Albert Einstein’s work wasn’t done in a laboratory but in his marvelous mind, and he thought big. His thoughts about enormous speeds and giant masses changed the way we think of science and nature.
Einstein established a new approach to science: Relativity, in which the mass and speed of objects are stable only in relation to their surroundings. One inescapable part of relativity is that space and time are parts of the same fabric. Very big masses and very fast speeds can warp that fabric.
One surprise discovery: there is a limit to how fast anything may travel. Anything approaching the speed of light requires more and more energy to push it only a little closer, until it can’t be pushed more. Unless we solve this problem, c (the symbol for the speed of light) is as fast as we’re going to get. But if you travel close to c, unusual things happen.
Two twins, Bill and Will, plan to make a fast trip to the nearest star, Alpha Centauri, on their twentieth birthday. The distance is about four light years away from Earth (light year = distance light travels in a vacuum in one year, about 5,865,696,000,000 miles). Will is stuck in a traffic jam and misses the blast off. Bill goes alone. He travels very close to the speed of light, .9999999 c, whips around Alpha Centauri and returns at the same speed. When he lands he asks for his brother Will.
Bill has been traveling for a bit over eight years; he’s 28 years old. But at this speed, his spaceship time has played out sloooooowly in relation to earth time. To Will on Earth, Bill’s trip took 49 years. Will is now 69 years old.
If the spaceship had traveled a little bit faster, say .99999999 c, Bill would still have aged 8 years. But when he returned to Earth, Will and everyone else he knew would be dead, since 155 years would have passed.
Recently, with fantastically accurate clocks, we’ve proved Einstein’s theories: astronauts traveling at thousands of miles an hour on space stations age a few seconds slower for every year of Earth-time.
Can we ever travel to distant stars? Not unless we find a way around Einstein’s shifting nature of space and time. Easy for Star Trek. So far, it’s impossible for us.
Jan Adkins is excited by things tiny and by enormous concepts. He’s published about forty-five books but they seem to be only excuses to find new stories and learn new facts. He’s been called “The Explainer General” because most of his work unsnarls complicated knots of confusion and re-builds them as simple paths to understanding. He explains bright bits of the world in pictures and words, often to young people. He’s written about sandcastles, bridges, pirates, knights, cowboys, maps, sailing, knots, coal, oil and gold. He’s got a long list of things he still wants to figure out and explain. Adkins (this is what his grandsons call him) believes real history and real science are ten or twelve times cooler than fairy tales and magic.
Adkins 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
Adkins, Jan. "The Not-So Twins: Space Travel Discouraged." Nonfiction Minute,
iNK Think Tank, 16 Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
Celebrating the History of Science
and the Science behind History
A common punishment for those accused of a crime in seventeenth century Europe was to be sent to the galleys. That meant spending the rest of your life at an oar in the dark, stinking hold of a ship.
Wind and oars were the only known propellant of the age. Paid employment at the oar had been tried and dismissed. The only reliable way to produce the necessary speed and endurance to chase down (or escape from) enemy ships or Barbary pirates was to use the whip on your oarsmen, something that didn’t go over well with paid employees. But as condemned criminals were plentiful in that era, it wasn’t difficult to find oarsmen.
When in 1685 Louis XIV revoked the Edict of Nantes—a law passed by his grandfather Henry IV that had ensured the freedom of Protestant worship in France—many French Protestants (known as Huguenots) who tried to flee the country were sent to the galleys.
What was life like as a galley slave? We know something about it from letters and memoirs of Huguenot convicts.
After a long and often grueling march to the ports, the convicts would be sorted into groups of five—these would become the people with whom one would eat, sleep, and work, often until one died of old age or overwork or both. Each group of five men manned an eighteen-foot oar–and there might be fifty oars on a ship. The convicts remained chained to their places. With each stroke, they had to rise together and push the oar forward, and then dip it in the water and pull backward, dropping into a sitting position. During battle, rowers might be required to maintain full speed for twenty-four hours straight, and be fed biscuits soaked in wine without pausing in their exertions. Those who died—or lost consciousness—were thrown overboard.
