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/
Nonfiction is the new black
The Renaissance began in Europe in the 15th century and marked the change from the medieval period to the modern world. Towering figures such as Michelangelo, Galileo, and especially Leonardo da Vinci were known as Renaissance men because of their talents and lasting achievements in several important areas of knowledge. They were also accomplished musicians, public speakers, athletes, poets, and so forth. And they were expected to do all this stuff without breaking a sweat.
You could give the same title to an ancient Egyptian named Imhotep, who lived about 2600 BCE. He was the vizier, the most important government official, during the reign of Pharaoh Djoser. He served as the high priest of the god Ra and was an expert astronomer.
Imhotep designed and oversaw the building of the first major pyramid in Egypt. Located at Saqqara, at the time it was the world’s tallest structure. He innovated the use of stones rather than mud bricks to build it, and it was that added strength that enabled the pyramid to rise so high. He is also credited with the invention of several devices that facilitated the construction.
Many people believe that Imhotep, rather than the Greek Hippocrates who lived more than 2,000 years later, is the real “Father of Medicine.” In an era when most physicians relied on magic spells and appeals to the gods, Imhotep prescribed dozens of effective down-to-earth treatments for illnesses and injuries.
He is credited with ending a seven-year famine in Egypt. He advised the pharaoh to make sacrifices to Khnum, the god of the annual flooding of the Nile River, and thereby provide desperately needed water to farmers. On a more practical level, he invented an improved irrigation system to carry water to the crops even if the river level was abnormally low.
In addition to these accomplishments, an inscription at the base of one of his statues notes that he was “Chief Carpenter, Chief Sculptor, and Maker of Vases in Chief.” In his little spare time, he wrote poetry and dispensed philosophical advice.
Imhotep can also boast of two accomplishments that eluded even Leonardo da Vinci. He was deified after his death and worshipped for many centuries, an honor accorded to hardly anyone besides the pharaohs. And today the comic book community gives him the credit for founding S.H.I.E.L.D., the Marvel Comics espionage and crime-fighting agency that became the basis for blockbuster movies such as Iron Man, Thor, and Captain America.
Jim Whiting has written a book on another great Egyptian leader -- Ramses the Great who lived about 1350 years after Imhotep. He fully lived up to the "Great" part of his name. His reign lasted for 67 years, the second longest in Egypt’s 3,000-year history. He had dozens of wives and more than 100 children, outliving many of them. He was a military leader who expanded the borders of his country. That resulted in decades of peace and prosperity for his people. He ordered huge statues of himself to be erected all over Egypt. For more information, click here.
MLA 8 Citation
Whiting, Jim. "A Renaissance Man - 4,000 Years before the Renaissance."
Nonfiction Minute`, iNK Think Tank, 8 Feb. 2018,
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.
By Sarah Albee
Celebrating the History of Science and the Science behind History
Do you like ketchup? Maybe relish is your favorite condiment. Well, people in the ancient world had a favorite condiment, too. It was called garum. The ancient Greeks couldn’t get enough of it. Later, the Byzantines loved it, too. But garum was most popular during ancient Roman times. (The Roman Empire lasted from 27 BC to AD 476, so they must have gobbled down a lot of garum.)
The problem with garum was that making it could be an extremely stinky process. Garum makers were told to move their factories to the outskirts of the city, although probably no one enforced this.
The Romans dumped garum onto practically everything they ate. Should you be curious to try garum yourself, I’ve written out the recipe for you. You’re welcome.
Garum is actually quite nutritious—full of amino acids, proteins, and vitamin D from all that time in the sun. And the rotten sludge left at the bottom is also highly nutritious, so you can save that for another use. Try spreading it on toast!
(c) Sarah Albee, 2014
A Roman banquet
Sarah Albee's latest book is Poison: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions and Murderous Medicines. You can read a review that gives you a dose of what's in this book.
MLA 8 Citation
Albee, Sarah. "Something's Rotten in Rome." Nonfiction Minute, iNK Think Tank, 15 Sept. 2017, www.nonfictionminute.org/the-nonfiction-minute/somethings-rotten-in-rome.