Basic Philosophy (The “School in a Book” Series)

Whether or not you’ve studied philosophy, you’re probably already a philosopher. You think about the meaning of life, absolute and relative moral precepts, political ideals and the indelible qualities of human nature. For this reason, the formal study of philosophy isn’t so much about defining or comparing philosophical ideas–something you’re already quite capable of doing–but about the thinkers of the past who famously argued different sides of these questions. Basically, philosophy is history.

Here, I do briefly introduce some of the major questions of philosophical debate, with the caveat that the list is not comprehensive. There is philosophy in everything—every subject. Every … thing. But these are the questions that have so far seemed most fundamental (such as the meaning of life), most practical (such as political ideas) and have been most famously discussed (such as the empiricism versus rationalism debate). Then I introduce you to many of the major philosophers of history and their most notable contributions, which will hopefully give your philosophical discussions and debates more texture, context and depth.

Terms and Ideas

Philosophy: The study of the meaning and nature of life, consciousness and more. Every subject can be philosophically analyzed to determine the subject’s inherent qualities, purpose and right functioning. For example, the study of medicine has benefited from people asking what the ultimate goal of doctors should be, and then arriving at the Hippocratic Oath (“first, do no harm …”) The word “philosophy” literally means “love of wisdom.”

Some major questions of philosophy: What is the meaning of life? What qualities are fundamental to human nature? How can we know what we know (empiricism versus rationalism)? What is truth? How do we arrive at morality and values? What political structures are most beneficial? How does language shape our beliefs? What is the best way to live? Do humans have free will? What is the nature of existence? What is beauty?

Sub-fields of academic philosophy: Metaphysics (the study of ultimate, nonphysical reality), epistemology (the study of knowledge), ethics, ontology (study of what exists, i.e. God), cosmology (study of the cosmos), aesthetics (the study of beauty), political philosophy, logic and more

Eastern philosophy: The philosophical tradition of China, Japan, India and other eastern countries. Important contributions include Daoism (The Tao Te Ching of approximately 600 BCE), Confucianism (The Analects of Confucius of approximately 500 BCE) and Buddhism (which arose in India around 500 BCE). Eastern philosophy is characterized by an interest in the unknowable, the unspeakable and patterns and cycles. See the “Religions” section of this series for more information on these philosophies.

“The dao that can be told is not the dao.” – Laozi, who taught about the Tao/Dao, also known as The Way, the indescribable ultimate truth which can partly be discovered by acting in harmony with nature and meditating
“Happy is he who has overcome his ego.” – Siddhartha Gautama, later the Buddha, who prescribed meditation, the middle way (life balance) and letting go of suffering through wanting nothing
“Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles.” – Confucius, who emphasized virtuous living, loyalty and obedience to one’s leaders, sincerity and self-reflection
“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes around in another form.” – Rumi, a Persian who taught about reincarnation and Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam

Western philosophy: The philosophical tradition of the West dating from approximately 500 BCE with the Greeks (Pythagoras, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle), to the Romans (Cicero and Seneca), to medieval Christian philosophers (Aquinas and Augustine) and beyond. Western philosophy is marked by an interest in logic, absolute knowledge and the Christian faith.

History of Western Philosophy

The Greek Period (approximately 600-300 BCE): Thales influenced Pythagoras. Pythagoras influenced Socrates. Socrates taught Plato. Plato taught Aristotle.

Pythagoras combined math and philosophy. Socrates developed the Socratic Method in which he asked question after question in order to confound people who believed themselves to be wise, digging for deeper truths in everything. He was condemned to die due to his ideas. He drank hemlock.

Plato introduced the idea of the world of forms, an imagined place that holds the ideal of each type of real thing. (Example: A table has the essence–the form–of a table, even if it is old and broken. But the real table is a lesser version of the ideal table form.) He used the Allegory of the Cave to show how humans only see a mere shadow of what is ultimately real.

Plato disagreed with this idea. He was not a rationalist (a believer in the primacy of reason and ideas in discovering truth) but an empiricist (a believer in the primacy of evidence and material reality in discovering truth). Plato founded a famous school called the Academy in Athens. After him, Aristotle opened his school, the Lyceum, also in Athens.

Parmenides said that matter can’t die, and something can’t come from nothing, so everything that is real is eternal, unchanging, and containing some invisible unity. Protagoras argued for moral relativism.

“The life which is unexamined is not worth living.” – Socrates
“I know nothing except the fact of my ignorance.” – Socrates
“Earthly knowledge is but shadow.” – Plato
“Truth resides in the world around us.” – Aristotle
“All is one.” – Parmenides
“Man is the measure of all things.” – Protagoras

The Roman Period (approximately 300 BCE to 350 CE): The stoics (stoicism), led by Zeno, taught indifference to pleasure and pain and acceptance of one’s lot in life. By contrast, the epicureans (epicureanism), led by Epicurus, believed that the goal of life is pleasure. The cynics (cynicism) taught that happiness is contentment with little, particularly little material comfort.

The Middle Ages (approximately 350 to 1300 CE): St. Augustine of Hippo wrote extensively about free will. He attempted to explain why both God and evil exist. Boethius wrote about God’s foresight but maintained Augustine’s philosophy of free will. St. Anselm attempted an ontological argument for the existence of God, saying that if you can conceive of the greatest thing that could ever exist, it must exit, because the greatest thing has to exist or it wouldn’t be the greatest. Thomas Aquinas wrote extensively about the logical and scientific nature of Christianity.

The Renaissance Period (approximately 1300-1750): Here, philosophy becomes sharply more humanist. Erasmus introduced modern humanism, arguing that religion is folly. Niccolo Machiavelli argues that government can’t be bound by morality if it wants to succeed. Francis Bacon wrote about the value of the scientific method. Thomas Hobbes wrote that the nature of reality is purely physical, that there is no ultimate meaning to life. He introduced the idea of the social contract, saying that our agreements with each other are what enables a relatively peaceful society to exist.

Unlike Bacon and Hobbes, Rene Descartes was a rationalist. He believed that even the existence of physical matter cannot be proven and the only thing we can truly know exists is our own minds. Blaise Pascal was a practical thinker, arguing that it’s safer to bet on God’s existence than to bet against it (“Pascal’s Wager”). Benedictus Spinoza changed the argument, simply redefining God: everything is one, and everything is God.

John Locke returned us to empiricism, arguing that no truths are universal to all people and all cultures. He came up with the idea of the tabula rasa–the blank slate, which is a metaphor for the unknowing state in which each person is born before they are implanted with cultural ideas. George Berkeley foresaw quantum physics, saying that a thing only exists in so far as it perceives or is perceived, and that there is no material substance.

“To know nothing is the happiest life.” – Erasmus
“Happiness is reached when a person is ready to be what he is.” – Erasmus
“The ends justifies the means.” – Niccolo Machiavelli
“Knowledge is power.” – Francis Bacon
“Man is a machine.” – Thomas Hobbes
“And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.” – Thomas Hobbes
“I think, therefore I am.” – Rene Descartes
“Imagination decides everything.” – Blaise Pascal
“God is the cause of all things, which are in him.” – Benedictus Spinoza
“No man’s knowledge here can go beyond his experience.” – John Locke
“To be is to be perceived.” – George Berkeley

The Age of Revolution (approximately 1750-1900): Voltaire, a playwright, said that certainty is absurd. David Hume agreed, saying that custom is the source of knowledge.

