Mystified? Solve It With Science Whodunit? Was it Dr. Jones, in the lab, with the beaker? Eric and Natalie Yoder may have the answer. They are authors of One Minute Mysteries: 65 Short Mysteries You Solve With Science, a new book that uses mysteries and problem solving to get kids energized about science.
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Mystified? Solve It With Science

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Mystified? Solve It With Science

Mystified? Solve It With Science

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IRA FLATOW, host:

I'm Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from NPR News. There's a lot of science sleuthing on TVs these days; you know what I'm talking about. You have "CSI," you've got "Numbers," but how about something for kids with a much shorter time span than an hour, something that's entertaining and fun and informative? Well, two authors have come up with a solution with mysteries of their own. They have written a book called "One Minute Mysteries: 65 Short Mysteries You Solve with Science!," and well, not really a textbook at all. It's being used in elementary- and middle-school science classes.

And if you want more information on what we're talking about, go to our Web site; it's sciencefriday.com. You want to talk about this textbook and maybe try to play Sherlock Holmes yourself on the air with us? Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. Let me introduce my guests. Eric Yoder is a reporter at the Washington Post, he's also a freelance writer, and Natalie Yoder is a high-school student in Virginia, just happens to be Eric's daughter. And as I say, they are co-authors of "One Minute Mysteries: 65 Short Mysteries You Solve With Science!," published in 2008. And they are in our Washington studios. Welcome to the program.

Mr. ERIC YODER (Co-author, One Minute Mysteries: 65 Short Mysteries You Solve With Science!"): Thank you for having us.

FLATOW: How did you come up with this idea?

Mr. YODER: Well, when Natalie was in about fifth or sixth grade, I started writing some stories just for fun, because I wanted to combine the science that she was learning in school with the enjoyment that both she and I have for mysteries. And so, I started writing just in my spare time, just whenever an idea came into my head, and eventually, I ended up with a dozen or 15 of them. And Natalie started writing some on her own just to try to challenge me.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Natalie, what is your favorite kind of science?

Ms. NATALIE YODER (Co-author, "One Minute Mysteries: 65 Short Mysteries You Solve With Science!"): My favorite kind of subject or science is biology or space sciences.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Ms. YODER: And that's also incorporated in the book because it's by sections.

FLATOW: Do you have a favorite mystery in the book?

Ms. YODER: My favorite is actually the first one that I wrote, and it is where a girl loses an earring about noon, and she was in elementary school, and she comes back later, around three o'clock, and she is wondering where her earring is. And she stands in the same place that she stood when she was at recess at about noon. The earring is nowhere in her shadow. One of her friends, which is the answer, tells her that, of course, the earring will not be where her shadow was because the placement of the sun it had moved. So, she had to find her earring somewhere else.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Let me - I am going to read one mystery and see if I can get our listeners to come up with the answer. And so, let me go to one - a One Minute Mystery, it's "65 Short Mysteries You Solve With Science!," and this one is called "Water, Water Everywhere." And now, here's how the mystery - everybody listen, because here are the clues to the mystery. Boy, if I had some spooky music. Here it goes.

(Reading) Isn't that tree looking really pretty already, Bridget said to her little sister Jocelyn as they walked out into the back porch. Just then, Bridget heard a car door slam in front of the house. That would be Zane leaving, she said to herself. Their older brother was a travel soccer player and would be gone until late that evening.

(Reading) And even though it was only spring, it was already really hot and sunny. I'm kind of worried about the tree, Jocelyn told Bridget; it looks a little droopy. They hadn't expected such hot weather so soon when they planted the tree the day before. Earlier, they called the nursery to ask what to do, and the woman there told them to water the tree for 10 minutes in the morning and in the afternoon. But don't water it too much, she said. Bridget did the morning watering, and Zane was supposed to do the afternoon watering just before he left, but he was running late, as usual, and they weren't sure if he had done it.

(Reading) Bridget and Jocelyn walked up the slope of the yard to the tree. The hose was connected to the spigot at the house and stretched across the yard to the tree, but they could not tell from looking at the tree if it had been watered. If he didn't water it, it needs water now, Jocelyn said. But if he did water it, we shouldn't give it any more. What should we do?

And that's the question we are left with at the end of this short little mystery, and something maybe our audience can try to figure out: Should they or should they not water the tree? And I guess you are asking, has it already been watered for the second time? Our number, 1-800-989-8255. If you'd like to Twitter us, we're @SciFri at Twitter. Maybe you can come up with the answer. We'll give you the answer a little bit later on. Natalie, are you a big science person at school? Science fairs, that sort of thing?

