Nonfiction is the new black
During the Middle Ages, “going to the bathroom” or “relieving oneself” meant using a privy. A privy typically consisted of a raised board with one or more openings cut in the middle where the users would sit. Their fecal matter would plop into large holes called cesspits beneath them. Over time, the cesspits would fill up and start overflowing. When that happened, gong farmers had to empty them.
“Gong” came from a word that means “going.” And the farmers “harvested” the accumulation of months or even years of “going.” To make sure all the foul material was removed, the workers would hop down into the pits, where the feces came up their waists or even higher. Because of the relative ease of getting them in and out, small boys were often employed. The cesspool contents were dumped into carts and taken to larger dump sites on the edge of town, where more conventional farmers would use it as fertilizer.
People in the Middle Ages rarely bathed. So gong farmers stunk. Really. Stunk. Because of their horrible stench, they were often restricted in where they could live. They were allowed to work only at night to spare their fellow citizens from seeing and smelling them.
Besides the horrible smell and probable lack of friends, gong farmers encountered specific occupational hazards. Decaying fecal matter could produce poisonous gases. At least one gong farmer stumbled into a cesspool he was cleaning and drowned. Violators of the rules for collecting the refuse and disposing of it were submerged in barrels up to their necks and placed on public display for hours on end.
On the other hand, gong farmers were well paid, often earning in a day what other workers might make in a week. They had another potential source of income as well. Careless crappers occasionally dropped rings or coins into the cesspits. Enterprising gong farmers combed through the mess with their bare hands in search of those treasures.
The advent of better sanitary methods in the 19th century ended gong farmers in many countries. However, it is still practiced in some areas of the world.
You can learn more about Jim Whiting with a visit to his website. He is an interesting fellow with an interest in music and sports and has written lots of books in both fields.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "Gong Farmers: Their Crop Was ...Crap." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/Gong-Farmers.
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/
Kerrie Logan Hollihan
Teaching the Power of Wonder
Dr. Percy Julian was my neighbor in Oak Park, Illinois. I didn’t know the family who lived in the pretty home surrounded by an iron fence. But I heard the story, that the house was firebombed after they had bought it back in 1951. The Julian's were African-Americans coming to a white community.
Later I learned more. Dr. Julian was someone who didn’t take no for an answer. He grew up in the segregated South going to black-only schools. He hoped to study plant chemistry, but no southern college would accept a Negro, so he moved on. He went to DePauw University in Indiana and helped pay tuition by waiting tables at a white fraternity. He graduated at the top of his class in 1920 and wanted to get his doctorate at Harvard. Harvard refused, because that would mean Julian could teach whites—and that was not allowed.
Julian moved on. He went to Austria to earn his doctorate, and in that lab he studied chemicals in plants, especially beans. Many excellent medicines came from plant chemicals, but extracting them was often costly.
Upon returning to DePauw to teach, Julian was able to synthesize a plant chemical called physostigmine. His discovery produced inexpensive medicine for patients with glaucoma, an eye disease causing blindness. But the Great Depression fell across America, and DePauw ran out of money to fund his research.
Julian moved on. A Chicago paint company hired Julian as the first African-American to head a research lab in American industry. Julian had to travel for his work, and motels refused him a bed. One year he slept in his car 32 times, sometimes in the dead of winter.
Julian and his coworkers developed inks and paper coatings, dog food and a product called Aero-Foam to extinguish fires on aircraft carriers. His team discovered many uses for soybeans, at that time viewed as food for cows and pigs. Most important, they synthesized “Substance S” from soybeans. This synthetic drug replaced wildly-expensive cortisone. Julian’s landmark achievement offered relief to kids suffering from the painful and disfiguring disease rheumatoid arthritis.
Percy Julian worked all his days, always moving on to make life better. He built his own research business, volunteered at church, played the piano, and loved his family. He became a quiet hero to many, including me. I’m writing a book about Dr. Julian, which I hope you’ll see in print. For now, visit this site.
Kerrie Hollihan has already written about one great scientist, Sir Isaac Newton. You can read more about this book here.
Kerrie Hollihan 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
Hollihan, Kerrie Logan. "Dr Percy Julian: Forgotten Genius." Nonfiction Minute,
iNK Think Tank, 13 Feb. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
The “Julia Child” of kids’ hands-on science.
