Curiosity queen: writing science, history, and everything in between
Two hundred thirty-one years ago today Thomas Jefferson celebrated his 44th birthday riding a mule over the Alps on his way to Italy. Jefferson’s first official federal position after writing the Declaration of Independence was serving as Minister to France under President George Washington. Jefferson’s job was to grow America’s economy, which he did by forming trade agreements to sell whale oil and tobacco overseas. He also looked for new crops that could be grown in the U.S. and sold in Europe.
One thing he noticed was that the French ate a lot of rice, but they didn’t buy rice grown in America. The French preferred dry or upland rice. American farmers grew “swamp” rice and suffered with mosquitoes and malaria. Jefferson thought that if American farmers switched to upland rice they would not only be able to sell it abroad, they would also be healthier.
Jefferson asked for samples of upland rice from friends, farmers, ship captains who traveled to far off lands, and even the seven-year-old prince of Cochin China. The most prized rice, however, was grown in Italy and banned from export.
Determined to help America, Jefferson rode over the Alps and found the unhusked grain. “I could only bring off as much as my coat and surtout [overcoat] pockets would hold,” he wrote a friend. Under penalty of death, he smuggled it across the border.
Back in France, Jefferson sent rice to farmers in South Carolina and to his farm manager at Monticello, his home in Virginia. He even grew samples of rice in pots on his windowsill when he returned to New York to be Secretary of State.
Unfortunately, the upland rice didn’t grow well in the South and didn’t become a big export for the U.S., but Jefferson was not discouraged. He had already set his sights on another amazing plant that he hoped would be “the source of the greatest wealth and happiness.” Olive trees.
Many years later when Jefferson listed his achievements, along with writing the Declaration of Independence he included his attempts to bring rice and olives to the United States. “The greatest service which can be rendered any country,” he said, “is to add an useful plant to its culture.”
Celebrate his birthday with a salad made from some of the useful plants he brought to our culture— kale, tomatoes, peppers and chickpeas with a splash of olive oil.
Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson!
Peggy Thomas is the author of Thomas Jefferson Grows a Nation
Among her other books are:
* For the Birds: the life of Roger Tory Peterson
* Snow Dance
* Farmer George Plants A Nation
* Joshua the Giant Frog
* Forensic Anthropology: the Science of Talking Bones
MLA 8 Citation
Thomas, Peggy. "Happy Birthday Thomas Jefferson - Smuggler!" Nonfiction Minute,
iNK Think Tank, 13 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
The United States, in the 1880s, had become an industrial power in the world, but factory workers could hardly feed their families. Miners spent long days down in the dangerous dark, digging a wealth of coal out of the earth, yet they were dirt-poor. Farm families were going broke too. They barely had the money to pay rich bankers the interest on loans they took out to buy seeds or to pay what the railroad charged to ship the crops that hadn’t dried up in a drought or got gobbled by hungry grasshoppers. Many a broke homesteader went back east. Lettered on the covers of their wagons: “IN GOD WE TRUSTED. IN KANSAS WE BUSTED!”
Mary E. Lease, a Pennsylvania schoolteacher, went to Kansas, but she stayed there. And she was among the multitudes, who wondered why so many Americans were so poor in a country that was so rich? Where was the money going? Judging from what she read in the papers and heard down at the general store, the money seemed to be in the pockets of men who owned the mines, factories, railroads, and banks. And rather than pay people decent wages, they seemed to be paying politicians to make laws to help them stay rich and get richer. Sound familiar?
In the early 1890s, folks got together and formed their own “People’s (or Populist) Party.” What did they want? Fairness, more government regulations, less silver, and more printed paper money. It wouldn’t be worth as much; but at least there’d be more of it to go around! And right in the middle of this uprising was fiery Mrs. Lease.
At rallies around the Midwest, the South, even at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, Mrs. Lease whipped up the crowds, crying out, “We are for humanity against the corporations – for perishing flesh and blood against the money bags!” People called her a “Patrick Henry in petticoats,” after the great Revolutionary War speechmaker. “Wall Street owns the country. When I get through with the silk-hatted easterners, they will know that the Kansas prairies are on fire!”
Oh, they knew it all right, for a while anyway. While it raged, this political tornado blew nine Populists into Congress. But the people’s movement fizzled out in the early 1900s. At least old Mrs. Lease lived to see some populist dreams come true. In the early 1930s, when so many Americans hit bottom, Franklin D. Roosevelt became President. Under FDR’s “New Deal” policies, the people got help from their very own government and the Wall Street banks and businesses were reined for a considerable time. Ah, but they’ve regained much of their former power and Mary E. Lease lies restless in her grave.
The perfect browsing volume for Women's History Month, Cheryl Harness's Rabble Rousers offers short, spirited profiles of twenty women who, like Mary E. Lease, impacted life in America by speaking out against injustice and fighting for social improvements. The folksy, friendly narrative introduces such fascinating figures as Sojourner Truth, abolitionist preacher; Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a Civil War physician; Margaret Sanger, birth control pioneer; and Doris Haddock, a ninety-two-year-old champion of campaign-finance reform. The book spans over two hundred years of American history and includes time lines for such important social movements as abolition, woman suffrage, labor, and civil rights. Readers inspired by these fiery women can use the civil action tips and resources in the back of the book to do some of their own rabble-rousing. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Mary E. Lease: Queen of the Populist Tornado." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 12 Apr. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Nonfiction is the new black
The Renaissance began in Europe in the 15th century and marked the change from the medieval period to the modern world. Towering figures such as Michelangelo, Galileo, and especially Leonardo da Vinci were known as Renaissance men because of their talents and lasting achievements in several important areas of knowledge. They were also accomplished musicians, public speakers, athletes, poets, and so forth. And they were expected to do all this stuff without breaking a sweat.
