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.
Science through the lens
Which lunch food has a shape that resembles a falling raindrop?
b. potato chip
c. hot dog
d. hamburger bun
e. all of the above
f. none of the above
If you chose (f), you’re like most people who think raindrops are shaped like tears.
If you chose (e), you’re probably just hungry.
In either case you’re wrong.
That leaves us with lunch. Let’s start from the top.
Choice (a), orange, is a sphere. Water droplets are spherical because water is cohesive, meaning it sticks to itself. The “skin” that holds the drop together is surface tension and the reason insects can walk on water.
If you chose (a), you made a logical choice based on the properties of water, but you are wrong. Notice that you were not asked to identify the shape of a raindrop sitting on a leaf. You were asked to identify the shape of a falling raindrop. (Always read questions carefully!)
Moving down the list to (b), we encounter the potato chip. Potato chips come in many shapes, ranging from relatively flat to completely crumpled. Have you ever seen a raindrop that looks even a little bit like a potato chip? If you chose (b) you are wrong, but have a good sense of humor.
Choice (c), hot dog, is an interesting option. Could a spherical drop of water morph into the cylindrical shape of a hot dog? After all, a hot dog is a cylinder with a hemisphere (half sphere) on each end. Could a water droplet in free fall separate itself into two hemispheres with a long drip of water in between? Although this is an imaginative idea, the laws of physics make it impossible.
Choice (d), hamburger bun, is the only remaining choice, and is the correct answer. Here’s why:
A raindrop is acted upon by three forces: gravity, buoyancy, and drag. Gravity is the force that pulls the drop toward the earth, while buoyancy of the surrounding air pushes it upward and keeps it from falling. When the force of gravity is greater than the force of buoyancy, the raindrop falls. The air around it creates drag, slowing the drop down to its maximum speed. In the process, the sphere is distorted into a shape that resembles a hamburger bun.
Got it? Now, you may go to lunch.
Bugs bite, drink blood, and rob food from gardens and fields. They can even kill plants, animals, and, occasionally, people. Is bugging a crime? In her latest book, Bug Shots, Alexandra Siy compiles "rap sheets" on several of the major categories of bugs and takes a very close look at some of the types of insects in an engaging text. For more information, click here.
Alex Siy 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
Siy, Alexandra. "The Race for the Sky." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 7 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ A-Raindrop-Quiz.
Daddy longlegs are the spiders we run across the most often, right? Think again.
How many body parts does a spider have? Two. A “head” (called a cephalothorax) and an abdomen (where that sticky silk comes from). How many body parts does a daddy longlegs have? One. So, these animals aren’t even spiders. Daddy longlegs are one of many animals called opilionids (oo-pill-ee-OH-nidz). They are in the same animal class as spiders (Arachnida), and they all have long legs so they look like spiders—but they’re a separate order.
Opilionids aren’t dangerous to humans, but their predators had better watch out. Scientist Dr. Thomas Eisner discovered that a daddy longlegs carries toxin in its armpits. His research began one day when travelling through Texas. He picked up a daddy longlegs and smelled it— that’s right, his nose was his scientific instrument. He observed an odd smell so he carted the creature back to his motel room and studied it. The smell was a toxic chemical called benzoquinone (say BEN-zo-qwi-NO-ne). So of course, Dr. Eisner wanted to know more about that!
The chemical is toxic when it is a gas or a liquid, but not when it is a solid. On the side of the animal’s body–basically in its armpit–Dr. Eisner found a sac-like gland. In that gland? Solid benzoquinone.
When a predator such as an ant threatens the daddy longlegs, he spits up a drop of gut juice. That liquid travels down a groove from his mouth to the gland. In less than a second, he dissolves a bit of that benzoquinone into the liquid and creates toxic ammunition. You know those two long legs daddy longlegs use as feelers? He dips the tip of one of them into the toxic drop then slaps it on his predator.
Take that you scary ant! They flee.
