In spring 1665 a college student named Isaac Newton studied natural philosophy, what we call “science.” Back then, a good student could learn everything to know about the natural world. But plague, the Black Death, came to England. Cambridge University closed. Isaac went home to Woolsthorpe.
For two years Isaac thought about his studies during four years at university. He’d always been thoughtful—not the best at games, making friends, or minding sheep. But everybody knew Isaac Newton liked to think. Folks told time by the sundial he’d drawn on a wall.
Home at Woolsthorpe, Isaac’s learning about science and math bubbled up in his head like yeast rising in a loaf of bread.
So... Newton unplugged. His mind roamed like that of an artist or composer. He was driven by the need to create—not paintings or symphonies, but questions.
“Why do things always fall down?”
“Why does the earth move around the sun?
“Why doesn’t the moon fall onto the earth?”
“Does everything ‘up there” work like things work ‘down here?’”
Isaac Newton answered his questions with three science rules, Newton’s Laws of Motion.
At Woolsthorpe, Newton grappled with the concept of moving objects. He worked out the math to find the area under curves. He called this math fluxions. Today we call this calculus, useful for launching rockets or tracking TV signals.
Once back at Cambridge, Newton said nothing until he read someone else’s paper on fluxions. Newton published a better paper. Soon he was Cambridge’s top math professor.
Isaac Newton wondered another twenty years. He played with prisms in a dark room and theorized that white light comprises the visible spectrum of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet. He practiced alchemy and chemistry, looking for the legendary philosopher’s stone to turn base metals to gold. In 1687, Newton published our most important science book, the Principia.
In the Principia, Newton showed how laws of gravity and motion work the same at great distances—far off in space, or in your classroom. We accept these ideas, but in 1687 many still had medieval beliefs that sun, moon, planets, and stars all traveled in their own crystal spheres.
Yes, Newton wondered about A LOT:
Sir Isaac Newton was an English mathematician, astronomer, theologian, author and physicist who is widely recognized as one of the most influential scientists of all time and a key figure in the scientific revolution. Based on a portrait by Godfrey Kneller, 1702, via Wikimedia Commons
Sir Isaac Newton's own first edition copy of his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica with his handwritten corrections for the twentieth edition. Photograph Andrew Dunn via Wikimedia Commons
Trinity College, the part of the University of Cambridge where Newton worked and lived. Library of Congress
This statue of the young Isaac Newton stands at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Look carefully around his feet for a hint on what he is wondering about. If you can’t figure it out, then read about Newton and gravity.
Featuring 21 hands-on projects that explore the scientific concepts Isaac Newton developed, Kerrie Logan Hollihan's Isaac Newton and Physics for Kids paints a rich portrait of the brilliant and complex man and provides readers with a hands-on understanding of astronomy, physics, and mathematics. A time line, excerpts from Newton's own writings, online resources, and a reading list enhance this unique activity book.
MLA 8 Citation
Hollihan, Kerrie Logan. "Isaac Newton's Wonder Years." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 21 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Huh? What does the flu have to do with the US Constitution? Here’s what.
The 2017-2018 influenza season shaped up to be the worst on record since 1918, the infamous year when 20 to 50 million victims died of this highly infectious disease worldwide. By mid-season January 2018, the most common type, A(H3), was already widespread throughout forty-nine states and Puerto Rico. Doctor visits were three times higher than normal. And, the proportion of deaths continued to increase sharply. Warnings about the flu’s spread and severity and advice on how to try to avoid it appeared frequently in the media.
Fortunately, the flu vaccine reduced the chance of catching the virus and eased symptoms of those who did come down with it, even though the vaccine had been engineered for a different strain. But, what if the disease threatened to fell millions of Americans, overrunning hospitals, closing schools and businesses, and causing panic? Could the government contain its reach by forcibly quarantining people? After all, that’s what some governors did in 2014 when they feared Ebola might run rampant here. Or, might the president or the Federal Aviation Authority halt flights to Hawaii, Alaska or Puerto Rico to at least contain it within the contiguous forty-eight states?
Unfortunately, our Constitution is vague about the situations under which the government can detain people during such a state of emergency. Normally, habeas corpus applies. This provision says that people have the right to be released from detention if the government can’t supply a reason to keep them locked up.
In 1787, when our Constitution was being drafted, the Framers debated whether there should be any exceptions to this right. Were there any grounds, they wondered, for keeping people confined for no legal reason and with no hope for release? They decided that “in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it.” But, a pandemic of bird flu from China, say, never occurred to the Framers. Would that be considered an invasion?
More recently, Congress gave the president the power to declare certain diseases “quarantinable” and to order the “apprehension…of individuals…for the purpose of preventing the introduction, transmission, or spread of such communicable diseases.” This is one of the government’s “police powers.” There are genuine questions, however, about what counts as such a disease and at what point in its spread the authorities can intervene. These are serious issues to consider—before an epidemic arrives.
Soldiers from Fort Riley Kansas lie ill with Spanish influenza at a hospital ward. It was the most famous and lethal flu outbreak ever to strike the United States, lasting from 1918 to 1919. It is not known exactly how many it killed, but estimates range from 50 to 100 million people worldwide.
-Courtesy National Museum of Health and Medicine, AFIP (Washington, D.C.)
US citizens initiated certain actions of their own during the Spanish flu pandemic. Here a Seattle trolley conductor refuses admission to anyone not wearing a mask.
The World Health Organization remains on alert for a future pandemic characterized by sustained transmission in the general population.