Horrific, yes. But there were at least some brief respites from the wretched existence, periods of time when the wind’s sails propelled the ship and the rowers could rest. And when the ship overwintered in port, the life of a gallérien became almost tolerable. They had room to lie down and sleep. Many gallériens learned to knit, and others were already skilled wig makers, tailors, and musicians—and were allowed to employ their trades in rotating weeks ashore.
In his memoirs, a Huguenot named Jean Marteilhe wrote about his capture in 1701 as a boy of 17, and his experiences as a galley slave having been chained together with other deserters, thieves, smugglers, Turks and Calvinists for 6 years from 1707 to 1713. His account is entitled Memoirs of a Galley Slave of the Sun King.
Sara Albee's book Why'd They Wear That? is published by National Geographic. 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 have worn throughout the course of human history, all the way up to the present day. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Row, Row, Row Your Boats." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 22
Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
With its red dirt roads, cobalt sky, and deep green forests, Canada’s Prince Edward Island looks idyllic. Yet on October 3, 1994, a horrible crime took place there. Shirley Duguay, 32, disappeared and was believed murdered. But searchers looked for weeks, and all they found was her blood-spattered car.
Then a man’s blood-stained jacket turned up in the woods. Stuck to the lining were several stiff, white hairs. Constable Savoie, of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, remembered seeing an all-white tomcat named Snowball at the home of his chief suspect, Douglas Beamish. Beamish was Shirley’s sometime boyfriend and an ex-con. Could those hairs be from Snowball? If so, they would tie Beamish to Shirley’s car—the scene of the crime.
Savoie sent the jacket to the police lab for a DNA examination. Found in body cells, DNA is like a chemical fingerprint. It’s unique to every individual. And the blood on the jacket matched the blood in the car.
But the lab wouldn’t test the animal hairs. “We only do humans,” the scientists said. Frustrated, Savoie called lab after lab. They all refused. Finally, he contacted Dr. Stephen J. O’Brien. Dr. O’Brien ran a laboratory at the National Cancer Institute, in Frederick, Maryland. He was studying house cats in hopes of finding treatments for human diseases. “You’re my last hope,” Savoie pleaded.
Dr. O’Brien asked Savoie for a blood sample from Snowball. That would give him two kinds of fur-ensic, er, forensic evidence—blood and hairs. Then he told Savoie to follow FBI guidelines and pack the evidence in separate canisters, hop a plane, and hand-deliver them.
Dr. O’Brien’s team compared the DNA in Snowball’s hair to the DNA in his blood. Bingo! It was an almost purr-fect match! But Prince Edward Island is small and isolated. What if many island cats were related, with similar DNA?
Savoie went cat-catching again and collected blood samples from a bunch of neighborhood fur balls. To Dr. O’Brien’s relief, their DNA profiles were all different. Statistically, the chance of another cat having DNA similar to Snowball’s was one in forty-five million!
Meanwhile, a fisherman stumbled upon Shirley’s body.
Roger Beamish was arrested. Thanks to Dr. O’Brien’s testimony, he was found guilty at trial and sentenced to 18 years in prison. This marked the first time animal DNA was used to convict a criminal. Score one for Dr. O’Brien, Constable Savoie, and Deputy Snowball!
With veterinarian expert Dr. Gary Weitzman as guide, Aline Alexander Newman helps kids understand what cats are trying to communicate by their body language and behavior. So if you've ever wondered what Fluffy means when she's purring or moving her tail emphatically from left to right--How to Speak Cat: A Guide to Decoding Cat Language is for you! It's full of insights, expert advice, and real-life cat scenarios, and showcases more than 30 poses, so you'll soon learn what each meow and flick of the tail means!