Ms. YODER: Science has always been my favorite subject since elementary school. And recently, in middle school, I had - I won the regional science fair, and then my project got accepted into VJAS, which is Virginia Juniors Academy of Science, for the last three years. And that's always been fun.

FLATOW: And what was the process like for writing this book?

Ms. YODER: It was a very long and a slow process. Basically, starting out, we had - we knew that we had to write 65 to - I don't know - about 80 of these mysteries. Once you got the topics, it was a lot easier. But just thinking of what you could find in daily life to make it a mystery was the hardest part. But if you just - the first couple were very hard, but then once you start thinking about life in a scientific way, then it's a lot easier to come up with these mysteries.

FLATOW: Did you come up with the answer first sometimes and work backwards?

Ms. YODER: That could happen sometimes, like, if you find something that - and you know why it did it...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. YODER: But then it would be a good mystery. So, you would have to work backward for some of them.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. 1-800-989-8255. You have 65. Did you have to cut down your total number? Have more than them..?

Ms. YODER: At first, I think we had to write about 80 of them...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. YODER: But some of them just didn't work halfway through, and we decided not to use those.

FLATOW: Let's play the one-minute mystery. Let's see if someone will come on to play. Let's go to Angel in San Antonio. Hi.

ANGEL (Caller): Hi, how are you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

Mr. YODER: Hi.

FLATOW: Have you got an answer for us?

ANGEL: I believe I might.

FLATOW: OK.

ANGEL: I feel like I'm on "Who's Smarter than a Fifth Grader?" or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Yes. No embarrassment here.

ANGEL: No embarrassment, not like we're on, you know, public radio or anything.

FLATOW: No. I mean, only like a million people listening. So, go ahead.

ANGEL: Oh, good, whew. Thank God. Well, I thought maybe if you would check the hose to see if there's any water inside of it, to see if it was hot or cold, would possibly give you an answer. Is that a good answer?

FLATOW: Natalie?

Ms. YODER: Yes, that is the right answer.

Mr. YODER: That is the answer.

(Soundbite of ding)

FLATOW: We have a winner.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YODER: Good job.

ANGEL: Thank you. I appreciate that.

FLATOW: And have you had that life experience, Angel, to do that yourself, to see the hot water come out and almost get scalded?

ANGEL: Yes. I went to go drink some water, and it was, like, hot and stinky of water. It had been in the hose for, like, maybe a month or something.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Angel. I wish I had something to give you for winning that.

ANGEL: Oh, that's OK.

FLATOW: But you have the satisfaction and admiration of all of us.

ANGEL: That's all right; I'm going to refer to this the rest of my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Thanks for calling.

ANGEL: Thank you very much. Thank you, Natalie. Bye-bye.

FLATOW: Bye-bye.

Mr. YODER: That's actually a good example of how we came up with the stories. That one was one of the very last stories that we wrote, and we had the idea of - that when a hose has water in it and sits out in the sun, the water is hot. So, then it became a question of, how can we turn that into a story, how can we turn that into a mystery? So, that's really a good example of how the stories came about.

FLATOW: Are schools, Eric, actually using this book?

Mr. YODER: Yes, we've heard from a number of science teachers, that they are using it in homework assignments or problem-of-the-day assignments or warm-up assignments, that sort of thing, and also, we've heard from homeschoolers and also we've heard from parents, saying that, you know, they look for stories that will reinforce something that the children are learning in school right now.

FLATOW: Now that you have the print version, ever thought about making a video, YouTube version?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. YODER: There are possibilities in the works.

FLATOW: Yeah. I would think that would be, you know, the obvious choice. Would you like to star in them, Natalie?

Ms. YODER: Um...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. YODER: That'd be nice, but I think there's a lot of characters that would need to be filled.

FLATOW: Yeah. Let's see if I can get a phone call in before we take the - go to a break. Ben in Grand Rapids. Hi, Ben.

BEN (Caller): Hi. My question was - I'm - this seems like such a good, natural way to get students involved in science. And I am a science teacher here in Grand Rapids, and I was just curious, kind of, off what you just said, is there any way to make, like, a full textbook, where students could explore different topics but keep it within, like, the curriculum of a schooling aspect?

Mr. YODER: Well, we didn't set out to write a textbook. There is a companion book, which is published by the same publisher, which is called "101 Things Everyone Should Know About Science." And that would reach into the middle-school and even elementary-school level. And that book actually could be used, in some ways, as a textbook. So, we didn't set out specifically to be a textbook, but we hope that the stories can be used as supplements to what they're learning in these various categories of science.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Ben. Have a Happy New Year. I want to see if I can get one more in before the break, if I can read one more, and see if you can guess the answer. This one is called "Bear Scare."

