Nonfiction is the new black
Nearly everyone is familiar with Thomas Edison, born [February 11] day in 1847.
When Thomas started school, his teacher called him “addled,” and he soon dropped out. His mother home-schooled him for several years. He began his entrepreneurial career when he was 12, publishing his own newspaper and selling it on the train. A few years later, he became a telegrapher and started tinkering in his spare time. He made many improvements to telegraphy and eventually turned to inventing full-time in his New Jersey workshop.
He was amazingly persistent. He explained that “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration,” “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work,” and “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” As a result of his persistence, he received more than 2,000 patents worldwide. These patents included the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph, and the movie camera. He became one of the most famous Americans of his era. When he died in 1931, light bulbs around the world were briefly dimmed or turned off.
There’s another, lesser-known side of Edison however. He was a ruthless businessman. One of the most notable examples involved the movie camera. Soon after inventing it, he established a company called Edison Studios in New Jersey. The building was set on rollers to follow the sun’s path across the sky. In 1894, his 5-second film “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” became the first-ever copyrighted motion picture. Audiences loved this new technology and flocked to theatres. To meet the demand, many other small moviemaking companies sprang up.
Edison hated the competition. In 1898, he began filing lawsuits to force them out of business. When that didn’t work, he organized the Motion Picture Patents Company, a group of 10 film companies headed by Edison Studios. The Patents Company continued the court battles. Presumably with Edison’s approval, it sometimes hired thugs who broke into rival studios and ransacked them.
Not surprisingly, many of Edison’s victims wanted to get as far away as they could. They headed for southern California, on the other side of the country. Side benefits were generally better weather that allowed year-round filming, a variety of terrain features, and cheap land and labor. Many of the newcomers established their offices in a tiny village near Los Angeles called Hollywood—the name now synonymous with the movie industry.
Click! The lights come on, and it seems like the most natural thing in the world. But without science, you’d be left in the dark. Jim Whiting's The Science of Lighting a City takes a closer look at the amazing places that Edison's invention of the light bulb has led.
Whiting, Jim. "Thomas Edison: Cutthroat Businessman." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 21 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature’s Animal Ambassador
The question “how smart are animals?” has puzzled many people for generations. Scientist Irene Pepperberg became intrigued with this problem after viewing NOVA TV programs about communication studies in apes and dolphins. Trained as a chemist, Irene decided then and there that her true passion was actually animal intelligence, not chemistry.
Irene plunged into learning what was already known and the revolutionary ideas of scientists who were changing how people thought about animals. At that time, in the early 1970s, people thought that animals didn’t think and make decisions but merely responded moment by moment to their environments. But researchers working with apes and dolphins were overturning that concept and showing that indeed, animals could think, solve problems, and act intelligently about what they had learned.
What about birds, Irene wondered? She had kept pet parakeets and knew they were smart and could learn to speak at least a few words. . She decided to study an African Grey parrot, a popular pet that can learn to pronounce words especially well.
She bought a young parrot, named him Alex, and got to work. To probe Alex’s mind, Irene needed to teach him to use words to describe his world. This took long, patient training. After a few years Alex could name objects and foods, such as a key, a piece of wood, or a banana. He also learned several colors, and soon could label an object by both its label and color, such as identifying “green key” or “yellow corn.” He learned to distinguish whether an object was made of wood, paper, or rawhide, and could distinguish shapes such as “three-cornered” or “four-corner.”
Alex also used his vocabulary to express his own desires. In the middle of an experimental session he might say “Want nut,” or “Wanna go shoulder.”
As the years passed, Alex kept learning. If Irene presented him with a tray of items of different numbers and colors—say 2 green keys, 4 blue keys, and 6 red keys—he could correctly answer the question “What color four?”
By the time he died suddenly and unexpectedly in 2007, Alex had learned more than 100 labels and showed understanding of many concepts. When people asked Irene why Alex was special, she’d reply, “Because a bird with a brain the size of a shelled walnut could do the kinds of things that young children do. And that changed our perception of what we mean by ‘bird brain.’ It changed the way we think about animal thinking.”
Alex isn't the only bird Dorothy has written about. This book explores a University of Montana research project using blood samples from osprey chicks to investigate the effects of heavy metal refuse from mining on the ecology of the Clark Fork River.
To learn more about The Call of the Osprey, go 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. "Alex the Parrot, a Real Bird Brain." Nonfiction
Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 May 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
Celebrating the History of Science
and the Science behind History
Imagine you’re driving home from your favorite take-out restaurant when you suddenly encounter a giant boulder in the middle of the road. With luck, the person at the wheel has time to slam on the brakes and then drive around it.
Scientists are refining a technology that helps cars avoid collisions and traffic jams. Cars will be programmed to “see” a roadblock or sudden slowdown before the driver does. And some of this technology is based on . . . ants.
Leafcutter ants, to be specific. Leafcutters can be any of a number of species of ants equipped with powerful mandibles (jaws). They travel in long lines through the rainforest, leaving a scent along the trail to find their way back. After an ant saws a chunk out of a leaf, it flings it over its back and then joins the super-highway of nest-mates heading back to the nest. Once there, the ant’s colleagues chew the vegetation into a pulp and then mix it with ant poop and fungus spores. The ants eat the resulting fungus that grows from the decomposed goop.