Immanuel Kant sought to prove the existence of the physical world. He tried to marry empiricism and rationalism, saying that both reason and perceptions are needed for knowledge. Georg Hegel believed reality is constantly changing and suggested people use dialectic reasoning and avoid assumptions. Arthur Schopenhauer said that we are all limited in our knowledge due to our unique experiences of life.

On the political philosophy front, Jean-Jacques Rosseau argued that though man is fundamentally good, laws and government create injustice and oppression. Adam Smith, an economist, argued that the basis of society is trade. Edmund Burke said that governmental change should be slow and argued for a free market economy. Jeremy Bentham tried to calculate pleasure and proposed that laws are created by considering which give the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people. Mary Wollstonecraft founded feminism. John Stuart Mill agreed with Bentham, adding that people should be free to do with their own bodies as they wished, but not harm anyone else.

Soren Kierkegaard said that as much as we think we want freedom, we really don’t. He is the father of existentialism, the theory that there is no meaning inherent in existence, that existence precedes essence. Karl Marx said that class struggle is what causes all of the ills of society, arguing for communism, while Henry David Thoreau argued for individual liberty, non-conformism, and conscientious objection through non-cooperation and non-violent resistance. William James founded pragmatism, saying that people should just do the best they can in spite of uncertainty.

“Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.” – Voltaire
“Custom is the great guide of human life.” – David Hume
“Man was born free, yet everywhere he is in chains.” Jean-Jacques Rosseau
“Man is an animal that makes bargains.” – Adam Smith
“There are two worlds: our bodies and the external world.” – Immanuel Kant
“The greatest happiness for the greatest number.” – Jeremy Bentham
“Mind has no gender.” – Mary Wollstonecraft
“Reality is a historical process.” – Georg Hegel
“Over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” – John Stuart Mill
“Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” – Soren Kierkegaard
“The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.” – Karl Marx
“Must the citizen ever resign his conscience to the legislator?” – Henry David Thoreau
“Act as if what you do makes a difference.” – William James

The Modern World (1900-1950) and the Postmodern World (1950 to the present): Friedrich Nietsche, an existentialist, wrote about the insufficiency of religion. Bertrand Russell insisted that people attach too much importance to work. Ludwig Wittgenstein described the limits of language and the limits placed on our thinking by language. Martin Heidegger wrote about finding meaning in a meaningless world and about living authentically. Jean Paul Sartre and Albert Camus agreed, saying that we must create our own life purpose. Simone de Beauvior wrote about the oppression of women, Noam Chomsky argued for adherence to codes of ethics and Jacques Derrida was a deconstructionist who believed that knowledge is limited by language and by our ability (or lack of ability) to interpret it. Life is a series of flawed interpretations.

“God is dead.” – Nietzsche
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Sartayana
“It is only suffering that makes us persons.” – Miguel de Unamuno
“The road to happiness lies in an organized diminution of work.” – Bertrand Russell
“The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” – Ludwig Wittgenstein
“We are ourselves the entities to be analyzed.” – Martin Heidegger
“Existence precedes essence.” – Jean-Paul Sartre
“Man is defined as a human being and woman as a female.” – Simone de Beauvoir
“Life will be lived all the better if it has no meaning.” – Albert Camus
“There is nothing outside of the text.” – Jacques Derrida
“We are all mediators, translators.” – Jacques Derrida

Basic Literary Analysis (The “School in a Book” Series)

