An Oct. 26 Metro article about the Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge incorrectly identified Don Baer as the Discovery Channel's senior executive vice president for communication. Baer is Discovery Communications Inc.'s senior executive vice president for strategy and development. (Published 10/27/04)
In October 1904, Albert Einstein, then 25, was working through his special theory of relativity.
Yesterday, Jonathan Reasoner, 12, was working through his theory of extreme skateboarding.
Both reached a similar conclusion: Physics can explain many things, including why the speed of light looks the same to everyone and why it is incredibly cool that 13-year-old skater Corey Rubin can catch a few seconds of air at the top of a half-pipe.
For that theory, and his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect, Einstein's reward was a Nobel Prize. Jonathan, one of 40 finalists in the sixth annual Discovery Channel Young Scientist Challenge, came to the Washington area this week with more modest goals: to meet other smart kids, vie for scholarships and reason through advanced scientific concepts in honor of the 100th anniversary of Einstein's premier year of discovery.
As the finalists from 16 states gathered yesterday at Cole Student Activities Building on the University of Maryland campus, they were divided into groups of five and began competing in four scientific challenges, all related to Einstein's major discoveries.
In "Skateboard Physics," Jonathan's group contemplated gravity. At its disposal to help with the experiment were a professional physicist and a team of amateur and professional skateboarders, who performed tricks on a giant curved ramp, known as a half-pipe, set up in the gym.
"Wow," said Jonathan, a seventh-grader from Arizona, as he videotaped Corey's moves and tried to pinpoint when the gravitational forces on the skateboarder's body would be the strongest. "Wow," echoed Corey, an eighth-grader at Tilden Middle School in Rockville, who was hooked up to a device that measured the rate at which his speed changed.
Other groups worked on a radar-gun luge, laser obstacle course and a challenge titled "Teeth on Edge: A Real Screech," an exercise in tuning unusual musical instruments missing important parts.
"What's neat is you get the skaters and the science kids together," said Don Baer, the Discovery Channel's senior executive vice president for communication. "When was the last time you've seen that?"
It was a teenager's heaven, Corey's father, Rob Rubin, observed -- talented kids working together, getting to do what they love.
Participants occasionally astound in this contest, which is designed to encourage young people to go into science, said Steve Jacobs, the head judge for the competition. But the high caliber of the group comes as no surprise: The finalists were whittled from thousands of entrants and are competing to be named America's Top Young Scientist of the Year at a ceremony Thursday. The top prize is a $15,000 college scholarship.
They've already won local science fairs with projects bearing such titles as "Quantitative Analysis of Phytoremediation on Pollutant Extraction from Contaminated Soil" and "Solenopsis invicta (fire ant), the Unbeatable."
Julia Fanning, a 13-year-old eighth-grader from San Antonio, has explained her project so many times to so many confounded adults that she now offers to write it out. It's about how the herbal remedy Echinacea can be used to kill Streptococcus pneumoniae -- she stopped: "Look, a lot of people are nervous about natural remedies since they're not approved by the FDA," she said. "But there's nothing to worry about."
Janet Song, a 12-year-old from Audubon, Pa., also has patiently explained her project, which tested the effects of different wavelengths of ultraviolet rays on DNA, the basic material of life. This is just one stop on her informal child prodigy tour. She's also a concert pianist who will be playing at Carnegie Hall next week.