David M. Schwartz
The amazing, engaging, math exponent
Imagine Earth as a button. I don’t mean you’re going to sew it onto your shirt. But imagine the planet Earth shrunk to the size of a button. (Of course Earth is not flat like a button but we’re giving our shrunken Earth the same diameter as a shirt button.)
Go ahead and draw a circle around a shirt button. Call it “Earth.” Suppose you wanted to draw Jupiter, the largest planet, at the same scale as this micro-Earth. That means you’re going to shrink it to the same fraction of its original size as our button-Earth. What size would little Jupiter be?
One way to find out would be to calculate how many times bigger the real Jupiter is than the real Earth. Earth’s diameter is about 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers). Jupiter’s is about 88,000 miles (143,000 km). Divide the size of Jupiter by the size of Earth to see that Jupiter is about 11 times bigger.
So, since Jupiter’s diameter is 11 times that of Earth’s, put 11 buttons in a line to show the diameter of Jupiter. Then draw the circle that represents Jupiter. If you don’t have 11 buttons, just look at the picture. Did you think the Earth was a big place? Look at it compared with Jupiter!
But what about the sun? The sun’s diameter is about 865,000 miles (1,400,000 km). That means it’s almost 10 times bigger than Jupiter. Can you find a way to draw a circle 10 times the size of our Jupiter? We’ve drawn part of it for you, on the same scale as our button-sized Earth. On the picture, it’s labeled “our arc.” (An arc is part of a circle.) Looking at the arc, you can imagine the rest of the circle and compare the sun to Jupiter and Earth. A minute ago, you thought Jupiter was big. Now it looks shrimpy compared to the sun!
But is the sun really gigantic? Do some research to find out the size of a red giant star like the strangely named Betelguese (pronounced “beetle-juice.”) Figure out what it looks like compared to our sun, which is a medium-sized star. You may be amazed at the difference. And you thought the sun was big!
Is anything truly big? Is anything truly small? Or does that depend on what it’s being compared to?
Both images are by Marissa Moss, the illustrator of David M Schwartz's book, G is for Googol.
G is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book is a wonder-filled romp through the world of mathematics.
For more information, click here.
David Schwartz 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.
Schwartz, David M. "If the Earth Were a Button." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 16 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Curiosity Queen: writing science, history, and everything in between
Regular visiting hours are over at the Buffalo Botanical Gardens, but the line to see Morty reaches out the door. It’s an event that comes once in a decade, so I’m happy to wait for my chance to see, and smell, what’s inside.
A year ago the Botanical Gardens acquired corms or bulbs of a tropical plant called the corpse flower. These aren’t little tulip bulbs you hold in your hand. The corpse flower corm weighs 120 pounds and looks like a giant potato. A corm that big needs a lot of energy to grow, so, it spends several months dormant underground. When the first hint of green peeks through the soil, it’s a guessing game as to what it will look like. Most of the time, the corpse flower will send up a slender shoot and one complex leaf that looks like a tree canopy. Through photosynthesis, this leaf will provide energy that will be stored in the corm. When there is enough energy stored up, Morty will flower. And that’s what I’m excited to witness.
Weaving my way through displays of cactus, palms, and banana trees, I wonder if someone forgot to take the trash out. The odor of rotting meat wrinkles my nose, and I realize why Morty is called a corpse flower. As we move closer, the air grows thicker. This plant has been dumpster diving.
The stink Morty sends forth is the plant’s way to attract pollinators in its native jungle of Sumatra. The flower only lasts a day or two, so the scent has to be pungent enough to quickly draw in dung beetles and carrion flies that will collect the pollen and distribute it to other plants before it wilts. It’s curiosity that lures me in.
I round the corner and catch my first glimpse of the stinker. Since it poked out of the ground it has grown five to six inches every day, and now Morty’s seven-foot spire, called a spadix, towers over me. I have to step back to catch the entire plant in my camera lens. Like a wicked witch’s collar, Morty wears a single pleated, blood red flower petal wrapped around the spadix. By midnight the flower will be fully opened and have reached maximum reek.
I click more pictures and take a deep breath. It will be a long time before Morty blooms again, and I want to remember every smelly detail.
Peggy Thomas certainly is a Curiosity Queen. You'll recall that her last Nonfiction Minute showed her taking an elephant's temperature -- not an easy task. Her book Anatomy of Nonfiction shows other authors how to write about real events.
