Thursday, September 27, 2012

[GUEST POST] There and Back Again: A Scientific Journey Through Space and Time

This week, "New @ MPL" is proud to showcase the writings of local teens and young adults from MPL's very own Teen Writing Group. (Our Teen Writing Group meets every Monday afternoon at the Library.)

Today, enjoy this entry from Bruce Howard, who takes us on a tour of very ancient history:

The "nearby" Andromeda Galaxy -- located  2.5 million light-years away

It is almost quintessentially human to ponder matters of history and to perceive the passing of time.  In my early twenties, it’s sometimes easy to feel like you’ve been around a while.  I’ve been through 16 years of schooling (with about seven more to go before I’m done).  I’ve also witnessed several world-, nation-, and life-changing moments in history.

However, I did not just suddenly appear out of nowhere, a newborn baby in a foreign universe.  The rules of physics might have a few problems with that scenario.  I’ve been alive for less than .0000002% of the time the universe has been around, and inevitably, that which came before me factors into who I am.

Obviously, I directly owe my existence to the fact that my parents met.  If that were the only factor, though, this wouldn’t be much of a story.  Stepping a bit further back, I can trace my ancestors to World War II, World War I, the Civil War, and even the American Revolution.  War is quite obviously a dangerous thing, so it might seem a bit odd to note that had my ancestors not been in these conflicts, I might not be here.  Consider this: a young soldier heading off to war would have to put starting a family on hold for the duration of his service.  If not for that setback, perhaps that soldier would never have had a child when they had your mother, father, grandmother, grandfather, and/or other ancestor.  One might even say that every little thing that has happened since the rise of humanity has, in some way or another, affected today’s world.  There is that famous quip about how going back in time and killing a single animal could drastically change the present.  But I don’t want to stop this tour of history at the rise of humanity.

There are approximately 13 billion years of universal existence.  So let’s start a bit further back than the mere dent in time that is human existence.  Shortly after the universe was created some 13 billion years ago, in what is called the Big Bang, the universe had expanded a bit, enough that the universe was able to cool some and allow particles to combine.  Thus, the first atoms were formed.  These were mostly hydrogen, with only small amounts of a few other elements (like lithium) forming.  If only these very light atoms had formed in the Big Bang, one might wonder how it is that the atoms we’re made of formed.

Drawing an atom

As the universe continued to expand, gravity did its thing, pulling the hydrogen and trace elements together.  Eventually, these elements had formed clumps.  Then, in time, these clumps had condensed enough to reach the conditions necessary for nuclear fusion.  These giant balls of mostly hydrogen gas had become the universe’s first stars.  Stellar nuclear fusion is the process by which stars continually produce their energy.  A few nuclear processes steadily convert hydrogen atoms into helium atoms, giving off other things as well.  Among these are light, along with somewhat elusive particles called neutrinos that have been the focus of intense study recently.  Indeed, this has been the focus of my research experiences.  The process of converting the maximum amount of hydrogen to helium takes varying amounts of time.  However, after this process is complete, the star will then convert helium to heavier atoms, and then those atoms to heavier atoms still.  This process will continue on until the star runs out of fusion material.  If the star has enough material, it will continue undergoing fusion until reaching iron.  Due to nuclear properties, it stops being energetically preferable to fuse elements heavier than iron.  This concludes the fusion process.  Big stars, those several times the size of our sun, will supernova after ending its fusion process.  The supernovae produce incredible energies, allowing elements heavier than iron to form.  In the process, the star’s material is ejected into the vast … space … of space.

So, after these early stars went supernova, their heavier elements (among them oxygen, carbon, iron, and others necessary for life) mixed in with other hydrogen nuclei.  By approximately five billion years ago, some of the mix that had been made by prior stars had collapsed to form the Sun and its satellites.  Contained on Earth were carbon, oxygen, iron, and the other elements necessary to produce life as we know it.  Fast forward upwards of five billion orbits of the Sun, and here we are, inhabiting the Earth today.  We are literally made of star atoms.

The closest star to Earth -- our Sun

So, clearly, both human history and cosmological history play quite prominently in determining how it is that a person came to be here and now.  The cosmic story doesn’t end with us, though.  What about the future of the universe?  Our sun has about five billion years of hydrogen-burning left.  Once it starts to fuse helium, it will swell, making Earth uninhabitable.  If we can find a way to inhabit another planet or another system by then, the story of humanity can continue with that of the cosmos.  Who knows when the end of the universe will be?  A lot of that depends on certain parameters like dark energy -- which, notably, was only discovered 14 years ago.

