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Electronic Design

What's All This Doctor Science Stuff, Anyhow?

You're tuning your radio and suddenly you hear, "Plink-plink-plink-plink, Plunk-plunk-plunk-plunk, Plink-plink-plink-plink, Plunk-plunk-plunk-plunk...."

The plucky tune is joined by the voice of Rodney, who is Doctor Science's loyal assistant: "It's time once again to ASK Doctor, let's ASK Doctor Science...."

"That's me...." (the deep voice of Dr. Science).

"Remember, he knows more than you do...."

"That's right...." (Dr. Science again).

Now, Rodney announces the question of the day: "Bob Pease from Miramar, California writes in to ask, 'When I drive my car under big power lines, my radio doesn't fade out or buzz. When I was a kid and my father used to drive under the high-tension lines, the radio would fade out and then BUZZ. How come radios don't do that any more?'"

And Doctor Science replies: "Bob, they are just not making electricity like they used to. These days, electricity is so refined with alternators and voltage regulators, it just doesn't have the energy it used to—it's too pooped to buzz. In the old days, radios used vibrators to make very energetic voltages—but, no more."

"Thank you, Doctor Science. Send your Science Questions to Doctor Science. Remember, he's not a real Doctor."

"I have a Master's Degree...."
" SCIENCE...." (Rodney chimes in)

"Plink-plink-plink-plink, Plunk-plunk-plunk-plunk.... Produced by Duck's Breath and distributed by American Public Radio...."

Every weekday at 10:50 A.M., I have programmed my computer to tune in to KCSM-FM,91.1 MHz in San Mateo, Calif., to hear and record the mellifluous words of wisdom of Doctor Science. He's not a real doctor. He's nutty as a fruitcake. He gives answers that are sometimes marvelously intelligent, or marvelously stupid, or both.

And his 90-second daily radio column is JUST the perfect antidote to all of the serious science and all of the serious-sounding pseudo-science that we read and hear every day. Doctor Science has been broadcasting a daily dose of quasi-wisdom for over 10 years now.

I myself have collected about 40 hours of his tidbits on tape. Some are pretty awful, some are barely audible because my radio's reception gets goofed up, and some are just great. Here's some typical questions tailor-made for Dr. Science:

"Dear Doctor Science: After all these years of NPN and PNP transistors, when will I be able to get some of the new PPP and NNN transistors?" I just sent this one in, and am eagerly awaiting an answer.

"Dear Doctor Science: At restaurants, pasta and antipasto are usually served on separate plates. If they were served on the same plate, would they annihilate each other?"

"Dear Doctor Science: What will the banks do in 1999 when they can't just print 19_on their checks?" Now, that IS a good question.

"Doctor Science" is really Dan Coffey, along with his loyal assistant Rodney (portrayed by Merle Kessler, who's best known as the fast-talking radio personality Ian Shoales), both founders of the Duck's Breath Mystery Theater. They have had several productions on television, including "Doctor Science's National Science Test," a PBS special. Duck's Breath also made a movie, Zadar, the Cow from Hell, which may be released on video later this year. Coffey and Kessler have also authored Doctor Science's Big Book of Science, a terrific collection of science-related humor and foolishness and pseudo-science, and old photos with great captions. Right now this book is all sold out, a collector's item, but it should be back in print again soon.

Even better, William Morrow Co. is scheduled to publish a new Dr. Science hardcover book this fall. You can call a toll-free number—(800)989-DUCK—to get a free catalog and complete information on how to buy some of Dr. Science's excellent cassettes, or a SmugMug with "I KNOW MORE THAN YOU DO" emblazoned on the side—it's great to bring to meetings. You can even order a blank Master's Degree (in SCIENCE) and hang it on your wall, or give it to a friend to fill in his own name.

I also got a list of all the 100 public radio stations that carry the Doctor Science program. The show is available to nearly all public radio stations, so call the nearest one and ask when Doctor Science is on.

If they tell you he is not on, you can make a personal appeal to the program director. Tell him they are missing out on Good Stuff. If you inquire at (800)989-DUCK, they can tell you which station in your area does carry his program.

I've been listening to Doctor Science for years. I began recording his blurbs every morning, after my old friend Tom Murray came to visit. He found that he could not get Doctor Science on the air back east. Apparently there are some stations that have been horrified by the irreverence of his non-scientific statements. These pompous, humorimpaired people seem to take themselves so seriously that they think kids will get the wrong idea. Sigh! I mean, what's wrong with:

"Dear Doctor Science: What's wrong with being left in the lurch?"

"A lurch is a large two-wheeled cart that is constructed of animal dung, and is used in Ethiopia as a get-away car for bank robberies and gang warfare. If your friends all pat you on the back and usher you into an old cart that smells like manure, and then they tell you they are going into a bank, and they'll be right back, maybe they are not such good friends after all...."

Daniel Dolman from Bloomington, Michigan writes, "Dear Doctor Science: Often, in computer documentation, one will find pages with the statement, `This page is left blank purposely.' Why do they do this?"

"To waste paper. You see, the people who write computer manuals are nearly illiterate. To them, language is numbers and one-word commands. Their idea of casual reading is proof-reading the phone book, or pages of random numbers. Consequently they're out of touch with the rest of us, and this brings on feelings of isolation, and in many cases, paranoid delusions of persecution. So they fight back, first by wasting paper. If this venting of the spleen is left unchecked, they'll eventually move on to writing naughty limericks, and libelous statements about company management. If you have the time, write to the company and blow the whistle on this guy. You'll be doing everbody involved a favor."

