# February 2010 Archives

## A Strong Hypothesis

"If _____[I do this] _____, then _____[this]_____ will happen."

Sound familiar? It should. This formulaic approach to making a statement about what you "think" will happen is the basis of most science fair projects and much scientific exploration.

Step by Step
You can see from the basic outline of the Scientific Method below that writing your hypothesis comes early in the process:
2. Do Background Research
3. Construct a Hypothesis
4. Test Your Hypothesis by Doing an Experiment
5. Analyze Your Data and Draw a Conclusion

Following the scientific method, we come up with a question that we want to answer, we do some initial research, and then before we set out to answer the question by performing an experiment and observing what happens, we first clearly identify what we "think" will happen.

We make an "educated guess."

We write a hypothesis.

We set out to prove or disprove the hypothesis.

What you "think" will happen, of course, should be based on your preliminary research and your understanding of the science and scientific principles involved in your proposed experiment or study. In other words, you don't simply "guess." You're not taking a shot in the dark. You're not pulling your statement out of thin air. Instead, you make an "educated guess" based on what you already know and what you have already learned from your research.

If you keep in mind the format of a well-constructed hypothesis, you should find that writing your hypothesis is not difficult to do. You'll also find that in order to write a solid hypothesis, you need to understand what your variables are for your project. It's all connected!

If I never water my plant, it will dry out and die.

That seems like an obvious statement, right? The above hypothesis is too simplistic for most middle- to upper-grade science projects, however. As you work on deciding what question you will explore, you should be looking for something for which the answer is not already obvious or already known (to you). When you write your hypothesis, it should be based on your "educated guess" not on known data. Similarly, the hypothesis should be written before you begin your experimental procedures—not after the fact.

Hypotheses Tips

Our staff scientists offer the following tips for thinking about and writing good hypotheses.

• The question comes first. Before you make a hypothesis, you have to clearly identify the question you are interested in studying.
• A hypothesis is a statement, not a question. Your hypothesis is not the scientific question in your project. The hypothesis is an educated, testable prediction about what will happen.
• Make it clear. A good hypothesis is written in clear and simple language. Reading your hypothesis should tell a teacher or judge exactly what you thought was going to happen when you started your project.
• Keep the variables in mind. A good hypothesis defines the variables in easy-to-measure terms, like who the participants are, what changes during the testing, and what the effect of the changes will be. (For more information about identifying variables, see: Variables in Your Science Fair Project.)
• Make sure your hypothesis is "testable." To prove or disprove your hypothesis, you need to be able to do an experiment and take measurements or make observations to see how two things (your variables) are related. You should also be able to repeat your experiment over and over again, if necessary.

To create a "testable" hypothesis make sure you have done all of these things:

• Thought about what experiments you will need to carry out to do the test.
• Identified the variables in the project.
• Included the independent and dependent variables in the hypothesis statement. (This helps ensure that your statement is specific enough.
• Do your research. You may find many studies similar to yours have already been conducted. What you learn from available research and data can help you shape your project and hypothesis.
• Don't bite off more than you can chew! Answering some scientific questions can involve more than one experiment, each with its own hypothesis. Make sure your hypothesis is a specific statement relating to a single experiment.

Putting it in Action

To help demonstrate the above principles and techniques for developing and writing solid, specific, and testable hypotheses, Sandra and Kristin, two of our staff scientists, offer the following good and bad examples.

