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.
Teaching the Power of Wonder
Long before we celebrated Halloween, Celtic people in the British Isles honored the dead during Samhain (which we pronounce “SOW-ren”). Some scholars think that Samhain was a Celtic version of New Year’s Eve. It was a holiday filled with ritual. Folks believed that in late fall, the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead was at its very thinnest.
To light their way at this dark time of year, they carved out vegetables, and popped glowing coals inside. A popular choice was the humble turnip, which they grew, cooked, and ate, of course.
Why turnips, you may ask? Think! Pumpkins didn’t grow in Europe—they are a New World vegetable. In fact, an old drawing shows how Indians in Virginia grew pumpkins in their villages in the late 1500s.
Why not give turnip carving a try? Order big ones at your farm market. When you first bring them home, they might be hard as rocks. Let them sit out in the open for several days until they soften up a bit.
To carve yourself some examples of the original “jack-o-lantern,” grab the turnips, some tea lights, a small knife, and a pointy spoon. Hold the turnip root tip up. Use a marker to draw the circle for the lid. Then trace or draw eyes, nose, mouth—whatever you’d like.
Now be sure there’s an adult to help you! Use the knife to carve around the circle. Remove the top of the turnip and set it aside. That’s your lid. Use the spoon to scoop out the turnip just like a pumpkin. Be sure to leave a nice thick wall. Then pierce the turnip with your knife and gently carve out the features.
Pop the tea light inside. Find a dark spot. Have the grownup help you light the wick and… LET IT GLOW!
Today, folks grow pumpkins in the Old World, so kids all over Ireland, Scotland, England, and Wales carve jack-o-lanterns just like you do. Turnips are out….unless you want to feed the cows.
Kerrie Hollihan's biography of Isaac Newton sheds light on a lot of ideas people thought were mysterious. If you liked the turnip activity, there are lots more in this book.
Kerrie Hollihan 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.
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