TITLE: MAD Scientist Network

ACCESS: http://pharmdec.wustl.edu/YSP/MAD.SCI/MAD.SCI.html. For more information contact Joe Simplson, simpson@npg.wustl.edu or Lynn Bry, lynn@pharmdec.wustl.edu

"Science is good for you" begins the web page for the MAD Scientist Network, an interactive web site dedicated to answering questions in all areas of science. Answers to questions like: If you write on a floppy disk (with your CPU), is it heavier? Why do only males have Adam's apples? What about the Bible's rib story and the actual number of male and female ribs? (Answers at the end!).

The MAD Scientist Network is a project conducted under the auspices of the Saint Louis Science Education Network, which in turn is a branch of the Young Scientist Program which was founded in 1991 with funds from the Washington University Medical School Alumni Association.

Online since September 1995, the MAD Scientist Network is staffed by "scientists actively engaged in science education and research at institutions around the world." When I visited the site on April 18 there were over 200 members listed ready to answer your questions. All levels of expertise are represented. Over half of the participants are either PhDs, MDs, or scientists on staff at research or educational institutions. About a quarter of the participants are graduate students and the remaining quarter a mix of high school teachers and others of indeterminate qualifications, my favorite being "Collective Enigma Elucidator." While most of the participants are from the United States, there are also members from the United Kingdom, Australia, Chile, Spain, Israel, Japan and France.

The average turnaround time for a question to be answered is stated to be seven to ten days, however, I saw some answers posted within hours. Questions are submitted by filling out a short form which is transmitted to the web site's administrators. The question is then forwarded from them to one of the members for an answer.

Some answers seem well thought out and written, others well written but not so well thought out. For example, a high school student had written that she wanted to know how Amedeo Avogadro, a nineteenth century Italian physicist, determined Avogadro's Number. Avogadro's Number, simply put, is the number of molecules of a substance within a given amount of that substance, called a mole. One mole of a substance has "Avogadro's" number of molecules, which is equal to 6.022 x 10^23. Of course, the student didn't ask that but the response from an "Organic Synthesist" went on for several sentences giving a rather complicated definition. Then he perfunctorily describes one way Avogadro's number can be determined and admits that "As to how (or even whether) Avogadro actually made the determination, beats me," (he didn't, it was named after him). The high school student would have been better served looking in an encyclopedia.

Most answers are pretty good attempts to present factual data. Another person wrote in and wanted to know how much cat urine it would take to kill a six foot tall evergreen tree. Apparently, he/she was being taken to court by the neighbors for their kitty's lethal discharges. The answer, by a grad student in horticulture, was honest about being uncertain of the amount needed. However, he went on to give a pretty good explanation of how urine, being high in soluble salts, could be collecting in the soil around the evergreen's roots and could, in fact, be killing the tree. He ends his answer with a recommendation for the questioner to control his cat. A typical response from a non-cat owner.

Overall the MAD Scientist Network is a well intentioned system for answering science questions that meet certain criteria. They won't answer questions involving the diagnosis or treatment of an individual or animal. They also won't entertain questions marginally related to science or of a social nature, like "should evolution be taught in schools" or "should drugs be legal?" While using the MAD Scientist Network can be fun and often accurate, you will always have to be a little suspect of the answers. There are similar interactive web sites on the net, such as Ask an Immunologist at http://glamdring.ucsd.edu/others/aai/askAAI.html, Ask Dr. Neutrino (for physics), at http://137.222.30.23/dr/ask.html, and Ask Dr. Math at http://forum.swathmore.edu/dr.math/dr-math.html.

So, is a floppy disk heavier after being written to? No, you are only changing the magnetism of the electrons on the disk, not adding mass to it. Do only men have Adam's apples? Women have them to, it is the larynx, but in men it become's enlarged after puberty for unknown reasons. Finally, the bible's rib story. The bible doesn't actually state that Adam gives up a rib, just that Eve is created from one of Adam's ribs. Males and females both have the same number of ribs, twelve.

Jim Rible
Coordinator of Electronic Resources/Science Librarian
Southern Oregon State College Library
Ashland, Oregon 97520
rible@wpo.sosc.osshe.edu


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