In October, 1891, 23-year-old Manya Sklowdowska arrived in Paris to attend the Sorbonne, France’s great university. She had saved money, working as a governess to get there. She was determined to make the most of her studies in science and math. Right away she was noticed partly because she was Polish, although she had changed her first name to a French version, Marie, to fit in better. She always sat in the front row of all her classes because her French was not yet fluent and she didn’t want to miss anything. She also was one of only a few female students. In a university full of smart people, she worked hard to excel. She ultimately finished first in her class and went on to make major scientific discoveries.
What made Marie so single-minded and determined? Behind it all was a great love for science, a love she shared with her husband, Pierre Curie, whom she met in 1894. At that time, science was uncovering unimaginable truths in chemistry and physics. New discoveries were being made at a breath-taking pace. Science was like a game and it attracted many players. Why?
1. There was a Nobel Prize for winners, those who discovered a big idea about the natural world. There was only one nature to discover but people came at it from many directions.
2. It was collaborative—scientists shared their discoveries by publishing papers.
3. It was competitive—the papers described procedures so that scientists could check each other’s work. It kept everyone honest. The best work got the most attention.
4. The discoveries could be applied to solve problems for people. X-rays, light bulbs, phonographs, photographs, movies, and telephones would not have been possible without science.
5. The biggest prize was the idea of the atom and its structure. Many scientists contributed to modern atomic theory, including Marie.
Marie Curie won the Nobel Prize twice for her work. At a time when women didn't even have the right to vote, she was a working mother of two daughters, a single mother after she was widowed in 1906, the founder of the Radium Institute for research and she brought the x-ray to the battlefield in WWI. She believed that science could save the world, that scientific discoveries belonged to everyone. And she refused to benefit financially from her discoveries. She lived by the highest principles of honesty and integrity. She was a true champion of the science game.
DK Biography: Marie Curie tells the story of the discoverer of radium, from her childhood in Warsaw, to her experiments with radioactivity in Paris, to her recognition as one of the preeminent scientists of her time.
Filled with archival photographs and amazing fact boxes, this biography paints Marie Curie as the brave and brilliant scientist that she was.
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. "Marie Curie: An Elite Player in the Science Game." Nonfiction
Minute`, iNK Think Tank, 30 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
Do your feet sometimes smell rotten? Do you wish you could toss out your shoes and start with a new pair? We make jokes about smelly feet, but smell and feet have a very different relationship among some insects.
Take butterflies. Have you ever watched a butterfly flit over a plant, gently touch its feet to a leaf, and then fly on to the next leaf? That butterfly isn’t being picky about where to land. It’s hunting for the right kind of leaf for laying its eggs. It’s “smelling” the leaf with its feet!
Actually, we need to qualify that statement a bit. Some writers will say the insect is “smelling” the leaf while others may write that it’s “tasting” the leaf. Smelling and tasting are forms of “chemoreception,” or sensing of chemicals. Smell usually refers to sensing from a distance while tasting generally means actually touching the nerve cells that sense a chemical.
We humans have cells in our noses that send messages to our brains about chemicals in the air. We call that our sense of smell. We have cells on our tongues that sense chemicals dissolved in liquid in our mouths. That’s taste.
That butterfly doesn’t have a nose, and its mouth is a long tube for sucking up nectar from flowers. Its chemoreceptors are elsewhere, like on its feet, around its mouth, and on its antennae. Most butterflies lay their eggs on the plants that the hatched caterpillars will eat. Some species are very specific about what plants their young can feed on. Take the postman butterfly, which lives in Central and South America. Its caterpillars can only survive on certain species of passionflower vines. Other species are poisonous to their offspring.
The female postman butterfly has dozens of special nerve cells on her feet called “gustatory sensilla.” Scientists think that when she touches gently down on a leaf, these cells can sense chemicals there that would be poisonous to her caterpillars. She avoids laying eggs on those leaves. But when she finds a plant that will nourish her young, she’ll alight and lay her eggs.
Now take your shoes off and move your feet around on the floor. The only nerve endings on your feet are ones that sense touch. But then, you don’t need to be able to smell the ground you walk on. Imagine how gross it would be if your feet could smell the insides of your socks and shoes—yuck!
A dog’s nose is 300 times more powerful than a human nose, so it’s no wonder that dogs use their incredibly advanced sense of smell to do some very important jobs. In Super Sniffers, Dorothy Hinshaw Patent explores the various ways specific dogs have put their super sniffing ability to use: from bedbug sniffers to explosive detectors to life-saving allergy detectors . . . and more. This dynamic photo-essay includes first-hand accounts from the people who work closely with these amazing dogs. For more information, click here.
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. "Smelling Feet or Smelly Feet?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 23 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/