Small-fry science

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Small-fry science

ANSAN - Like any politician, Kim Young-hwan knows how to work a room. But how many politicians have to deal with a room full of 10-year-olds? No problem for Mr. Kim, the minister of science and technology - he turns to poetry and science to keep the 50-odd schoolchildren enthralled here at Seong Po Library in Gyeonggi province.

Getting kids to study can be tough in the best of times. Getting them interested in something as dry and difficult as science is even tougher. So Mr. Kim took matters into his own hands - he wrote a book of poems that address science from a child's perspective - "Does a Fart Catch Fire?"

Apparently, his approach is finding more than a little success. On a cold, Saturday afternoon 50 children have gathered in a local library to hear Mr. Kim read from his new book.

"How many of you use Internet chatting?" he asks. Almost every hand goes up. So he starts reading a poem he wrote with his daughter, Ha-neul, called "Internet Buddy Buddy." He talks to the kids about Internet homepages, and it is clear that this roomful of children are firmly embedded in the electronic age.

Going from the familiar to the ancient, he next introduces Archimedes, the ancient Greek mathematician and inventor. During his reading of "Archimedes and His Father," laughter fills the library at the frequent sound effects in his poem, like "Kung kung, kwang kwang" ("bang bang") and "ding dong daeng dong" (the sound of a door chime), as well as when he explains that Archimedes shrieked his famous "Eureka" mainly because his father made him take a bath.

"Does a Fart Catch Fire" addresses science at a fun and often scatological level that kids appreciate. Forty-four poems, accompanied by bright illustrations and more detailed descriptions of the science behind the poems, take on such riveting subjects as peeing on earthworms, whether fish can catch colds, the mucus in people's nostrils and a plea for understanding by an intestinal bacterium.

In a poem titled "News Conference by the Colon Bacillus," Mr. Kim brings to life a microorganism found deep within the stomach:

Really, trust me

I have never harmed the master of the large intestine,

In which I live,

I have never thought of that.

People think of me as

A bad, dirty germ,

But I divide my body

And make vitamin K for my master,

Without me, the large intestine

Can't absorb water and will get diarrhea.

People are so strange

They all hate me, but,

I ferment products and eat from

Similar looking germs like lactic acid.

If we continue to be insulted,

We will leave the large intestine

In order to protect the rights of bacteria

Would you still neglect us then?

And in "My Sister Has Wide Nostrils," Mr. Kim goes into almost gruesome detail about the contents of the human proboscis:

My sister has wide nostrils.

Rice cake-like thick nasal mucus comes down

Past the upper lips into the tonsils

In and out of the mouth.

A slightly chubby man who radiates youthfulness and warmth, Mr. Kim, 46, knows how important it is to engage young people with science - and how difficult. "The hardest part of writing this kind of book is making it interesting and relevant," he said, "It has to be easy for children, but it also must get their interest."

The book is just one part of the "Science Book Movement" that Mr. Kim introduced in June, aimed at getting more science books into schools and getting scientists to be more active in promoting science to young people.

Obviously Mr. Kim is not your typical government minister. It took him 15 years to earn his degree in dentistry at Yonsei University because he was so involved in the democracy movement in the 1970s and1980s. Actually, he was jailed twice and expelled from Yonsei before finally earning his degree. He published his first book of poetry in 1988; since then he has written three more poetry books, a children's book titled "Daddy Eats Doo-doo," three essay collections and, of course, the "Fart" book.

Back in the library, after reading several poems from the "Fart" book, he turns to "Daddy Eats Doo-doo," a book of poems that range from informative to Lewis Carroll-like nonsense.

"Do you know this book?" he asks. Many of the kids shout out "yes." "Daddy Eats Doo-doo" is not scientific, just fun. His daughter Ha-neul is in the library's audience, so he calls her up to read from the book. She reads the title poem. Her voice is quiet, but clear, and the room rocks with children's laughter one more time for the unconventional verse.

Afterward, children and parents seem pleased by the unusual poetry reading. One girl, Kim Han-gyeong, 10, says, "It was really interesting and funny." Her friend, Lee Eun-jeong, also 10, agrees: "I have the book at home. I really like it."

Responses like that bring a smile to the minister. "The core of science and technology is imagination and creativity," Mr. Kim said. "We can get scientific imagination and creativity through art. Even Einstein said that imagination is more important than knowledge."

"Does a Fart Catch Fire?" has sold so well since it was published five months ago (12,000 copies thus far) that Mr. Kim is at work on two follow-up books. Korea's educational system may not be the same again. And that's a good thing.


"Does a Fart Catch Fire?"

Is it possible to light a fart?

Doesn't it sound ridiculous yet fun?

It sounds like a question for a television program

But it was discussed seriously at NASA.

What happens if astronauts in space

Could not control their farts and "ppung," shot one off

And it caught fire?

Like the fart itself, it is a fun and interesting problem.

Yes, indeed, a fart is a problem, problem.

Yet my granddaddy likes farting so much

That he farts whenever he pleases

My daddy sounds "ppuppung-ppuppung," like a motorbike,

Granddaddy farts "ppung-ppurureung," like an automobile.

How about sending my daddy and granddaddy to NASA?

Korea's master-farters

Could help the experiments and studies anytime.

By the way, it is possible to light a fart?

by Mark Russell

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