David M. Schwartz
The amazing,engaging, math exponent
Pi Day takes place on March 14th this year, as it has every year since 1988 when this mathematical holiday was invented. Pi Day? Does that sound crazy? Sure it does. It’s irrational. Pi is the world’s most famous “irrational” number. Therefore, Pi Day is the world’s most irrational holiday!
Take a circle, any circle, and divide the circumference by the diameter. The quotient is the number called pi, represented by the Greek letter π. It is a little more than three. How much more? That is a question that people have been working on for centuries.
Pi is an incredibly useful number in mathematics, physics and engineering. It helps us understand things from the shape of an apple to the energy of stars. It helps us design things, from buildings to spaceships.
Pi is an irrational number. That means when you write it as a decimal, its digits do not just end (like 3.5) and they do not repeat in a pattern (like 0.3333…, where the 3s go on forever).
Here is a slice of pi: 3.141592653… The “dot-dot-dot” means the digits keep on going. How far? Is there a pattern?
With supercomputers, mathematicians have probed the mysteries of pi to over a trillion digits. The digits keep going. Infinitely. No pattern has ever been found. (Written in an ordinary font, a trillion digits of pi would go around the world 50 times.)
But the endless, patternless nature of pi enchants many minds and some people delight in memorizing the digits. A 69 year-old man named Akira Haraguchi recited 100,000 digits from memory in Tokyo in 2006. He shattered the previous record of Chao Lu from China, who had memorized merely 67,890 digits of pi after studying for four years.
Can you see a date in the first three digits: 3.14? It’s March 14th — Pi Day! This holiday is celebrated worldwide by students, teachers and math enthusiasts who enjoy pi-themed activities, clothing, jokes and food (namely pie).
This is an ordinary year as far as Pi Day is concerned, but in 2015, Pi Day was really special. After 3.14, the next two digits of pi are 15. So March 14, 2015, was not just any old Pi Day. It was the “Pi Day of the Century.” You’ll have to wait until March 14, 2115, for another Pi Day so sweet!
Happy Pi Day, everybody!
David Schwartz probes many mathematical mysteries in his books and school presentations given all over the world. He wrote this Nonfiction Minute while celebrating Pi Day at Tashkent International School in Uzbekistan. He 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
Schwartz, David M. "Happy Pi Day." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 14 Mar.
“What is this country bumpkin up to? Is this some kind of a joke?” Laughter rippled through the conference room in Richmond as Lemuel Chenoweth unloaded his saddlebags and took out a bunch of oak sticks wrapped in newspapers.
He was the last builder to show his plans for the great competition in 1850 to build a bridge across the Tygart River in western Virginia (now West Virginia). Only a ferry connected the bustling north-south throughway at Philippi, causing traffic jams and the slowing of our young nation’s relentless commerce and travel.
Engineers had come from all over the east to show their plans … blueprints of cable suspension bridges, fancy cantilevered structures, an arched bridge. It had to be durable, and support wagonloads of heavy goods and herds of livestock. ridge across the Tygart River in western Virginia (now West Virginia). Only a ferry connected the bustling north-south throughway at Philippi, causing traffic jams and the slowing of our young nation’s relentless commerce and travel.
Quietly Lemuel assembled a miniature bridge, using no hammer or nails. Compared to the fancy bridge models shown, his was plain. Then, he pulled out two chairs, placed his construction across them, and spoke.
“Since I have no blueprints,” he said, “you may allow me a demonstration.”
Suddenly he stepped up onto the top of the model, and walked across it--from one end to the other. A gasp went up. No way could it hold! They knew their mathematics. Had this been the actual bridge it would have been as if a six-hundred-foot man stood on it. But the model held, and in the hushed silence that followed, Lemuel turned to the other contestants and asked, “Can you stand on your models?”
No one dared. They all knew theirs would be crushed.
And that's how Lemuel Chenoweth, a shy western Virginian with a third-grade education, won the competition for the famous Tygart River Bridge.
The double-barreled bridge has survived fires, the Civil War, floods, and 18-wheeler trucks. It is the only covered bridge left in the US serving a federal highway. It has its own museum, and in 1983 Governor Jay Rockefeller declared June 15 Lemuel Chenoweth Day.
