In which there is yet another NaNoWriMo Chapter: crazy stuff

I'm really having fun with writing this year. Last year was pure torment, and my only joy in the project was when I got to kill off ALL my characters at the end of November 2009.

This year, though, I am enjoying all the silliness that apparently exists in my little town of Skookum.

I'm still looking for more characters, by the way. More girls and women, I think. I've got a chapter in the works, an interview with the fabulous and beloved Lulu Rubidoux, and also a really fun one about the town librarian and her unusual, um, collection. But I want more, more more! Leave your ideas in the comments, okay?

September 17th, 2010 Skookum Tribune issue number whatever, volume whatever

Meet: The Mad Scientists

By Annabeth Spencer

Greg, Reg, Tom, Cyril and Dan didn’t want to be called “The Mad Scientists.”

“It sounds so…you know, so Boris Karloff,” Danny says. “I wanted us to be called something like “Pilchuck Engineering Research and Development Club.” And the other guys had other ideas. But nothing really stuck. And when we were filling out the paperwork to get money from the Associated Student Body, we were in a huge hurry, and we just left that part blank, and figured we’d fill it in later, but then we hit the deadline so we submitted it...and when they asked Lulu Rubidoux in the office which group we were, I guess she just said the name that everybody called us anyhow: Mad Scientists.

“These days, we’ve kind of embraced the name, though,” Cyril says, from his vantage point above the others, who are clanking away on a four-wheeled contraption the size of a draft horse. Cyril is installing lights onto the roof of the gadget, and periodically calls out numbers to Tom, who is operating a bank of switches on the dashboard of the gadget.

The boys were identified by the school as the Mad Scientists Club for two years, until somebody noticed the name of their civilian advisor.

Tom continues the story: “There was a problem with Edsel [Rabin] being on campus to advise us, because of that thing with the pot plants a few years ago. The school board got all crazy, and said that they couldn’t allow us to be advised by a criminal, even though what we were working on had nothing to do with what he was arrested for. Well, it usually didn’t have anything to do with it, anyhow,” he quickly amends, after the boys around him snort quietly. “But by that time, we were deeply involved with a project, getting it ready to go to the state Science Fair. We could still enter the fair if we weren’t a school club, but we couldn’t get school money to pay for the entry fee and transportation costs. So our moms got together and decided to sell brownies outside the Food 4 Less market to help us raise money…yeah, that raised a few eyebrows, you know, brownies, given the circumstances. But people bought those brownies like crazy, and they made enough to send us to State, and then to Regionals when we cleaned up at State. We got cut at the Regional level, though, and then it was back to the drawing board for us for another year.”

Now Danny picks up the narrative again. “We need Edsel because he has all these crazy, insane ideas. Most people at the local science fairs, they make the same old rocket ships and solar stoves and stuff, every year. And then when you get to the State level and beyond, a lot of kids are working with, like, world-class medical labs or something. We don’t have the financial backing to build something really amazingly high-quality, so if we want to do well at the national level, we need to bring something completely new, completely out-of-the-box, something so different that nobody else would ever think of doing it.

“Teachers don’t have those kind of ideas, but Edsel does. This year, we made it to Nationals just because nobody at Regionals could believe that we’d built a photosynthesizing hat.”

A photosynthesizing hat?

The boys grin, and point out a wall covered with paper diagrams and figures that look like a steampunked horticultural exhibit.

“Edsel always wants us to use stuff that we have a lot of and don’t want, to make something we need and don’t have enough of,” explains Danny.

“So, for every project, before we have even a vague idea of what we want to do, we make a gigantic list of stuff that the world has too much of. And then we put all that stuff on notecards, you know: one thing on each card. Like a card might say, “carbon dioxide” and another card might say, “broken glass” and another one says “dog poop.” Then we make another list of stuff we want, like “faster computers” and “clean water” and “pesticide-free food” and “world peace.” And we put all that stuff on notecards, too.

Then we go over to Edsel’s, um, place. And we sit around there for, like, hours, dealing out the cards in random pairs, and brainstorming what we could do with them. Like, how would you make world peace from dog poop, I’m not sure. But the rules are that we have to take every random pair seriously, because it could be the next great, crazy idea. That’s how we came up with the photosynthesizing hat.”

Reg explains the project with great sweeping motions of his arms against the diagrams on the wall. “One of the things my mom always says is that the world is too full of dandelions, so last year we put dandelions on the list. And then we paired up the word “dandelions” with the card that said “warm ears.” Because Edsel is always complaining that he’s cold in winter, even with a million warm coats and stuff. So then we got to thinking about those two things, and how we could use dandelions to make warm ears.

