Home again, for the scientific method

I have blogged about how the scientific method can be applied to everyday events before but here’s another example and one with echoes of how Nobel Prizes are won.

The scientific method starts with an observation followed by the formulation of a hypothesis to test that observation. This is the standard wisdom anyway, but it missis out a key ingredient and that’s curiosity. Sometimes it’s the most banal everyday observations that trigger an inner curiosity that leads to great discoveries.

Before I get too carried away, let me start with an everyday story, but one that nevertheless illustrates how the scientific method can be used, almost subconsciously, in everyday life.

One morning I sat in front of the TV eating my cornflakes when I noticed a little pool of water on the TV-stand. My first instinct was to look up at the ceiling to see if there was a leak but that was sound and dry. Odd, I thought I wonder where the water’s coming from? 

Rejecting the thought of a poltergeist, I struggled to form a plausible hypothesis. The TV-stand was too far away from the window for it to be condensation and there were no pipes anywhere nearby that might have sprung a leak. I wondered if it was indeed water, or perhaps something else? I tasted it. Thankfully it was just plain old water (perhaps I hadn’t thought that one through).

In an effort to solve the mystery, one night before bed I strategically placed strips of tissue paper along the TV-stand . The theory was that wet tissue would help me trace the direction of water egress. In the morning all the tissue was dry. I nevertheless left the tissue in place just in case the water came back.  It did, around lunchtime. One piece of tissue was soaked with water. That slice of tissue was right in the middle of the TV-stand with all the surrounding pieces of tissue completely dry. I lifted the TV to find water dripping out of one small spot at the base. I’m no expert on electronics but I was pretty sure water dripping out of an otherwise dry TV was not normal.  For a brief second I revisited the poltergeist theory.

I extended the tissue paper experiment over the next few days, trying to find the source of water.  For example, I taped some tissue to the coaxial cable of the TV areal to see if condensation was trickling along it.  But it was always the same result, one spot at the bottom of the TV was occasionally dripping water but all the surrounding pieces of tissue were completely dry. It was then I noticed a correlation. The water only appeared when it was raining, or very soon after. Here was a new question - how did rainwater get from outside of the house to one small spot on the TV-stand without touching anything in between? I resisted the urge to call David Blane and instead, extended my experiments.

When scientists are faced with similar problems, they try to isolate the various components and investigate them separately to see if any one of them might be the cause. I therefore moved the TV into another room and pulled the TV-stand out into the middle of the floor.  I then put the strategically located strips of tissue paper in place and waited for the rain to come (that never takes long in this part of the world). Next day, TV - dry. TV-stand - dry. Wondering how I was going to find David Blane’s telephone number I started to reassemble the TV when I made another observation. There was a small patch of water on the floor right next to the end of the TV areal coaxial cable.  The tissue I had taped to the cable was dry however, so wherever the water was coming from, it wasn’t running along the outside of the cable.

I examined the cable more closely and water was seeping out of the end where it was connected to the coaxial plug that went into the socket at the back of the TV.  In a sudden flash of realisation, I understood.  The cable runs from the aerial on the roof, down the side of the house, through a drilled hole in a window frame and finally into the back of the TV. Along the way rain was getting inside the coaxial cable which was acting like a tube, channeling the water to the back of the TV.  Obviously I needed to get the coaxial cable replaced but at least the mystery of the water pool was solved and without having to call David Blane or hold an exorcism.

The story does not quite end there. The window, through which the aerial cable passes, has an inner shelf holding some flower vases, and the occasional lost teacup. The coaxial cable sits tightly into a corner between the window shelf and the wall, cosmetically hidden away. Some time ago I’d noticed that when it rained a little pool of water formed in the corner of the window shelf next to where the coaxial cable came through the window. The cable was well-sealed into the frame and wasn’t leaking and so I assumed it was due to condensation.  But now I was wondering.

A little while ago the room had been redecorated and the cable re-sealed into the frame and painted. In fact the sealant had been run over the cable in the corner between the window shelf and the wall to help it blend in. I wondered if it was possible that prior to the room being redecorated, whether a crack in the cable had been leaking water onto the window shelf.  It explained the small pool of water that appeared on the shelf, always in one place. Once the cable, and presumably the crack, had been sealed, then the water had nowhere to go other than along the coaxial cable and into the back of the TV.

I therefore took the smallest drill I had and put a tiny hole into the coaxial cable where it ran over the window shelf.  It’s raining today and there’s a small puddle of water on the window shelf and the TV is dry.

So coming back to where I started, sometimes it’s the most banal observations that fire the curiosity. In my case, if I had been more curious about the initial pool of water on the window shelf and not just dismissed it as condensation, I might have saved myself a lot of time and effort.  It reminds me of one of my favourite science stories. A plant biologist called Richard Jorgensen wondered what caused the stripes on the petals of petunias. To many this seemed a daft question but Jorgensen didn’t just dismiss it, like I did the water on the window shelf.  His curiosity was further inspired when he found he couldn’t produce a petunia with just a pure purple colour.  He went on to investigate what was going on and discovered an entirely new molecular genetic mechanism called RNA interference, which is now being investigated as a way of treating certain diseases. Jorgensen won the Nobel Prize in 2006.  http://oxbridgebiotech.com/review/the-nobel-for-rnai-from-petunias-to-potential-cure

Of all human qualities, curiosity has to be the king.