 Good Hypothesis Poor Hypothesis When there is less oxygen in the water, rainbow trout suffer more lice. Kristin says: "This hypothesis is good because it is testable, simple, written as a statement, and establishes the participants (trout), variables (oxygen in water, and numbers of lice), and predicts effect (as oxygen levels go down, the numbers of lice go up)." Our universe is surrounded by another, larger universe, with which we can have absolutely no contact. Kristin says: "This statement may or may not be true, but it is not a scientific hypothesis. By its very nature, it is not testable. There are no observations that a scientist can make to tell whether or not the hypothesis is correct. This statement is speculation, not a hypothesis." Aphid-infected plants that are exposed to ladybugs will have fewer aphids after a week than aphid-infected plants which are left untreated. Sandra says: "This hypothesis gives a clear indication of what is to be tested (the ability of ladybugs to curb an aphid infestation), is a manageable size for a single experiment, mentions the independent variable (ladybugs) and the dependent variable (number of aphids), and predicts the effect (exposure to ladybugs reduces the number of aphids)." Ladybugs are a good natural pesticide for treating aphid infected plants. Sandra says: "This statement is not 'bite size.' Whether or not something is a 'good natural pesticide' is too vague for a science fair project. There is no clear indication of what will be measured to evaluate the prediction."

Hypotheses in History

Throughout history, scientists have posed hypotheses and then set out to prove or disprove them. Staff Scientist Dave reminds that scientific experiments become a dialogue between and among scientists and that hypotheses are rarely (if ever) "eternal." In other words, even a hypothesis that is proven true may be displaced by the next set of research on a similar topic, whether that research appears a month or a hundred years later.

A look at the work of Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein, more than 100 years apart, shows good hypothesis-writing in action.

As Dave explains, "A hypothesis is a possible explanation for something that is observed in nature. For example, it is a common observation that objects that are thrown into the air fall toward the earth. Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) put forth a hypothesis to explain this observation, which might be stated as 'objects with mass attract each other through a gravitational field.'"

Newton's hypothesis demonstrates the techniques for writing a good hypothesis: It is testable. It is simple. It is universal. It allows for predictions that will occur in new circumstances. It builds upon previously accumulated knowledge (e.g., Newton's work explained the observed orbits of the planets).

"As it turns out, despite its incredible explanatory power, Newton's hypothesis was wrong," says Dave. "Albert Einstein (1879-1955) provided a hypothesis that is closer to the truth, which can be stated as 'objects with mass cause space to bend.' This hypothesis discards the idea of a gravitational field and introduces the concept of space as bendable. Like Newton's hypothesis, the one offered by Einstein has all of the characteristics of a good hypothesis."

"Like all scientific ideas and explanations," says Dave, "hypotheses are all partial and temporary, lasting just until a better one comes along."

That's good news for scientists of all ages. There are always questions to answer and educated guesses to make!

## Science Mom Uncovers Science in Gelatin Dessert

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"Science Mom" Courtney Corda appeared live on View from the Bay today to demonstrate the way enzymes and proteins interact when you mix various fruits with gelatin. For Courtney, the kitchen is the perfect place for parents to get hands-on with kids about science and can be a wonderful way to explore chemistry and to relate scientific principles to everyday activities.

## Giving Yourself the Best Chance for Success

Yesterday on the Science Buddies Blog, we talked about examples from the science community where scientists are misbehaving. From distorted findings to misrepresentation of data, recent science news abounds with stories of poor behavior among professional scientists.

While projects can and do sometimes fail, sometimes end up quite different than planned, and sometimes present findings that don't match initial hypotheses, you can give yourself the best chance for success by planning ahead.

Checklist for a Smooth Science Project

The following suggestions are designed to help increase your chances for a successful science fair project and a positive science fair experience.