(Reading) At a one-week ski camp in mid-winter, three best friends were in the same group: Carla, Sasha and Elizabeth. Today, their group is going on a treasure hunt for a bag of candy. They had a map with the names of the different ski trails and clues that had led them to the right ones. After going down several trails and up some ski lifts, they found a tree painted with an X. Also on the tree was a large scratch mark. X marks the spot, Carla said. They took off their skis and dug in the snow at the base of the tree, but there was only an empty box.

(Reading) They skied down to the ski school, where they found Leslie Coile(ph), their instructor. We found the box but there was no candy in it, Sasha said. I asked the workers to take out the prize because of the bears, Ms. Coile said. Bears can smell food even through a box, and we don't want them going to the areas where there are skiers. Elizabeth noticed the big bag of candy on Ms. Coile's desk. Stealer, Elizabeth said laughing, you just wanted the candy for yourself, and I can prove it. So, prove it, Ms. Coile laughed. Are you saying there are no bears in this area? Or that bears couldn't smell candy through a box?

That's the mystery. Answer what - this question about, did the bear steal the candy or not? Or did - I guess, was it Ms. Coile? They're accusing Ms. Coile of taking the candy - we're going to take - and is her reason for hiding a candy valid? So, stay with us. We'll take a short break. Our number, 1-800-989-8255. If you'd like to play, give us a call. Also, you can offer your answer at Twitter. Send us a tweet, @SciFri, at S-C-I-F-R-I. I am sure you folks in Second Life are having a good joke already answering these questions amongst yourself. So, let's see if we can check in with an answer from there. I'm Ira Flatow. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: This is Science Friday from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You're listening to Science Friday from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour with the authors of "One Minute Mysteries: 65 Short Mysteries You Solve With Science!" It's Eric Yoder and his daughter Natalie Yoder, and it says "science naturally" right there at the bottom. 1-800-989-8255. And when we last left our audience, I had just read the "Bear Scare" story, and let's see if we can get somebody, oh, somebody who probably may have seen a bear. Let's go to Maddie in Hill City, South Dakota. Hi, Maddie.

MADDIE (Caller): Hello.

FLATOW: Hi, there.

MADDIE: Yes. I'm 60 years old, but I think I might be keeping up with the young people on this one.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah? Well, solve that mystery for us.

MADDIE: Well, I think the bears would be hibernating, so you wouldn't have to worry about bears in the winter.

FLATOW: Hmm.

MADDIE: That's my theory.

FLATOW: That's your theory. Natalie, what do you think?

Ms. YODER: I think that's the right answer.

MADDIE: Yay.

FLATOW: Our audience is too smart.

MADDIE: I love your book. It's such a neat thing. I think more kids should do stuff like that.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. YODER: Well, thank you.

FLATOW: Do you read science books, Maddie?

MADDIE: Oh, I love science, and I'm a substitute teacher. So, I know that if you have something like this, wow, it gets the kids' attention and really makes it inspiring for them to learn all the neat things about science.

FLATOW: Especially as a substitute teacher, this could be a gold mine for you.

MADDIE: Yes, got to have it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: All right, thanks for calling, and have a Happy New Year.

MADDIE: You, too. Bye.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Are we going to see a sequel to this, Eric and Natalie?

Mr. YODER: Yes. We've actually already finished a manuscript of a similar book, only the solutions depend on knowing something about math. And that book is now in the editing process, and we're hoping for a publication date in the fall of this year.

FLATOW: Wow. You know, reading through the mysteries, some of these seem to hinge on knowing something science-y, like, you know, we talked about the bear, the bears hibernate or, like, the sun rises in the east - which I don't think a lot of people know these days - while there are more problem-solving, like being a junior CSI, using scientific techniques or a concept to answer a question. Did you try to balance that out, or did they just come out that way when you were writing these mysteries?

Mr. YODER: I'd say they'd more or less came out that way. Some of them we did try to structure to be the classic whodunit sort of mystery, where it was either A, B or C, and knowing some sort of fact about science led you to the correct solution. Others were a little more just - the fact gets worked into the story, and you just have to come up with an application of science to understand what's going on in the story.

FLATOW: All right. Let's see if we can give one more one-minute mystery. This one is called "Taken with a Grain of Salt."

(Reading) One evening, the campers cooked their own meals with their cooking kits over open fires outside the dining hall. Then, they brought the food inside, where the tables were setup for dinner as usual and desserts were on a side table. Mark should have known better than to get up from the table to get a dessert without taking his glass of water along, because when he got back to the table, he saw that the glass had been moved. He couldn't be quite sure, but he thought the salt shaker had been moved, too. And a couple of the guys looked like they were trying hard not to laugh.