Left: An influenza virus magnified about 100,000 times. Influenza spreads around the world in a yearly outbreak, resulting in about three to five million cases of severe illness and about 250,000 to 500,000 deaths. -Wikimedia Commons Right: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that everyone 6 months of age and older get a flu vaccine every season. -Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Many of the political issues we struggle with today have their roots in the US Constitution. Husband-and-wife team Cynthia and Sanford Levinson take readers back to the creation of this historic document and discuss how contemporary problems were first introduced―then they offer possible solutions.
"A fascinating, thoughtful, and provocative look at what in the Constitution keeps the United States from being “a more perfect union.” " Kirkus Reviews - Best Middle Grade Nonfiction of 2017
MLA 8 Citation
Levinson, Cynthia. "Flu and the Constitution." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 14 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
celebrating nature, inspiring good writing
Lots of people are fond of the cartoon character called Taz. He is loud, always hungry, not very smart, and sometimes spins his body around like a little tornado. He pops up in video games and even appears in television ads.
Cartoon Taz is based on a real animal known as a Tasmanian devil. The “devils” are marsupials related to kangaroos and wombats. They used to live in Australia, but now survive only on Tasmania, an island state just south of the Australian mainland.
Tasmanian devils have black fur, short legs, and are about the size of a beagle dog or a big house cat. Long ago, people named them "devils" because of their sounds. They grunt, huff, snarl, and click their teeth but especially give out loud, fierce, blood-curdling screeches and screams.
And you know that spinning tornado thing that cartoon Taz does? It is based on the animal's actual behavior. When a Tasmanian devil is in a fight, or defending itself, it moves very rapidly. It flashes a view of its side, making itself look as big as possible. Then it quickly shows its front, with gaping mouth and teeth. Back and forth, back and forth it turns, showing two kinds of threats, and appearing to be whirling around.
Tasmanian devils fight a lot. They battle over food, and in mating season, males compete for females. This behavior has helped put their whole species in big trouble. Beginning in 1996, a disease began to kill the devils. It's a cancer that grows quickly on the faces of these mammals. When they fight, they often bite one another's face. This spreads the disease. An infected animal soon dies. In less than 20 years the whole Tasmanian devil population dropped by ninety percent.
Still, there is hope. Scientists have learned more about the disease, and perhaps a vaccine can be created to protect devils. Also, healthy devils are being kept in zoos and other places where the disease can't reach them. And scientists have learned that some wild devils in Tasmania seem able to resist the disease.
With help from people, Tasmanian devils may survive. We can hope these fascinating creatures make a comeback, and once again scream loudly in the Tasmanian night.
We have been taught to fear scorpions in any form. But scorpions usually sting either to subdue their prey or to protect themselves. In fact, Earth has two thousand scorpion species, but only a few dozen are deadly to humans. With vivid descriptions of scorpions’ life cycle, body structure, habits, and habitat and beautiful, realistic illustrations, Laurence Pringle's Scorpions! Strange and Wonderful explores one of nature’s feared and misunderstood creatures. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Pringle, Laurence. "Taz in Big Trouble." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 9
Feb. 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,
The “Julia Child” of kids’ hands-on science
You can’t play tennis unless you know where the ball will be after it bounces. You can’t pass a basketball unless you understand how to angle a bounce so that it goes where you want it to go. As long as the court surface is smooth and flat, a ball’s bounce is very predictable. Its path depends on gravity and on the strength and direction of the force that sets the ball in motion. Thanks to high speed photography we can get a closer look at a bouncing ball.
This is a multiple exposure photograph of a bouncing ball. It was taken in complete darkness with the camera shutter open while a high-speed flashing light, called a stroboscope or strobe, flashed 30 times a second. Each flash produced an image.
Here’s what you can learn from this photo: The ball is moving fastest where the images are farthest apart and slowest where they are closest together. When the ball is falling, it speeds up. After it bounces and moves opposite the pull of gravity, it slows down at exactly the same rate as it sped up when it was falling until it stops for an instant and starts falling again. Each time it collides with the ground, some energy is lost. That’s why each bounce loses altitude. If the bounce were perfect, no energy would be lost, every bounce would be as high as the last and the ball would bounce forever.
A strobe also captures the split second when a tennis ball is struck by a racket. The collision flattens the ball, and stretches the strings and distorts the frame of the racket, all in .005 seconds. If these objects kept their distorted shapes, most of the force of the collision would be absorbed. But they are elastic—they restore themselves to their original shapes after they collide. This restoring force is transferred to the ball to change its direction and help add to the speed of the athlete’s swing. The fastest serve leaves a racket at 130 miles an hour. In a rally, a ball-racket collision changes direction of the ball so it is not as fast as a serve, maybe 70 miles per hour. Since the distance between images made by a strobe tells how fast an object is moving, strobes are part of the instruments used to measure the speed of balls from a tennis racket and a baseball pitcher.
In this MIT YouTube, a ball is dropped in front of a meter stick and lit by a strobe light. A long exposure photograph captures the position of the ball at each evenly spaced flash of light. The acceleration of the ball can then be measured from the photo.
Would you believe that you could throw an egg across the room without breaking it? Burn a candle underwater? Vicki Cobb's We Dare You! is a gigantic collection of irresistible, easy-to-perform science experiments, tricks, bets, and games kids can do at home with everyday household objects. Thanks to the principles of gravity, mechanics, fluids, logic, geometry, energy, and perception, kids will find countless hours of fun with the selections included in this book. If you would like to make a We Dare You Video, click here.
Vicki Cobb 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. "A Bouncing Ball Like You've Never Seen." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 5 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/