To read about some of Peggy's other adventures and to find out about her books, visit her website.
MLA 8 Citation
Thomas, Peggy. "Morty Makes a Stink." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 9 01 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/Morty-Makes-a-Stink.
Are you tougher than a tardigrade? I don’t think so.
These typically water-dwelling animals may be microscopic in size (barely half of a millimeter when fully grown!), but boy are they fierce. Sometimes called “water bears,” they’re anything but cuddly. Each of their eight legs is decked out with wicked claws. Some tardigrades have full body armor. Most have specialized "sucker" mouths to pierce the cells of plants and animals and suck out their nutrients, while others prefer to consume their tiny prey whole… and that prey might even be another tardigrade!
Aside from ending up as someone else’s dinner, though, tardigrades are practically indestructible. They can survive in just about any conditions and take on just about anything life has in store for them. Starvation? No worries there: Tardigrades can go without food for at least 10 years. What about water, you say? No problem. They’ll just suspend their life activities and wait until the drought is over. They can survive at pressures more than six times that of the deepest ocean trenches. And, you’d die from radiation poisoning long before a tardigrade would even notice. Scientists have even tried shooting them into outer space… and the tardigrades survived.
Because of their ability to live practically anywhere, these little guys are practically everywhere. Tardigrades can be found on top of Mount Everest and in boiling hot springs, in desert dunes and rainforest canopies, in freshwater lakes and salty oceans, on your roof, outside your front door… maybe even in your bed or on your dinner plate! There are billions and billions of tardigrades… and they’re always making more!
Fortunately, there’s no need to worry—tardigrades are completely harmless to humans. In fact, tardigrades may actually end up being our best friends someday. Because they can do so many things that other Earthly animals can’t, scientists are studying tardigrades to try to find solutions to all kinds of problems. Want to dry something out to preserve it, then rehydrate it later? Study how tardigrades do it. Wish we could safely reanimate something that has been frozen? Learn from the tardigrades. Need to protect cells from being damaged by radiation? Figure out why tardigrade cells can withstand it.
Who knows? Someday the tough tardigrades might teach us all kinds of handy tricks!
Tardigrades are short and plump, with four pairs of legs, each with four to eight claws also known as "disks." Schokraie E, Warnken U, Hotz-Wagenblatt A, Grohme MA, Hengherr S, et al. (2012)/Wikimedia Commons
An adult Milnesium tardigrade, an example of more than 1,000 species of the tiny animal. Bob Goldstein and Vicky Madden, UNC Chapel Hill/Wikimedia Common
This video shows a tardigrade in real time at 100X magnification. Dmitry Brant via Wikimedia Commons
Laurie Ann Thompson and coauthor Ammi-Joan Paquette begin a fascinating new series with Two Truths and a Lie, a book that presents some of the most crazy-but-true stories about the living world. Some of the stories are too crazy to be true—and readers are asked to separate facts from fakes! "A brief but savvy guide to responsible research methods adds further luster to this crowd pleaser.” —ALA Booklist (starred review)
MLA 8 Citation
Thompson, Laurie Ann. "Tardigrades Make the Grade." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 21 Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Are skunks aggressive, dangerous animals? Or are they peaceful animals that try to avoid trouble? Well, biologists who study skunks think of them this way: if life were a sport, skunks would be known for their strong defense and for playing fair.
Skunk stinkiness comes from a chemical weapon called musk. Foxes, weasels, and some other mammals also produce musk, but skunk musk is especially strong and long-lasting. And only skunks use musk to defend themselves from attack.
Picture a skunk ambling along in the night, looking for food. It digs in the soil to get tasty earthworms and beetle grubs. The black and white fur that comes with just being a skunk sends a warning. This color pattern is unusual among mammals. It signals: "Beware, don't mess with me!"
Suppose a coyote or other predator ignores this first warning. It steps toward the skunk. When a skunk feels threatened, it faces the danger. It raises its tail and tries to look as big as possible. It stamps its feet and clicks its teeth together. It may growl or hiss.
Oh, oh! Despite all of these warnings, the coyote growls and comes closer. Now the skunk gets really serious. It twists its body into a U-shape, so it can see the coyote and also aim its rear end toward it. The skunk's tail arches over its back, away from its rear—the final warning. This gives the skunk a clear shot, and also protects its own fur from the stinky musk. Skunks try to avoid smelling bad!