Routine Project "Checks" Can Help!
Teachers can help ensure that projects are not put off until the last minute by grading each step of the process as a separate assignment and putting in place routine "checkpoints" along the way. For helpful information about structuring science fair projects so that progress is evaluated at several key points or in timed intervals (e.g., weekly), see the Science Buddies Science Fair Schedule Worksheet.
• Allow plenty of time. Waiting until the last minute to begin a science fair project is a bad idea. Even for a project that can be conducted in a short amount of time, you need to ensure you have time to perform adequate research. You also need to build in enough time so that if the project doesn't work the first time, you have the chance to perform the necessary steps again.
• Once you've selected your project, plan ahead. Be sure to carefully read the entire project as well as the materials list so that you have a good sense of what steps you'll be taking.
• Gather all of the required materials as soon as possible so that you have everything on hand. Be sure and allow extra time if you are ordering materials. While substitutions are sometimes possible, don't substitute unless you have to—and unless you are certain the substitution is viable. In some cases, it is best to consider changing projects if you find that you can't get the required materials.
• Build time into the schedule to do a "dry run," in case there are unforeseen problems that can be addressed and corrected. An inexperienced cook probably wouldn't try a difficult recipe for the first time when preparing an important meal. Too many things can go wrong! A science project is no different. If your timeline allows it, doing a "trial run" of the project can help make the final project run more smoothly.
• Carefully follow instructions. Make sure that you follow your experimental procedure step by step to avoid missing something important that could make or break the project. You don't want to doom your results because you thought you needed to add "X" amount and added "y" or because you thought you needed to water your seeds on day "9" when it was really supposed to be on day "3."
• Be sure and record all of your steps in your lab notebook. If something goes wrong, having thorough notes can help you troubleshoot later. You will also need your notes to help prepare your final report.
• In the end, if the experiment did not work, and you can't fix it, be honest. Explain what you were hoping to observe and what you did observe. Explain what went wrong and what you feel might account for the results you saw. In other words, what are the possible causes for the project not working?

No matter what: do not fake data. Doing so is cheating and fraud—and it's against the spirit of the science fair.

It Happens

Even with careful planning, sometimes a project "goes wrong." It happens to scientists in every field. Sometimes, what went wrong can lead to new understanding, a new study, or even an unexpected discovery.

Stay tuned for some hands-on tips from our staff scientists that can help you troubleshoot what may be happening if your project isn't working.

## Putting Things in Perspective: Honest Science

In recent months, the news has been riddled with stories about professional scientists behaving poorly. In November 2009, a hacker pirated and circulated hundreds of email messages that spawned what has become known as "Climategate,", a scandal which allegedly involves the systematic and deliberate misrepresentation of statistical data regarding global warming. On the heels of Climategate, the British medical journal Lancet this month retracted a scientific paper because of fraudulent data regarding a link between immunizations and autism, and the American publication Science recently placed a paper under suspicion until it receives additional data. In other news, claims regarding the rapid melting of Himalayan glaciers have been exposed as "speculative."

These examples from the scientific world are disheartening. They point to a certain level of ethical demise where results that "fit" expected or desired findings are more important than the scientific quest for truth. In each case, faulty findings and misrepresentation of data have had significant impact upon popular thinking and even upon economic planning and spending.

For teachers and students, these examples can be confusing. If the goal of experimentation and research is to test hypotheses, to explain things, to uncover what happens under certain circumstances, and to answer questions that can lead to new knowledge and further discovery, then why lie about what the data shows?

Why Falsify?

Scientists are human. It is natural to want to be right. It can be hard to discover in subsequent trials that early findings were not as conclusive as initially believed. It can be hard to have to "qualify" data or suggest that something that seemed breakthrough early on maybe wasn't. It can hard to admit that something didn't turn out as expected.

The pressure to publish research and findings can contribute to these problems. In the rush to put out new materials, "it can be tempting to take short cuts, to rush data that isn't fully analyzed out the door, or, worst of all, to fabricate data," says Sandra Slutz, Science Buddies lead staff scientist.

Students face similar time constraints and pressure, and sometimes students think the only way to get a good grade on a science project is for the project to show exactly what they set out to show. It is important for teachers, students, parents, and those involved in science fairs to create an environment where solid research and testing, where adherence to the scientific method, and where a spirit of enthusiastic investigation is encouraged — even if a project, in the end, doesn't turn out as expected.

What students stand to learn from a science project that is conducted properly from start to finish far outweighs the importance of the data fitting the student's original hypothesis or supporting a known scientific principle.