Nonfiction is the new black
When he was a young man in his mid-twenties, future Roman leader Julius Caesar was voyaging across the Mediterranean Sea. Pirates swarmed over his ship. They took him to their base on tiny Farmakonisi Island, which lies off the coast of Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey), and held him for ransom.
When he learned how much the pirates were demanding for his release, Caesar laughed. Do you have any idea who I am, he asked. I belong to one of Rome’s most important families. So you can get more money for me—a lot more—almost three times as much. The astonished pirates were only too happy to oblige him.
Keeping a friend and two servants with him on Farmakonisi, Caesar ordered the rest of his traveling party to go to Asia Minor and raise his ransom. While they were doing that, Caesar acted as if he were the ruler of the tiny island, rather than a captive cowering in fright. He ordered the pirates to attend lectures and poetry readings he gave, and prodded those who nodded off as he droned on and on and on. When he wanted to sleep, he ordered the pirates to either speak in whispers or go to another part of the island. He even played games with them. He also told them that when he was released, I promise I will hunt you down and execute you. In the spirit of bonhomie he engendered, the pirates apparently thought he was joking.
He wasn’t. Though outwardly he was friendly with the pirates, he seethed inwardly at the humiliation of being taken prisoner. After the ransom was paid, Caesar sailed to a nearby port. He raised a fleet of ships and scores of armed men. He returned to Farmakonisi, captured the pirates, and reclaimed the ransom money. He threw his former captors into prison. They didn’t stay there long. Caesar crucified them. He did show some mercy. Since crucifixion was a long, lingering death, he cut their throats so they died instantly.
Jim Whiting has written on many subjects. Check out his page on Amazon.com
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "A Man of His Word." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 26 Mar.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
Have you heard about the “butterfly effect,” the idea that one small change can bring about big changes over time? This idea is important in the study of ecology, which deals with the interactions of living things and their environments. Each element of an ecosystem has its place. When one element is eliminated, it affects everything else.
The Yellowstone ecosystem centered in Yellowstone National Park provides a great example. Late in the 20th century, biologists were worried about the aspen trees there. Aspens occur in clusters that are actually clones growing up from shared root systems. Some of the Yellowstone clones were hundreds of years old, but the old, dying trees weren’t being replaced by strong young shoots. It looked like they might just die out, and no one was sure why.
When a severe drought in 1988 led to big wildfires in the park, the idea that fire might stimulate aspen growth proved wrong. Perhaps the elimination of wolves from the region in the early 20th century was to blame. Wolves? New trees? How could that be? Without wolves, the behavior of the Yellowstone elk had changed. No predators. No worry. So the elk became lazy, acting like cows, lying around in shaded areas along the rivers and creeks, munching contentedly on the juicy fresh growth of the willows and aspens.
In 1995, after much political battling, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone. The wolf population grew and the elk learned to be on the alert. As the wolves’ favorite food, the elk had to change their behavior to survive—no more relaxing by a stream where wolves could easy sneak up and make a meal of them! They had to move around and spend more time in open places where watching for hungry wolves was far easier.
The wolves are changing the Yellowstone landscape in positive ways. The aspens and willows are coming back. Beavers, which had almost disappeared from some parts of the park, are returning. These rodents feed on aspens and willows and use them to build their dams and lodges. Beaver dams create ponds, and the ponds provide homes for hundreds of species of plants and animals, from algae and water striders to ducks and muskrats. The willows and aspen trees around the pond are nesting sites for songbirds and homes for insects and spiders, all thanks to the wolf.
Welcome back, wolves!
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent's book, When the Wolves Returned: Restoring Nature's Balance in Yellowstone, is an IRA/CBC Teachers' Choices book, an ALA Notable Children's Book, A Book Sense Pick, and an Outstanding Science Trade Book for Children, as well as receiving the Orbis Pictus Honor Book Award. Booklist calls it "A great choice for elementary units about science and environmental protection," and Kirkus gave it a starred review. Click here to read the reviews.
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. "Everything Is Connected: The Butterfly Effect and the
Wolf." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 27 Mar. 2018,