You could give the same title to an ancient Egyptian named Imhotep, who lived about 2600 BCE. He was the vizier, the most important government official, during the reign of Pharaoh Djoser. He served as the high priest of the god Ra and was an expert astronomer.
Imhotep designed and oversaw the building of the first major pyramid in Egypt. Located at Saqqara, at the time it was the world’s tallest structure. He innovated the use of stones rather than mud bricks to build it, and it was that added strength that enabled the pyramid to rise so high. He is also credited with the invention of several devices that facilitated the construction.
Many people believe that Imhotep, rather than the Greek Hippocrates who lived more than 2,000 years later, is the real “Father of Medicine.” In an era when most physicians relied on magic spells and appeals to the gods, Imhotep prescribed dozens of effective down-to-earth treatments for illnesses and injuries.
He is credited with ending a seven-year famine in Egypt. He advised the pharaoh to make sacrifices to Khnum, the god of the annual flooding of the Nile River, and thereby provide desperately needed water to farmers. On a more practical level, he invented an improved irrigation system to carry water to the crops even if the river level was abnormally low.
In addition to these accomplishments, an inscription at the base of one of his statues notes that he was “Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor, and Maker of Vases in Chief.” In his little spare time, he wrote poetry and dispensed philosophical advice.
Imhotep can also boast of two accomplishments that eluded even Leonardo da Vinci. He was deified after his death and worshipped for many centuries, an honor accorded to hardly anyone besides the pharaohs. And today the comic book community gives him the credit for founding S.H.I.E.L.D., the Marvel Comics espionage and crime-fighting agency that became the basis for blockbuster movies such as Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.
Jim Whiting has written a book on another great Egyptian leader -- Ramses the Great who lived about 1350 years after Imhotep. He fully lived up to the "Great" part of his name. His reign lasted for 67 years, the second longest in Egypt’s 3,000-year history. He had dozens of wives and more than 100 children, outliving many of them. He was a military leader who expanded the borders of his country. That resulted in decades of peace and prosperity for his people. He ordered huge statues of himself to be erected all over Egypt. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "A Renaissance Man - 4,000 Years before the Renaissance."
Nonfiction Minute`, iNK Think Tank, 8 Feb. 2018,
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
You probably eat bananas at least once a week—they are the most popular of all fruits, even surpassing the apple. But have you ever noticed that bananas have no seeds? Probably not. You just peel them and enjoy their soft, seedless flesh without even thinking about seeds.
If you’d been strolling through a tropical forest in New Guinea thousands of years ago and reached up to pluck a wild banana snack, you wouldn’t have wanted to eat it. The banana ancestors had big hard seeds surrounded by a small amount of sweet flesh, not worth peeling. Sometimes, however, plants appeared with fruit that had no seeds. Over time, people cherished these seedless fruits and grew the plants for their own use.
The banana plant sends up a central stalk surrounded by very large leaves, then flowers at the tip. The flowers produce a heavy load of bananas without being pollinated. Then the stalk dies. Meanwhile, the stalk sends out side shoots that become new plants. That’s a form of cloning, meaning that all of a banana plant’s progeny are genetically identical, both to their parent and to one another.
The ancestors of the modern banana could reproduce in the usual way, so their seeds contained mixtures of DNA from the mother plant and DNA from another plant’s pollen. This “sexual reproduction” allows for the genes of the plants to be combined in new ways. If a disease came along, it might kill most of the plants, but some others could have natural resistance and survive.
Because it lacks seeds, the banana has gotten into trouble. Back in the 1950s, an especially sweet and tasty variety called the Gros Michel was the commercial banana. But a devastating fungus came along and killed the plants and contaminated the soil. Growers then chose another variety, Cavendish, which resisted the disease. But now a wilt called Panama disease has shown up that kills the Cavendish plants. And because bananas lack genetic diversity and because they don’t develop seeds that mix up their genes, the Cavendish has no way of defending itself.
Banana growers are doing what they can to stop the spread of the disease, however, and up to now they have been successful. But don’t be surprised if in a few years the bananas you buy look and taste different. Luckily, there are other varieties out there, like small “finger” bananas and larger red-skinned fruits, that you can already buy in places like Hawaii.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent's new nonfiction picture book about horses has a fresh focus: how people over the ages have decorated horses in special ways. Organized into three categories—warfare and hunting, performance and competition, performance, and ceremony—the book introduces horses such as the chariot-pulling war horse of the Persians to the rose-decorated winner of the Kentucky Derby. For more information, click here.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent 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.
MLA 8 Citation
Patent, Dorothy Hinshaw. "The Flaw in the Seedless Banana." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 21 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ the-nonfiction-minute/The-Flaw-in-the-Seedless-Banana. Accessed 21 Dec. 2017.
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