Nonfiction is the new black
Billy Mills was just a face in the crowd of nearly 30 runners at the 10,000-meter run at the 1964 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan. His best time was nearly a minute slower than the race favorites.
Part-Lakota Sioux Indian, Mills was a scrawny kid, who had grown up in poverty and racial bias. Whites regarded him as an Indian. Indians sneered that he was part-white and therefore not one of them.
His father had encouraged the boy to envision a better life: “You have to look deeper, way below the anger, the hurt, the hate, the jealousy, the self-pity, way down deeper where the dreams lie, son. Find your dream.”
Mills began finding his dream when he discovered his talent for running. He earned an athletic scholarship to the University of Kansas. Then he qualified for the U.S. Olympic team.
Still, no one expected anything of him. He asked for shoes from the company that outfitted American runners. Sorry, he was told. We only give shoes to potential medalists. You don’t qualify.
Mills kept a diary. Six weeks before the 10,000 meter race, he wrote “I’m in great shape….I’m ready for a 28:25 [twenty-eight minutes, twenty-five seconds].” He had never run that fast. Nor had any American. Nor anyone in any previous Olympics.
The gun sounded. As each of the 25 laps rolled by, more and more runners fell off the pace. At the start of the final lap, Mills was one of three runners still in contention. As they rounded the first turn, Australian Ron Clarke shoved Mills out into the third lane. Mohamed Gammoudi of Tunisia took advantage of the opening and pushed his way between the other two, knocking Mills off balance for a moment. As the runners headed down the final straight, television cameras showed a tight battle between Gammoudi and Clarke. Mills was nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly the television announcer screamed “Look at Mills! Look at Mills!” Mills bounded back into the picture, passing Clarke and then Gammoudi almost as if they were standing still. He maintained his pace to the finish line, five yards ahead of Gammoudi and ten in front of Clarke. His time of 28 minutes, 24.4 seconds was virtually identical to what he had visualized. He remains the only American to win the 10,000 meters at the Olympics.
Mills crossing the finish line in the 1964 Olympics.
Watch Mills run the final lap
Jim Whiting is a walking encyclopedia. He has written more than 180 (count 'em!) books on many subjects. You can learn more about him here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "No Shoes for You." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 21 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/no-shoes-for-you.
The “Julia Child” of kids’ hands-on science
Dr. Hugh Willoughby, of Florida International University, was one of the first meteorologists to ever fly into the eye of a hurricane. Now the job is done by the Hurricane Hunters—a team of pilots, navigators and meteorologists who fly into these dangerous storms to help keep us safe. Here’s what I learned when I interviewed Hugh Willoughby:
What is a hurricane eye?
Hurricanes are circular storms so the wind blows around in a circle. The eye is the center of a hurricane. If a circular storm doesn’t have an eye, it is not a hurricane—it’s a tropical storm. The eye is surrounded by a ring of clouds called the eyewall. Within the eye, there is a calm area that is cloudless all the way up to space. The winds are strongest just at the inner edge of the eyewall, which is composed of violent thunderstorms with strong updrafts and downdrafts. The hurricane pinwheels out from the eyewall as spiral bands of wind and rain, which stretch for miles. When a hurricane’s eye passes over land, the storm suddenly stops and the sun comes out. But the relief is short-lived as the other side of the storm soon slams into the area.
How do Hurricane Hunters help us?
Hurricane Hunters fly into the eye of hurricanes that are heading towards our shores to help predict where the storm will make landfall. On every mission they must find the center of the storm at least twice and at most four times over a period of several hours because the change in position of the center of the eye tells us the direction the storm is moving and how fast it is moving. They also drop packages called dropsondes that contain measuring instruments for air pressure, humidity, and wind speed at the eyewall. These measurements tell us the destructive power of the storm or its “category.” During a hurricane season (from June 1 to November 30) the Hurricane Hunters and their fleet of ten airplanes can get data on three storms, twice a day. So flying into a hurricane’s eye is pretty routine for them.
Is it dangerous?
