The Science of Walking and The Art of Creating

My wife, Jo, and I are ardent hikers. She more than me, actually. Jo outpaces me on every trail, faithfully charts her steps with her Garmin, and competes with other’s online. I’m a bit slower, usually a quarter, perhaps a half kilometre behind. I track my steps, too, as well as heart rate and total distance, but I’m more interested in how far I’ve gone.

Recent studies tout the benefits of walking. Moderate walking reduces the odds of heart disease, stroke, insulin dependence & diabetes. It improves mood and sleep, reduces stress and anxiety, boosts energy and increases focus. Walking also changes the brain in remarkable ways.

A study conducted at the University of British Columbia found that regular brisk walking increases the size of the hippocampus, the brain region that monitors verbal memory and learning. Stanford researchers, meanwhile, discovered that creativity jumps 60% when subjects walked. Other studies showed that walking for 40 minutes three times a week Increased performance on cognitive tests and reduced declines in brain function as we age. It didn’t matter what kind of walking – whether on a mountain trail or on a treadmill – the benefits were the same.

Many writers incorporate walking into their regimen. Aside from the physical benefits, walking is a way to kick start creativity, channel ideas, and bypass dreaded writer’s block. William Blake, William Woodsworth, and Henry Thoreau were among the many writers who embraced walking. “Me thinks that the moment my legs begin to move,” Thoreau wrote, “my thoughts begin to flow.”

When I walk, my mind drifts which might explain why I sometimes lose sight of Jo and have taken a wrong turn more than once. While that’s not a good thing, the drifting part can be – at least to a writer like me. With walking, the mind roams, free of its usual constraints. While plodding along a respectful distance behind Jo, I’ve solved writing problems and come up with some of my best ideas.

All the while I am solving problems.  Turns out, I am growing my brain, too.  Who knew?

Galileo Galilei’s Swinging Chandelier

pendulum-828641_1280

When I was an unpublished but eager new writer, I found a subject that eventually evolved into a series of books for young people.  As a science teacher, I knew the classic stories of discoveries made by Archimedes, Fleming, Pythagoras and a few other legendary mathematicians and scientists, but I didn’t realize how extensive the story pool was until I stumbled upon a weathered library book titled ‘Stories from Science‘. 

The book fascinated me. Until then, I’d thought of writing fiction, but the subjects in the book captivated me. I abandoned my fiction ambitions (for the moment, anyway) and wrote short stories about these instead. One book, Accidental Discoveries: From Laughing Gas to Dynamite, led to three others: Mysteries of TimeWhose Bright Idea Was It? True Stories of Inventions & Extreme Science: Science in the Danger Zone.

In the end, opting to write non-fiction narratives was a wise choice. So too was writing about science, a subject familiar and fascinating to me. Without realizing it, I was learning how to write stories of all kinds, a handy thing when I ventured into true adventure and later novels. I became ‘that guy’ – the guy who wrote science and history for kids. Not a bad moniker for a start-up writer, and perhaps there’s something of a lesson or two in my story for others interesting in writing. My advice?  Write about subjects that fascinate you. Tap into your sphere of expertise, knowledge or experience. Establish a line of credibility.  Write. Write. Write.  

The story of Galileo’s swing chandelier was one of the first I wrote. A brief mention of Galileo’s discovery in ‘Stories from Science‘ sparked my interest.  Additional research brought home the details. Eventually, several drafts later, the story became my own. And now it is yours, too.


Rather than listen to a Sunday service in 1581, seventeen-year-old Galileo Galilei studied a chandelier hanging overhead in the huge cathedral at Pisa, Italy.

Air currents flowing through the lofty building moved the chandelier from side to side, back and forth. Sometimes the chandelier moved gently; sometimes it swung in a wide arc. No matter what the size of its swing, it seemed to Galileo that the chandelier kept steady time.

One, two, three beats

There were no clocks or watches in those days. To time the chandelier’s swings, Galileo felt for the pulse in his wrist. He counted the pulse beats. One, two, three beats for one swing. One, two, three beats for another. No matter how wide or narrow the swing, it always took the same number of pulse beats.

Right after the service, Galileo raced home. He suspended a weight from a long string to create a pendulum then he pulled the weight back a short distance, released it, and timed its swing.  He tried it again, this time pulling the weight back farther before releasing it. After many tries, Galileo confirmed his suspicions – the time it took to make one swing was always the same whether the swing was wide or narrow.

Galileo tried other experiments with his pendulum. He discovered that the length of string, amount of weight, and other factors all had some predictable relationship to the time of a pendulum’s swing.

Galileo’s timepiece

galileos-boardSome years later, Galileo extended his research with gravity. Did all objects fall at the same rate?  To find out, he adapted the pendulum as a timepiece. First he carved a long, straight groove down the center of a board. When he raised the board slightly at one end and released a ball, it slowly rolled down the groove.

Galileo marked off his grooved board into small divisions of equal length. For a timing device, he rigged up a water-filled container with a small hole in the bottom. By counting water drops, he could keep track of time.

