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 Master Chef of Kids' Hands-on Science
Think you might like to be a helicopter pilot? If so, here’s what the U.S. Flight Aptitude Selection Test for helicopter pilots says: “Helicopter pilots must pass some of the most demanding physical tests of any job in the military. To be accepted for pilot training, applicants must have excellent vision and be in top physical condition. They must have very good eye-hand-foot coordination and have quick reflexes.”
A sense of balance is also extremely important because sometimes instruments alone are not enough to keep a helicopter oriented properly in the air. Pilots may have to make very subtle corrections. So here’s a test for balance. Be forewarned. Not many people can do this, maybe one in twenty.
1. Stand at attention.
2. Make two fists and extend your arms straight down by your sides. Point your index fingers to the ground.
3. Close your eyes.
4. Bend one leg back at the knee so that your lower leg is parallel to the floor and you are standing on one foot. Don’t let your foot droop. You must maintain your knee at a right angle.
5. Keep your eyes closed and hold this position for ninety seconds.
6. Try not to shake.
I learned about this from a Scotsman who told me about this test to qualify for the British Royal Air Force. He couldn't pass it, nor could I. In fact, no one I knew could rise to the helicopter pilot challenge except a Navy pilot in my family. He held the position perfectly for two minutes. Solid like a rock. No problem.
It’s clear that when it comes to certain skills not everyone is equal. Some people are not even close. So very few people are in the running to become helicopter pilots. You're probably not one of them but this may change with training.
Vicki Cobb is a former science teacher with a M.A. in secondary school science. She is also the founder and president of iNK Think Tank, the group that is producing The Nonfiction Minute. Thanks, Vicki!
Check out How Could We Harness a Hurricane?. To find out more about this book and other books that Vicki has written, click here.
Vicki Cobb 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. "Take the Helicopter Pilot Challenge." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 4 Jan. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/ Take-the-Helicopter-Pilot-Challenge.
Picture this: It’s cold gray October 1918 in France, in the Argonne Forest. World War I has been going on for four hideous, deadly years. You and about 500 of your fellow Americans are smack in the middle of a MASSIVE battle. You’re running out of food and ammo. Shells are EXPLODING all around you and some of them are American! Those guys don’t know where you and your buddies are, trapped in a hillside valley, surrounded by enemy Germans!
How can Major Charles Whittlesey, the commander of this lost battalion, let those other Americans know where his unit is? They’re cut off from the telegraph wires; so what, wave a flag? That’ll just draw more enemy fire! The messengers he’d sent had been shot or captured. How about homing pigeons? In this awful war, more than a 100,000 of them were used to carry battlefield messages. The major had sent all but one of his pigeons only to see them shot out of the sky. Finally, the desperate officer calls for his last one, named Cher Ami, the French words for Dear Friend.
Major Whittlesey scribbles out a message: “We are along the road parallel to 276.4.Our own artillery is dropping a barrage directly on us. For heaven’s sake, stop it.” He rolls the scrap of paper, stuffs it into the tiny silver canister attached to Cher Ami’s leg, and sends him up and away. This pigeon has flown 11 successful missions— will he make it now? He must!
The Germans fire.
Cher Ami falls! He’s hit!
But he beats and flaps his wings, gains altitude, and flies 25 miles. Despite being blinded in one eye and shot in his bloodied breast, Cher Ami delivers the critical message, still attached to his leg, dangling by a bloody tendon. And 194 American soldiers are saved by their brave dear, feathered friend. For his heroic service, Cher Ami was awarded France’s highest medal, le Croix de Guerre (the Cross of War).
In the months after the war ended, on November 11, 1918, ocean liners carried Cher Ami and many thousands of other veterans to America. He continued to be treated, but in the end, his injuries were too serious. Cher Ami died on June 13, 1919.
Back in the USA, Major Charles Whittlesey gave speeches about the war. He said nothing about any sorrow or awful memories, so no one knows just why he jumped off a ship to his death in the sea, late one night in November 1921. But the memory of soldiers’ heroism and of one bird’s stubborn courage will never die.
Cheryl's Latest book is Flags Over America. Click here to find out more about the book or click here to find out more about the author.
MLA 8 Citation
Harness, Cheryl. "Dear Friend." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 8 01 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/dear-friend.
Kerrie Logan Hollihan
Teaching the Power of Wonder
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington D.C.’s Arlington National Cemetery is one of America’s sacred places. This marble monument is indeed a grave of a World War I soldier. It’s also a powerful symbol for Americans who fought or died in war.
America chose its first unknown soldier after its victory over Germany in the Great War. It wasn’t called “World War I” until a second world war started twenty years later.
The honor of making that choice went to an Army sergeant from Chicago named Edward Younger, who was stationed in France. The bodies of four unidentified soldiers were removed from their graves in four American military cemeteries near battlefields in France. Officials made sure they were American soldiers by inspecting their uniforms and checking their bodies for combat wounds.
During a solemn ceremony, Sergeant Younger entered a private room where the four caskets sat side by side. He carried a bouquet of white roses. He walked around the caskets quietly and then placed the roses on one of them.