I feel that it is a very neat thing that we can trace our lineage to the stars.  As you can see from this musical YouTube video below of several talks put together, I’m not the only one.  However, while it is easy to get caught up feeling small when thinking of the universe as it is, there are some important things to remember.  We may not have a long life span in terms of the life of the universe, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do beautiful things with it.  What we do in our lives can affect both the world itself and the generations to follow.  These effects can, in turn, affect the generations to follow them.  Who knows?  One day, those effects might even be carried to other planets or other star systems.  It’s the human perspective that guides our lives, not the cosmic perspective, from which we appear to be mere mayflies.  And remember, you’re all stars in my book.

-- Post by volunteer Bruce Howard

(For more on the history of space and time, check out MPL's cosmology collection.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

[GUEST POST] The Space Shuttle: Thirty Years of Space Exploration

This week, "New @ MPL" is proud to showcase the writings of local teens from MPL's very own Teen Writing Group. (Our Teen Writing Group meets every Monday afternoon at the Library.)

Today, enjoy this entry from Allen H., sharing some of his in-depth knowledge about the history of the Space Shuttle, and its role in our space program:

One-hundred thirty-five missions.  One-hundred thirty-three successes, two failures.  These are just a small number of the many statistics that the five space shuttle orbiters -- Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis, and Endeavour -- have played a part in.

First launched in 1981, the space shuttle was the first reusable spacecraft.  Prior to this launch, however, there were approach and landing tests.  A sixth shuttle, a prototype called Enterprise, flew these tests.  It was carried on the back of a modified Boeing 747 and jettisoned off the back to test the landing feature of the space shuttle.  At an altitude of 300 feet, the shuttle would lower its landing gears and gently touchdown on a runway.  There were a number of runways the shuttle could land at: Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility, Edwards Air Force Base, and White Sands Space Harbor, just to name a few.

During the thirty-year campaign, the shuttle has seen many great accomplishments.  One of the most notable was the deployment, and subsequent repair of, the Hubble Space Telescope.  After the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope, it was discovered that the main mirror was ground to the wrong specifications, making the pictures blurry.  NASA was faced with two options: leave the telescope in its state, or send a space shuttle to repair it.

The Hubble telescope in orbit

Finally clearing a shuttle mission to fix it, NASA put together an elite crew, who had all been to space.  They conducted multiple spacewalks and even did back-to-back spacewalks.  After the repairs, Hubble started to fulfill its promise of peering into the past and uncovering the origins on the universe.  This mission proved that NASA could use the space shuttle to its full potential.

After the initial repair, Hubble has been serviced several times -- the most recent, and final, in 2009, when Space Shuttle Atlantis flew the STS-125 mission.

After the success of the repairs, NASA got involved in an international project: the International Space Station.  Partnering with the Russian Space Agency, European Space Agency, and countless others, construction was started on the space station.  The orbiting outpost was constructed on opposite sides of the world and then put together for the first time in space.  Crews are rotated by Russian Soyuz, and, at times, the space shuttle.  The space shuttle also carried most of the heavy cargo to the station, being the only space vehicle that could lift enormous payloads.  Having been completed in 2011, the space shuttle was retired at the conclusion of the last flight.

A spacewalk outside the International Space Station

Success was not met without failure, however.  During the thirty-year career, two space shuttle missions ended in tragedy.  On January 28th, 1985, space shuttle Challenger broke up 73 seconds after liftoff.  The accident resulted in the death of all seven astronauts, including the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe.  Space shuttle Discovery would fly the return-to-flight mission in 1988.

The second failure happened on February 1st, 2003.  Space shuttle Columbia was returning from a science mission.  Sixteen minutes before landing, the space shuttle broke apart, killing all seven astronauts.  The subsequent investigation showed that a piece of foam struck the orbiter during the ascent that made a hole in the underside of the shuttle.  This caused it to lose the thermal protection and break apart during the high temperatures of reentry.  Space shuttle Discovery again flew the return-to-flight mission in 2005.