When it comes to analyzing a literary work, here is what you need to know: the basic historical context of the piece; the reason the piece is considered great or important; and what the piece is, ultimately, about (what’s the point?). After that, you’ll want to look at the literary devices in the work and understand how they add to its meaning, beauty and effectiveness. This sounds like a lot of work, but don’t be a martyr: for context, and to get through more difficult works, I highly recommend CliffsNotes and SparkNotes . . . and skimming.
Bonus points: Understand the difference between good and great literature (one is well-written and entertaining while the other is these, plus important and universal in some way) and don’t confuse a work’s true meaning with the meaning that the author intended (the authorial intent). Great literature, it is said, is a mystical creature with a life independent of its creator.
A few additional notes on poetry interpretation: Though any great literary work can abide line by line analysis, due to its shorter length, poetry is particularly amenable to it. At least once in your life, choose a poem you like and study its use of some of the literary devices below, its use of repetition, rhyme, rhythm and cadence and, most importantly, its diction (both the connotations and the denotations of each word). Think about how each of these elements furthers the meaning of the poem. You might be surprised how much there is to say about those few lovely stanzas.
Basic Literary Terminology Checklist
Most people should probably know most of these terms; it just makes for better conversation about books. Play with literary analysis by choosing one or two favorite works and identifying some or most of the following literary devices in them. This will help you appreciate their beauty in a way you haven’t before.
Subject: The objective main topic of a piece of writing (i.e. Tom Sawyer’s adventures on the Mississippi)
Theme: The subjective, philosophical idea that is being explored in the work (i.e. boyhood or independence)
Narrative: The work’s story line
Genre: The type or category of writing (i.e. mystery, science fiction, romance, etc.)
Motif: A recurring idea, symbol or set of symbols in the work (i.e. the Mississippi River)
Premise: The question or problem posed by the work
Diction: Word choice
Syntax: The ways words are organized in sentences and paragraphs
Style: The unique way something is written, including the work’s diction and tone
Tone: The unique way the audience receives the work (i.e. formal, conversational, etc.)
Voice: The unique way the author writes. A magazine can have many voices, but maintain a single tone throughout.
Mood: The overall feeling of the piece (i.e. dark, brooding, light, fanciful, etc.)
Pace: The speed and rhythm with which a story is told
Literary convention: A commonly used style, idea or technique in literature
Figurative language: Language that implies or represents an idea rather than directly stating it, often for mood, dramatic effect, or humor (i.e. hyperbole, understatement, analogy, personification, euphemism, simile, metaphor, etc.)
Image/imagery: A mental picture or representation of a person, place, or thing
Analogy: A comparison that goes into some detail
Simile: A short description that compares two different things using the words like or as
Metaphor: A word or phrase that stands in for the object it’s being compared to. (Metaphors don’t use the words like or as.)
Symbol: Something that appears in a piece of writing that stands for or suggests something else
Onomatopoeia: A word or words that imitate a sound
Personification: The attributing of human characteristics to something that is not human
Irony: What occurs when reality is exactly the opposite of one’s reasonable expectation. Example: “I was hired to write books but instead, I am burning them.”
Paradox: A statement that initially appears to be contradictory but then, on closer inspection, turns out to make sense
Foreshadowing: Hints of upcoming events in the story
Pun: A play on words that relies on a word’s having more than one meaning or sounding like another word
Cliché: An overused expression
Double entendre: A phrase that can be interpreted in two different ways
Euphemism: An innocuous-sounding phrase used in place of something disagreeable
Allusion: A reference that is not directly stated or explained (i.e. using “to be or not to be” without mentioning Hamlet)
Oxymoron: A phrase composed of two words with contradictory meanings
Synecdoche: Substituting a part for the whole (i.e. “boards” for “the stage”) or the whole for a part (i.e. “the Americans” for “the American team”).
Metonymy: Substituting a related concept for the whole (i.e. “the White House” for “the President”).
Alliteration: The repetition of initial sounds in closely-placed words
Assonance: The repetition of vowel sounds in closely-placed words (anywhere in the words)
Consonance: The repetition of consonant sounds in closely-placed words (anywhere in the words)
Connotation: A word’s unspoken implication
Denotation: The dictionary meaning of a word
Plot: The events of the story
Subplot: An additional plot interwoven with the main plot
Conflict: A struggle that affects the story line
Setting: The time, place, and conditions in which the action takes place; the work’s context
Point of view (POV): The view from which the story is told. It can be first person (the narrator speaks as himself), objective (the reader knows no more than the reader), limited omniscient (the narrator knows a bit extra about the characters, as when he/she tells the story through the eyes of the protagonist), or omniscient (the narrator knows everything about the characters and situations).
The five parts of dramatic structure: Exposition (inciting incident), rising action, climax, falling action (resolution), and dénouement
Rising action: The set of conflicts in a story that lead up to the climax
Climax: The peak moment of the action, occurring at or near the end of the work. It is the turning point for the protagonist.
Reversal: The point in the plot at which the action turns in an unexpected direction
Falling Action: The action that occurs after the climax, moving it toward its resolution
Dénouement: The final resolution of the story
Characterization: Writing that brings a character to life and makes them unique
Protagonist: The story’s main character
Tragic hero/tragic figure: A protagonist whose story comes to an unhappy end due to his or her own behavior and character flaws
Antihero: A protagonist who isn’t all good and may even be bad
Antagonist: The story’s main bad guy
Round character: A character that is complex and realistic
Flat character: An uncomplicated character that doesn’t feel real to the reader
Foil: A character who provides a clear contrast to another character
Soliloquy: A monologue by a character in a play
Fiction: Imagined, untrue literature
Nonfiction: Factual literature
Biography: A nonfiction life story written by someone other than the subject
Autobiography: A nonfiction life story written by the subject
Memoir: A nonfiction story written by the subject about his or her own experiences, but not about his or her entire life
Anthology: A collection of short stories written by various authors, compiled in one book or journal.
Myth: A story that attempts to explain events in nature by referring to supernatural causes, like gods and deities. Usually passed on from generation to generation.
Fable: A story intended to depict a useful truth or moral lesson. Fables frequently involve animals that speak and act like human beings.
Tale: A story about imaginary or exaggerated events that the narrator pretends is true
Parable: A short story that teaches a moral or spiritual lesson
Parody: A humorous imitation of a popular work
Satire: A humorous work that makes fun of another work or anything else, revealing its weakness
Travesty: A work that treats a serious subject lightly or mockingly
Types of poems: Ode (dignified poem written to praise someone or something), lyric, free verse (rule-free poetry), limerick (lighthearted rhyming poem with a particular structure), haiku, sonnet, villanelle, sestina, acrostic, elegy, epigram, ballad (narrative folksong-like poem), epitaph (brief poem sometimes written on a gravestone paying tribute to a dead person or commemorating another loss), more.
Stanza: A group of lines in a poem that form a metrical or thematic unit, set off by a space.
Verse: Poetic lines composed in a measured rhythmical pattern, that are often, but not necessarily, rhymed.
Beat: One count pause in speech, action, or poetry.
Stress: The emphasis, or accent, given a syllable in word pronunciation or in poetry reading
Meter: A recurring rhythmic pattern of stresses and unstressed syllables in a poem
Rhythm: A term used to refer to the recurrence of stressed and unstressed sounds in poetry
Couplet: A group of two rhyming lines
Triplet: A group of three rhyming lines
Quatrain: A four-line stanza. Quatrains are the most common stanzaic form in the English language, having various meters and rhyme schemes.
Epic: A long narrative poem, told in a formal, elevated style that focuses on a serious subject and chronicles heroic deeds and events important to a culture or nation.
Lyric: A brief poem that expresses the personal emotions and thoughts of a single speaker, not necessarily of the poet.
Sonnet: A fixed form of lyric poetry that consists of fourteen lines, usually written in iambic pentameter, with a varied rhyme scheme.
Acrostic: A sentence where the first letter of each word of the sentence helps to remember the spelling of a word, or order of things
Villanelle: A type of fixed form poetry consisting of nineteen lines of any length divided into six stanzas.

I Guess You Could Say That I’ve Always Been a Flinger (Fling Therapy, Part One)

I guess you could say that I’ve always been a flinger. I don’t sit around on my hopes like eggs waiting for them to hatch: I try stuff, and see what works. I massage them. I incubate them. I try prayer and meditation. When that doesn’t work, I start tapping on the shells. Eventually, I might throw them against the wall and watch them crack, and though I realize this isn’t progress, I feel better.

I fling. I’m a flinger. And when it comes to my problems, I fling even harder and with more conviction.

Depression isn’t an egg, of course. (Oh, how I wish it was.) Depression is a wall—one much stronger than I. Standing in front of it, though, I do what comes naturally. I pick up any tool nearby, and have at it. I make cracks. I wedge the cracks. I break the wedge. Then I try again. My efforts are formidable, but so far, they haven’t been enough. Since early childhood, depression has been part of my life–the “black dog” Churchill referred to, though in his case the dog came and went a lot whereas for me, the dog stays. It stayed through elementary school, when no one seemed to know anything was wrong with me, including myself. It stayed through middle and high school in spite of my self-diagnosis and plan for change. It stayed all the way through college and through my early relationship with my husband–times that should’ve been the best in my life. It stayed as my career matured and as my babies were born, and today, after years of medication and spiritual and physical effort, it is still with me. Relief has not been relief except by degrees, and mostly, I’m okay with that. Acceptance of my condition doesn’t seem to be my problem, exactly. A high degree of drivenness and a suspicion that the condition is curable might be.

The dog is just a dog. It’s familiar. It’s not crazy-making. It bothers me, but I can still function. At forty-one I realize that roughly half my life is over, and what I’ve done already I can do again. I’m strong. I have resources. I’m better by far than I used to be. But some people are good at taking their wins and taking a break. I am not.

Which is why I’m back at the wall, flinging even more. Working up a list of stuff I haven’t tried, or tried enough, and making preparations. In this book, I share my personal history of depression, but more interesting than that is the main storyline: everything I’m doing this year to treat the problem. Following my three other self-improvement memoirs that also use a one-year theme, Fling Therapy is the story of the year that I tried the hardest to overcome or further alleviate my depression. Some of the things I write about aren’t new to me: brisk walks, cognitive therapy, meditation. Others are: energy healing. A full counseling program. New medications. For a while I even quit coffee. There’s also a lot in here about something that still scares me a bit: psychedelics. Will I try them? If I do, will I write about it?

In addition to the journal, I share relevant research, a comprehensive-as-I-can-get-it list of depression treatments and several interviews with people who have had some success with their depression battles. My hope in writing this book was, of course, that my renewed efforts would yield significant, positive results. But I also wanted to highlight what I’ve already done that’s been helpful. Though as I said before I’ve had depression since childhood, for the past decade or so, I’ve been mostly well. Some might contend that this is mostly due to medication, and they wouldn’t be wrong, exactly; medicine works pretty well. But it’s not everything. Living well is the rest. And that is what I try to do every day.

