March 08, 2013

Moderate pressure. No spinning. You heard it here first.

It’s been more than two years since the last time I visited Phantom Scribbler but it didn’t seem like that at all. I walked into her home, she put the kettle on for tea, and we sat right down at the table, talking like crazy. She’d even made my favourite vegan chocolate cake. It's a delicious tradition.

Her kids came home from school – BB from third grade and LG from sixth grade – and we settled cozily near the bay window, chatting in the afternoon light. BB told me about the novel she’s writing. Phantom and I talked about blogging days of yore. LG brought down his homework, an odd graphing assignment that resulted in a picture of what was either a banana or a cob of corn — we couldn't tell which even after a considerable amount of time debating the issue. "I don't think real scientists use graphs for dot-to-dot pictures anyhow," I assured him. "At least, I'm pretty sure they don't."

Then LG brought out a cool vertical pencil sharpener, an electric one that sharpened pencils like magic. Of course, I had to try it. After a couple of pencils, I asked him, “Are you supposed to let the pencil spin – or hold it still?”

He wasn’t sure. But we thought the question was worth researching. If we could figure out how to most efficiently sharpen a pencil, that might revolutionize the field of pencil sharpening. BB offered to join our research team. “It could save kids from standing in line to sharpen their pencils,” she said. That seemed a worthy goal.

We set up a controlled experiment in which we sharpened pencils, holding some still and letting others spin, and timing how long it took to get them sharp. Soon the window seat was filled with pencils in various stages of sharpness. LG kept track of time while BB carefully recorded the results. But then our simple experiment got complicated. The amount of pressure we put on the pencils was skewing the results. Clearly, we need to take our research to another level.

We decided we could keep the pressure consistent by balancing a book on top of the pencil, letting just the weight of the book provide the pressure. That brilliant idea led to a heated debate amongst the research team as to which book to use. “It’s important that we choose carefully,” said LG. “After we publish our findings, people will want to replicate the experiment.”

He was right, of course. I could imagine scientists all of the world wanting to test our hypothesis. And what if they used the wrong Harry Potter book? The Goblet of Fire is so heavy it could totally mess up the results.

Then we stumbled on the idea of using canned goods. The weight is listed right on every can, which made them the perfect lab equipment. "And they're organic,"said BB, selecting a big can of tomatoes and a little one. It seemed important that we use only products we felt comfortable promoting.  We chose three different sizes for light, moderate, and heavy pressure. LG opened his computer so we could record the data in Excel.

We worked hard that afternoon, balancing cans of tomatoes and jars of minced ginger on pencils while the little motor of the sharpener whirred. At one point, we had to call in an expert to empty the container, since we'd pretty much filled it to the top with pencil shavings, and we had to pause to eat the delicious dinner that that same expert had prepared while we were conducting our research.

It was an exciting study. We came up with results that will change the way people all over the world sharpen pencils. We’re planning to publish our findings, of course, and in fact, we recorded a video that featured a pencil-sharpening demonstration by the two youngest members of the research team as well as some cool sliding across the hardword floor, but I’m going to announce our conclusions here on my blog for the whole world to see.

Moderate pressure. No spinning. That’s the winning combination. Remember that, the next time you sharpen a pencil.

15 comments:

liz said...

I am torn between being eaten up with jealousy and bursting with awe of your mad scientific method skillz.

undine said...

I never thought about this before (horizontal pencil sharpener at Chez Undine), but once you posed the question, I was in a fever to know. That's not just science; that's good science writing!

Anonymous said...

You must purchase:

http://www.amazon.com/How-Sharpen-Pencils-Theoretical-Contractors/dp/1612190405/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1362767283&sr=8-1&keywords=pencil+sharpening

I beleive the author will also perfectly hand sharpen pencils for you for a small price, at least he used to. Sounds like you don't need that service though!

readersguide said...

I have to say that I think my independent observations, although scientific, back up your results.

readersguide said...

unscientific, I meant --

Sandy said...

Ha ha. You are too funny.

Sandy said...

Ha ha. You are too funny.

Phil said...

I tried it a couple different ways, but ultimately the sharpener didn't like the mass-density of the plastic on my Pentel.

susan said...

This will revolutionize how we sharpen pencils at the office, for sure. I saw a few mentions of this work in progress on twitter and was wondering just how the ginger got into the act!

Phantom Scribbler said...

Laughing! I must inform the research team that you have publicized their results...

robin andrea said...

I'm just savoring the news that you and Phantom Scribbler and the kids got together. I miss the gang from the early blogging days.

Excellent pencil sharpening experiments!

Lomagirl said...

Please come over to my house while I'm making dinner and play with my kids!
BTW- I thought of you and the fun you have at conferences since I was at one in the Windy City this week. No one asked to take my picture sans apparel, though.

Chichimama said...

Fun! I miss he bloggy days of yore...glad to hear that you and Phantom and the kids had a chance to catch up.

Anonymous said...

Aw, you got to see Phantom? Lucky you!

Mary Stebbins Taitt said...

HOW FUN! How absolutely endearing! :-D