Even with these failures, NASA continued to move forward.  Eileen Collins said it best: “We want to explore. We're curious people ... We believe in what we're doing. Now it's time to go.”  NASA has made major security improvements, including requiring the shuttle to perform heat shield inspections (which include flipping 360 degrees on flights to the Space Station), as well has having a secondary method of returning the astronauts from space.  After these requirements, NASA has not experienced any major problems with a spacecraft.

In July of 2011, the space shuttle was retired from flight, with these words from Chris Ferguson at the final landing: “Mission complete, Houston. After serving the world for over 30 years, the space shuttle found its place in history. It's come to a final stop.”  The International Space Station is complete, the space shuttle retired; now it is time to move on.  Back to the moon, and then -- to Mars.

The space shuttle Endeavour

-- Post by teen volunteer Allen H.

(For more on the history of the space shuttle, check out Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years - detailing the astronauts' experiences in their own words.)

Friday, September 21, 2012

50 Years of Enviornmentalism

Post-World War II America was a place full of hope and idealism (or so I've heard, since I wasn't alive then). Anything and everything seemed possible. People's lives were becoming easier with all of the new products that had been developed due to innovations during war time. One of the biggest areas of growth was in farming. Due to the introduction of organic pesticides, by 1960 the average American farmer was able to produce enough food to support himself and at least twenty others, which was more than twice the amount in 1940. The increase in production also came from mechanical and technical improvements, along with soil conservation throughout the 1950s. By the beginning of the 1960s, there was a surplus of food. At the time, not too many people noticed, or cared, about the wildlife that was dying because of the pesticides. That wasn't going to last long.

By 1962, Rachel Carson was a well-known scientist who had written several books regarding the sea. These included Edge of the Sea (1955) and The Sea Around Us (1951). Carson began her professional career as a writer for the Bureau of Fisheries. Her love of nature began as a child growing up in Springdale, PA, which is located on the Allegheny River. This interest was encouraged by her mother, and she graduated, in 1928,  from Pennsylvania College for Women with a degree in zoology. She went on to Johns Hopkins University to obtain a master's degree, also in zoology. By the time she left the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 1952, she was a biologist and the chief editor of all of the agency's publications. Through this work, she learned of the many different chemicals that were being developed during the 40s. Many of these chemicals would eventually be used in the creation of pesticides. Upon her retirement from the government, Carson knew that she needed to explore this further.

What resulted is the now-famous book Silent Spring, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its publication on September 27. The book began as a serialized article in The New Yorker magazine in June 1962. The article and the book created quite a bit of controversy. While she received a lot of support from the public, including other scientists and President John Kennedy, she also received considerable criticism from the American Medical Association, the USDA, and chemical companies. Unfortunately, not only were her scientific findings being questioned, but also her own morals.

Due to all of the controversy, President Kennedy created a Science Advisory Committee to investigate the claims regarding the dangers of pesticides. They found that, until the publication of Silent Spring, most Americans were unaware of what damage pesticides could do to the environment. The Senate also formed a committee to investigate the dangers. Carson's book also helped spur grassroots organizations to form to help protect the environment, which also contributed to laws appearing around the country regulating the use of pesticides. By 1964, Congress had placed the burden of proving the safety of new chemicals on the manufacturers.

Rachel Carson did not live long enough to see the effect of her book on the consciousness of the United States and many other countries around the world. She died of breast cancer on April 14, 1964.

If you are interested in learning more about Rachel Carson, check out the websites below:

The Rachel Carson Homestead: The Rachel Carson Homestead Association is charged with the preservation of the birthplace and childhood home of Rachel Carson. She was born on May 27, 1907, in this small, five-room farmhouse in the newly formed borough of Springdale. The clapboard house originally stood on approximately 65 acres of land overlooking the Allegheny River. The Carson family lived in Springdale until around 1930, and the homestead passed through several owners until it was stewarded by the Association in 1975.

Rachel Carson Council: The Rachel Carson Council is an award-winning environmental, educational non-profit that is the legacy organization that Rachel Carson envisioned. For 45 years, RCC has worked for the protection of health and the environment.

The Life and Legacy of Rachel Carson: Biographer Linda Lear's site dedicated to the life of Rachel Carson.

For a list of books by Rachel Carson from the library, click here.