My black dog–a heaviness in my chest–is always there. No one would mistake me for an ebullient person, but I’m stable, functional and grateful. The word that best describes me today is content, and that’s pretty good, though I’d prefer “at peace.” Eventually, I’d like to be truly happy some of the time, understanding that times of pain are important, too.

Overall, though, happiness isn’t what I seek. I used to say that I wanted bliss, but I don’t anymore. I just want to not be at least a bit depressed all the time. I want to be able to enjoy the things I’ve worked hard to obtain: my stable marriage, my happy kids, my fulfilling work, my beautiful home. I want to be able to sit the yard I care for, listening to my children play and feel … light. At peace. Not heavy, at least sometimes. If I can achieve that, it will be worth a good deal of flinging.

And hey–flinging is fun anyway. So much fun.

Fling Therapy: One Year of Throwing Everything I Can Think of at My Persistent Depression

I’m doing it again: setting aside of year of my life to work on a single self-improvement goal. Past goals have been more spiritually-focused, but this one is arguably even more important: I’m throwing every treatment I can find at my depression, and seeing what happens.

Medications. Exercise. Spiritual practice. Alternative healing methods. Therapy. And more. I’m attempting each, and writing about what helps, what doesn’t … and what might be of help to other people.

Between my month-by-month account, I offer an as-comprehensive-as-possible list of depression treatments. I share my research in the great hopes that others out there will find what works for them, even if it’s not what works for me.

Stay tuned to this blog for my series, Fling Therapy: One Year of Throwing Everything I Can Think of at My Persistent Depression.

Basic Geology and Ecology (The ‘School in a Book’ Series)

As humans, we experience the effects of chemistry, biology and physics every day, but not always knowingly. For this reason, geology and ecology are to me the most visual–even the most sensual–of the hard sciences, the ones that allows us to better understand our immediate environment.

Geology isn’t theory and microscopes; it’s what we see around us every day.

Sometimes, it’s hard to mentally separate geology and ecology. Here’s the short version: geology is the study of all the stuff on the earth, and ecology is the study of the way living things interact with it.

Basic Geology

Layers of the earth: Outer crust, mantle (viscous), outer core (liquid metal), inner core (solid metal)

Earth’s crust: The surface of the earth that is made of various rocks and minerals with soil on top. The five main elements found in the Earth’s crust are oxygen, silicon, aluminum, iron, calcium.

Rock: Collections of minerals formed together into a stone. A compound.

Mineral: A single material of uniform color, texture, luster and structure. Usually made up of two or more elements.

Crystal: A piece of mineral that has a characteristic shape (box or cube). Ex: table salt. Each grain of salt is cube-shaped. Each molecule, too.

Dirt: They are made up of broken down minerals and organic substances through weathering.

Soil: Dirt that is fit to grow plants in

Ore: Any natural, earth material that is mined and processed to obtain a desired metal. Ex: iron ore is rock containing iron.

Metal: The chemical particles, often found in minerals, that are pure metallic elements such as iron, copper, gold and aluminum. They share these properties: 1. shiny; 2. conduct heat and electricity; 3. solid at room temp (except mercury); 4. some are magnetic (iron and nickel).

Alloy: A mixture of two or more metals

Steel: An alloy of iron, carbon and traces of other metals

Sediment: The dirt and sand that is carried away with water and wind and add layers to other places. The layers separate according to the size and density of the materials and eventually harden into rock under the sea and elsewhere.

Fossil: The structure that results when organisms are buried under layers of sediment and pressed on, then cemented into the soil

Clay: A kind of dirt with the smallest particles. Makes a very uniform, soft sdimentary rock, like shale … unlike sandstone. Clay soil holds water well.

The three types of rocks: Sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic

Sedimentary rock: Rock formed when other rocks break down into sediment, then gradually reform other rocks due to pressure and layering. The Grand canyon is an example of sedimentary rocks. Its layers are visible. It was once under the ocean.

Igneous rock: Rock formed from magma erupting from a volcano. It forms in an irregular, crystalline pattern combining two or more distinct materials, with less mixing. Come from cooling magma, so form quickly and doesn’t contain fossils.

Metamorphic rock: Igneous, sedimentary or other metamorphic rock that changes due to heat

Geological time: A division of the history of the earth into periods based on the types of fossils found in the layers of the earth’s crust

Radiometric/carbon dating: A way to determine the age of a rock by the amount of carbon it contains

Corrosion: The damaging chemical reaction that occurs when metal is in contact with oxygen. The damage happens because oxide forms on the metal.

Weathering/erosion: The process of the breakdown of minerals, rocks and organic materials through freezing, thawing, melting, abrasion, wind, acids, etc.

Water: A chemical compound that is the most common liquid on earth. It is a solvent that is formed when hydrogen burns in air (oxygen).

The water cycle: The process by which water is continuously recycled between the earth, the atmosphere and living things through heat and evaporation and clouds and rain

Dissolve: To mix something into a liquid

Solution: The result of dissolving something in a liquid

Soluble: Able to dissolve in liquid

Insoluble: Unable to dissolve in liquid

Tides: The rise and fall of sea levels caused by the gravity of the moon and the rotation of the earth

Ocean currents: The movement of the water of the world’s oceans due to wind, the rotation of the earth and more

Groundwater: Water under the Earth’s surface. Most groundwater is found in porous rocks.

The water table: The depth at which groundwater is found, which is affected by rainfall or lack thereof

Spring: A place where groundwater emerges from a hillside

Air: The gas that we breathe. Air is oxygen, nitrogen and carbon dioxide. It helps people breathe oxygen, which they need in their blood. It helps plants make food. It protects people from sun’s UV rays. Nitrogen: 78%, Oxygen – 21%, Other – 1%. Molecules/particles in air are constantly moving and there’s lots of empty space between them. Like water always flows downhill, air always flows toward lower pressure. To separate out the gases in air, just cool and compress it. Each gas liquifies at a different temperature.

Earth’s atmosphere: All of the air that surrounds the Earth. It is held near the earth due to gravity. There is no distinct starting point, but instead a gradual decline; the further up into the atmosphere you get, the less air is held down. Also, the higher air is thinner, with less oxygen, and unbreathable. (Side note: the moon’s gravitational pull isn’t strong enough to hold air down, so there is no air on the moon.)

Air compression: What happens when air particles are pushed closer together (as in a small space). Compressed air is more highly pressurized.

Air pressure: The condition created when air is pushed. When you push more air into a small space, air particles move closer together but try to escape by pushing on the inside walls (of the tire or balloon or whatever). The place on the body we notice air pressure changes is the ear since the eardrum must have equal air pressure on both sides, but air has to go through a bottleneck, and can move unevenly, resulting in popping.

Vacuum: When we suck or otherwise remove air from a container, we create a vacuum. By removing air, air pressure decreases. And since air always flows toward lower pressure, sucking occurs and air and materials from the outside get pulled in. (It’s not the motion of pulling out the air that causes sucking. It’s the higher pressure on the outside wanting to get in!) Outer space has no air, so it is a vaccum. If you went to space without a spacesuit you’d explode because all the air in your body would push outward toward the vaccum at once. Spacesuits provide air pressure.

