Sonora Webster of Georgia adored horses. At age five, she even tried to swap her baby brother for one. Alas, grownups disapproved. At age nineteen, in 1923, Sonora went to the Savannah fair. There she saw a huge, deep pool of water beside a tower as tall as a four-story building. High atop was a lady in a red swimsuit and circle of spotlight. At her signal, a gray horse pounded up the ramps. The lady jumped on. The horse tossed its snowy mane and tail, leaped into space, and down into the pool! Glittering sheets of water SPLASHED the shrieking crowd. After a breathless moment, the horse rocketed UP from the depths, made its way to the arena, and the smiling lady dismounted. How Sonora clapped and cheered— for that beautiful horse!
As it happened, the elderly showman who’d invented this amazing act needed extra ladies for his popular traveling shows. He advertised in the local paper:
“Likes horses?” THIS was the job for Sonora!
As a trainer, “Doc” Carver was tough, but so was Sonora. She learned how to dive with all five of Doc’s horses, all carefully trained and cared-for. (Veterinarians checked often to see that they were.) In time, she made countless dives— and fell for Doc’s son Al. They married. After Doc died, Al took over the act, starring Sonora and the magnificent diving horses.
Sonora met her day of destiny at Atlantic City’s Steel Pier, New Jersey’s great amusement park, July 14, 1931. She hopped astride Red Lips, her favorite horse. “Red” leaped from the tower. And somehow, Sonora hit the water face first, in the instant before she closed her eyes. They stung, but how could she know that the water collision had loosened her eyeballs’ retinas? She didn’t! Soon, despite medical treatments, 27-year-old Sonora saw her vision fading away. Could she accept that her diving days were over? She wouldn’t! She might have lost her sight, but her love and trust for her brave horses? Never! They’d keep flying through the air together, thrilling and splashing audiences for the next eleven years.
Sonora Webster Carver told her story in her 1961 memoir, A Girl and Five Brave Horses, which inspired a 1991 film, Wild Hearts Can’t Be Broken. She died at age 99, in 2003.
Because world-traveling sharpshooter, William Frank Carver had been a dentist, such friends as “Buffalo Bill” Cody called him “Doc.” Wikimedia
Sonora and her brave diving partner. Equine Inc.
An exciting day at Steel Pier, Atlantic City, N.J. NJ com
Cheryl Harness is an illustrator as well an author, as seen by her delightful poster-like illustrations in Women Daredevils by Julia Cummins. The book offers mini biographies of ten fascinating women who risked their lives in the late 1800s and early 1900s to entertain the public.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Splash!" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 17 Jan. 2018,
David M. Schwartz
The amazing, engaging, math exponent
Imagine Earth as a button. I don’t mean you’re going to sew it onto your shirt. But imagine the planet Earth shrunk to the size of a button. (Of course Earth is not flat like a button but we’re giving our shrunken Earth the same diameter as a shirt button.)
Go ahead and draw a circle around a shirt button. Call it “Earth.” Suppose you wanted to draw Jupiter, the largest planet, at the same scale as this micro-Earth. That means you’re going to shrink it to the same fraction of its original size as our button-Earth. What size would little Jupiter be?
One way to find out would be to calculate how many times bigger the real Jupiter is than the real Earth. Earth’s diameter is about 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers). Jupiter’s is about 88,000 miles (143,000 km). Divide the size of Jupiter by the size of Earth to see that Jupiter is about 11 times bigger.
So, since Jupiter’s diameter is 11 times that of Earth’s, put 11 buttons in a line to show the diameter of Jupiter. Then draw the circle that represents Jupiter. If you don’t have 11 buttons, just look at the picture. Did you think the Earth was a big place? Look at it compared with Jupiter!
But what about the sun? The sun’s diameter is about 865,000 miles (1,400,000 km). That means it’s almost 10 times bigger than Jupiter. Can you find a way to draw a circle 10 times the size of our Jupiter? We’ve drawn part of it for you, on the same scale as our button-sized Earth. On the picture, it’s labeled “our arc.” (An arc is part of a circle.) Looking at the arc, you can imagine the rest of the circle and compare the sun to Jupiter and Earth. A minute ago, you thought Jupiter was big. Now it looks shrimpy compared to the sun!
But is the sun really gigantic? Do some research to find out the size of a red giant star like the strangely named Betelguese (pronounced “beetle-juice.”) Figure out what it looks like compared to our sun, which is a medium-sized star. You may be amazed at the difference. And you thought the sun was big!
Is anything truly big? Is anything truly small? Or does that depend on what it’s being compared to?
Both images are by Marissa Moss, the illustrator of David M Schwartz's book, G is for Googol.
G is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book is a wonder-filled romp through the world of mathematics.
For more information, click here.