And here are a few interesting articles:

Rachel Carson, killer of Africans? from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

JFK Fought DDT in Rachel Carson’s Environmental Crusade from Bloomberg Businessweek

'Silent Spring' Turns Fifty from Voice of America

Carson's 'Silent Spring' Still Making Noise from NPR All Things Considered

-- Post by Tracy

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Queen of Crime

She's the world's best-selling mystery writer. She wrote the world's longest-ever running play. She holds the record for the world's biggest book. She's the only mystery writer to have come up with two equally-beloved -- and equally-iconic -- detective characters. And she was the first crime writer to have one million copies of her books published in a single day (publisher Penguin released 100,000 copies of 10 of her titles on the same day in 1948). She was also an accomplished singer and pianist, a World War I nurse, and remains at the center of her own real-life mystery to this day.

And she only wrote her first novel because her older sister dared her to.

Dame Agatha Christie was the author of over seventy novels (including six under the pen name of Mary Westmacott), fifteen plays, and several books of poetry and memoirs. She was born on September 15, 1890, and died in 1976 -- but she's still remembered, not only as one of history's best-loved mystery authors, but one of the best-loved authors of all time from any genre.

Her books are wildly popular, in part, for the super-sleuth detectives she created to populate them (Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple among them). But Christie was unusually skilled at inventing uniquely clever puzzles to formulate her stories. Her books feature ordinary folks plopped into extraordinary (and highly mysterious) circumstances -- be it a series of victims being murdered in alphabetical order, to revealing the narrator of one story to also be the murderer (title of the tale withheld here to avoid spoilers).

For being such a fan of mysteries as I am, it's somewhat surprising to me that I've only ever read one of Christie's novels. It is, however, one of my favorite mystery stories.

And Then There Were None is one of Christie's classic puzzles: ten people, from all walks of life, are invited to a mansion on a secluded island. Most think they're there to visit friends, or to enjoy a weekend getaway. At least, until that evening, when it's revealed (via recorded voice on a gramaphone record) that the ten of them are being accused of murder by their unseen host. What's more, their host has already found them "guilty" ... and so, as the guests remain trapped on the island, they begin to turn up murdered, one by one. And the murders follow a pattern: each guest is dispatched in line with the children's poem, "Ten Little Soldiers." It's only a matter of time before the guests realize the truth: the mysterious murderer is one of the guests themselves.

As a "locked-room" mystery, Christie keeps the twists and turns coming -- but what so captivates my imagination about the story is the way she weaves the poem into the narrative. It turns a simple children's rhyme into something far more sinister -- which only serves to add to the top-notch tension and mystery. I've read the book and seen stage adaptations twice, and the story never fails to entertain and captivate. (It doesn't hurt that all three versions had a different ending!)

Agatha Christie remains one of the best-selling novelists of all time (some estimates put her behind only Shakespeare, the Bible -- and J.K. Rowling). If you're never read Christie before, give her a try. So prolific was she that you're bound to find a story that particularly appeals to you. And you'll see, firsthand, why she earned the nickname "the Queen of Crime."

-- Post by Ms. B

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Remembering the Battle of Antietam

This statue commemorates the battlefield at Antietam, the first major battle to be fought in the North and one of the bloodiest of the war. (Scott Warren/Aurora/Getty Images)

While I am not exactly a Civil War buff, I do find this conflict very fascinating. For me, it's one of the most interesting time periods in the history of the United States, if, perhaps, not the most. I can't really say when my interest in the Civil War started, although it was most likely influenced by my Dad's interest in it. One of his prized possessions was a three-volume set commemorating the Centennial History of the Civil War by well-known historian Bruce Catton. These books always had a prominent spot on our bookshelf, and one of these days, I will get around to reading them!

I have been able to visit two Civil War battlefields. The first was Gettysburg (once when I was very little, and again more than 10 years ago). The other one was Antietam in Maryland. My husband and I were on our way to a long weekend in Baltimore and we stopped to tour the battlefield on the way. It was not a battle that I knew very well, so we went on a Ranger-led tour. It is a very moving experience, walking where so many young men lost their lives so many years ago. In fact, the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam is coming up on September 17th.

The Battle of Antietam (the Battle of Sharpsburg to the Confederates) was an important day in the War. This was the first major battle between the two sides on Northern soil. General Robert E. Lee was on a quest to invade Pennsylvania going through Western Maryland, and with General Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's success at Harper's Ferry, VA on September 15th, Lee decided to continue on with his plan.