From two grape-sized glands, a skunk can spray musk as a fine mist, or squirt a stream. It can squirt accurately for about 12 feet (3.7m), and hit an attacking animal right in the face. The musk stings the predator's eyes, and can blur its vision for a while. And it stinks! Animals hit with this musk learn to never bother a skunk again.
A skunk's glands store enough musk to fire a half dozen shots but then need a week or so to produce more. This is seldom a problem, since a skunk sprays only when its life seems to be in danger. Some skunks can go for months or even years without spraying musk. That's fine with them. Skunks want to avoid trouble, and "play fair" with their many warnings.
A skunks’s stripes point to where the spray comes out. A 2011 study found that animal species that choose fight over flight when faced with a predator often have markings that draw attention to their best weapon. So while a badger has stripes on his face to highlight his sharp teeth, skunks’ stripes are perfectly positioned to highlight their ability to spray potential threats. By http://www.birdphotos.com via Wikimedia Commons
Skunks are so nice that some people want to keep them as pets. The striped skunk is the most social skunk and the one most commonly domesticated. The legality of keeping skunks as pets in the US varies by state, with it being illegal in a majority of them. By Matt MacGillivray via Wikimedia Commons
Larry Pringle has written many animal books, among them The Secret Life of the Red Fox. His The Secret Life of the Skunk was published by Boyds Mills Press in 2019. It is about spring and summer in the lives of a mother striped skunk and her kits.
ML 8 Citation
Pringle, Laurence. "How Skunks Play Fair." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/how-skinks-play-fair.
Sneed B. Collard III
"Connecting Scientists and Kids”
Only you can prevent forest fires! At least that’s what Smokey Bear taught me growing up. His message? All forest fires are bad, and we’re helping nature by putting them all out.
Recently, I met a scientist who’s made me rethink this negative message about natural wildfires. His name is Dick Hutto and he’s a biology professor at the University of Montana. “There are two kinds of fires,” Dick explains. “The ones that burn down your house or kill your neighbor are bad, bad, bad. The other ones can be the greatest things in the world.”
To prove his point, Dick took me to the Black Mountain burn area, near my home in Missoula, Montana. A severe forest fire burned through this area only ten years ago, and thousands of blackened trees still stand like sentries across the landscape. Surprisingly, this charred landscape explodes with life. Tens of thousands of new tree saplings reach for the sky. Elk and deer graze on the fresh grass growing in the newly-opened areas. More than anything, the songs of birds fill the burned forest.
In his research, in fact, Dick discovered that dozens of bird species love fresh burn areas. In the West, 15 bird species prefer burned forests to all other habitats! Woodpeckers pave the way. As soon as a forest burns, legions of wood-boring beetles descend on the forest and lay their eggs in the dead trees. Three-toed, Hairy, and Black-backed Woodpeckers follow and begin devouring the newly-hatched beetle grubs. They also chisel out their own nest holes—holes that are used by Mountain Bluebirds, American Robins, Black-capped Chickadees, and many other species. Because of burned forests, these birds find food and shelter. They also find safety. How?
Green forests abound with squirrels and chipmunks—animals that feast on bird eggs. A severe forest fire, though, clears out the small mammals. That means that birds can raise their young much more safely.
But listen, don’t take my word for it—or even Dick Hutto’s.
To learn more about the benefits of fire, throw a water bottle, lunch, a bird guide, and a pair of binoculars in your backpack and go visit a burn area for yourself. You will be astonished by what you see. Take a notebook or a camera along, too. Part of the fun of discovering our planet is sharing what you see. By doing so you’ll help others realize the importance of natural wildfires and burned forest—and help create a healthier, more interesting world.
Sneed Collard III has written a book about the birds that thrive in burn areas. Fire Birds shows how dozens of bird species not only survive, but actually thrive in burned areas, depending on burns to create a unique and essential habitat that cannot be generated any other way. If you would like more information, click here to go to Sneed's website. If you click the Study Guide tab, you will find a guide that's been prepared for this book.
MLA 8 Citation
Collard, Sneed B., III. Weblog post. Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 11 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/rethinking-smokey-bears-message.
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