An Honest Fair

For teachers, parents, and students, stories of scientific fraud, deception, and misrepresentation in the science community are warning signs and offer concrete examples for talking constructively about the value of science fair projects, about "why" we conduct scientific experiments and "why" schools hold science fairs.

A science fair project is supposed to be a learning experience, and teachers and parents need to work together to ensure that the experience is a positive one. Unfortunately, whether you are a middle school student or a professional scientist, experiments don't always turn out the way that you want! That doesn't, however, mean that you should alter your results, ignore something important that happened, or pretend that things turned out differently than they did. Ultimately, you may not prove your hypothesis. But that doesn't mean that your science fair project had no merit!

If at First You Don't Succeed

It happens. Experiments do not always turn out the way you expect or want. Sometimes, it is because something avoidable went wrong. You can learn from that and try again or alter your procedures in the future. Sometimes, it is hard to tell "what" went wrong. Sometimes, the data simply doesn't match up to expectations.

On the bright side, you can learn a lot from what goes wrong with a science project. Scientific discovery, in fact, is often a one-step-forward-two-steps-back process. If you love the area of science you've chosen for your project, spending time troubleshooting what may have happened and finding either a new approach or a revised method for working with the topic can turn into a viable project for your next science fair.

Donna Hardy, an Ask an Expert volunteer from Bio-Rad, recently reassured a student and parent that had run into problems with a cabbage cloning experiment, "With science projects, the important thing is the science and the experiment, not necessarily the results. Your son followed the protocol, set up the experiment, and obtained some results. Not necessarily the results he was expecting, but there were results."

Be open, too, to what "what went wrong" suggests. You might find that unexpected results can lead your research or project in an entirely new direction.

As Amber Hess, a Science Buddies volunteer and Expert in the Ask an Expert forums notes: "My best project came about from a mistake I made in a different project. That's also how the microwave oven was invented!"

Indeed, observations that led to the development of the microwave oven started with an unexpected mess—a chocolate bar that melted in the pocket of Percy Spencer, an American engineer working with magnetrons for Raytheon. The melted chocolate bar demonstrated a side-effect of the magnetrons: their heating properties. Spencer went on to experiment with popcorn and then eggs. It wasn't where he started, but it led to a discovery that changed the face of the modern kitchen!

Just imagine if Spencer hadn't realized the potential in re-directing his research based on the melted chocolate bar!

As Sandra notes, "Every scientist, from famous Nobel prize winners to laboratory technicians in their first job, have had an experiment fail. Actually they've had a lot of experiments fail. And that's okay! It is simply part of the process. What differentiates the good scientists from the rest is what they do next. The truly horrible ones make up results, the bad ones simply give up and move to a new question, and the good scientists figure out why the project failed, implement a solution, and try again... and again... and again until it works."

Stay tuned for a checklist of ways to get your science project started off on the right foot to give yourself the best chance for success. Check back, also, for more suggestions from our staff scientists and experts regarding what to do... when a project doesn't work and how to troubleshoot what may have gone wrong.

## You Know, the Whatchamacallit.

Over time, the words we use to describe principles, tendencies, and objects specific to one field of study or another become commonplace and universal. But those names and labels originated somewhere, often with a single scientist faced with a finding or discovery or problem and the question: What do I call it?

Do you know why a quark is a quark?

This post on the etymology of terms in Physics is a good read and full of interesting trivia. (Plus, you really have to love the great photo of a "Penguin Diagram.")

## Familial Fingerprints

There are two birthdays coming up in my house, two boys who thought it would be funny to wrap their births (quite symmetrically) right around Valentine's Day so that the middle of February will always be a conglomeration of treats and presents for them.

Despite the fact that they are siblings, they probably don't think too much (yet) about the ways in which that shows up in their appearance, likes, dislikes, and personalities. That several years separate them is maybe more noticeable to them than the ways in which strands of DNA mark them as unmistakably and indisputably related.