He released one ball at a time from the higher end of the board. As the balls rolled, Galileo timed how long it took them to cross each division of the board. To his surprise, Galileo discovered that the balls didn’t travel down the track at an even rate. Instead, they accelerated – or sped up – as they got farther down the groove. Falling objects, he found, picked up speed as they fell to the earth.

Galileo’s gift to science

In many ways, the swinging chandelier started a revolution in the world of science. With his pendulum investigations, Galileo pioneered the scientific method –the system of carefully controlled experiments and observations that modern scientists use today to prove a natural law beyond a shadow of a doubt

A more detailed version of this story can be found in Accidental Discoveries: From Laughing Gas to Dynamite

Visiting Amazon’s One & Only Bookstore

20160828_130719_001-1While in Seattle recently, I visited Amazon’s flagship, first-ever, and currently only brick-and-mortar bookstore. I was curious why Amazon – the king of online book sales – had changed its marketing strategy. Why invest in a traditional bookstore now after so many years of clobbering the competition by offering a broad selection at discount prices? What made this bookstore different from any other? And why build it in Seattle?

20160828_121536At first glance, Amazon’s sparkling new bookstore looks much like any other. The perimeter of the store is rimmed with tall windows, flooding the interior with natural light. Tall bookcases line the floor, mostly fiction on one side of the store, non-fiction on the other. There’s a children’s section at the rear with cozy seats for young shoppers.

But browse further and you’ll notice a few differences.

20160828_124651 Book covers face outward. You won’t find any books filed with just spines showing. According toa sales manager I questioned, it was to “encourage the discovery process”.

20160828_130251New products are front and center, and you are encouraged to give them a try.

20160828_121619For the most part, only books that receive a 4 to 5 star rating on Amazon.com are stocked in the store. Cards positioned below each title provide a sample review and the book’s star rating on Amazon.com.

20160828_122019Actual prices are not noted on the covers or on the cards below them, but scanners are available throughout the store and you are encouraged to use them.

20160828_122003Prices are the same as the discounted prices on Amazon.com. This book by Erik Larson, one of my favourite authors, was listed at $17.00 . The discounted price was $11.70. Shoppers at the store gain by avoiding shipping costs and any mailing delays.

Displays throughout the store reinforce the Amazon.com connection. Online reviewers determine not only what books are stocked, but also to some degree where their favourite books are shelved and located.

If the crowds sifting through the store on the day I visited are any indication, Amazon’s just might be on to something with its new store. Certainly some – like me – were just curious visitors, but since I walked out with 3 newly purchased books when I had no intention of buying even one, perhaps that’s a testimony to Amazon’s clever marketing. As a reader, I felt strangely empowered. Here I belonged to a worldwide community of readers where our reviews, our feedback, our choices determined what was placed on the shelves. And talk about enticing prices. The discounts are hard to beat.

According to the sales clerk I questioned, this is exactly what why Amazon ventured into the brick-and-mortar field. “Amazon has been in operation for 20 years. We felt it was time to branch out, to offer more to our valued customers.”

Two more Amazon stores are set to open in the next few months – one in Portland, the other in San Diego. But why Seattle for the first? Perhaps a better question is ‘Why not Seattle?” Seattle is Amazon’s home base and at 20,000 employees in 30 buildings spread throughout the city, its largest private employer.  Seattle is where the company started, where it’s grown into a worldwide mega-empire, and where proof of it gigantic holdings can be seen in a new office complex currently under construction that will soon dominate the city’s downtown.

Behind the Scenes at a Press Run

Before ‘Dinosaurs’ of the Deep was in its current hardcover form, I scored a thrill by watching the book roll off the presses at the Friesens plant in Altona, Manitoba.

The Friesen plant is a huge place.
The Friesens plant is a huge place.
3
Stacks of paper…stacks of covers…. all set to go

I had never seen this end of the publishing operation before, and I was amazed at the complexity of the process. Then again the pros at Friesens made it all seem easy.

The Man Roland machine cranks out full panels at an amazing rate. Check out the video below...memorizing!
The Man Roland machine cranks out full panels at an amazing rate. Check out the video below…memorizing!
One panel = 24 pages on one side
One side from a sheet off the Man Roland equals 24 pages in the book or 48 pages when you count the 24 pages printed on the back sideI

Each panel is checked for colour and accuracy, and then signed off by the publisher before the run continues.

Turnstone's publisher Jamis Paulson signs the first panel giving approval for the run to continue.
Turnstone’s publisher, Jamis Paulson, signs the first panel giving approval for the run to continue.
Now we're good to go!
Now we’re good to go!

The cover looks amazing, thanks to the vivid illustration by Julius Cstonyi, a world renowned paleoartist.

Aaron, our Friesen guide, discusses the finer points of the cover with Jamis Paulson, Turnstone's publisher.
Aaron, our Friesens’ guide, discusses the finer points of the cover with Jamis.
One side from a sheet off the Manover machine equals 24 pages in the book or 48 pages when you count the 24 pages printed on the back side.
I get to sign off on the cover, too.

DSC08814(1)-1There’s something to see at every turn in the plant.  Here’s the trimmer.  It slices through a stack of pages like a knife going through butter.  Watch your fingers!

What a great day this was!

DSC08831-1

Follow

Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox:

Follow Follow Follow Email