(Reading) Did you guys put salt in my water? Mark asked. There's only one way to find out, Brion(ph) said, taking up the glass and handing it to him. Take a nice deep drink. I bet I can find out without tasting even a drop of it, Mark said, without anyone else tasting it either and without anyone telling me. Mm-hmm, what do you want, a bet? Brion responded. Chores for the rest of the week, Mark said. If I win, you do mine; if you win, I do yours. You're on, Brion said. How are you going to prove it?

And that's the challenge. That's a good challenge. How do you prove whether the salt shaker had been - put salt in the water and made his glass salty without tasting it? 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if I can get somebody who wants to play the game. Let's go to - lots of folks want to play. Let's go to David in Dayton, Ohio. Hi, David.

DAMON (Caller): Damon in Dayton, Ohio.

FLATOW: Hi.

DAMON: I'm wondering could he boil it and see what temperature it boils at, and it would be different if there were salt or not salt?

FLATOW: If the...

DAMON: Or same thing for freezing. At what temperature does it freeze? It tells you whether it does or doesn't have salt.

FLATOW: So, you're saying, see what the change in temperature is, whether it has salt in it or not.

DAMON: Yeah, I'm saying see at what temperature it freezes at.

FLATOW: You'd have to have a thermometer out there, which is not in the story.

DAMON: Oh, OK.

FLATOW: But that's a good guess.

Mr. YODER: Pretty close.

FLATOW: It's close.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAMON: All right.

FLATOW: Bye-bye. 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get some other players here. James in Livermore. Hi, James.

JAMES (Caller): Hi, there.

FLATOW: Hi, there. Have you got a solution for us?

JAMES: I'm thinking he tried to float something in the water.

FLATOW: Float something in the water.

JAMES: Because the density of the water would have changed, had there been salt in it.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Eric, can that be the right answer?

Mr. YODER: I think it could a right answer, actually, but we have to remember that the limitations of what this kids have to work with. We have a couple of kids sitting around the dining hall with the fire burning outside, and they all have their cook kits handy.

JAMES: Gotcha.

FLATOW: All right.

JAMES: Well, thanks, anyway.

FLATOW: Good alternate story. 1-800-989-8255. Let's see if we can get another player in. Carol in Charlotte, New York. Hi, Carol.

CAROL (Caller): Hey.

FLATOW: Hey there. Got an answer for us?

CAROL: Yes, I do. Could they check the bottom of the glass? Because when you put salt in water, you have to sort of stir it up in order for it to be absorbed into the water.

Mr. YODER: If there was enough salt, that could be a possible solution, yes. Yes, that is another possibility.

FLATOW: That is a possible solution, but not the one we're looking for. Thanks.

CAROL: Oh, OK.

FLATOW: Thanks for playing. Let's move on swiftly because lots of people want to play. Let's go to Ryan in Norman, Oklahoma. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN (Caller): Hi, there. How are you today?

FLATOW: Hi.

RYAN: Great. My think is that you could probably put some item from his dinner plate into the water and it would float because the buoyancy of the water would change from some salt being added to it.

FLATOW: Well, we had that sort of answer before.

RYAN: Oh, OK.

FLATOW: That was - right, Eric? That was suggested.

Mr. YODER: Yes, it was, and I think that's conceivable, but that's not the solution we came up with.

FLATOW: All right, good luck. Let's go to Natalie in Phoenix. Hi, Natalie.

MADELEINE (Caller): Hi, it's actually Madeleine, but...

FLATOW: Sorry.

MADELEINE: I think that he could put some water, like, out in a Petri dish, like, out in the sun and see if anything evaporated, if the salt would be left.

FLATOW: Aha, we're going to accept that answer.

(Soundbite of ding)

Mr. YODER: Yeah, we'll take that one.

FLATOW: Eric, that was close enough, right?

Mr. YODER: Yes, it was. We came up with a slightly faster solution, which was to put the water in the cook pan and boil it off and see if the salt would be remaining in the bottom of the pan.

FLATOW: That was a good one, Natalie.

MADELEINE: All right, thank you.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling. 1-800-989-8255. That's about all the time we have. We'll have to come back. We'll have to have Eric and Natalie come back with their next volume.

Mr. YODER: We'd be happy to.

Ms. YODER: Yes.

FLATOW: Maybe we could have you post some of them on our Web site.

Mr. YODER: We'll be happy to have that, too.

FLATOW: Do that, too. Thank you very much for taking time to do this.

Mr. YODER: Thank you.

Ms. YODER: Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Eric Yoder and Natalie Yoder are co-authors of "One Minute Mysteries: 65 Short Mysteries You Solve With Science!," out there and maybe a great teaching aid.

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