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.
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.
David M. Schwartz
The amazing, engaging, math exponent
'Tis the season. The rotting season.
You thought Halloween was full of ghosts, goblins and ghouls? Well, wait until the post-Halloween season. This is when your Jack O' Lantern begins its ghoulish decline. It starts as a pumpkin and it ends as a heap of goo. This is scary!
Now is when your Halloween pumpkin begins to rot. Don't get me wrong. Rot is not gross. It is a beautiful thing—beautiful in its own deliciously disgusting way.
You start with a proud Jack, a plump, shiny-skinned pumpkin. Halloween is over so you leave it on your porch, or inside by the window, or maybe you toss it into the garden or onto the compost heap.
It attracts some visitors. A squirrel. A pair of mice. A scurry of sow bugs. They chew the skin of the pumpkin, leaving moist, rough surfaces, just perfect for the next wave of invaders: the molds and fungi and bacteria that start to grow. There are dozens, even hundreds, of types of organisms waiting to sink their "teeth" into pumpkin flesh as soon as the conditions are right. One kind of invader changes the conditions of the flesh to make it perfect for the next one. Meanwhile, the poor pumpkin is looking less and less like a pumpkin. Its skin turns to shades of black, gray and white, with only a few patches of dull orange. Its shape collapses into a heap, then a pile of mush, and then . . . well, no shape at all.
Do you think rot rots? Imagine what your life would be like if things didn't rot. You'd be tripping over all the old pumpkins, not to mention mice, eagles, tomato plants, oak trees and everything else that ever walked, flew, swam or grew upon the earth. Their dead bodies simply wouldn't go away! Worse, their nutrients would be locked forever inside. The energy in the molecules they are made of would be unavailable to any other living things. Rot, properly known as "decomposition," releases all those good vitamins, sugars, proteins, carbohydrates and energy so that they can be used by next year's pumpkin, which will grow from the seeds of last year's pumpkin. Mice and eagles, tomatoes and the trees in a nearby forest can grow and reproduce because nutrients and energy pass through complex food webs from plants to the animals that eat those plants, to other animals that eat those animals.
It's all possible because of rot. So you see, rot doesn't rot. Rot rocks!
David is the author of > 50 books on math and science, including his newest, rottenest title, Rotten Pumpkin. For more information, click here.
David 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.