This now meant taking on the Union, led by General George McClellan at Sharpsburg. The Union was very concerned about Lee's advance into Maryland because it would mean that Washington, DC might be vulnerable to an attack from the South. McClellan had learned of Lee's initial plan, which led him to a skirmish at South Mountain in Maryland. Lee was prepared to leave Maryland when he learned of Jackson's success at Harper's Ferry. The stage was set for a push by the Confederates at Antietam Creek.

Dawn on September 17th began what would be the bloodiest single day of fighting during the War. The battle would last about 12 hours and be concentrated in three areas -- the cornfield, Sunken Road (or Bloody Lane, as it would be known, because of the number of Confederate bodies stacked there), and Burnside Bridge. The fighting would move from north to south, starting at the cornfield and ending at the bridge. When all was said and done, there were nearly 23,000 casualties on both sides.

The Union is considered to be the victor in this battle, mostly because Lee's troops withdrew and fled back to Virginia. Because of a serious delay after General Burnside took the bridge across Antietam Creek, the Confederates had a chance to get more reinforcements, which stopped the General's advance.

Another aspect of this battle was that President Abraham Lincoln had the opportunity to announce his Emancipation Proclamation on September 22, 1862. The Proclamation took effect January 1, 1863.

". . . on the first day of January . . . all persons held as slaves within any State, or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free."  President Abraham Lincoln, preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, September 22, 1862

If you'd like to learn more about this battle, or any other battle in the Civil War, please stop by and check out the Monroeville Public Library's special Civil War Collection, located within our Reference Department. The majority of the titles were generously donated by a patron.

To check out a complete list of books and DVDs about the Battle of Antietam, click here.

-- Post by Tracy

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

A Little Nonsense

Author Roald Dahl is one of those writers of children's books who many adults would insist should not be read by children at all. His fantasy stories -- featuring some of the most Wonderland-esque ideas to ever appear outside of a book by Lewis Carroll -- are populated with dark challenges, dangerous magic, and the most fearsome adults in all of children's literature.

But as any young fan of Dahl could tell you, it is precisely the darkness and fear that make his stories so powerful. By giving his young protagonists frightening, powerful monsters to defeat, Dahl's heroes show readers that they, too, can be expected to triumph over their dragons ... metaphorical or otherwise. (With Dahl, it's always hard to tell; wait until we get to the story about the rhinoceros.)

September 13th marks the 96th anniversary of Dahl's birthday. But before making your very own Bruce Bogtrotter Cake in celebration, let's look back on some of the most weird, wild, and wonderful moments of triumph from Dahl's most celebrated classics.

(Warning: plot spoilers ahead!)

- The Witches' Soup (The Witches)

We know from Harry Potter that there's plenty of good witches out there in the world. But there's also some decidedly evil ones, as in Dahl's book The Witches, wherein it's revealed that not only is the world full of (evil) witches in hiding, but that these Witches are out to destroy all the little kids they can. (Dahl Witches aren't big fans of children, you see.)

Luckily for the (unnamed) young boy who is the hero of our story, his grandma not only knows all about Witches -- she knows how to spot them. Just about anybody can be a Witch in disguise, but our hero's learnt how to spot them, a skill which saves him on more than one occasion. It's not until he and his grandma are on vacation overseas, however, that his Witch-spotting skills are truly put to the test. Not only does he discover that the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (holding their conference at the very same hotel where our hero and his grandma are staying) is a conference of Witches in disguise, but he also uncovers the Witches' evil plan: to turn all the children in the world into mice.

Unfortunately for our hero, the Witches catch him all the same, and before he knows it, he's been turned into a mouse himself. Luckily for him, he's a talking mouse, and his newfound rodent appearance doesn't stop him and his grandma from implementing a plan to pepper the Witches' conference dinner with their very own mouse-transforming potion. The entire conference, including the Grand High Witch, are all turned into harmless mice -- upsetting the hotel staff (by the sudden appearance of a rodent infestation) in the process.