The magnetic field of the earth: The field of magnetism in the earth with poles near the North Pole and the South Pole that are tilted at a slight angle. The field may be caused by moving metal in the Earth’s outer core. From time to time, these reverse, with north becoming south.

Magnetosphere: The area that stretches into space in which the Earth’s magnetic field can be felt.

Basic Ecology

Ecology: The study of the way living things interact with their environments

Ecosystem: A group of plants and animals that interact with each other and their surroundings

Biome: A unique climate and soil type

The eleven biomes of Earth: Tropical rainforests, deciduous forests, mountains, coniferous forests, scrub lands, temperate grasslands/prairies, tundra, tropical grasslands, deserts, polar areas, oceans

Habitat: The natural environment in which a species lives

Biodiversity: The huge variety of living things in a particular area. Biodiversity is lost with selective breeding.

Pollution: The unneeded junk (particularly the human-made chemical particles) that gets into the air and water. Water pollution happens both due to poisons in water killing life and to the oxygen in the water being used up by the bacteria (or even plant) overgrowth as they feed on waste materials. When there is inadequate oxygen for fish and animals, the water becomes lifeless.

The Ozone Layer: The layer of ozone (O3) that exists in the upper atomosphere of earth. It is poisonous to humans but protects us from UV rays.

The Greenhouse Effect: The result of an overabundance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which traps heat and causes a greenhouse-like effect on earth which then results in major climate change

Global warming: The result of the Greenhouse Effect

Sewage treatment: The process by which a city’s waste water is filtered for large particles, then left in tanks where the organic solids sink to the bottom and are broken down by bacteria

Carbon cycle: The process by which carbon cycles in an through plants, animals, minerals and the atmosphere. This happens mostly due to the respiration of carbon dioxide by animals, the incorporation of carbon dioxide by plants during photosynthesis, decomposition and the burning of fossil fuels.

Nitrogen cycle: When the nitrogen cycle is not in balance, global warming and ozone depletion can occur.

Intensive farming: Farming with use of chemicals, machinery, etc.

Fossil fuels: Coal, oil, and gas, which are called fossil fuels because they were formed from the remains of animals and plants that were buried by layers of sediment millions of years ago. They are non-renewable.

Biodegradable: A substance that can be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms

Sea level change: The change in sea levels caused by temperature changes. During ice ages, sea levels are low due to the great amount of frozen water. Today, sea levels have risen due to global warming.

Basic Writing (The ‘School in a Book’ Series)

In some people, the word writer inspires a feeling of pride or admiration. In others, it inspires dread. If you’re in the latter category, consider making writing improvement your top educational priority. If you aren’t, practice a lot anyway. It’s probably the most useful skill you’ll learn in school.

Basic Writing Skills

How to write a paragraph: Write the main idea. Follow this with several supporting sentences. After mastering this basic formula, experiment with placing the main idea elsewhere in the paragraph. Switch to a new paragraph when the main point you’re making changes.

How to write an essay: The first paragraph is the most important. Begin with either the main idea or a hook—a lead-in that offers relevant information. The hook may be several sentences long, but most of the time, the main idea following it will be one sentence, especially for short essays. The statement of the main idea is called the thesis. Some theses are called “five-prong” or “three-prong” because they follow the main idea with exactly three or five supporting points, each of which correlates with a single body paragraph in the essay. After writing the first paragraph, write the body paragraphs, then a concluding paragraph. For simple essays, body paragraphs each make a single supporting point. For more complex essays, which might be broken out into sections, several paragraphs may be used to make one supporting point.

How to take notes on a text: First, find the main idea of the entire section of writing. Practice this skill alone until you are good at it. (This comes in handy in both personal and philosophical arguments, in which the main point of the speaker often gets lost.) After that, identify the main supporting ideas in the section—the points that give rise to the main idea. Finally, make note of any particularly insightful or important side point. Record your notes in the simplest form possible, without unnecessary blank spaces on the page. Use bullets.

How to write an outline: Place your thesis statement at the beginning. Then list the major points that support your thesis using Roman numerals (I, II, III, etc.). Under each of these, list all of the supporting ideas or arguments using capital letters (A, B, C, etc.). If needed, under these, list subordinate ideas using numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.), then small letters (a, b, c, etc.).

How to write a short story: First, create a compelling dilemma involving interesting characters. Think of the story as a movie without a narrator, and write each scene like a movie scene without any background explanation. Start the story at a particularly interesting place in media res (in the middle of action). Make sure that every character undergoes inner change, and the protagonist is quite changed by the end. Make sure that in each and every scene there is an immediate conflict in addition to the story’s larger conflict, and make sure that every scene moves the story forward. Use the standard plot graph, with a slow introduction, then rising action (when lots of complications are thrown in), then a climax (when everything bad happens all at once), then a quick resolution.

How to write a poem: Read several poems of several types, including free verse, odes, haikus, rhyming poems with regular stanza lengths, nonrhyming poems with regular stanza lengths and more. Find a feeling within yourself and choose a subject that in the moment of writing causes that same strong feeling in you. Write a straight description of that subject/metaphor that includes words that convey your reaction to it, without ever describing your thoughts or feelings directly. As you edit it, get rid of any extra words and any words that sound in any way corny (flower, sunshine, beauty, etc.).

Basic Writing Terminology

Synonyms: Words with the same or approximately the same meaning

Antonyms: Words with opposite meanings

Homographs: Words which are spelled alike but have different meanings and/or pronunciations

Homonyms: Words that are spelled and pronounced alike but have different meanings

Palindrome: A word or phrase that means the same when read in either direction (i.e. “eve”)

Acronym: An abbreviation formed from the initial letters of other words and pronounced as a word

Exposition: Explanatory writing

Didactic writing: Instructional writing

Freewriting: Writing continuously without much thought in order to discover hidden ideas or feelings

Jargon: Terms only familiar to those in the know

Editorial: A short article expressing an opinion or point of view. Often, but not always, written by a member of the publication staff.

Bibliography: The list of books, magazines, journals, people, websites, or any other resources that you consulted in the process of writing a book, article, or paper.

Boilerplate: A piece of writing that gets reused frequently, sometimes with minor changes

Canon: Works generally considered by scholars to be the most important of a genre

Byline: The author’s name appearing with his/her published work

High concept: A storyline with a clear conflict and that can be described in one sentence

Hook: A starting sentence or idea that grabs the reader’s attention

Pseudonym: A “pen name” 

Public domain work: Any written material not under copyright

Query: A short letter pitching an article or a book idea to an editor or agent

Rough draft: The first organized version of a document or other work

Serial: A series of related works or a regularly published work, as a newsletter or magazine

Side bar: Extra information put alongside, but not in, the main article

Slant: The bias or angle a writer used in an article

Solicited/unsolicited manuscript: A manuscript that an agent or editor has or has not asked to see

Synopsis: Brief summary of a story, manuscript, or book

Basic Writing Rules

The goal of writing is to be understood, and preferably, to be understood easily. This happens when language is clear, concise, well-organized and direct. The following rules for good writing can and should be selectively broken in creative writing, but in most nonfiction writing and in most practical writing (letters, emails, instructions, etc.) they stand.

Most, but not all, of the following rules come from The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White.

