Monday, February 28, 2011

Having a wonderrrful time....wissshhshh yur wr heeeeeeeeeer

Well, a special Commentary on Science is in order, because we live in State College, where special academic events often take temporary precedence, even to the extent that crowds obstruct the streets so you can't get to where you're going, such as, say, the library (you knew that State College is a university town, didn't you?).  Well, it really isn't just the library to which access was blocked off this time, but the ordinary streets---those near the many buildings temporary reconfigured for special events experiments.

In this arts & sciences university, for one long weekend in the summer, it's the arts for whose special events the town is reconfigured (it's called the Arts Festival).  And in the winter it's science's turn.  This event is fondly known, with what for a science event is a strangely religious sounding name, as State Patty's Day.  It's when people (often referred to as 'students') flock here from places as far away as, yes, Alabama (14 hour drive) to join the hands-on, direct-experience chemistry class.

You may think it unusual for people to go to such lengths for a science experience, but Penn State here is relentlessly insistent on unprecedented high (no pun intended) academic standards.  As one participant put it:  " I don’t know any other place that has this much fun.”

Experimenters, 2011;
photo from the Centre Daily Times
Yes, we did say 'chemistry' and, perhaps pedantically, State Patty's experiments are narrowly focused on just a single chemical, known as alcohol.  The hands-on aspect refers to moveable or upsettable objects such as mailboxes, light posts, cars, and other similar items, and the experiment is to show how one tiny molecule, in large quantities, can achieve high-energy muscle-enhancing effects.  Lower-energy hands-on experiences involve what is known in the vernacular as 'groping', and shows that this very same molecule also has powerful pheromonic effects, that is, is related to uncontrolled mating rituals.

Another part of the direct-experience aspect of State Patty's is the digestive role that the self-same molecule plays.  It is a highly reactive molecule that, when past a dosage threshold, triggers what (again we apologize for using technical language) is known as the Upchuck Reflex.  The UR is activated under almost any circumstance, that is, is not always controlled by the subject of the experiment.  So it doesn't always occur in the lab, but often out on the sidewalks, local residents' yards, and so on.

Additionally, and also under apparently little control, again abbreviated UR (some terminological confusion, we realize) is the Urinary Response.  Both URs occur anywhere and any time during the experimental phase.

Finally, because so many 'students' come here to take part in the State Patty's experiments, a large number of temporary employees (people normally employed in their towns around the state as police) are hired as lab monitors.  This reflects the fact that there is even yet another effect of this same tiny molecule:  it interacts with the Arrest Proclivity gene.  Those with the unfortunate genotype are assessed an additional lab fee (for some reason, re-named a 'fine' or 'bail').  Sometimes, the AP reaction is so extreme that a period of enforced, protective isolation is required.  For the victims' own good, you understand.

Now, Penn State is known for its ongoing 'adult' education programs, and the same applies to chemistry.  Because, though the course-sizes are smaller, the same kind of first-hand experiments go on weekly here.  For a modest tuition fee (paid to the local establishment in whose lab you do the experiment), you can replicate the experimental effect week, after week, after week.  In fact, you may have heard about us a year or so ago on This American Life--which slanderously and unfairly referred to Penn State and its never-ending chemistry lab as "a drinking school with a football problem"

So, from near or far, welcome to the State Patty's day chem class!

1 comment:

Jennifer said...

yup. well done, Ken. Wouldn't State Patty's be a good weekend for a trip up north to the nice quiet goat farm? Yes, I heard all about it on This American Life. Such publicity!!