The planes can easily handle changes in air pressure and wind speeds that create “bumps” and it can be pretty bumpy going through the eyewall. But, in more than sixty years there have been only four accidents. All on board agree that the view of the eyewall from inside the eye is worth it! The plane has transported them inside nature’s most magnificent amphitheater.
(c) Vicki Cobb 2014
Harvey and Irma have alerted everyone to the dangers of a hurricane. We can predict the course of a hurricane by flying into a hurricane and repeatedly measuring wind speed, humidity, air pressure, and temperature. Here's a video that will give you a taste of what it looks like as you approach an eye wall. It is filmed from a plane penetrating Hurricane Katrina.
MLA 8 Citation
Cobb, Vicki. "Flying into the Eye of a Storm." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 18 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/ flying-into-the-eye-of-a-storm.
by David M. Schwartz
the amazing, engaging, math exponent
A light year is not a year that has gone on a diet. It is not a year that’s been trimmed to 300 days. It’s not a year spent under high-wattage lamps. A light year isn’t any kind of year.
A light year is a distance. It is a vast distance; the distance light travels in a year. To appreciate a light year, you have to understand how fast light travels.
The speed of light is truly mind-boggling: 186,000 miles per . . . second. That’s “per second,” not “per hour.” In one tick-tock second, light travels a distance of 186,000 miles. If it could go in circles, it could travel around the earth more than seven times in just one second! But light travels in straight lines, not in circles. Imagine something traveling that fast in a straight line—not for a second, not for a minute, not for an hour, not for a day, but for an entire year. The distance it goes in that year is called a light year.
A light year is a convenient unit of measure when distances are enormous. You could talk about the same distances in miles. It's about 5,878,499,810,000 (5 trillion, 878 billion, 499 million, 810 thousand ) of them. But these measurements are so large that they are unwieldy. It's much easier to just name that enormous distance with two simple words: a "light year."
The star closest to our solar system is Proxima Centauri. Some of the light that leaves Proxima Centauri goes to Earth, cruising along at 186,000 miles per second. At that speed, light takes about 4.2 years to get to Earth from Proxima Centauri So how far away is Proxima Centauri? It is 4.2 light years away.
To give you an idea of how far that is, imagine going to Proxima Centauri in a spaceship traveling at the speed of the space shuttle — about ten miles per second. (That’s much faster than airplanes can fly.) You would get there in about 70,000 years.
Our Sun is much closer than Proxima Centauri. It is 93 million miles away. There is another way to refer to the distance from the earth to the Sun. Light leaving the Sun takes about eight minutes to get to Earth, so we say the Sun is eight “light minutes” away. If you traveled at the speed of light, you could get there in eight minutes. Have a nice trip!
© David M. Schwartz, 2014
David Schwartz has been fascinated by big numbers and big distances ever since he was a little boy riding his bicycle, wondering “How long would it take for me to ride to Proxima Centauri, 4.2 light years away?” He wrote about light years in his math alphabet book G Is for Googol.
David is a member of iNK’s Authors on Call. He can visit in your classroom via interactive video conferencing. Learn more here.
MLA 8 Citation
Schwartz, David M. "What Is a Light Year?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 14 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/what-is-a-light-year.
So do I stick my head into that glass-enclosed rectangular box? Will it fry my brain? Or will the damage show up in 20 years? Will my head come out looking like those primitive shrunken heads that repelled and fascinated me as a child?
I’ve volunteered to have my head 3-D printed, and am checking out the equipment at the State University of New York. As it turns out—great relief—I don’t have to stick my head into the box after all; that’s where the “printing” occurs, not the scanning.
The professor tells me to just sit upright and stay super still on a chair for a little over a minute, while his assistant uses a hand-held scanner—making several passes of the sides and top of my head and neck from about 30 inches away.