David Schwartz is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through Field Trip Zoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
Schwartz, David M. "If the Earth Were a Button." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 16 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Curiosity Queen: writing science, history, and everything in between
Regular visiting hours are over at the Buffalo Botanical Gardens, but the line to see Morty reaches out the door. It’s an event that comes once in a decade, so I’m happy to wait for my chance to see, and smell, what’s inside.
A year ago the Botanical Gardens acquired corms or bulbs of a tropical plant called the corpse flower. These aren’t little tulip bulbs you hold in your hand. The corpse flower corm weighs 120 pounds and looks like a giant potato. A corm that big needs a lot of energy to grow, so, it spends several months dormant underground. When the first hint of green peeks through the soil, it’s a guessing game as to what it will look like. Most of the time, the corpse flower will send up a slender shoot and one complex leaf that looks like a tree canopy. Through photosynthesis, this leaf will provide energy that will be stored in the corm. When there is enough energy stored up, Morty will flower. And that’s what I’m excited to witness.
Weaving my way through displays of cactus, palms, and banana trees, I wonder if someone forgot to take the trash out. The odor of rotting meat wrinkles my nose, and I realize why Morty is called a corpse flower. As we move closer, the air grows thicker. This plant has been dumpster diving.
The stink Morty sends forth is the plant’s way to attract pollinators in its native jungle of Sumatra. The flower only lasts a day or two, so the scent has to be pungent enough to quickly draw in dung beetles and carrion flies that will collect the pollen and distribute it to other plants before it wilts. It’s curiosity that lures me in.
I round the corner and catch my first glimpse of the stinker. Since it poked out of the ground it has grown five to six inches every day, and now Morty’s seven-foot spire, called a spadix, towers over me. I have to step back to catch the entire plant in my camera lens. Like a wicked witch’s collar, Morty wears a single pleated, blood red flower petal wrapped around the spadix. By midnight the flower will be fully opened and have reached maximum reek.
I click more pictures and take a deep breath. It will be a long time before Morty blooms again, and I want to remember every smelly detail.
Peggy Thomas certainly is a Curiosity Queen. You'll recall that her last Nonfiction Minute showed her taking an elephant's temperature -- not an easy task. Her book Anatomy of Nonfiction shows other authors how to write about real events.
To read about some of Peggy's other adventures and to find out about her books, visit her website.
MLA 8 Citation
Thomas, Peggy. "Morty Makes a Stink." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 9 01 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/Morty-Makes-a-Stink.
Stephen R. Swinburne
I really like vultures. Sure, they’re ugly and they eat nasty dead things. But those are not necessarily bad characteristics.
First let’s deal with “ugly.” Vultures’ bald heads are what make them seem ugly to most people. But think about why they’re bald. Imagine thrusting your head inside the carcass of a white-tailed deer to reach the meat. A feathered head might capture bits of flesh, blood and gore and you end up with a face full bacteria and flies. Scientists believe that one reason vultures have evolved featherless heads is to aid in hygiene. A bald head stays clean and any remaining germs or bacteria are baked off by the sun. Vultures have also found that a bald head can help with temperature regulation. When it gets cold they can tuck their heads down to keep their neck covered with feathers. When it’s hot, vultures can extend their neck to expose bare skin. Their bald heads work so well that I wrote a poem about them.
It’s best to have no feathers,
When you stick your head in guts,
That way you don’t go walkin’ round,
Your noggin dripping schmutz.
Moving on to “eating nasty dead things,” the next time you see vultures eating a dead animal on the side of the road, be thankful! That carcass might be dead from rabies or contaminated with other harmful diseases. Vultures have the amazing ability to consume rotting and diseased flesh and stay healthy. It’s all in the stomach. Vultures possess very powerful stomach acids that destroy most bacteria and deadly viruses. In fact, vulture stomach acid is so strong it can dissolve metal! Except if that metal is lead shot -- many turkey vultures are killed every year by consuming shot that they encounter in dead deer. Vultures are the world’s natural “sanitation workers,” helping to stop the spread of disease.
I’m so appreciative of the work they do, I even wrote a poem about eating dead things:
I like my meat dead,
It’s best if it’s not moving.
Don’t want to see one final twitch,
I prefer it oozing
So, the next time you see a vulture circling in the noonday sky, think about the valuable and important clean up service this bird provides to us and to the environment. Maybe I’ll write a poem about that….
Steve Swinburne is a science writer, but as you can see from this Minute, he likes to write poetry too. In his book Ocean Soup, he offers verses in the voices of tide-pool animals, including the barnacle, sea urchin, sculpin, mussel, starfish, hermit crab, anemone, and lobster. For more about Steve's poetry, click here.
Steve Swinburne is a member of iNK's Authors on Call and is available for classroom programs through FieldTripZoom, a terrific technology that requires only a computer, wifi, and a webcam. Click here to find out more.
MLA 8 Citation
Swinburne, Stephen R. "In Praise of Vultures." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ In-Praise-Of-Vultures.