Be direct. Use the active voice. Use the positive form of the statement, avoiding “do not” or double negatives when possible. Use definite, specific, concrete language.

Be concise. Omit needless words. Do not overwrite. Do not overstate. Don’t use a lot of adjectives and adverbs. Don’t over-explain.

Be clear. Place the words you want to emphasize at the end of the sentence. Avoid awkward phrases. Make sure the reader knows who is speaking. Keep related words together. Pay attention to transitions. Don’t confuse the reader by jumping from one step to the next or one idea to the next without showing (subtly) how they relate.

Be readable. Avoid a succession of loose sentences. Avoid a succession of short sentences. Express coordinate ideas in similar form. For example, when using bullet points, all of the points should be in the same form (sentence or fragment), same tense, and as parallel in structure as possible. Pay attention to rhythm. Intersperse long and short sentences. Read the piece out loud or have someone else read it out loud to you to see if it flows well.

Be organized. Write an outline first, and use it.

Be humble. Don’t refer to yourself. Write in a way that comes naturally. Don’t used forced-sounding figurative or formal language. Do not affect a breezy manner. Use orthodox spelling. Avoid fancy words. Don’t use dialect unless your ear is good. Don’t inject opinion. Avoid foreign language words. Use figures of speech sparingly. Prefer the standard to the offbeat. For dialogue, use either “said” or “asked” or leave the quote bare. Don’t use “stated,” “exclaimed,” etc.

Practice. Revise and rewrite. Wait a year, then revise again. To become a faster, clearer, more organized writer, practice outlining nonfiction texts (summarizing the main idea and supporting points in a few pages). Also, master the art of writing short, true, straightforward stories worthy of a top-notch news reporter.

Basic Grammar and Punctuation (The “School in a Book” Series)

Some of the rules of grammar and punctuation don’t need to be taught; instead, they’re inbued, like social skills. However, as with social skills, a little direct coaching goes a very long way. I’m sure I don’t need to remind you how much more educated you’ll seem when you don’t make embarrassing writing mistakes.

Basic Punctuation

The fourteen punctuation marks: Period, question mark, exclamation point, comma, semicolon, colon, apostrophe, dash/hyphen, en dash, em dash, brackets, braces, parentheses and ellipsis

Comma: Used to separate ideas within a sentence. Sometimes there’s no clear right or wrong way to use a comma. The serial comma is the comma sometimes used right before the “and” in a list, and most writers don’t use it anymore. Do use commas to set off parenthetic expressions and before other independent clauses.

Semicolon: Used to connect separate sentences, the second of which includes a restatement of the first. It is also used to separate words and phrases in long lists that already have commas in them. Example: I was sad; she hurt me on purpose. Example: I own: three black and yellow hats; one long, dark skirt; and one pair of shoes.

Colon: Used to introduce a quotation, explanation, example, or series. It is also used between sentences instead of a period to show that the second explains or adds directly to the first. Finally, colons can be used for emphasis. Example: I have four pairs of boots: one for rain, one for snow and two for fashion. Example: My sister is beautiful: she has dark hair and a great smile. Example: Yes, I have a best friend: my sister.

Dash/hyphen: Used to connect compound phrases. Example: Cold-water fish

En dash: Used to connect dates and more. It is largely a stylistic choice when to use it.

Em dash: Twice as long as an en dash and used in place of commas, colons, or parenthesis.

Brackets, braces and parentheses: Used to contain additional information that isn’t otherwise grammatically connected to the sentence. Example: My dog (who I love) is sweet as heck. Parenthesis are most common. Brackets are used for technical purposes or to clarify a quote. Example: He [Mr. Smith] is my friend. Braces ({}) are used to contain two or more lines of text or listed items to show that they are considered as a unit. Used mostly in mathematics and computer programming. Example: 2{1+[23-3]}=x.

Apostrophe: Used to indicate the omission of a letter or letters from a word, the possessive case, or the plurals of lowercase letters. Examples: I’ve; Sara’s.

Quotation marks: Used around quotations. Single quotation marks are used for quotes within quotes.

Ellipsis: Used to indicate that something is missing, the idea or list continues in the same way, or there was a pause in speech. They’re also used to end a quote if the actual quote did not end at the chosen ending.

Basic Grammar

The eight parts of speech: Noun, pronoun, verb, adjective, adverb, preposition, conjunction, and interjection

Noun: A person, place or thing. Proper nouns are capitalized and are the given name of someone or something in particular. Common (generic) nouns are not capitalized.

Pronoun: A small word used in place of a noun: she, he, they, we, them, it, I, you, etc. You may use they, them and their as the indefinite singular pronoun, but try to avoid this pronoun entirely.

Verb: An action word

Adjective: A word that describes a noun, like “pretty” or “smart”

Adverb: A word that describes a verb, like “slowly” or “carefully”

Article: The words a, an, and the. (These are also considered adjectives.)

Preposition: A word placed before a noun to form a phrase that, taken as a whole, modifies another word in the sentence. (This phrase is called the “prepositional phrase.”) The most common are in, with, by, for, at, in, on, out, to, under, within and without. Example: “With my dog as company, I can do anything.” Contrary to popular understanding, it’s okay to end a sentence in a preposition; however, choose the wording that is the most clear. “The building in which I live” and “The building I live in” are both correct, but “The building I live in is brown” is hard to read.

Conjunction: A word that joins words, phrases or clauses but are not part of a clause or prepositional phrase. The most common are and, but, therefore, however, so, for, or, nor, yet, since, while, and because. Coordinating conjunctions connect grammatically equal elements, while subordinating conjunctions connect clauses that are not equal (because, although, while, since, etc.). There are other types of conjunctions as well.Interjection: A word used to express emotion: oh, wow, ah, etc.

Sentence: A unit of writing consisting of a single main subject (someone or something that is doing something) and a single main action. (Caveat: If two complete sentences convey the same idea, a semicolon can be used to separate them and make up a single sentence.) Sentences may also include adverbs, adjectives, small words and clauses. The number of the subject of the sentence (whether it’s singular or plural) determines the number of the verb in the sentence. A clause should be placed directly after the noun or verb to which it refers. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence must refer to the grammatical subject.

Run-on sentence: Two or more sentences joined as one, without a period separating them

Loose sentence: A sentence that connects two different ideas with a conjunction like “and.” These give the paragraph some breathability and flow, but too many in a row are tiresome.

Sentence fragment: A sentence that is missing the subject, the verb, or both. “Aha!” is a sentence fragment, as is “Good question.”

Topic sentence: The sentence at the beginning of a paragraph that includes the main idea of the paragraph

Verb tense: The form of the verb that denotes the time of the action. It’s important to hold to one tense throughout a piece of writing.

The six verb tenses: Past, present, future, past perfect (“has eaten”), present perfect (“has been dancing”, and future perfect (“will have danced”).

Clause: A phrase that as a whole, modifies a verb or noun. Example: Running to meet her, I slipped.

Independent clause: A modifying sentence that, if desired, could stand alone

Helping verb: A verb that helps the main verb express the action. There are 23 or 24 in all: be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being, have, has, had, could, should, must, may, might, must, can, will, would, do, did, does, and (sometimes) having.