Lemuel started out making furniture, wagons, and coffins, and later built houses, a church, and many bridges. He married Nancy Hart, the great-granddaughter of John Hart, signer of the Declaration of Independence. They had 13 children.
So how do we know about this story?
Because Lemuel Chenoweth was my great-great- granddaddy, and throughout my childhood I heard the story of Lemuel, the model bridge, and the two chairs.
Roxie Munro's newest book uses thirty-seven of her favorite masterpieces by great artists as an inspiration for her own masterpiece that is a cityscape and a game. You can read a review of the book here.
Roxie is also a member of iNK's Authors on Call where you can invite her to your classroom virtually.
MLA 8 Citation
Munro, Roxie. "Lemuel's Bridge." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 16 Oct. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/lemuels-bridge.
The Explainer General
On May 24, 1883, The Brooklyn Bridge was opened to the public. It took 14 years, $15 million and many lives to link Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Before work was begun, its designer, John A. Roebling, was making final surveys of the site. A docking ferryboat nudged a piling near him, driving a dirty nail into his foot. He died of tetanus 24 days later. His son, Washington Roebling took over the engineering project.
To sink the bridge tower foundations down to bedrock, workers excavated river silt inside two open-bottomed 3000 ton iron bases, caissons. High-pressure air pumps kept river water out. As the caissons were dug deeper beneath the river surface, air pressure grew higher; work became more dangerous. When they were digging near seventy feet deep, a few workers walked through the caisson air-lock at the surface, across the street to the tavern, and dropped down dead. The cause: nitrogen embolism—gas dissolved in blood under high pressure expanding rapidly at normal pressure. Scuba divers call it “the bends.” Washington Roebling, himself, was crippled this way but monitored the project through a telescope from his bed upriver. His brilliant wife, Emily Warren Roebling, managed construction on-site. Twenty to 30 bridge workers were killed in construction from nitrogen embolism, being struck by falling material, and by falls from the towers.
It was the longest suspension bridge in the world, with a river-span of 1595.5 feet. Anyone could cross: 1¢ for a pedestrian, 5¢ for a horse and rider, 10¢ for a horse and wagon, 5¢ for cows, 2¢ for sheep or hogs.
Only six days after its opening, the bridge was crowded with walkers when a rumor started that the bridge was collapsing! Strollers stampeded, killing 12, injuring 35 in the panic. Was the great bridge safe?
Months later, May 17, 1884, the great huckster and self-promoter P. T. Barnum set out to prove the solidity of the bridge “in the interest of the dear public.” Across the broad bridge paraded 21 elephants with Barnum’s famous African elephant Jumbo in the rear. They were followed by seven Bactrian camels (two-hump) and ten dromedaries (one-hump). Since elephant and camel fares had never been specified, no tolls were paid. The New York Times reported “…it seemed as if Noah’s Ark were emptying itself over on Long Island.”
If any doubts remained, Barnum’s ballyhoo proof put them to rest.
The story of how Jumbo was brought from Africa to the United States is a fascinating one -- Google it. In the meantime, you might want to have a look at Jan Adkin's fascinating description of how people often have to use brains rather than brawn to move heavy items.
Jan 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. "Proof Positive: Ballyhoo Confirms the Safety of the Brooklyn
Bridge." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 7 June 2018,
celebrating nature, inspiring good writing
This summer, you may be able to observe an amazing event in nature. You can watch a small animal build a structure much bigger than itself, using materials from inside its own body!
This is what happens when a spider spins a web. Inside a spider are glands that can produce seven different kinds of silk. The silk comes out of little spigots, called spinnerets, at the rear of the spider's body.
A strand of spider silk is stronger than a similar strand of steel, and spiders use this amazing material in many ways. If they catch an insect, they may wrap it in silk, to eat later. Female spiders enclose their eggs in a silken sac to protect them. And some spiders—almost always females—make webs that are death traps for insects.
Webs can be in the shape of funnels, sheets, or domes, but the best-known are called orb webs. From an orb web's center, lines of silk radiate out in all directions, like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. After building this basic structure, a spider goes round and round, laying down ever-bigger circles of silk. Some of the silk threads have sticky glue to catch a moth or other prey. A spider can create this whole complex design in an hour or less.