In browsing Project Ideas in the Science Buddies' library last week, I ran into a study on fingerprints that I find quite intriguing. We all know that fingerprints are unique. You may not have realized that the development of epidermal ridges that become fingerprints begins between weeks 10 and 24 of gestation. But you most likely know that no two sets of fingerprints are identical.

Similarly, while our fingerprints stretch as we age, they don't "change" in pattern or shape. The individual and permanent nature of fingerprints has, of course, led to them being used as a rapid source of visual identification and even to the exploration of fingerprint readers as a component of various forms of "biosecurity" or "biometric" security systems. (You may have even read science fiction books or mysteries in which biometric systems come into play.)

Because our fingerprints stem from our DNA, there is the possibility that the fingerprints of siblings will exhibit similar patterns when classified according to the three primary categories of fingerprint patterns: loops, arches, and whorls.

The "Are Fingerprint Patterns Inherited?" project idea offers a science fair project based on this premise. The project takes only a few days, so if you are curious about the patterns that can be detected from prints within a family and within classroom settings, grab an ink pad and some paper, and get to work.

While the project calls for a black ink pad, there's no reason you can't have some color-based fun with your prints. (Note: Black ink may make the prints easier to see and study. For a formal science fair project, stick with black.)

If you try it out, let us know what you discover! Do you have sets of twins in your family or classroom? Great! That adds an additional twist to the project and to the kinds of results you may see.

Interested in other project ideas like this one? Check our Genetics and Genomics interest area.

## Wringing Ringtones

Like most of us, I would be lost without my cell phone. It's not that I talk on the phone all the time. It's not even that I spend endless time sending texts. Cell phones have just become a seemingly indispensible part of our culture. At 3PM, I know that a certain cell phone will start ringing on the schoolyard where we hang out after school. I've got three wake-up alarms set for my mornings, every half hour, each with a different ringtone. I see cell phones on the teachers' desks. Like many of you, I use my phone to Tweet, to Facebook, and to snap and share photos.

While I use the phone all the time, the phone doesn't really ring all that often. When a call does come in, chances are that it's one I need to take... it's someone that needs to reach me. Which brings us to the "ring"... in an age of customization and digitization, ringtones are highly personal things.

You might have a cool skin for your phone. You might have rubber bumpers for your edges. You might protect your touch screen with a clear overlay. You might have a cool case. You might have custom wallpaper for your display. There are many ways to customize your phone to fit your own personality.

But it goes without saying that your ringtone will be noticed.

(You know what you think when you hear a ho-hum, status quo, oh-so-not-original ringtone, right? One of the canned tones that every user of this or that network seems to have? What ringtone does your mom use? What ringtone does your teacher or colleague use? Have you ever noticed?)

Using What you Have

I've got a pretty big digital music collection, and I spend my share of time on the Pandora and iTunes sites setting up playlists, finding new tracks, and otherwise creating the musical backdrop that underwrites my days. Oddly enough, however, I have never spent time searching for (and buying) ringtones. (Okay, I really don't want to buy ringtones even if they do cost less than a bag of chips or a cup of coffee, and I am really not a fan of the thousand-and-one gimmicky feeling ringtone sites.)

When I got my current phone, however, it came with a really small set of canned choices, none of which I liked. Unwilling to settle on any of the ones available, I did some poking around to see if I could use a song I already own as a ringtone for my phone. Bingo!

An Online Interface

While I've got a good bit of experience using Audacity for audio recording, I was happy to find an easy-to-use and efficient online resource for selecting a portion of a song and saving it as an MP3 for use on my phone. A simple enough process: upload the file, find the segment you want, export it as an MP3, download it, email it to your MMS-enabled phone. Voila!