According to a study in the Journal of Experimental Biology, scientists blocked the path and created a narrow passageway between leafcutter ants and their nest, to see what the ants would do. Not only did the ants at the front show the ants behind them an efficient route back to the nest, but the chain of ants also somehow communicated, ant by ant, the need to carry a smaller piece of leaf to fit through the narrower passage the scientists had created.
And none of them bumped into anything, even while lugging leaves ten times their body weight. By working together and adapting quickly, the ants communicated information and reinforced the trail using what scientists call “distributed intelligence.”
And ants don’t just help car engineers. Scientists in other fields have been studying ant traffic patterns for all sorts of different systems where massive amounts of interacting units have to move around without crashing into one another. Besides traffic jams, scientists are studying ways to apply ant-like ingenuity to fields of study such as molecular biology and telecommunications.
Sara Albee's book, Why'd They Wear That?, was published by National Geographic in 2015. 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 actually wore in public.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Ants in a Jam." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 4 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ Ants-in-a-Jam.
The “Julia Child” of kids’ hands-on science
How do you know it’s the holiday season? There are lights everywhere sending that message. But that’s not the only kind of message light can send. A little more than 100 years ago when a telegraph began to become popular, people sent wireless messages called heliographs. They were made of flashes of light in Morse code (the same pattern of short and long as used in telegraphs) by reflecting the sun’s rays with a mirror. When the mirror was at a particular angle to the sun, it reflected a flash of bright light to observer miles away.
Maybe there’s another way to send light. Put a holiday light on one rim of a heavy glass measuring cup or dish. See where the light emerges on the rim on the opposite side. Move the light back and forth and watch what happens on the other side. The light travels down the side, and bends to go across the bottom and up the other side, but if you look at the cup sideways you can’t see the beam. Light stays inside the glass as it travels from rim to rim.
Could we make something like a wire from glass that can transmit light? Absolutely! An optical fiber is a flexible, transparent fiber made of glass or plastic that acts as a wire for light. Imagine a beam of light entering a fiber at exactly the right angle to bounce off the inside wall of the fiber where it meets the air. It is then reflected at exactly the same angle to bounce off the opposite wall making a zig-zag path until it reaches the end of the fiber. This internally reflected light stays inside the glass fiber as it travels at the speed of light.
HUGE quantities of all kinds of information—words, pictures, music, and videos—can now be sent through optical fibers, much more than through wires. A modern network with copper wiring can handle about 3,000 telephone calls at the same time, while a similar system using fiber optics can carry more than 30,000!
So when you hit “send,” know that your holiday message is a blinking beam of light, bouncing off the inside walls of a glass fiber on its speedy journey to friends and family. How ‘bout that!
Want to know more about optics? Have a look at Vicki Cobb's book Light Action! She co-authored it with her son, Josh, who is an optical engineer and her other son, Theo, drew the pictures. It's full of experiments that let you use optics to:
-Bend light around corners
- Stop time with a pair of sunglasses
- Capture light on a silver tray
- Magnify pictures with an ice cube
- Pour light into your palm
- Project a big-screen image from your small TV
- Fool a doorbell with a bike reflector!
For more information, go here.
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. "What Can You Learn from a Holiday Light and a Glass Cup?" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 14 Dec. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/ What-Can-You-Learn-from-a-Holiday-Light-and-a-Glass-Cup.
Dorothy Hinshaw Patent
Nature's Animal Ambassador
How often do you check your cell phone or email each day? Use Twitter or Facebook? Can you stand not to “stay in touch” for even one day? We’re used to being able to hear from people anywhere in the world at any time, with just a few taps on a keyboard or telephone pad.
Through most of human history people could only communicate when they were within shouting distance. When alphabets came along, our ancestors could create messages on stone or wood and later on parchment (made from animal skin), or paper, made from wood pulp. Then, of course, the message had to get from one person to another by way of a messenger. When public mail came along, it made that process much easier and more reliable.
That’s where things stood for a long time. Imagine being a soldier in 1804 joining explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark on their epic trek across the west to the Pacific Coast. This was territory almost totally unknown at the time to European Americans.
You’ve left behind your family and all your friends. Now you have no way of finding out what happened to those dear to you. Did your father or mother die? Did a sister get married? How many babies were born? Your loved ones get to be a bit luckier, since in the spring of 1805, the keel boat that carried the expedition to Indian villages for the winter is sent back down the Missouri River with a small crew, and you get a chance to write notes to your loved ones, reassuring them that you are okay.
A lot can happen during a 2½ year span like the one endured by members of the expedition! Finally, in September of 1806, you and your colleagues return to the St. Louis area and find out that most people assumed you were all dead. Now you must figure out as quickly as possible how to reconnect with family and friends. It won’t be easy, since they don’t know you are alive, and you don’t know where they are after so long. How can you even locate everyone you care about?
Think about it: If you didn’t have email or a phone of any kind, whose messages would you miss the most? And who would you most wish you could tell about these events in your life?
Dorothy has written about how the horse changed the lives of the Plains Indians and everything that followed.
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. "Keeping in Touch." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 4 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/keeping-in-touch.