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/
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.
The Explainer General
She was 15 pounds below minimum weight for the Navy when she joined, but she had a mighty mind. Admiral Grace Hopper changed the Navy. And your world.
She graduated from Vassar College in math and physics then took a doctorate from Yale in math. She joined the Navy in World War II because it needed mathematicians to build the massive machines that computed tables of distance, gun elevation, projectile weight, windage and other factors for precise naval gunnery. Almost immediately she saw something other mathematicians didn’t see: computers could talk.
They weren’t just number crunchers to Grace. They could do much, much more if they were given a simple language that would bring the advantages of gigantic computing power and enormous data storage to common uses.
While working on the early computers she developed a “compiler,” a kind of translating machine that turned plain-language needs into a set of mathematical commands that retrieved number data from storage banks, performed thousands or millions of math operations, and provided real-world answers.
In 1959 she was crucial in devising the first broad-based computer language, COBOL (COmmon Business Oriented Language). It is the root of the many computer operating systems we use today.
Then-Captain Grace worked with the National Bureau of Standards to develop self-testing capabilities so a computer could “de-bug” itself. She coined this word when she extracted a fried moth disrupting one of her computers.
She led the Navy away from a few giant computers to interconnected, smaller, scattered computers, opening the door to the internet. You are reading plain language words from my small computer on your web-connected small computer. Thank you, Grace.
In 1985, at 79, she was promoted to rear admiral of the United States Navy Reserve. She said, “The most important thing I've accomplished, other than building the compiler, is training young people. They come to me, you know, and say, 'Do you think we can do this?' I say, ‘Try it.’ And I back 'em up. They need that. I keep track of them as they get older and I stir 'em up at intervals so they don't forget to take chances.” She died in 1992 at 85.
Admiral Grace Hopper received many awards and decorations but the Navy’s most sincere tribute came in 1996 when it named the guided missile cruiser DDG-70, USS Hopper. Naturally, its sailors call their ship “Amazing Grace.”
Jan Adkins successfully tackles the art and science of 10,000 years of bridge building and imparts a lot of historical drama along the way. The process is given fascinating life in this accessible study, wonderfully illustrated by Jan Adkins himself. Ranging from ancient Rome to the present day, from simple log bridges to marvels of industrial technology, and from well-known landmarks to little-known feats of engineering and art, this book gives readers a new appreciation for that most familiar of structures, the bridge.
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. "Amazing Grace." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 25 Jan. 2018,
The Explainer General
Most disasters are a cascade: small failures and minor circumstances, one leading to another, blossom into a cataclysm. On January 16, 1919, a cascade of tremendous size was poised above Boston’s North End.
The weather was one factor: unusually warm for winter.
Purity Distilling Company fermented and distilled molasses to make rum and alcohol. The 18th Amendment to the United States Constitution, prohibiting sales of alcoholic beverages, was due to be passed the very next day. This may have prompted Purity to collect as much molasses as possible.
The enormous tank holding the molasses was about 50 feet tall and 90 feet in diameter, holding 2,300,000 gallons. It was poorly built of thin steel painted brown to hide its leaks. Local families often collected some of the dripping molasses to sweeten their food. The unseasonably warm temperature quickly rose from 2° F (-16.7° C) to 40° F (4.4° C), expanding the liquid, and natural fermentation produced CO2 increasing tank pressure.
Just after noon, North End families felt the ground shake and heard a sound like a machine gun— the tank’s rivets popping out. The big tank exploded, sending a 25-foot wall of molasses roaring down the hill toward Commercial Street at about 35 miles an hour. In front of the molasses went a blast of air that blew some folks off their porches and tumbled others along the street like rag dolls. Homes and buildings were destroyed, smashed from their foundations. Horses pulling wagons were swept away. The steel girders of the Boston Elevated Railway were buckled, knocking a rail-car off the tracks.
Twenty-one people were killed and more than a hundred were injured. Many were saved by Massachusetts Maritime Academy cadets who rushed off their docked training vessel and plunged into the brown goo to rescue people. It’s difficult to know how many dogs, cats and horses died.
As you can imagine, the clean-up was awful. Firehoses from hydrants and harbor fireboats washed away as much as possible. Boston Harbor was brown for months. Sightseers tracked the goo back to homes, into hotels, onto pay-phones and onto doorknobs. Everything Bostonians touched was sticky for months.
Some say that on a hot summer day along the North End’s docks, the sickly sweet smell of molasses lingers. Bostonians can smile at the Great Molasses Flood now, but in January of 1919, that cascade of disasters was deadly serious.
Jan Adkins is an author, an illustrator, and a superb storyteller. Read about him on his Amazon page. He is also 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. "The Great Boston Molasses Flood: How Can a Tragedy Sound Funny?"
Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 19 Jan. 2018,
David M. Schwartz
The amazing, engaging, math exponent
Imagine Earth as a button. I don’t mean you’re going to sew it onto your shirt. But imagine the planet Earth shrunk to the size of a button. (Of course Earth is not flat like a button but we’re giving our shrunken Earth the same diameter as a shirt button.)
Go ahead and draw a circle around a shirt button. Call it “Earth.” Suppose you wanted to draw Jupiter, the largest planet, at the same scale as this micro-Earth. That means you’re going to shrink it to the same fraction of its original size as our button-Earth. What size would little Jupiter be?
One way to find out would be to calculate how many times bigger the real Jupiter is than the real Earth. Earth’s diameter is about 8,000 miles (13,000 kilometers). Jupiter’s is about 88,000 miles (143,000 km). Divide the size of Jupiter by the size of Earth to see that Jupiter is about 11 times bigger.
So, since Jupiter’s diameter is 11 times that of Earth’s, put 11 buttons in a line to show the diameter of Jupiter. Then draw the circle that represents Jupiter. If you don’t have 11 buttons, just look at the picture. Did you think the Earth was a big place? Look at it compared with Jupiter!
But what about the sun? The sun’s diameter is about 865,000 miles (1,400,000 km). That means it’s almost 10 times bigger than Jupiter. Can you find a way to draw a circle 10 times the size of our Jupiter? We’ve drawn part of it for you, on the same scale as our button-sized Earth. On the picture, it’s labeled “our arc.” (An arc is part of a circle.) Looking at the arc, you can imagine the rest of the circle and compare the sun to Jupiter and Earth. A minute ago, you thought Jupiter was big. Now it looks shrimpy compared to the sun!
But is the sun really gigantic? Do some research to find out the size of a red giant star like the strangely named Betelguese (pronounced “beetle-juice.”) Figure out what it looks like compared to our sun, which is a medium-sized star. You may be amazed at the difference. And you thought the sun was big!
Is anything truly big? Is anything truly small? Or does that depend on what it’s being compared to?
Both images are by Marissa Moss, the illustrator of David M Schwartz's book, G is for Googol.
G is for Googol: A Math Alphabet Book is a wonder-filled romp through the world of mathematics.
For more information, click here.
David Schwartz 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.
Schwartz, David M. "If the Earth Were a Button." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think
Tank, 16 Jan. 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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