Suffix: A word ending that changes the word’s tense or meaning

Prefix: A word beginning that changes the word’s meaning

Basic Astronomy (The “School in a Book” Series)

Everyone loves space. Why? I don’t know. It just sort of blows our minds, I guess. The following will give you many of the main astronomical terms and ideas, but do also read The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene and Steven Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. There’s also a great memoir by Scott Kelly of living on the ISS for a year called Endurance, as well as many excellent space documentaries.

Basic Astronomy

Space: The area outside the earth’s atmosphere, without air. Behind planets, space is far below freezing. Facing the sun, it is hotter than boiling water.

Universe: All of the billions of galaxies in existence. The Universe is slowly expanding, but it’s held together by gravity. It is mostly empty space, with material like stars at distances away from each other that are comparable to the distance of particles in an atom. This is why there aren’t more collisions, despite the many and varied paths taken by celestial bodies.

Gravity: The force everywhere in the Universe that pulls every object towards every other object simultaneously. The greater the mass an object has, the greater gravitational force it exerts. Gravity is sometimes called the “weak force,” as opposed to stronger forces that hold particles together.

Star: Ball of very hot gas in space. Stars can be white, red, yellow or blue.

Sun: The only star in Earth’s solar system. It is medium-sized: one million times the size of Earth and ten times the size of Jupiter. On its surface, the sun is 5,500 degrees.

Planet: Spinning ball of rock or gas that travels around a star (or a black hole) in an orbit. We can only see a few planets outside our solar system.

Moon: Mini planet that revolves around a regular planet instead of revolving around a star. The earth’s moon is dry and dusty with many craters. It takes 27 days for the moon to spin once, and 27 days for it to orbit once around the earth, which is why it doesn’t seem to be spinning. It is always facing away from us, so we’ve never seen the other side. People have gone to the moon several times. It takes about three days to reach the moon and each crew spent about three days there.

Phases of the moon: New moon (no light); waxing crescent moon (getting more visible and in a crescent shape); first quarter moon (half moon); waxing gibbous (getting more visible and in a lopsided circle shape); full moon; waning gibbous (getting less visible); last quarter moon (half moon); waning crescent; new moon. This cycle takes 29.5 days.

Solar system: A group of planets revolving around a single star or a group of stars, or just a small group of stars revolving around each other.

Sol: The name of our solar system. It orbits the center of the Milky Way.

Galaxy: A group of solar systems. Many galaxies have millions of stars. Sometimes galaxies cross paths and collide. It’s likely that most or all galaxies have a black hole at their center. Many galaxies orbit other galaxies, but not all. It is difficult to determine what galaxies like our orbit, if anything, due to the slowness of their movement and limitations of technology.

Milky Way: The name of the galaxy our solar system is in. It is about 100,000 light years across. It has eight planets, many of which have moons, and an asteroid belt. The Milky Way doesn’t orbit anything, but other galaxies orbit it and Andromeda, the closest neighbor galaxy.

Galaxy cluster: A group of galaxies

The Local Cluster: The galaxy cluster our galaxy is in

Supercluster: A group of galaxy clusters

Virgo Supercluster: The supercluster our galaxy is in

Orbit: Circular path taken by a planet or moon. As gravity pulls them toward their star or planet, their own momentum pulls them away and the dual forces keep them in balance.

One day: 24 Earth hours, which is one spin on Earth’s axis. The part of the earth facing the sun has light, and the other doesn’t. It takes 365 days to orbit around the sun once.

The Big Bang: The explosion that might have occurred that resulted in the stars and planets. Happened 15 billion years ago. All of the energy and matter currently in existence was created in one place, then suddenly exploded and became randomly distributed in space. Then, as it all cooled, due to gravity, larger bits attracted smaller bits and grew into stars and planets.

Comet: Ball of dirty ice floating around space. When close enough to the sun, the ice melts partway and the solar wind blows a trail of gas and dust behind it, making a tail.

Asteroid: Big lump of rock or metal in space

Meteoroid: Dust or small space rocks (house-sized to coffee-ground sized) in orbit around the sun.

Meteor/shooting star: A meteoroid that burns up in a planet’s atmosphere

Meteorite: A meteoroid that hits the surface of a planet

Rocket: An engine that burns fuel to achieve thrust and lift a spacecraft

Astronaut: Someone who goes to space to work. (Russian astronauts are called cosmonauts.) Astronauts learn to fly and land the space shuttle, fix parts of the space station or satellites, do scientific experiments and more. Some of their training is done underwater to simulate space conditions.

Space shuttle: A rocket that brings astronauts and supplies to the ISS and other satellites, then returns to Earth as an airplane. Booster rockets and fuel tanks fall off after they’re used. The crew compartment is at the top and it holds the flight deck and other areas for working and sleeping.

Hubble Space Telescope: Big telescope with a camera that orbits the earth and takes clear photos of deep space from outside our atmosphere. Uses solar panels to power it.

Flight simulator: A replica of the inside of a rocket or airplane that allows astronauts to practice.

Space walk: Going in space, outside the station or shuttle, to check or repair equipment. A strong spacesuit regulates temperature and carries air.

International Space Station (ISS): A series of connected compartments and solar panels where astronauts live and work. It is located 230 miles above Earth. On the station, all water (including pee) is recycled. Many scientific experiments are done.

Satellite: Anything in space that orbits a planet or the sun other than planets and moons. These include man-made satellites that investigate space, carry radio signals around Earth.

Space probe: Man-made robots that explore other planets and moons. Some even leave our solar system and carry information about Earth, looking for other life forms.
*Future space missions will include more space tourism–maybe even a space hotel–space bases on Mars, maybe even a space elevator.

Our eight planets, in order from the sun: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. Gas giants: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune. Rest are rock. Jupiter is largest, Mercury is smallest. Juiter has the Great Red Spot, a permanent gas storm. Saturn is very light, light enough to float in water.

Light year: The distance light travels in one year. It is used as a measurement of distances in space.

Solar mass: The mass of our sun. It is used as a standard unit of measurement of space bodies.

Andromeda: The nearest large galaxy to the Milky Way

Star cluster: Groups of stars that form together

Nebula: Big cloud of gas and dust that stars are formed in

Supernova: A very large star that has reached the end of its life (and its supply of gas) and is exploding

Red Giant: A smaller or medium-sized star that is near the end of its life and has swelled up and turned red

White dwarf: A star that results from the Red Giant’s exterior gas burning off. After a time, it cools and fades away.

Black hole: An invisible, very dense ball of matter and energy with gravity so strong even light can’t escape it. Some are the remains of very large stars that, instead of dying, collapsed. Some black holes are only a few miles across, while others are several million miles across. Black holes continuously draw in more matter and expand due to their huge gravitational force.

Event horizon: The boundary of the region of a black hole from which no escape is possible

Pulsar: A collapsing star that instead of becoming a black hole keeps spinning faster and faster and getting denser as it collapses. It gives off waves (pulses) of electrons.

Solar wind: The stream of charged particles in the form of plasma that make the air glow at Earth’s magnetic poles, creating the aurora borealis (the Northern Lights).

Basic Human Body and Medical Science (The “School in a Book” Series)

We love our bodies, don’t we? It’s just so nice to understand what’s going on inside of all of this skin.