When an orb web is complete, some kinds of spiders wait right in the center. Others hide at an edge. Either way, the builder keeps a front leg in touch with the web. Vibrations from the threads tell a spider whether prey has been caught.
Spiders often have to repair their webs, and some species routinely build a new one every day. And they recycle! They eat most of their old web. After digestion, it becomes brand new silk for the next construction job.
You may be able to watch a spider on the job. Look for webs in a field, park, or backyard. Also look for webs near doors, windows, or on a porch. The nighttime lights from such places attract night-flying insects, and spiders often build webs there. They may or may not be orb webs, but watching any kind of spider at work on its silken insect-trap can be fascinating fun.
And remember: the spider wants nothing to do with you. It is just trying to stay safe and catch some food.
This video was shot by Ingrid Taylor, " I shot this a few minutes after the rain subsided, when the City of Spiders outside the door came to life. Mass web-building and repair going on..." wikimedia commons
.To learn more about the lives of spiders, and see spectacular realistic illustrations, see Laurence Pringle's book:
MLA 8 Citation
Pringle, Laurence. "Watch a Webmaster at Work!" Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 14 June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Sneed B. Collard III
Several years ago, I rode the world’s fastest elevator to the top of one of the world’s tallest buildings—Taipei 101. Shaped like an elegant stalk of bamboo, Taipei 101 soars 1670 feet above the island nation of Taiwan. However, the engineers who designed the building faced two monumental challenges. The first is that dozens of earthquakes shake Taiwan each year. The second is that in an average year, Taiwan gets hammered by three or four hurricanes, or typhoons.
How, engineers wondered, could they keep people comfortable inside Taipei 101 when it swayed back and forth? More important, how could they keep the building from getting damaged or collapsing in a massive earthquake or 100 mile-per-hour winds?
One solution: a damper ball.
Damping devices are weighty objects that can reduce the motion of a bridge, building, or other structure. In the case of Taipei 101, engineers placed the damper ball near the top of the building—the part that sways the most. The ball is hung from thick cables inside the building and rests on giant springs or “dampers.”
One of Isaac Newton’s basic laws of physics is that an object at rest tends to stay at rest—and the damper ball proves it. Every time Taipei 101 starts swaying, the damper ball wants to stay where it is and “pulls back” on the building, reducing how far the building moves. When the building sways in the opposite direction, the process repeats itself—but in the reverse direction. Of course the building also pulls on the damper ball, but the ball’s movements are restricted by the dampers it presses against.
Does the system work? You bet. The damper ball inside of Taipei 101 reduces the building’s movement by 30 to 40 percent!
Of course not just any damping device could protect an enormous building like Taipei 101. Taipei’s damper ball weighs 1.5 million pounds—as much as two fully-loaded jumbo jets. It is composed of 41 circular steel plates that stand taller than a one-story house. In 2008, when a giant earthquake hit mainland China, the people of Taiwan could feel it hundreds of miles away. The damper ball did its job, resisting Taipei 101’s movement, keeping the building safe. During Typhoon Soudelor in 2015, the damper again worked like a charm, protecting the building against 100- to 145-mile-per-hour winds.
Besides protecting Taipei 101, the damper ball has become a major tourist attraction. Each year, thousands of visitors ride to the 89th floor. They take selfies next to the damper ball. They even take “Damper Baby” souvenirs home with them. If you’re ever lucky enough to visit Taiwan, check it out!
The damper ball is visible between the 89th and 91st floor of Taipei 101 and has become an attraction for tourists.
Sneed B. Collard III is author of more than eighty award-winning children’s books as well as a new book for educators, Teaching Nonfiction Revision: A Professional Writer Shares Strategies, Tips, and Lessons.
Sneed is a dynamic speaker and offers school and conference programs that combine science, nature, and literacy. To learn more about him and his talks, visit his website,.
To learn more about the damper ball and watch how it performed during Typhoon Soudelor, check out this article and video: http://www.thorntontomasetti.com/taipei-101s-tmd-explained/
MLA 8 Citation
Collard, Sneed B. "Damping Down Danger." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 10
01 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
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