What's in your wallet?
People carry money about, save it, and spend it, but often know almost nothing about it.
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At this point, my students were leaning forward, their eyes bright. It was clear that the idea of a president wearing a wig with a ponytail and bow – a real hepcat – was far more interesting than a discussion of the taxonomic position of the blowfish.Skip to next paragraph
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We moved on to paper money. "Who's on the dollar?" I asked, as if positing the opening question of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" Washington was a no-brainer for them. Lincoln on the five-spot was also an easy one, Hamilton on the $10 stumped a few, Jackson on the $20 a few more, and only one person placed Grant on the $50. None of them knew that Hamilton was the only one of these men who was never president.
How about the $100 bill? Interestingly, most knew Ben Franklin. But I left them in the dust when I asked them about the now-extinct $500, $1,000, and $5,000 notes (William McKinley, Grover Cleveland, James Madison). And then, as a sort of coup de grâce, I brought out the big gun: "Who," I asked, "is on the $100,000 bill?"
This one unsettled them. "There's no such thing!" one bold male exclaimed, to cheers of approbation for his taking a stand against the suggestion that such a large note could possibly exist.
"At one time there was," I said, calming the crowd. "And the portrait was of a First World War-era president."
You mean, there was a war before the Second World War? Well, yes. But none of my students knew the name of the chief executive at the time (Woodrow Wilson).
Our excursion through US currency and its lore was time well spent because the unspoken message it conveyed was that in science, it's important to be good observers, to look closely, and to ask questions. As we ended the topic, one student asked why a person would want to own a $100,000 bill.
"Actually, it's illegal for a private citizen to own one," I said. "They were used only for transactions between Federal Reserve banks."
"What if I find one lying around?" asked the class wisecracker, generating a few supportive laughs.
"That's easy," I said. "Give it to me. I'll take care of it." And I certainly would.