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.
Picture this: It’s cold gray October 1918 in France, in the Argonne Forest. World War I has been going on for four hideous, deadly years. You and about 500 of your fellow Americans are smack in the middle of a MASSIVE battle. You’re running out of food and ammo. Shells are EXPLODING all around you and some of them are American! Those guys don’t know where you and your buddies are, trapped in a hillside valley, surrounded by enemy Germans!
How can Major Charles Whittlesey, the commander of this lost battalion, let those other Americans know where his unit is? They’re cut off from the telegraph wires; so what, wave a flag? That’ll just draw more enemy fire! The messengers he’d sent had been shot or captured. How about homing pigeons? In this awful war, more than a 100,000 of them were used to carry battlefield messages. The major had sent all but one of his pigeons only to see them shot out of the sky. Finally, the desperate officer calls for his last one, named Cher Ami, the French words for Dear Friend.
Major Whittlesey scribbles out a message: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4.Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.” He rolls the scrap of paper, stuffs it into the tiny silver canister attached to Cher Ami’s leg, and sends him up and away. This pigeon has flown 11 successful missions— will he make it now? He must!
The Germans fire.
Cher Ami falls! He’s hit!
But he beats and flaps his wings, gains altitude, and flies 25 miles. Despite being blinded in one eye and shot in his bloodied breast, Cher Ami delivers the critical message, still attached to his leg, dangling by a bloody tendon. And 194 American soldiers are saved by their brave dear, feathered friend. For his heroic service, Cher Ami was awarded France’s highest medal, le Croix de Guerre (the Cross of War).
In the months after the war ended, on November 11, 1918, ocean liners carried Cher Ami and many thousands of other veterans to America. He continued to be treated, but in the end, his injuries were too serious. Cher Ami died on June 13, 1919.
Back in the USA, Major Charles Whittlesey gave speeches about the war. He said nothing about any sorrow or awful memories, so no one knows just why he jumped off a ship to his death in the sea, late one night in November 1921. But the memory of soldiers’ heroism and of one bird’s stubborn courage will never die.
Cheryl's Latest book is Flags Over America. Click here to find out more about the book or click here to find out more about the author.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Dear Friend." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8 01 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/dear-friend.
Polar bears are built to withstand some of the coldest temperatures on the planet. Their brown and black bear cousins avoid the winter cold by digging dens and sleeping. But, except for pregnant females, polar bears spend the arctic winter outside where temperatures could be -40° F (which equals-40 °C) and windy. That’s too cold for humans. You could go outside, but only for only a few minutes with every part of your body completely covered. And if you didn’t wear goggles, your eyelashes would freeze and break off if you touched them.
Polar bears are warm-blooded like us with a body temperature of about 98°F/37°C. But they are invisible to night-vision goggles that pick up the infrared rays that warm-blooded creatures, including humans, give off. Why? Nature has given polar bears enough insulation to prevent body heat from escaping. They are toasty warm and comfortable in the frigid arctic.
Their heat insulation is in several layers. Under their skin, there is a 4-inch (21.5 cm) layer of fat. Next to the skin is a dense layer of woolly fur that also keeps heat in. The fur you see is a thick layer of long, colorless guard hairs that shed water quickly after a swim. They are stiff and transparent and hollow. In the arctic sunlight, the hairs act like mirrors and reflect white light, which acts as camouflage against the snow so the bears are not seen by their prey. Polar bear skin is actually black, so that it can absorb the invisible warm infrared rays of the sun and the bear’s own body heat, both of which are reflected back by the guard hairs.
Most warm-blooded animals raise their body temperatures through exercise. Polar bears hunt seals, which they don’t often chase. They prefer to sit at the edge of an ice floe and wait for dinner to arrive. At best, they’ll lumber after a seal at four and a half miles (7.25 km) an hour, raising their body heat to 100°F (38°C). When that happens, they go for a swim to cool off.
Cold won’t kill off the polar bears, but global warming can. As polar ice disappears, so does the hunting ground for seals. Not so cool!