The opilionid can reload his feelers up to thirty times from one toxic drop. When his ammo runs low, all he needs to do is drink water and spit again. Other types of opilionids skip the feelers and just let the liquid ooze out around their body, creating a super toxic safety shield.
What other secrets might opilionids be hiding? Not many people study them, so who knows?!? Maybe you will sniff out a discovery!
Some bugs litter. Some pass gas. Some bugs throw their poop! Discover ten of the rudest, crudest bugs around. Full of scientific facts, humor and just the right amount of yuck, Heather L. Montgomery's How Rude! features a countdown of the top 10 bad bugs who just won't mind their manners. One part illustration and one part photography, How Rude! is hilarious, informative, and seriously gross!
MLA 8 Citation
Montgomery, Heather L. "Toxic Armpits." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 6 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ Toxic-Armpits.
Who would build the world’s tallest building – the powerful Bank of Manhattan Trust Company down on Wall Street or Walter P. Chrysler, the automobile tycoon up on 42nd Street? It was early 1929, and a race for the sky raged in New York City. In late summer, the newspapers reported that the bank soared to 973 feet, just two feet higher than planned for the Chrysler Building. To the king of cars this was intolerable, so he turned to his architect, William Van Alen, who decided to outfox the competition.
Five months later, people in New York were treated to an extraordinary sight. In 90 minutes, a splendid tower, topped by a silvery spire, with triangular windows, emerged from the building’s open roof. Secretly assembled in the fire shaft, it rose to a height of 1,046 feet, making the Chrysler Building the world’s tallest building.
Van Alen had given Chrysler a structure that not only scraped the sky, he also, most imaginatively, used details of cars as decorations. Near the top of the building perched eight eagle-headed gargoyles, based on the hood ornament of a 1929 Chrysler Plymouth. Thirty-six stories above the street, there’s a wrap-around frieze of stylized cars featuring real metal hubcaps and four giant radiator caps.
For a few months, until the Empire State Building took over as the world’s tallest building, Chrysler relished his number one status. His lavish apartment was near the top, and he boasted to friends and foes alike that he had the highest toilet in the city. So there he sat, on his porcelain throne, delighting in his elevated position.
Chrysler and Van Alen expected rave reviews when the building was completed, but that didn’t happen. “The height of commercial swank,” sneered The New York Times. “Stunt design, with no serious significance,” sniffed The New Yorker, and another newspaper accused the spire of having the “appearance of an uplifted swordfish.”
But things change. Now some 75 years later, the Chrysler Building is many people’s favorite skyscraper, and recognized as an outstanding example of Art Deco, the style of the twenties and thirties. Above all, there’s that incomparable swordfish-nose spire.
It was Van Alen’s aim to have the triangular windows lit up at night. And now, long after his death, they do, launching the Chrysler Building into the Manhattan sky with all the fantasy and glitter of the Jazz Age.
Roxie Munro is not only an author, but she is also an illustrator.
She did the art for Gargoyles, Girders & Glass Houses by Bo Zaunders, a superb picture book tribute to seven of history's most celebrated architectural wonder-workers; It takes readers from the domes of Florence to the mosques of Turkey, from the Eiffel Tower to the Chrysler Building. Stunning illustrations and lively text evoke the passion and genius of builders whose inspiring work spans five centuries and six countries. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "The Race for the Sky." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 5 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ The-Race-For-The-Sky.
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 you starting to notice the difference in the voices of the authors of the Nonfiction Minutes? Are you getting the idea that we are a passionate bunch of people with wide interests? Do you think you could recognize an author even if you didn't know who wrote a Minute?
How about bringing your favorite author to your school to answer questions about his or her MInutes? You can find out how through the Center of Interactive Learning and Collaboration. If you're a teacher it costs nothing to join and there are lots of other content providers listed whom you may find interesting. If you look at the drop-down list of providers, you'll see us under Authors on Call/iNK Think Tank. But here's the link for you to bring us to your school and talk to many classrooms in one visit through our fabulous Zoom Room. All you need is WiFi and a white board or projector and screen.
We give 'em reading that gets 'em talking!
Learn from many voices....