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Nerd know-how

Weird Science asks: Do grown-ups get geeked about science?

Sept. 13, 2007

The hippest nerds in town turned out Sept. 7 at the Turner Hall ballroom in Milwaukee for Weird Science III, an exposition of the latest in semi-scientific "research" that will never see the light of day in any official academic journal.

"What is this, exactly?" asked a woman - who had all the signs of being one of the tourists who seem to be on every downtown Milwaukee corner these days - as she approached the event's admission desk.

It's a science fair for grown-ups, explained the young man collecting $5 donations at the door. And it's probably not like any science fair you've ever seen, he added.

Apparently confused, the woman passed on the opportunity to see some of the most fearless projects in the annals of Milwaukee science history.

Heads poke inside camera

Greg Bird of Bay View was a little frightened, however, when he approached the interactive "Camera obscura" demonstration rigged up by Bay View's Joe Kirschling.

A camera obscura, Kirschling enthusiastically explained, is the most primitive type of camera. Elementary science students often make them using a shoebox with a pinhole in one side. With a light source on the subject being "photographed," the image of the subject is revealed - upside down - inside the box.

Kirschling constructed a life-sized version of a camera obscura for Weird Science III. To observe the phenomenon, the participant must insert his or her head inside the box while the subject stands, or most often dances, bathed in 4,000 watts of light emanating from a bank of lights Kirschling purchased for the experiment.

Bird, who describes himself as an itinerant inventor, was game. He stuck his head inside the box, but not for long. Anyone taller than 2 feet had to squat in order to assume the proper viewing position.

"It's painful," Bird reported. "I felt like I was in Guantanamo."

Kirschling's wife, D. Kirschling, claimed no responsibility for the project, even though it attracted a respectable crowd of willing participants who kept her husband busy.

"I had no input. Perhaps I was his gentle muse," she said. "I'm a science widow right now."

Smoking and operating at fair

Meanwhile, several Weird Science III visitors were getting "buzzed" at an exhibit concocted by Holly Emmer of Bay View.

Emmer's project posed a simple question: Does smoking really calm one's nerves? She said her experiment was inspired by an organic chemistry class she took this summer.

"They were talking about this, and I thought it was quite weird," she said.

It seems there is some research in the scientific community that indicates smoking raises dopamine levels in the body, theoretically helping smokers settle down. Emmer decided to test that theory by asking Weird Science III visitors to play a game of Operation.

The game requires players to pretend they are surgeons and remove various "organs" from a "body" on the game board. They must do so using a pair of tweezers and avoid hitting the sides of the "incision." The task is all the more difficult if the players' hands are shaky. If they bump the incision, they hear a loud and annoying buzz.

Emmer was systematically recording the number of buzzes registered by participants in three categories - nonsmokers, current smokers and former smokers - to see which group, on average, had the calmer hands.

"I'm not advocating smoking," she said. "I'm just playing with the data."

Deconstructing the break-up

Joey Zocher of Bay View focused her exhibit on energy - specifically, the energy dispelled during the breakup of a relationship.

Zocher said her objective was "to determine if the laws of thermodynamics can be used as scientific proof of moving on to live a more fulfilled life."

She said if her theories prove true, "quality of life would improve. We'd have more non-sacrificial friends."

Gravity as invention

The simplest exhibit - but not necessarily the most elegant - was submitted by Rory Sazama of Bay View. "The Rory Sazama Science Explosion: Evil Knievel Invents Gravity" was a cogent retrospective of the moment gravity was evidently brought into being by the motorcycle daredevil.

Sazama, in his narrative, summed it up this way: "Everything you thought you knew about gravity is (expletive) wrong."

Third and final experiment

Weird Science founder Brent Gohde said the Sept. 7 event is the last in the Weird Science series produced by his organization, Cedar Block. Proceeds from Weird Science III will be donated to the nonprofit Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee.

For information on other Cedar Block projects, visit

Nan Bialek can be reached at or (262) 446-6632.

And the winner is …

WINNER: Holly Emmer: "Does smoking really calm one's nerves?"

WINNING EXPERIMENT: Emmer found current smokers barely edged out nonsmokers in terms of average scores on the game Operation over the course of three trials each. Former smokers (those who had not smoked for two weeks or more) scored the worst - about 66 percent as well as current smokers.


• Kevin Barry and James Strassburg: (The Plastic-Coated Team of Destiny): "You Make the Experiment" Virtual Science Fun Lab!

• Bridget and Toby Cerqua: "Signal vs. noise: The Chatbot Turing test"

• Corey Dixon: "Which God produces the most rain or which religious ritual receives the richest rainfall?"

• Dave Hendrick: "Guy who got an ice cream headache and accidentally saved the world"

• Joe Kirschling: "Camera obscura"

• Anneke Lisberg and Mike Knop: "The Future: miniaturization vs. jar-brain hypotheses."

• Peter J. Morateck: "Chaotic Butterflies: Disproving the 'Butterfly Effect' (the actual effect and that Ashton Kutcher movie)"

• M. Neuman: "Elephant vs. Mouse"

• The Rory Sazama Science Explosion: "Evil Knievel invents gravity, June 1st, 1974"

• Chris Thompson: "Ferrofluid: Evil?"

• Matt Wild (defending Weird Science champion): "Language-based humor and its effect on the Parietal-Temporal-Occipital Complex, or: Can Weird Al improve your Boggle score?"

• Joey Zocher: "The Effects of the laws of thermodynamics"

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