In a couple minutes, the glass box starts to make noise and comes alive. The “printing” begins. For the color of my little sculpted head, I’m given a choice of red or white. Red seems a bit creepy, so I go for white. The plastic substance is long and cord-like, about 1/8 inch in diameter, and wrapped around a big spool at the back of the printer. One thin white layer after the other is laid down. It builds up, and slowly a tiny replica of my head begins to take shape. Half an hour, and it’s done.
Sure enough, this looks like a miniature Roxie, about 2 inches high, with a flat back where it lay down on the printer, although the machine appeared to have quit just before it reached the tip of my nose, which is kind of cut off.
So what can be done with this new kind of printing? Well, it is already being used in dentistry for making crowns. Jewelry can be created from metals, even gold. You can actually make plastic guns using this method. Unfortunately (or should I say fortunately), they don’t work very well—the plastic gets distorted rapidly from the heat and action of shooting a bullet.
But maybe the most fun is making food. Nursing homes in Germany are taking pureed food and making it into appetizing shapes. NASA is researching making 3-D pizza in space. Instead of white plastic maybe I should have asked for chocolate—and turned myself into a delicious dessert.
Roxie and her mini-me.
(c) Roxie Munro 2014
Using works from the National Gallery of Art by Vincent Van Gogh, Mary Cassatt, Edward Hopper, and others, Roxie Munro has created an innovative introduction to art. As an artist contemplates her next painting, she introduces genres and subjects, showcasing reproductions of great works. The sweeping painting she creates cleverly incorporates all 37 pieces she has considered.
Children can have fun finding the masterpieces in her painting and learn more about the artists in the notes in the back matter.
Read a review here.
MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "Getting Your Head 3-D Printed." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 20 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/getting-your-head-3-d-printed.
Giving Voice to Children in History
If you yearn and burn to be a writer, how can you make that a reality? From the time I was a teenager, I wanted writing to be my life’s work. But even though I loved to write, how to become a writer stumped me. I thought education must be the answer and had master’s degrees in both English and journalism before I realized that the only one who could harness and develop my inner writer—my writing soul—was me. Like most writers before me, I had to mostly teach myself what I needed to know. I have since published hundreds of articles and a dozen books.
While writing a book about Charles Dickens, I was surprised to learn that even he—one of the greatest writers of all—also had to teach himself. Because of family circumstances, he had only two years of formal schooling, so he learned the fine points of grammar and style on his own. Beginning at age fifteen, he worked upward through a series of jobs until, based solely on his writing ability, he became a newspaper reporter. In his spare time he wrote stories, articles, sketches, essays, editorials, theatre reviews, and plays. Gradually he began getting published in a monthly magazine. It didn’t pay him, but he was honing his craft, finding and training his voice as a writer. Then a publisher who liked his magazine stories gave him the opportunity to write his first novel—and the rest is history.
My advice to you is Dickens’ advice to you: don’t wait for someone to give you permission to be a writer or to teach you how. Give yourself permission. Teach yourself. Just write. Do it every day. Write about what you see, what you feel, what you dream. Make up stories. Observe people closely: what they wear, how they speak, what they do, how they feel and why. Learn how to write articles and essays. Study your favorite authors and pattern your work after theirs. Don’t worry that you are mimicking them, for you will find your own style. Trust me on this. Draw from the wisdom and skill of writers who have gone before you, because everything you need to know, you can learn from them. When you’re ready, publication will follow.
Read, read, read. Write, write, write.
If you want to become a writer, start now.
Be a writer.
Charles Dickens at age 37
(c) Andrea Warren 2014
Andrea Warren often teaches writing classes, and she often talks about Charles Dickens and how writing ultimately comes down to teaching yourself. Warren talks more about the writing process on her website, And to learn more about Charles Dickens and his quest to become a writer, check out her book, "Charles Dickens and the Street Children of London."
Andrea Warren is also a member of Authors on Call. Bring her into your classroom via interactive video conferencing. Here’s where you can learn more about her and her programs.
MLA 8 Citation
Warren, Andrea. "How Do You Become a Writer? Ask Charles Dickens." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 21 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/how-do-you-become-a-writer-ask-charles-dickens.