Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fencon: Science -- fact or crap?

"Science -- fact or crap?" was a game played by a team of pros against a team of fans... I think. The most prominent pro on the team was Gregory Benford, a physics professor, science fiction writer, and Fencon guest of honor. The purpose of the game was to score points by answering science-related questions. Each question had two parts: a fact-or-crap, i.e. yes-or-no part (but you could not answer "no", you had to say "crap"! :-)), and a follow up freeform" question. The questions drew from many different sciences: anatomy, anthropology, archeology, astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, physics.

Tim Morgan, dressed as a cartoonish scientist in a lab coat, a propeller hat, goggles and rubber gloves, conducted the game. Team members had to share some of the same humiliation by donning rubber gloves and goggles. In addition they were given very cool plastic hand-shaped rattlers, so as to announce their readiness to answer a question.

Examples of questions

Here are the examples of questions. Most of them were not very hard.

A cow's second stomach chamber is called the reticulum. Fact or crap? (Fact.)

A cow has how many stomachs? Four. Can you name them? Nobody could.

Currently there are only 2 functioning human made satellites in orbit around Mars. Fact or crap? Crap. There are 3 of them.

Name the 3 functioning spacecraft orbiting Mars. Mars Oddyssey, Mars Express, and Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter.

A modern archeological project begins with 1 or more surveys. Fact or crap? (Fact.)

Name two types of archeological surveys. Aerial survey, geophysical survey, region survey.

Carbon dioxide will dissolve in water. Fact or crap? Fact. It's called soda.

The property of a substance to dissolve in water is called what? Solubility.

Climate is usually defined in terms of temperature and rainfall. Fact or crap? Fact.

Climate of a particular place is often summarized by an annual diagram called what? The climate graph.

Among the more difficult questions were "Calcium occurs most commonly in the sedimentary rocks. Name 1 of the 3 minerals that contain calcium." It was answered correctly by Gregory Benford: carbonate. Or: "A hydrate is a crystal that has water molecules trapped inside: fact or crap? (Fact.) Heating hydrates will drive the water out of crystals. It's called what?" Benford tried "water sublimation". Tim Morgan said he had "water crytallization", but deferred to Benford since he has a PhD. Actually, a quick look at Wikipedia does not give me a definite answer one way or the other.

Funny questions

Not all questions were dull and geeky. :-) Tim made sure to put some funny questions into the mix. Some of them were funny mostly because the people were so confident in their knowledge that they did not even wait for Tim to finish the question before jumping in with an answer. This lead to some moments of hilarity.

"The supercontinent that existed before the continents separated into their current configuration was called..." People started waving their rattlers hands without waiting to hear the end. "You're sure you want to answer before you heard the question?" Tim asked. "OK, go ahead." Fact! yelled one person. Crap! answered Tim. It's not Sangria. It's Pangaea.

"Fact or crap?" was the one and only science track event I attended at Fencon 2008. Yay to Fencon for having a science track. Maybe next year, if hotel fairies grant me some sleep, I'll be able to stay till the end and attend more of them.

Pictures from this game and from the rest of Fencon are available in my photo gallery.

Throughout Fencon Gregory Benford shared his thoughts on such topics as American dominance in the world and its role to play in the technological future, and how geoengineering can save the Earth's climate. Read more about it on my web site.

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