Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune have rings—or thin belts of rocks—around them. Jupiter’s ring is thin and dark, and cannot be seen from Earth. Saturn’s rings are bright, wide, and colorful. Uranus has nine dark rings around it, and Neptune’s rings are also dark, but contain a few bright arcs.
At one time all of the planets, Earth included, had rings. These rings were unstable and the material was either lost in space or collected into the satellites of these planets.
On a clear, dark night in your backyard, you can see about 2,000 or so stars in the sky, a small fraction of the 100,000 or so stars that make up our galaxy. They seem to twinkle, or change their brightness. In reality, most of the stars are shining with a steady light. The movement of air (sometimes called turbulence) in the atmosphere of Earth causes the starlight to get slightly bent as it travels from the distant star through the atmosphere down to the ground.
This means that some of the light reaches us directly and some gets bent slightly away. To the human eye, this makes the star seem to twinkle.
Crocodilians—scaly, carnivorous reptiles that include crocodiles, alligators, caimans, and gharials—are descendents of the archosaurs who lived on Earth with the dinosaurs 200 years ago.
Today’s modern crocodiles are semi-aquatic predators that have remained relatively unchanged since the Triassic period. Besides birds, they are the dinosaurs’ closest living relatives.
Rain forests—thick forests of trees and other plants found in the lowland areas of the Tropics around the world—exist in parts of Australia, Indochina, India, the Malay Peninsula, the East Indies, in central and western Africa, and in Central and South America. Unlike forests in many other parts of the world, which have been affected by global climate changes like the Ice Age, tropical rain forests have been growing uninterrupted in some places for millions of years. During that time an unimaginable number of different types of plants and animals have evolved to use every food source and live in every spot there. Tropical rain forests have more plant and animal species than the rest of the world combined, and scientists continue to discover new species. Because tropical rain forests are located near the equator, their climate is warm.
The name “rain forest” comes from the fact that they receive a lot of rain—between 160 and 400 inches (4 and 10 meters)—throughout the year. Plants grow very quickly under such ideal conditions. In order to get the sunlight that they need for photosynthesis (the process by which they and other green plants make their own food), rain forest trees grow very tall, up to 130 feet (40 meters) high. Their tops form a huge canopy that shades most of the ground, protecting plants on the ground from excessive sunshine as well as wind. Rain forest trees have very shallow roots, for the soil in which they grow is poor, having long been depleted of nutrients by the needs of thick plant life over millions of years. But the abundant life all around contributes organic matter (the decomposed remains of plants and animals) to the surface of the soil, which is enough to nourish these grand, ancient forests.
The combine harvester saves the farmers time and labor. Before modern machinery, harvesting crops was a painstaking process. Gathering and removing mature plants from the field had to be done by hand. Farm workers used sharp-bladed, long-handled scythes and curved sickles to cut down cereal crops like wheat. Even the fastest reaper could only clear about a third of an acre a day. Because rain could ruin harvested wheat, workers called sheaf-makers quickly tied it into bundles, so that it could be safely stored if the weather turned stormy. During the long winter months farm workers used jointed wooden tools called flails to thresh or beat the dried wheat in order to separate its edible grain seeds from its stalks.
But in 1786 a machine that threshed wheat by rubbing it between rollers was invented, replacing human threshers. And around 1840 a reaping machine—whose revolving wheel pressed grain stalks against a sharp blade that cut them down— replaced human harvesters. Today, farm machines called combine harvesters do this work in much the same way. These machines are very efficient and combine all three jobs of cutting, collecting, and threshing a crop. A single combine harvester can process five acres of wheat in less than an hour!
Since flowers possess both male and female parts, some flowers can fertilize themselves— or fertilize another flower on the same plant—which is called self-pollination. Or the ovules of one flower may be fertilized by the pollen of a different flowering plant of the same species, a method called cross-pollination.
The wind, water, insects, and other animals help to carry pollen from one flower to another. Crosspollination usually produces a better plant: the offspring of cross-pollination possesses the genetic traits of two parents, which may give it new characteristics that will help it survive in an always-changing environment. Cross-pollination is so desirable, in fact, that many flowering plants have developed different ways to keep selfpollination from happening. In the flowers of a spiderwort plant, for example, the stamens are ready to release pollen grains before the pistils are ready to accept them, so the pollen has to travel to other spiderwort plants in search of a ripe pistil.
Muscles are attached to bones by tendons, the longest and strongest of which is called the Achilles tendon in your heel. This thick band of tissue attaches the muscles of the calf to the heel bone and is the key to the foot’s ability to flex.
The Achilles tendon allows you to push off of your foot when walking or running. In ancient Greek myth, the hero Achilles died from a wound to his heel, so the popular expression “Achilles heel” often refers to a physical weakness or limitation.
An avalanche is a huge mass of ice and snow that breaks away from the side of a mountain and slides downward at great speed. Most avalanches result from weather conditions, such as heavy winds and earth tremors, that cause snow on a mountain slope to become unstable.
A large avalanche in North America might release 300,000 cubic yards of snow—the equivalent of 20 football fields filled 10 feet (3.3 meters) deep with snow. Wintertime, particularly from December to April, is when most avalanches occur.