in Los Alamos and had been bragging to a fellow passenger about her learned employer. The passenger remarked that "it must be convenient to have a doctor for an employer."


Repercussions from DHMO

The tale of dihydrogen monoxide (C&EN, March 29, page 64) stimulated readers including Stan Barkin of Arlington, Va., and Kathy Gorski of Hampden, Maine.

Barkin recalls a Washington Post account of how a high school student, age 14, wrote a paper about the dangerous properties of DHMO. It appeared in 1997. The student wrote, among other things, that DHMO in gaseous form can cause severe burns, is a major component of acid rain, and cannot be completely withdrawn on pain of certain death. Barkin says 86% of the student's classmates voted to ban DHMO because it caused too many deaths.

Gorski was drawn to the story "because of my happy familiarity with," the subject of the first homework assignment she gives her eighth-grade science class every year. Gorski says she prints out the FAQs (frequently asked questions) from the website and asks her students to prepare a position statement about what they have read.

"They may write to a government representative if they wish. Without fail, they come in armed with their letters to governors, senators, and the President. They are piqued with anger and demand to know how a substance so prevalent in our environment can be allowed to still be freely available. Their questions are myriad, and they are insistent that I explain to them. I then make some offhand remark about how it can't be that bad--it's all around us right now in the classroom. ... we decode the name and come up with H2O. They are indignant that I have set them up!

"We reread the facts. We discover that they are all true statements, but the website has put a spin on the words that makes this ... essential molecule sound worse than Frankenstein's monster. I give them the site's URL [uniform resource locator] and tell them to go dig deeper (most do). I conclude this lesson in science literacy by pointing out that although science may not be their favorite subject, they are obligated to understand it by virtue of the world we live in.

"I have found that even the most uninterested student comes to class at least a little more involved and willing to pursue an understanding of science."


Space boosters and sugar cubes

Scott Bloomer of St. Paul, Minn., says the story about the diameter of space shuttle boosters reflecting the U.S. standard railroad gauge (C&EN, March 29, page 64) reminds him of an article he read "while pursuing my education in Sweden." The article, he reports, said that Swedish sugar cubes are sized to fit into a certain sized box, which is sized to fit into a certain sized carton, which is sized to fit onto pallets, which are sized to fit into railcars.


An experience with eyelashes

The story about eyebrows (C&EN, March 15, page 56) said, "When eyebrows [and eyelashes] are shaved off or plucked, they always grow back to their original length." This sentence led T. Don Luckey of Lawrence, Kan., to write that both his eyes have been subjected to various surgeries and medications because of glaucoma. By two years after his most recent episode, in which complications from a new lens made it necessary to place one drop per day of Lumigan (0.03 mg benzalkonium Cl) in the left eye only, his left eyelashes had grown to the point that the eye would not open fully. So his daughter pruned the left eyelashes. For the past two years, she has routinely cut off about 0.25 inch each month, which amounts to a growth rate of 1.5 inch per year. Luckey writes, "Maybe that is a record! My right eyelashes have never been cut."


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