Why do we say that someone with a hidden agenda has “an axe to grind”?

As a boy, Benjamin Franklin was sharpening tools in his father’s yard when a stranger carrying an axe came by and praised the boy on how good he was with the grindstone. He then asked Franklin if he would show him how it would work on his own axe. Once his axe was sharpened, the stranger simply laughed and walked away, giving young Franklin a valuable lesson about people with “an axe to grind.”

What is school like in other countries?

Schools are different in every country in the world. A school may have lots of classrooms, books, play equipment, and a playground, or lessons may take place under trees or in an open outdoor space. A temple, a tent, or a building on stilts may serve as a classroom for some children. In poor places that have no money to build schools, children may learn their lessons outdoors. In isolated places—such as the Australian outback or the Alaskan wilderness—where families live hundreds of miles apart and far from cities or towns, children may get their lessons from teachers over two-way radios or the Internet. All around the world, schools are a reflection of the culture in which they are formed.

In Japan, as students enter school, they remove their shoes and put on slippers, a Japanese custom. They do not write with pencils; instead, each child has his or her own ink well, brush, and ink for writing the kanji (Japanese characters). Children often clean their classrooms (including dusting cubbies and mopping floors), and at the end of each class the students thank their teacher and bow. In schools in Brazil and other South American countries, children often go to school barefoot. In India, children practice yoga in school. And many children that go to public schools in European countries, such as Germany and France, ride their bikes to school or take public transportation, rather than school buses.

Why when someone tells a secret do we say he’s “spilled the beans”?

As a system of voting, the ancient Greeks placed beans in a jar. They called these small beans or balls “ballota,” which gives us the word ballot. A white bean was a “yes” and a brown bean was a “no.”

The beans were then counted in secret so the candidates wouldn’t know who voted for or against them. If the container was knocked over, and the beans were spilled, the secret was out of the jar.

Why do we call wealthy members of society “the upper crust”?

In the days of feudalism, when noblemen gathered for a meal in the castle, those of higher rank sat at the head of a T-shaped table, and the rest sat in order of diminishing importance away from them.

For such occasions a yard-long loaf of bread was baked, and the honour of making the first cut belonged to the highest-ranking person at the head table, who would then pass the bread down in order of rank, but always keeping for himself the “upper crust.”

Why is nuclear power dangerous?

The good thing about fission-generated nuclear energy is that very little fuel is needed to produce huge amounts of energy. (Two pounds of nuclear fuel could produce as much energy as 6.5 million pounds of coal, for instance!) The challenging part is that the process must be very carefully controlled. (In a nuclear reactor, control rods that absorb neutrons are moved in and out of the core to control the process.) If it isn’t controlled, the result could be a build up of pressure within the reactor. If this continues, radioactive gases might be released along with steam. It was a situation like this that happened at the Chernobyl plant in the Soviet Union in 1986, resulting in radioactive pollution that still exists today. An uncontrolled nuclear reaction can cause harmful radioactive materials (such as iodine isotopes that can cause thyroid cancer) to be released into the environment. This by-product of nuclear fission is a problem connected with nuclear power. Nuclear reactors are encased in thick layers of steel and concrete to keep radiation from escaping.

And because leftover nuclear fuel is highly radioactive, it must be carefully stored far away from people for decades or even centuries before it is safe again. Transporting and disposing of dangerous waste is another challenge presented by nuclear power; at present, used fuel is sealed in safety containers and buried deep underground. The nuclear process that we get our power from is called fission, where atomic nuclei that break apart produce great energy and heat. But nuclear power can also be created by a process called fusion, where atomic nuclei join together. Scientists are still working on creating a satisfactory fusion reactor. The Sun produces its great energy and heat through the nuclear fusion of its hydrogen gases.

How does the combine harvester help farmers?

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!

What is the difference between self-pollination and cross-pollination?

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.

What’s an Achilles heel?

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.