Close up, the polar bear guard hairs are transparent. This allows the infra-red light (heat) from the sun to pass through them to be absorbed by the black skin under the hairs. The hairs also act like mirrors , reflecting back to the skin any infra-red radiation escaping from the bears body so it can be reabsorbed. Thus, the insulation is just about perfect with no infra-red radiation escaping. The hairs are also coated with oil so they drain quickly after a swim.
Vicki Cobb's This Place Is Cold shows how the latitude of Alaska affects the lives of the plants, animals and people who live there. It is gloriously illustrated by Barbara Lavallee, a long-time Alaskan resident and artist.
Vicki is a member of Authors on Call—she can visit your classroom with interactive videoconferencing: Read more about her here.
MLA 8 Citation
Cobb, Vicki. "The Way Polar Bears Keep Warm Is Cool." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 29 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/The-Way-Polar-Bears-Keep-Warm-Is-Cool.
The Master Chef of Kids' Hands-On Science
Are your two nostrils exactly the same size? Don’t struggle to find out by looking in a small mirror. Put your nose right above the mirror and breathe down on it. You will see two circles of moisture as the warm moist air from your nose condenses into water when it hits the cool mirror surface. One circle will be a LOT larger than the other.
You might conclude that yes, one nostril is bigger than the other; that you will have to live with being lopsided. But wait! I mean wait an hour or so and do it again. Surprise! This time the small nostril is now the BIG one! The larger nostril is dominant and takes in more of the air. You can do scientific study of your nose and see just how long each nostril dominates. Perhaps if you check often enough, you’ll discover a time when the two circles will be about the same size. This will be the moment of the changing of the nostrils. Of course, you have to do this study when you don’t have a stuffy nose.
What’s behind this? It seems that your nostrils are on an automatic timer from your brain so that they take turns being dominant. It’s very interesting. But I’m not sure if it is important.
Not many people know about this. But your dentist might. A dentist is always looking at peoples’ nostrils. See if your dentist knows about this. He or she might even know why this happens. This just might be a medical mystery worth investigating. And you might be just the one to do it.
Vicki Cobb ‘s “Discover Your Senses” series of books are available through the iTunes store. She begins by asking: “Know how to stop smelling? Hold your nose.” Also, check your library for copies. I mean wait an hour or so and do it again.
Vicki 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. "The Mystery of the Alternating Nostrils." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 21 Nov. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-mystery-of-the-alternating-nostrils.
writing science, history, and everything in between
My knees shake as I stand behind Poonlarb, a towering female Asian elephant who rocks back and forth while the veterinarian explains the procedure. I pull on a rubber glove that goes up to my armpit, and grease my entire hand and arm with a lubricant.
Taking an elephant’s temperature is one way the vet can assess the animal’s health, which is important at the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation (GTAEF) in Thailand where many of the elephants have been rescued from harsh lives hauling lumber, or begging on the busy streets of Bangkok. The GTAEF is one of many organizations struggling to protect abused, captive elephants, as well as educate people on the plight of the dwindling wild population. Loss of habitat and poaching for ivory has made the Asian elephant ten times more endangered than their big-eared African cousin.
When the vet hands me the thermometer, I laugh. I was expecting something…well… elephant-sized. But the thermometer is no bigger than the one I use at home. Protecting the glass tip with my finger, I ask Poonlarb if she’s ready, and inch my hand into her rectum. “More,” the vet says, and I reach further pushing up on my tip-toes. Poonlarb’s muscles gently contract around my arm. If the mahout (elephant handler) wasn’t holding her tail, this nearly two ton female could easily knock me off my feet with one swish. I rub Poonlarb’s rump, and assure her it will be over soon, but four minutes is a long time when you have your hand up an elephant’s backside.
I pull the thermometer out and hand it to the vet. “36.2 Celsius,” she says. “Normal.” That’s 97.2 degrees Fahrenheit. Poonlarb is one healthy elephant, and luckily for me, a patient patient.
To learn more about Asian elephants, click here to go to Think Elephants International
Peggy Thomas not only knows something of the anatomy of an elephant, but she knows the internal structure of nonfiction.
Peggy Thomas 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
Thomas, Peggy. “How to Take an Elephant’s Temperature.” Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 23 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/how-to-take-an-elephants-temperature.
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
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