“We spent a lot of time at first thinking about burning dandelions, about crushing the stems and flowers to make a cellulose paste that we could burn, and stuff like that. But that was really a dead end. Dandelions are full of watery sap that doesn’t burn very well, and when you dry out dandelion leaves and flowers, there isn’t much left, mostly just dust. Then we were thinking maybe some kind of fermentation process, because Edsel, um, knows about that stuff. But the Science Fair rules are pretty strict about alcohol production, so we abandoned that. Then one day we were, um, sitting around at Edsel’s place, and then Edsel stood up and hollered “photosynthesis!” which didn’t make sense at the time because we were talking about baseball, but then we figured out that photosynthesis was a way that dandelions make energy to fuel the plant, and if we could tap that energy, maybe we convert the energy to heat.”

The diagrams show a complicated process, involving dandelion plants growing on a snug cap made of corn fibers felted together with sheep wool (“My sister raised two sheep for 4-H, so it was pretty easy to get some wool,” explains Dan). Once the plants sprout, the roots are woven together in a middle layer, which contains more wool and corn fiber. The hat is soaked in water twice per week (unless worn in the rain), and allowed to sit outdoors during any daylight hours that the user isn’t wearing it.

“Combined energy from the active layers of live plant and the insulating layers of the wool creates a hat that creates and retains significantly more heat than an ordinary wool or synthetic hat,” according to the documentation on the posters.

A crazy idea, certainly. But also certainly an idea that shows the trademark out-of-the-box creativity of these Mad Scientists…an idea that took them all the way to the National Science Fair in May of this year. There, the boys saw a lot of science, and talked to a lot of other young scientists. Though they didn’t make it to the final round at Nationals, they consider the trip a success.

“We learned a lot about what the judges are looking for in each category. It’s different at the top levels than it is locally,” Danny explains. “Our project was a potential winner, but our presentation needed to look much more high-tech. The tech projects really catch the eyes of the judges, so that’s where we’ll focus our energies for the 2011 competitions.

And in 2011, the Mad Scientists predict that the judges—and the world—will sit up and notice their project above and beyond any other project at the event. They don’t want to go into too many details yet, they said, because they don’t want to give away their idea to any other competitors.

But they did agree to disclose the words written on the two note cards that inspired the four-wheeled object in their workshop:

“Fat bottoms” and “cheap transportation.”

The Mad Scientists meet at least three times weekly during the school year, in the workshop space donated by Tom Dent’s dad, behind the main office of Dent’s Car Repair. Tom’s parents will accept donations of money and materials for use by the boys in their projects at the car repair office during normal business hours. Edsel Rabin is no longer able to accept cash contributions for his efforts with the boys, following the most recent unfortunate incident involving the IRS and the police dog at the Food 4 Less Market, but he is still able to take donations of materials and personal checks. He has also promised to stay home while the Mad Scientists travel with their invention to the local and larger science fairs.

The 2011 National Science and Engineering Fair will be held in Emporia, Kansas, over the Memorial Day Weekend. If they qualify for this event, the boys intend to fly themselves and their science project, accompanied by at least two chaperones, to Kansas during the week before the event, in order to test the project in a climate unlike the damp sea-level environment where it has been developed. They hope that necessary changes to the design to account for these changes can be made with locally-available materials in Emporia.

We at the Skookum Tribune wish the Mad Scientists the very best of luck with their scientific endeavors at the fair, and elsewhere in the world.


  1. Totally enjoyable read, Aarene. :D I love your way with words and your creativity here. Don't kill off your characters in this one (please). I think they could show up in subsequent novels.

  2. This is the best chapter yet!

    wv: unventop - "See, man, it's like an oven, and it's like a stovetop, but it's not either one, it's, like, waaay better."

  3. Been wanting to offer a character, but have been flat out for several weeks!
    How about: Christopher Peter O'Brien, quirky Irish farrier. Drinks very strong tea, WITH MILK. Mostly deaf, from years of pounding the anvil, with large calloused hands and graying hair tucked under his jaunty wool driving cap.
    Peter has a magic way with hroses, knowing just how much pressure he can put on one to accomplish the task at hand, but he loves them all.
    With women, there is this same universal love, however, he usually pushes much too far, and, despite his Irish charm, rarely gets the desired result.

  4. Thanks again for sharing your nanowrimo greatness with us, Aarene. Mucho funitudinosity.

    Since you're looking for female characters, why not have your intrepid reporter do a piece on the book group at the local library? They will be mostly women, and opinionated, and close-knit. They will have interesting books to talk about and argue over, and the books will always lead to talking about other things that can seem totally unrelated. They can laugh and/or complain about how sometimes it seems like they talk about everything but the book--and at least one of them can then point out that hey, that's the beauty of reading and talking about what you read: it makes you think about all kinds of other things.

    It should fit in with the tone of the other chapters you've shared, since they'll be quirky and cantankerous and just the right amount of being deep at the same time.

    What do you think?


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