Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Bunsen Burner Bieber

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An industrious West Valley teen positions himself to be the next Bill Nye-style pop science guru.

Alec Owens cannot recall his very first question about the scientific mysteries of the universe. “Something like, ‘Where do rocks come from?’” the spiky-haired 13-year-old says. “What I do remember is going to an adult for an answer, getting an answer that wasn’t right, and the feeling you get when you’re like, ‘This is not a good answer.’”
 


  Every parent, at one time or another, has fudged an answer to a child’s question. “They don’t want to say, ‘I don’t know,’” Owens says, sympathetically. “Maybe they don’t want to look stupid.” But cover-your-butt answers create a lexicon of false knowledge (from the “five-second rule” to “thunder is angels bowling”) and worse, they dampen the youthful curiosity that inspires them.

“There’s something really cool about learning,” Owens says. “It leads to other questions.” Eventually, Alec Owens found the answer to his first question. Now, as Alec the Science Kid, he has made a cottage industry out of helping others do the same.

“We have something very special for you this morning,” 12 News Today’s Fay Fredricks crows during a morning broadcast. “At only 13 years old, our next guest is already the author of – count ’em – not one but two books. He also has his own radio show. He is Alec Owens, the Science Kid…”

In an era where few teens love science enough to crack open a book, Owens has two tomes on Amazon (a third on the way), an Internet radio show (spreaker.com), a YouTube channel, and a website where the Paseo Verde eighth-grader answers kids-wanna-know-type questions. It’s an empire built on healthy curiosity, a few common household items and a cat who died too soon.

“He’s a normal kid,” his mother, Rachel Owens, insists. “Good grades. Doesn’t talk back. But… at an age where most kids were watching cartoons, Alec was watching The Weather Channel. He kept coming in and telling me where tornadoes were.” It was Rachel who told him: “If you want answers, you should try finding out for yourself.” It turned her son into a media personality. But first, it turned their kitchen into a hazmat zone.

“The questions led to the experiments,” Alec says. “Even when I was little, I’d experiment with stuff in the refrigerator. Mix milk with water. Stuff like that. Mom was using Crystal Light for a while, and I’d see what would happen when you’d put hand soap or mix other stuff in it.”

“You didn’t know what you’d be coming home to,” his grandmother, Phyllis, remembers. “Sometimes you’d stick to the floor.”

But experiments became Owens’ calling card. That’s why his website (flydoodlescience.com) offers low-tech demos, where kids can make Mountain Dew glow or detonate soda at home. “I try to follow the type of stuff on Stephen Spangler’s website or Bill Nye, the Science Guy,” he says. “They do some stupid-fun stuff.” Rachel supports him, “as long as no one is killed or injured.”  


phm0313 pfpo2 lgOwens believes live experimentation is the key to making science resonate with kids: “In a class, I get bored. And I see other kids get bored, especially when it’s paper-and-pencil stuff. Once in a blue moon, we’d do an experiment, and that’s the best times in science. So why not take the best and put it on a website?”

They began filming his experiments. The entire family chipped in. “In one night video, he was describing the moon’s orbit,” Phyllis says. “His mother worked the camera, while his grandfather and I lit him with our cell phones.” Rachel helped Alec build his website, where they posted the videos, hoping to attract curious souls. Virtually no one came.

“Alec took that kind of personally,” Rachel recalls. He went on hiatus, to ponder if life held a second act for someone who had to start all over at age 10. Then, two powerful forces – death and marketing – intervened.

“Last year my cat, Angel, died,” he says. “I needed to get my mind off things. And I got encouragement to start [the website] up again.” He began emailing local news stations. “We just told them: I’m this kid, I started this website to answer other kids’ questions about science.”

The hardest part of TV, he found, wasn’t walking across eggs or making a carbon dioxide bubble, but getting booked in the first place. “It takes a lot of work to get their attention. News stations are a lot about blood and guts and destruction and stuff. It’s really hard to get them to care about science.”

Eventually, KPHO/Channel 5 bit. “After that, I did Good Morning Arizona, then another Good Morning Arizona, then Channel 12 called. Next month, I’ll be in Tucson, shooting Morning Blend... ” The gigs set his website spinning. His original goal – to videotape answers to every question – became impractical. So he did what all the other science personality kids do: He started writing books.

“I took the most popular questions and put them together.” And now, young readers can know the truth behind avian flatulence. Do Birds Fart? answers 50 questions about animals and the natural world. His follow-up book – What Does Outer Space Smell Like? – is about the universe. He says his latest book – Why Are Some People Jerks? – “deals with human behavior.”

Does it also coincide with an age when people encounter more jerks? Owens grins and says only: “Yes.” He is not without naysayers. The classmates who teased him early on have mostly faded under the shadow of his media footprint. His teachers have been a mixed bag – some supportive, others indifferent. He encounters suspicion, and some derision, filming “man on the street” interviews for the website. “People go, ‘Who is this kid?’ ‘Why is he asking me about science?’ I get escorted out of stores a lot.”

But he regards naysayers as bumps on the road to… what? “My dream job is to be a marine biologist or an architect.” What about celebrity? “I don’t know. It might be nice to go to Wal-Mart and have people say, ‘It’s the Flydoodle Guy.’” He also thinks that would reduce his chances of getting escorted out of that store.

“I just love discovering things,” he says with a shrug. “It’s good to get people excited about science. Because people think science is boring or nerdy.” Why is that? Does science need a rebirth? Is he a standard-bearer for science’s resurgence? He gives you a look that reminds you: I’m 13. 

“I don’t know,” he says. “I just think it’s completely awesome.”

Ask Alec
The Science Kid fields about 50 questions a week at flydoodlescience.com. Here are some of his most persistent:

Q: Why is the ocean blue?
A: Because of floating sediment and minerals. The sun reflects that color back. That’s why the Red Sea is red, and the Black Sea is black.

Q: Is one dog year equal to seven human years?
A: Nope... that is a myth. It depends on what breed it is. You can go to onlineconversion.com/dogyears, which has a super awesome dog year conversion calculator.

Q: Can snakes turn into dragons?
A: Yes. (Laughs) I’m kidding. No.

Q: Do birds fart?
A: You’ll have to buy that book and find out
.

 

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