The remains of that soldier were transferred to a new casket. It was sealed and draped with the American flag, so that the field of stars lay over the soldier’s head and heart. With great ceremony, the casket was honored in France and then escorted by the U.S. Navy across the Atlantic to Washington, D. C. The spray of white roses went along, as well.
The Unknown Soldier lay in state in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building until November 11, 1921. That was the third anniversary of Armistice Day. “Armistice” means to lay down weapons and stop fighting. This is exactly what happened at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month in November, 1918. Today, we call our national holiday “Veteran’s Day.”
Crowds gathered to watch as the Unknown Soldier’s casket was placed on a gun carriage and drawn by horses to nearby Arlington National Cemetery across the Potomac in Virginia. After a solemn burial service, many dignitaries paid their respects at the casket, including the U.S. president and the American Indian Chief Plenty Coups of the Crow Nation. The chief laid his war bonnet alongside the memorial wreaths.
The casket was lowered into the tomb onto two inches of soil from France. Sergeant Younger’s spray of roses was buried with it. Later, a massive marble sarcophagus was placed on top. The words carved into the sarcophagus state simply:
Here rests in honored glory an American soldier known but to God.
The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier as it appears today. The flat-faced white marble sarcophagus is relieved at the corners and along the sides by neo-classic pilasters, or columns, set into the surface. Sculpted into the east panel which faces Washington, D.C., are three Greek figures representing Peace, Victory, and Valor. The six wreaths, three sculpted on each side, represent the six major campaigns of World War I..
Throughout history, the wars of men have been off-limits to women; to break through these barriers, women had to fight with newspaper gatekeepers and the leaders of warring nations alike just to get the story. Kerrie Logan Hollihan's newest book, Reporting Under Fire, tells how women won the war for equality in the journalism world. To find out more about the book on Kerrie's website, click here.
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.
MLA 8 Citation
Hollihan, Kerrie Logan. "America’s Unknown Soldier." Nonfiction Minute, iNK
Think Tank, 1 June 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/
Among the fiercest foes the United States ever fought were its Native Americans. Our Indian Wars blazed over the West after the Civil War and lasted 45 years. It was a bitter struggle on both sides. The U.S. enforced a harsh peace on the warring tribes and didn’t grant Native Americans citizenship until 1924. They weren’t allowed to vote until after WW II. Native American children were often boarded in harsh schools where they were forbidden to speak their own language. But those nearly-lost languages were to save American lives.
Even after shoddy treatment from the government in Washington for more than a century, American Natives quickly volunteered to defend “their country” against enemies in World War I France. A group of Choctaw Natives were hurried to the trenches to send critical messages in a language wire-tapping Germans couldn’t possibly understand.
In World War II, Comanche Code Talkers waded ashore with our troops on D-Day, June 6, 1944, in Normandy. Our technically advanced enemies in Europe and the Pacific were listening to our radio messages. Mechanically coding and decoding orders could take hours when seconds meant lives. The Code Talkers’ messages in their undecipherable language were quickly delivered, and replies came back immediately. Their tongue was taught orally, never written down, and the Talkers made it even harder by using a shorthand code within a code: a tank was a “turtle,” chay da galli; a fighter plane was a “hummingbird,” da he toh hi.
United States Marines in the bloody battles of the Pacific hopped from one Japanese-held island to another with Navajo Code Talkers. The Navajo tongue was even more difficult than the Comanche’s because one word could mean many things when paired with other words, and subtle pronunciation changed meaning. Neither the Comanche nor the Navajo codes were ever broken.
The Code Talkers were so successful that their service was kept secret until 1968, when heroic Code Talkers could finally tell their families about their part in winning the war and saving hundreds of thousands of lives.
In 2014 Chester Nez, the last of the Navajo Code Talkers, died at 93. Three years earlier he and all 29 of the original Navajo Code Talkers were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for distinguished service to a country that finally recognized a debt to its Native Americans, and to their language.
You know all about cowboys, right? They're the good guys in the white hats, carrying six-shooters and wearing fancy boots. Well, no. Cowboys weren't like that at all. Come inside with Jan Adkins and meet Jake Peavy. He's the real deal. Jake's a crackerjack cattle herder but he wears a grubby hat and he limps from when that horse fell on him. He's small, wiry, has bad teeth, and it's been a while since he washed. Come spend some time with Jake, his saddle-mates, and his fleas. You'll learn all about riding the range, roping dogies, and surviving in the down-and-dirty world that was the REAL wild West. For more information, click here.
Adkins, great story-teller, is a member of Authors on Call. You can invite him to your classroom using the iNK Zoom Room. For more information look here.
MLA 8 Citation
Adkins, Jan. "Code Talkers: Native Americans Come to the Rescue, But Why?"
Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 6 Mar. 2018, www.nonfictionminute.org/
For Vicki Cobb's BLOG (nonfiction book reviews, info on education, more), click here: Vicki's Blog
The NCSS-CBC Notable Social Studies Committee is pleased to inform you
that 30 People Who Changed the World has been selected for Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2018, a cooperative project of the National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS) & the Children’s Book Council