"...thank you, Doctor Science...."

"Dear Dr. Science: If sound can't travel in a vacuum, how come vacuum cleaners make so much noise?"

And Dr. Science replies, in a reassuring way: "Vacuum cleaners are, in themselves, silent. What makes the noise you find so offensive are the actual particles of dirt and pollution in the space being cleaned. Now if your living room were clean when you vacuumed, then your vacuum cleaner would make no noise at all...."

"The flaw in all this, of course, is that if your living room was clean, you wouldn't be vacuuming. Since there is no such thing as a perfectly clean living room, scientists had to prove this hypothesis by vacuuming in outer space, which is both a perfect vacuum and incredibly clean. Astronauts reported that even the most powerful, poorly maintained vacuum cleaners made absolutely no noise in space because there is no dirt there. Millions of your tax dollars went toward proving this."

Now, when you read these little stories, there is some good humor in them, but when you hear Doctor Science tell the story over the radio, with his voice meandering back and forth between sincerity and sarcasm, it's really a treat!

"Dear Dr. Science: Recently I was browsing through my local used-book store and saw an issue of 'Popular Science' from the early '50s. The front cover showed people flying around wearing rocket packs on their backs. Underneath the picture it said, 'Earth, 1990'. Now that it's 1993, where are the jet packs?"

And the authoritative voice of Doctor Science replies, "Well, I have mine... what did you do with yours? Perhaps you weren't paying attention a few years ago when Sears put them on sale at half price, with four refill solid-fuel boosters and afterburners included."

"In fact, I bought the whole lab crew their own, and we spent a few days doing nothing more than zipping around the parking lot, banging our heads into walls and skinning our knees when it came time to land. So don't criticize progress if you can't take the time to read the ads in your local newspaper. Frankly, it's people like you who put the geniuses behind quadraphonic sound out of business."

"Dear Dr. Science: What do protons and electrons do for a good time? Where do they do it?" —Party Animal, New Orleans.

"Electrons go to any popular subatomic particle bar to meet protons. Being negative by nature, they consume large amounts of alcohol in a vain attempt to charge themselves up. What happens after that is none of my business. Protons, being many times more massive than electrons, frequent trendy spas and gyms. These places, they find, are a good place to show off what they want other charged particles to see."

"Meanwhile, uncharged particles—neutrons and neutrinos—also have their own gathering places, although they're often the victims of harassment by immature particles who are insecure about their own valence."

"Dear Dr. Science: Why can't you divide by zero?"

"I don't know about you, but I can and often do divide by zero... but only after I've taken the proper precautions. First of all, I fast for 48 hours, consuming only mildly fluoridated water during that time. Next I don a special Mylar/Teflon suit and put on a digitally recorded CD of Gregorian chants."

"I begin by dividing very small numbers by other very small numbers. As the numbers get smaller and smaller, the sparks begin to fly. If all goes well, I take a deep breath and divide a very small number by zero."

"There's a flash of light, a muffled roar....and when I come to, the lab is filled with smoke and the scent of burning Mylar. So you see, you can divide by zero if you really want to. But chances are, you just don't want to badly enough!"

Over a month's time, you'll likely run into several other comments by the good Doctor on various ontological and psychiatric aspects of science. Personally, I enjoy the ones that start out, "Pease, I'm appalled by your ignorance," or, "If you did THAT, that would cause the end of life as we know it...." I wanted to find a good example in my tapes—couldn't find one—sigh!

Dr. Science is also available, for a reasonable fee, to come to your site and provide words of wisdom. His "lectures" are excellent, and when you toss him a hot question, he can field it and, in real-time, throw you back an answer that's really impressive. When he was living in San Francisco, we engaged him to come down and lecture us at a big picnic at NSC, and we were impressed. (But now he lives in Iowa, and travels to the coasts occasionally.)

What Dr. Science really would like is a corporate sponsor. Public Radio fees barely keep the program afloat. For a very reasonable fee, an electronics or computer or high-tech company could get great name recognition and/or product recognition by sponsoring the Dr. Science program. "If we could find an enlightened sponsor that doesn't mind marketing with its tongue in chic, they'd have a terrific deal," says Steve Baker, the series' executive producer. "They would reach an upscale professional audience, in an uncluttered drive-time atmosphere." Any serious corporate interest can reach Mr. Baker at 800-989-DUCK.

Meanwhile it's appropriate that this program is "...Produced by Duck's Breath," because if Doctor Science isn't a heck of a fine QUACK, who is??? And if you have any good questions about SCIENCE, or comments for Dr. Science, send them to me and I'll forward them to him.

All for now./ Comments invited!
RAP / Robert A. Pease / Engineer

Mail Stop C2500A,
National Semiconductor,
P.O. Box 58090,
Santa Clara, CA 95052-8090

P.S. One good idea that I wanted to do for an April Fool's issue is to write a column on Hoaxes. Not just spoofs or jokes, but REAL hoaxes in the electronics engineering field. Myself, I do not yet have quite enough stories to make a full column. Yes, I have info on the Tice Clock, and, yes, I have the digital system for burning in speaker cables. And YES, I have the company that proposed to fit in several digital bits after the end of one cycle of an RF signal, and before the start of the next cycle, and get more information across without requiring extra bandwidth. Yes, I will even mention the Signetics WOM (Write-Only Memory), although that was more of a spoof than a hoax. And the BD-1 Battery Discharger IC. But if you have any good stories of Hoaxes, send them to me and we'll do a good Column for next April.

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