- A Just-Peachy Escape (James the Giant Peach)

Speaking of Harry Potter ... before the Dursleys, there were Aunt Sponge and Aunt Spiker, who became the guardians of little James after his parents were, well, eaten by an escaped rhinoceros. (These things happen.) Forced to work and slave for his aunts (who refer to him by such affectionate pet names as "you disgusting little beast"), James is able to escape his relatives with the help of some magical crocodile tongues -- which have a peculiar effect on the peach tree outside, causing the tree to grow a fruit the size of a small house. While his aunts make money off of the strange attraction in their front yard, James eventually manages to sneak a look at the peach -- only to find a group of giant talking insects living in the hollowed-out inside. Making fast friends, the not-so-little group of bugs team up with James to escape Aunts Sponge and Spiker, rolling the peach away from the house (rolling it over the house, actually -- sorry, Sponge and Spiker), and off into the world and the start of grand adventures. 

Most fantasy stories starring young and plucky young orphans feature some sort of daring escape from the cruel guardians left behind. But long before Ron and his brothers came in a flying Ford to save Harry from a boring and unfriendly summer with his aunt and uncle, there was Dahl's quite-unique escape for James ... by peach. 

- Veruca Salt and the Squirrels (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is less about Charlie Bucket and his delightful trip through the world of Willy Wonka's candy factory, than it is a story about four terrible little children getting their comeuppance. Charlie may be a kind, decent sort of guy himself, but his fellow contest-winners -- Augustus Gloop, Veruca Salt, Violet Beauregarde, and Mike Teavee -- are anything but.

If you know the story, than you know that each child's particular fate hinges on exactly what it is that makes them so uniquely bratty. Mike Teavee, obsessed with television (as his name suggests), finds himself shrunken down to the size of the characters on the TV screen; Violet Beauregarde, champion gum-chewer (and all-around loud mouth), bites into a bad gumball and winds up turned into a giant blueberry. (Yes, a giant, talking blueberry; if you don't like surreal weirdness in your books, Dahl isn't going to work for you.) 

But of all the children, it's Veruca Salt -- the spoiled little heiress of two very rich and very spoiling parents -- who has, perhaps, the best fate. Willy Wonka keeps a large team of squirrels on hand to pick out the good nuts from the bad ones for his candy products. When confronted with Veruca, the squirrels determine that she is, indeed, a bad nut -- and it's into the garbage shoot with her, to join all the other bad nuts (and a few gagging tons of spoiled fish, bacon rinds, old steaks, and liverworst).

And it's not just Veruca who makes a fateful trip down the garbage shoot. After all, as Dahl is careful to point out, it's not really Veruca who is to blame for her spoiled disposition:

"But now, my dears, we think you might
Be wondering –- is it really right
That every single bit of blame
And all the scolding and the shame
Should fall upon Veruca Salt?
Is she the only one at fault?
For though she's spoiled, and dreadfully so,
A girl can't spoil herself, you know.
Who spoiled her, then? Ah, who indeed?
Who pandered to her every need?
Who turned her into such a brat?
Who are the culprits? Who did that?
Alas! You needen't look so far
To find out who these sinners are.
They are (and this is very sad)
Her loving parents, MUM and DAD.
And that is why we're glad they fell
Into the garbage chute as well."

- Bruce Bogtrotter and the Cake (Matilda)

Matilda's eventual defeat of the villainous Trunchbull is certainly an impressive, unforgettable moment, not just in the novel Matilda but from Dahl's stories as a whole. But when it comes to Crowning Moments of Awesome, I still think this chapter might be my true favorite.

At a school assembly, little Bruce Bogtrotter is accused by the Trunchbull of eating a piece of chocolate cake -- from her chocolate cake, a cake baked by the school cook especially for the headmistress herself. Bruce's punishment at first seems too good to be true: he is given an entire chocolate cake then and there at the assembly. There's only one catch: he's got to eat it himself. The whole thing.

Eating an enormous cake by oneself is a surefire recipe for certain dyspeptic disaster. But this is a Dahl book, and in Dahl books, children always win. Bruce rises magnificently to the occasion, and -- with the encouragement of the whole school -- successfully finishes off the whole cake. 

It's not the total defeat of the Trunchbull, but it's an important victory nonetheless. Funny, slightly disgusting, and wholly heartfelt, this scene is quintessential Dahl. After all, it's a scene which proves what Dahl himself so obviously knew: that victory can come about in the oddest of ways.

Check out a complete list of Roald Dahl books here

-- Post by Ms. B

Friday, September 7, 2012

Google It!