I set up two ringtones, tagging one for general calls and one for work-related calls. Unfortunately, while it was created from a favorite song, not all songs are suited for ringtones. The one I'd set up as my "work-related" ringtone simply wasn't loud enough to be heard over the general buzz of the day. Repeatedly, I missed calls simply because I didn't hear the phone ring, even with the volume all the way up.

This week, I decided I'd missed one call too many calls, and so I took a few minutes and headed back out to create something louder, something likeable but impossible to miss, something I could live with. In my library, I found the perfect upbeat tune, something those of you with an affinity for Shrek would immediately recognize.

I had the perfect song, and yet as I went through the steps for converting the file, I ran into the one "gotcha" that comes into play when you make your own ringtones.

Size matters.

How Small Can You Go?

Each phone will have a different size limitation for ringtones. (To find out yours, check your user's manual or do an online search for the "maximum ringtone size" for your phone.) You might, for example, find that your phone can only use a ringtone that is less than 200K. To put that in perspective, a single minute of a CD-quality song is approximately 10 megabytes (MB)!

In practical terms, this means you have to choose between quality and quantity. You might be able to get a few more seconds of ringtone in at a lower quality. But, what kind of variation in quality will you see as you lower the bitrate (Kbit/sec)? The slider on the application I used goes all the way from a high of 320 Kbit/sec to a low of 32 Kbit/sec. That's obviously a huge range. As you might expect, where your ringtone falls in that range can have a dramatic impact on the quality of sound.

The Science of Compression

There's a great short-term project in the Science Buddies' library of Project Ideas that can help reveal the ways in which compression, MP3 algorithms, and bitrate come into play. How low is too low? Does the threshold change depending on the type or genre of song? Can you get by with something even lower for a ringtone?

To get started sampling your own tracks, mixing your own ringtones, and finding your own levels of acceptable degradation, take a look at this project:

Favorite Sound

## Going for the Gold: The Science of Winter Sports

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The 2010 Winter Olympics will be held in Vancouver February 12-28. With a list of sporting events that includes Alpine Skiing, Bobsleigh, Figure Skating, Freestyle Skiing, Ice Hockey, Luge, Skeleton, Ski Jumping, Snowboard, and Speed Skating, you know the snow and ice will be flying as athletes dazzle audiences and challenge the laws of physics with various rotations, jumps, loops, spins, twists, and turns.

Even from the couch, I can't pinpoint a perfect triple lutz a crisp Alley Oop or a flawless Backside 720. And the thought of hurtling down the Whistler track at speeds nearing 135 km/m on my stomach (skeleton) or on my back (luge) or hunkered down in a bobsleigh makes my head spin. This doesn't mean, of course, that I can't marvel at successfully landed moves and groan with the rest of the viewing audience when something goes wrong.

I'll be watching. And in between events, I'll be thinking a bit about sports science, about balance and dizziness and equilibrium, about speed and wind and friction, and about the many ways in which differences in equipment can be a determining factor.

A Balancing Act

While success in many winter sports boils down to gathering and maintaining and not disrupting accumulated "speed," many of these sports also require a good grip on balance. Torquing too far one way or another can send even the most seasoned athlete tumbling. For a look at what's going on, check out these Science Buddies science project ideas:

A Wheel in Motion...

Dive a bit deeper into issues that effect speed and accuracy in these project ideas:

On and Off the Ice

The following abbreviated project ideas offer concepts related to winter sports that can be expanded and crafted to create a unique and individual science fair project or study. As the Olympic games get underway, spending time as a class or group talking about the kinds of questions raised in these project ideas encourages creative and scientific collaborative thinking and problem-solving.

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What will you explore for your science project this year? What is your favorite classroom science activity? Email us a short (one to three sentences) summary of your science project or teaching tip. You might end up featured in an upcoming Science Buddies newsletter!

### Science Buddies Kits

Science Buddies' convenient project kits contain everything you need to perform one of our Project Ideas—all in one box!

### Help With Your Science Project

The following popular posts are designed to help students at critical stages of the science project process.

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