The “Julia Child” of kids’ hands-on science
How do you know it’s the holiday season? There are lights everywhere sending that message. But that’s not the only kind of message light can send. A little more than 100 years ago when a telegraph began to become popular, people sent wireless messages called heliographs. They were made of flashes of light in Morse code (the same pattern of short and long as used in telegraphs) by reflecting the sun’s rays with a mirror. When the mirror was at a particular angle to the sun, it reflected a flash of bright light to observer miles away.
Maybe there’s another way to send light. Put a holiday light on one rim of a heavy glass measuring cup or dish. See where the light emerges on the rim on the opposite side. Move the light back and forth and watch what happens on the other side. The light travels down the side, and bends to go across the bottom and up the other side, but if you look at the cup sideways you can’t see the beam. Light stays inside the glass as it travels from rim to rim.
Could we make something like a wire from glass that can transmit light? Absolutely! An optical fiber is a flexible, transparent fiber made of glass or plastic that acts as a wire for light. Imagine a beam of light entering a fiber at exactly the right angle to bounce off the inside wall of the fiber where it meets the air. It is then reflected at exactly the same angle to bounce off the opposite wall making a zig-zag path until it reaches the end of the fiber. This internally reflected light stays inside the glass fiber as it travels at the speed of light.
HUGE quantities of all kinds of information—words, pictures, music, and videos—can now be sent through optical fibers, much more than through wires. A modern network with copper wiring can handle about 3,000 telephone calls at the same time, while a similar system using fiber optics can carry more than 30,000!
So when you hit “send,” know that your holiday message is a blinking beam of light, bouncing off the inside walls of a glass fiber on its speedy journey to friends and family. How ‘bout that!
Want to know more about optics? Have a look at Vicki Cobb's book Light Action! She co-authored it with her son, Josh, who is an optical engineer and her other son, Theo, drew the pictures. It's full of experiments that let you use optics to:
-Bend light around corners
- Stop time with a pair of sunglasses
- Capture light on a silver tray
- Magnify pictures with an ice cube
- Pour light into your palm
- Project a big-screen image from your small TV
- Fool a doorbell with a bike reflector!
For more information, go here.
Vicki 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
Cobb, Vicki. "What Can You Learn from a Holiday Light and a Glass Cup?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 14 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ What-Can-You-Learn-from-a-Holiday-Light-and-a-Glass-Cup.
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.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature's Animal Ambassador
How often do you check your cell phone or email each day? Use Twitter or Facebook? Can you stand not to “stay in touch” for even one day? We’re used to being able to hear from people anywhere in the world at any time, with just a few taps on a keyboard or telephone pad.
Through most of human history people could only communicate when they were within shouting distance. When alphabets came along, our ancestors could create messages on stone or wood and later on parchment (made from animal skin), or paper, made from wood pulp. Then, of course, the message had to get from one person to another by way of a messenger. When public mail came along, it made that process much easier and more reliable.
That’s where things stood for a long time. Imagine being a soldier in 1804 joining explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their epic trek across the west to the Pacific Coast. This was territory almost totally unknown at the time to European Americans.
You’ve left behind your family and all your friends. Now you have no way of finding out what happened to those dear to you. Did your father or mother die? Did a sister get married? How many babies were born? Your loved ones get to be a bit luckier, since in the spring of 1805, the keel boat that carried the expedition to Indian villages for the winter is sent back down the Missouri River with a small crew, and you get a chance to write notes to your loved ones, reassuring them that you are okay.
A lot can happen during a 2½ year span like the one endured by members of the expedition! Finally, in September of 1806, you and your colleagues return to the St. Louis area and find out that most people assumed you were all dead. Now you must figure out as quickly as possible how to reconnect with family and friends. It won’t be easy, since they don’t know you are alive, and you don’t know where they are after so long. How can you even locate everyone you care about?
Think about it: If you didn’t have email or a phone of any kind, whose messages would you miss the most? And who would you most wish you could tell about these events in your life?
Dorothy has written about how the horse changed the lives of the Plains Indians and everything that followed.
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. "Keeping in Touch." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 4 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/keeping-in-touch.
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