As a child, I dreamt that I was searching for the beginning of the universe, not the theoretical beginning but a physical hem in space. It was an urgent quest and, though I was traveling at fantastic speeds, I became desperately sure that I could never travel fast enough. I tried. Faster and faster I went, until I woke up, drenched in sweat, trembling in a tangle of bedclothes. That was the result of my first real science class, and the closest I ever came to studying astrophysics (though, for a time, I did claim this discipline as a professional ambition). I didn't have a very pragmatic approach to science at the time; I couldn't focus on one problem for very long. For me, any question ultimately led to the big question, which was better left to better minds. So there are no simplistic foaming volcanoes or fastidious yet unsurprising bean-sprout observations in my past; if there had been, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair 2001 might have come as quite a shock.
"The Effects of Alternative Medicines on Germinal Vesicle Breakdown in Cumulus Cell Enclosed Murine Oocytes and Embryonic Blastocyst Development in Murine Embryos" states a sign glibly over Booth ME010 in the Medicine and Health portion of the sprawling San Jose McEnery Convention Center. Seventeen-year-old Emily E. Rosene of Glendale, Wisc., smiles at me warmly, eager to share her findings.
"What's an oocyte, and how do you pronounce it?" I ask wanly.
Unaffected by the ignorance of the query (a class of fourth-graders had just passed through), Rosene explains that oocytes are eggs, in this case flea eggs.
I fare no better in the Zoology section, where 15-year-old Alvin Wong of Manhasset, N.Y., is presenting his research on "The Effect of Fluoxetine Hydrochloride on the Learning and Memory of Dugesia tigriria." (Some sort of flatworm, from what I can tell.)
Or in Earth and Space Science, where 13-year-old Mkrtich Grigor Soghomonyan of Yerevan, Armenia, is studying "Radial Velocity-Galactic Longitude Distribution of Molecular Clouds of the Milky Way."
Not to mention "Brassica juncea as a Biofumigant II: Effect of Planting Date on Glucosinolates Production & Effect of Fumigation on Bacterial and Fungal Communities" as presented, over in Botany, by 16-year-old Heather Nicole Hannahan of Clarkrange, Tenn.
There are more than 1,200 competitors from 40 countries represented at Intel's ISEF 2001, and attending it is a little like being on the inhabited Mars of science fiction. Visitors -- students, researchers, corporate scouts, and science enthusiasts -- stroll through the aisles, talking shop and sharing information in a language that is unique to science.
In Chemistry, at the booth of 19-year-old Woo-Young Hur of San Jose, a woman looks over his experiments on the simply stated "Protective, Transparent Layer for Goggles and Glasses."
"Is this meant to be used for both glass and plastic lenses?" asks the woman.
Hur, looking a bit uncomfortable in his overlarge suit, nods.
"But doesn't toluene dissolve most plastics?" asks the woman with a knowing snicker.
"Well, yes," says Hur, "but that is why I increased the percentage of naphtha. It seems to work very well. Toluene is more transparent, but I am still contending with ripples that cause refractions on the lenses. I am working on an applicator that will create a more smooth finish for commercial use."
"Have you applied for a patent?" asks the woman, sounding satisfied. (It is a predictable question given that over 10 percent of the high school students in attendance have patents pending.)
"Not yet," says Hur. The woman, who is without a badge to designate her as judge, teacher, or press, smiles and wishes him luck. Hur smiles and prepares to explain the chemical properties of the rubber compound Goop for my benefit, but I want to know ... why?
"My father is a house painter," says Hur. "Every night, I watch him trying to clean his goggles. Trying to scrape off the paint. I hope he can spread this on in the morning and peel it off at night and throw it away. No scraping."
This is Hur's first science project, and likely to be his last (he plans on studying business), but it got him all the way to ISEF, which is no small feat given the number of competitions he had to win to get here.
"This is very good for me," says Hur, adjusting the large black eyeglasses that play foil to his insubordinate hair. "Before I started this project I could not speak English well. I am learning to present myself."
If Hur resembles my archaic notion of a boy scientist, the reality of the young and science-loving is often very different. In Behavioral and Social Sciences, for example, 16-year-old twins Megan Marjorie Hicks and Rachel Renae Hicks stand under a blinking black and yellow marquee that says "Twin Telepathy: It Takes Two -- Phase II." With their long blond hair flowing perfectly over their black suit jackets (accented by yellow shirts, of course), the budding high school sophomores from Champlin, Minn., present their data on mental communication to a growing crowd. To the spectators' delight, the girls frequently speak in unison and finish each other's sentences, pausing between questions to pose, back to back, for photographs like seasoned spokesmodels.
When asked about their future plans, they respond in harmony, "We're going to MIT, to become genetic engineers." They flash their pearly whites and flourish for the camera.
To these teens, science is sleek and sexy; it offers the sort of cachet once reserved for star quarterbacks and successful lawyers. And amid all the talk of patents and scholarships, there is flirtation. Tall boys with clear complexions and slicked-back hair relax around each other's displays, exchanging ideas and scanning the female participants. Over the course of six days, the boys and girls have exchanged school pins, affixing them to their badges as further evidence of their charm, intellect, and charisma. Some of the youths hook up, cuddling under their graphs and charts, kissing in the lobby. (I overhear a young girl demand that her new beau stop making fun of her project.)
Seventeen-year-old Ryan Patterson of Grand Junction, Colo., has little time for himself as a growing crowd of judges makes clear he will be taking home a $50,000 scholarship. The slender, blond boy with the chiseled jaw line and large blue eyes has invented the "Sign Translator," a modified golfing glove that relays American Sign Language to a hand-held screen. He is elegant and calm as he poses for photos, spelling out his name for the throng. Rumor has it that Patterson's love of science started with an extension cord he requested from his mother when he was 2. By the time he was 5, he had rewired the house. His glove may be an economical answer to teaching deaf and mute students in the classroom (by eliminating the need for translators), as well as making their daily lives easier. An Intel executive gives him a business card and tells him to stay in touch, while a small clutch of smitten girls looks on from across the aisle.
"He's brilliant," says the executive. "Really brilliant."
One of the girls agrees.
And what of the science geeks of my memory?
"I like science," says Hur, "but I like music better."