Celebrating the History of Science
and the Science behind History
Imagine you’re driving home from your favorite take-out restaurant when you suddenly encounter a giant boulder in the middle of the road. With luck, the person at the wheel has time to slam on the brakes and then drive around it.
Scientists are refining a technology that helps cars avoid collisions and traffic jams. Cars will be programmed to “see” a roadblock or sudden slowdown before the driver does. And some of this technology is based on . . . ants.
Leafcutter ants, to be specific. Leafcutters can be any of a number of species of ants equipped with powerful mandibles (jaws). They travel in long lines through the rainforest, leaving a scent along the trail to find their way back. After an ant saws a chunk out of a leaf, it flings it over its back and then joins the super-highway of nest-mates heading back to the nest. Once there, the ant’s colleagues chew the vegetation into a pulp and then mix it with ant poop and fungus spores. The ants eat the resulting fungus that grows from the decomposed goop.
According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Biology, scientists blocked the path and created a narrow passageway between leafcutter ants and their nest, to see what the ants would do. Not only did the ants at the front show the ants behind them an efficient route back to the nest, but the chain of ants also somehow communicated, ant by ant, the need to carry a smaller piece of leaf to fit through the narrower passage the scientists had created.
And none of them bumped into anything, even while lugging leaves ten times their body weight. By working together and adapting quickly, the ants communicated information and reinforced the trail using what scientists call “distributed intelligence.”
And ants don’t just help car engineers. Scientists in other fields have been studying ant traffic patterns for all sorts of different systems where massive amounts of interacting units have to move around without crashing into one another. Besides traffic jams, scientists are studying ways to apply ant-like ingenuity to fields of study such as molecular biology and telecommunications.
Sara Albee's book, Why'd They Wear That?, was published by National Geographic in 2015. Get ready to chuckle your way through centuries of fashion dos and don'ts! In this humorous and approachable narrative, you will learn about outrageous, politically-perilous, funky, disgusting, regrettable, and life-threatening creations people actually wore in public.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Ants in a Jam." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 4 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ Ants-in-a-Jam.
Are skunks aggressive, dangerous animals? Or are they peaceful animals that try to avoid trouble? Well, biologists who study skunks think of them this way: if life were a sport, skunks would be known for their strong defense and for playing fair.
Skunk stinkiness comes from a chemical weapon called musk. Foxes, weasels, and some other mammals also produce musk, but skunk musk is especially strong and long-lasting. And only skunks use musk to defend themselves from attack.
Picture a skunk ambling along in the night, looking for food. It digs in the soil to get tasty earthworms and beetle grubs. The black and white fur that comes with just being a skunk sends a warning. This color pattern is unusual among mammals. It signals: "Beware, don't mess with me!"
Suppose a coyote or other predator ignores this first warning. It steps toward the skunk. When a skunk feels threatened, it faces the danger. It raises its tail and tries to look as big as possible. It stamps its feet and clicks its teeth together. It may growl or hiss.
Oh, oh! Despite all of these warnings, the coyote growls and comes closer. Now the skunk gets really serious. It twists its body into a U-shape, so it can see the coyote and also aim its rear end toward it. The skunk's tail arches over its back, away from its rear—the final warning. This gives the skunk a clear shot, and also protects its own fur from the stinky musk. Skunks try to avoid smelling bad!
From two grape-sized glands, a skunk can spray musk as a fine mist, or squirt a stream. It can squirt accurately for about 12 feet (3.7m), and hit an attacking animal right in the face. The musk stings the predator's eyes, and can blur its vision for a while. And it stinks! Animals hit with this musk learn to never bother a skunk again.
A skunk's glands store enough musk to fire a half dozen shots but then need a week or so to produce more. This is seldom a problem, since a skunk sprays only when its life seems to be in danger. Some skunks can go for months or even years without spraying musk. That's fine with them. Skunks want to avoid trouble, and "play fair" with their many warnings.
A skunks’s stripes point to where the spray comes out. A 2011 study found that animal species that choose fight over flight when faced with a predator often have markings that draw attention to their best weapon. So while a badger has stripes on his face to highlight his sharp teeth, skunks’ stripes are perfectly positioned to highlight their ability to spray potential threats. By http://www.birdphotos.com via Wikimedia Commons
Skunks are so nice that some people want to keep them as pets. The striped skunk is the most social skunk and the one most commonly domesticated. The legality of keeping skunks as pets in the US varies by state, with it being illegal in a majority of them. By Matt MacGillivray via Wikimedia Commons
Larry Pringle has written many animal books, among them The Secret Life of the Red Fox. His The Secret Life of the Skunk will be published by Boyds Mills Press in 2019. It is about spring and summer in the lives of a mother striped skunk and her kits.
ML 8 Citation
Pringle, Laurence. "How Skunks Play Fair." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/how-skinks-play-fair.
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