If you go online every day, there's a good chance you visit this particular site daily. It's officially a verb. (It's been added as such to both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Merriam-Webster.) And it's only been around for fourteen years.

On September 7, 1998, Larry Page and Sergey Brin officially founded Google Inc. They had only $100,000 from an investor in order to start their revolutionary internet search engine -- although of course, at the time, no one could have quite imagined the major impact Google would have on the technological world.

Google actually began as a Stanford University research project (known as "BackRub") two years before the company's official debut. Originally, Page and Brin were merely looking for a way to test their PageRank searching algorithm on the data of the world wide web. But to do it, they needed a large amount of diskspace -- and, in 1996, 4 gigabyte hard disks were the largest available. It wasn't enough, so Page and Brin hooked ten of the drives together and assembled their original Google storage 40-gigabyte device. (By comparison: most modern iPods hold between 32 to 64 gigabytes of information.)

By September 2000, Google had become a 5,000-computer operation, indexing over a billion web pages. (By comparison: in 2008, they indexed one trillion pages, and have over one million computer servers in data centers worldwide.) Today, the site handles a billion searches per day, and receives over seven billion page visits daily.

It's not only the most popular search engine on the internet -- it's easily the most popular website in existence. (Well, at least until 2010, when Facebook passed Google in popular-hit statistics.) That doesn't mean the company is completely without criticism -- since revamping their privacy policies in particular, the company has faced concerns and challenges about exactly what sort of information Google gathers from its users, and what the company does with such information.

Still, the criticism is unlikely to have any major effect on Google's popularity. The search engine has become a part of most computer users' daily life. More than likely, it's well on its way to living up to its namesake and receiving a googol hits ... and beyond.

Other Google trivia:

-- Google rents goats (yes, actual goats) from the company California Grazing. The goats help keep the weeds and brush outside of Google's headquarters in proper check.

-- Google owns YouTube. The search engine company made the purchase in 2006 for a hefty 1.65 billion dollars.

-- The company has a fleet of driverless cars. Their line of Toyota Priuses have officially completed 300,000 miles of test driving -- and without a single accident. (Don't worry, there's always been a pair of human drivers inside just in case anything goes wrong.)

-- Several years ago, Google came to Pittsburgh!  Google Pittsburgh's offices are on Penn Avenue in downtown Pittsburgh; employees at the engineering office have worked on such products as AdWords, AdSense, and Android, and have even been behind product launches like Google Shopping.

Google is undeniably a great start for answering your questions -- but don't forget about our Library databases!  All you need is your library card number to receive access to articles from newspapers, magazines, journals, and other fact-checked sources for all your research needs. 

And be sure to check out these books at MPL to learn more about the history and controversy of Google!

-- Post by Ms. B

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

September is Library Card Sign Up Month

I'm a Librarian, so of course, I have a library card. Mine gets used quite frequently. If I didn't work at the library I would still be a regular visitor to my local library. I've had many different cards through the years, depending on where I lived. I even had one when I lived in Germany several years ago. The large city where we lived had a great English language section that really helped me out. 

September is Library Card Sign-up Month, a time when the American Library Association (ALA) and libraries across the country remind parents and caregivers that a library card is the smartest card you can own. 

When it comes to achieving academic success, a library card provides students with access to a world of both print and electronic resources. Students can access free databases, online homework help and attend programs, activities and clubs that provide an added value to the educational experience. It’s easy to see why eighty-four percent of Americans agree that the public library is important to education. 

Having a library card is important to adults as well as children. The public library provides a wide variety of materials for anyone interested in expanding their horizons. Whether it's just out of simple curiosity or because you are continuing your formal education, the library has many of the tools you need to succeed in life.

Pittsburgh native and playwright, August Wilson, is a fine example of this. He had to drop out of school in ninth grade but he educated himself at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. While this is not the ideal path for students, Wilson was able to improve his life and go on to be one of the most celebrated playwrights America has ever had. 

Another example is Ray Bradbury, who I wrote about here

And for an added bonus the Pittsburgh Steelers own Troy Polamalu is the Honorary Chair for Library Card Sign Up Month!

If you, or anyone in your family, doesn't have a library card yet, please take a moment to stop by Monroeville Public Library (or your local public library) and sign up today!

-- Post by Tracy