Basic Human Body and Medicine Science

The eleven systems of the human body: Skeletal system, respiratory system, muscular system, nervous system, digestive system, reproductive system, circulatory system, endocrine system, lymphatic/immune system, integumentary system, urinary system

Skeletal system: The framework of bones and cartilage that supports the body and provides hard surfaces for the muscles to contract on

The four types of bones: Flat (example: ribs), long (example: legs), irregular (example: spine), short (example: fingers)

Important bones to remember: Cranium (skull), mandible (jawbone), scapula (shoulder blades), clavicle (collar bone), sternum (breastbone), humerus (upper arm), rib, vertebral column (spine, made of vertebrae), radius (lower arm on top), ulna (lower arm underneath), carpals (wrist bones), metacarpals (finger bones), pelvis (hip bones, including the pelvis), coccyx (butt bone), femur (high leg bone), patella (kneecap), tibia (top shinbone), fibula (bone under fibia) metatarsals (foot bones), tarsals (ankle bones), phelanges (finger and toe/digit bones)

Joint: The places where bones meet. Most joints are movable.

Bone marrow: The store of fat inside the bone cavity

Cartilage: The alternative to bone that’s more flexible. Most baby bones are actually cartilage and slowly turn into bone later.

Muscular system: The system that enables the body to move using muscles

Muscles: Stretchy tissues all over the body that allow for movement. Some pairs work together with one contracting as the other relaxes. They can only contract and relax, not push.

Contracting/flexing: Getting shorter and harder and bulging

Relaxing: Getting longer and softer

Types of muscles: Muscles are either voluntary (quads) or involuntary (heart). They are also either skeletal, cardiac or visceral (intestines).

Nervous system: The system that collects and processes information from the senses via nerves and the brain and tells the muscles to contract to cause physical actions. It is made up of the sensory organs, the brain, the spinal cord and the nerves. The nervous system coordinates both voluntary and involuntary body movements.

Peripheral nervous system: The whole network of nerves throughout the body

Neurons: Nerve cells. They include sensory, association and motor nerves cells.

Nerves: Cords that contain bundles of nerve fibers. Can be sensory, motor and mixed (both).

Spinal cord: The thick bundle of nerves that joins the brain to the rest of the body. It is located inside a tunnel in the backbone.

Nerve impulse: An action of a neuron

Neurotransmitter: Chemical that enables neurotransmission. Sometimes called a chemical messenger.

Reflex action/reflex: An involuntary and nearly instantaneous movement in response to a stimulus

Brain: Organ under the skull that is made up of millions of neurons and cerebrospinal fluid. It has a cerebrum (for physical activities and thinking), cerebellum (for muscle movement and balance), diencephalon (with thalamus, which sorts and directs incoming impulses) and hypothalamus (which controls hunger, thirst, body temperature, release of hormones from pituitary gland).

Brain stem: Controls automatic functions like heartbeat and breathing. It contains two hemispheres: right and left. There are electrical impulses going on between nerve cells in brain all the time. Brain waves (patterns of impulses) can be measured.

REM sleep: Rapid eye movement sleep (REM sleep, REMS) is a unique phase of sleep in mammals and birds, distinguishable by random/rapid movement of the eyes, accompanied with low muscle tone throughout the body, and the propensity of the sleeper to dream vividly.

Sensory organs: Organs that send nerve impulses (signals) to the brain along nerves

Motor nerves: Nerves that receive signals from the brain to the muscles to move

How eyes work: Light enters the pupil through the clear cornea and lens. These bend the light rays so they form an image on the retina and back of eye. (Turns image upside down.) Rods and cones convert the image to nerve impulses which take the optic nerve to the brain. The brain interprets and turns the image right side up.

Stereoscopic vision: Perception of depth and 3-dimensional structure obtained on the basis of visual information deriving from two eyes

Ear: The hearing organ. It contains an outer, middle and inner part.

How ears work: The ear flap funnels sound waves to the ear canal, then to the eardrum. The eardrum vibrates. These vibrations pass through bones and holes to the cochlea, then to fluid chambers. Tiny nerve cells in the fluid convert vibrations into nerve impulses, which go along the auditory nerve to the brain. Ears also help keep you balanced through the vestibular system. This works by sensing movement of fluid in ducts and sending that info to the brain. Since you have two ears you can tell which direction sound is coming from.

Chemoreceptors: Small organs in the nose and tongue that detect smells and tastes, which are chemicals, and send this information to the brain.

Nasal cavity: The large air filled space above and behind the nose in the middle of the face

Digestive system: The system responsible for the mechanical and chemical processes that provide nutrients via the mouth, esophagus, stomach and intestines and eliminates waste from the body.

Liver: The organ that allows us to go between meals without eating by storing food energy. It is the largest organ by mass. Extra energy beyond the liver capacity is stored as fat. The liver also processes waste materials we encounter in our environment.

Nutrients: The vitamins, minerals, and proteins that are used to make body parts, either by facilitating a chemical reaction or by being used as actual material (like calcium an amino acids from protein breakdown), and the carbs and fats that are burned for fuel.

Circulatory system: The system that circulates blood around the body via the heart, arteries and veins, delivering oxygen and nutrients to organs and cells and carrying their waste products away. It also equalizes the temperature in the body. It includes blood, blood vessels and the heart.

Parts of the heart: Four chambers (two atria and two ventricles), valves to keep blood moving the right direction through the heart (each time one snaps shut there’s a heartbeat), veins and arteries that carry blood from heart to lungs, upper body and lower body and others for the opposite direction.

Arteries: Move blood away from the heart

Integumentary system: Skin, hair, nails, sweat and other exocrine glands

Skin: The soft outer tissue covering of vertebrates. It contains the epidermis, the dermis and subcutaneous tissues (fat cells).

Melanin: Natural pigments found in most organisms

Pores: Tube-shaped sweat glands

Keratin: What skin and nails are made of

Hair follicle: The opening at the base of a hair. Its shape determines whether the hair is curly, wavy or straight.

Respiratory system: The lungs and the passages that lead to them and allow for breathing of oxygen and breathing out of CO2.

Windpipe/trachea: A tube that connects the pharynx and larynx to the lungs, allowing the passage of air

Primary bronchus: The tubes between the trachea and each lung. After passing through the bronchus, air goes into the lungs. Then oxygen goes into secondary and tertiary bronchi, bronchioles, air sacs and capillaries and from there is distributed throughout the body.

Lung: A large air sack containing many tubes

Diaphragm: A flat sheet of muscle lying under the lungs. When you breathe in, your ribs move up and out and the diaphragm flattens. When you breathe out, your ribs move down and in and the diaphragm rises.

Voice box/larynx: Top part of the trachea

Vocal cords: Two bands of muscle that open to let air past when you breathe. When you speak muscles pull the cords together and air makes them vibrate. Shorter, faster cords, as in females, make higher pitched sounds.

Internal respiration: The movement of oxygen from the outside environment to the cells within tissues, and the transport of carbon dioxide in the opposite direction.

Metabolism: The set of life-sustaining chemical reactions in organisms

Aerobic respiration: Internal respiration that uses oxygen

Anaerobic respiration: Doesn’t use oxygen

Enzymes: Macromolecular biological catalysts. Enzymes accelerate chemical reactions.

Thermogenesis: The process of heat production in organisms

ATP: Adenosine triphosphate, an organic chemical that provides energy to drive many processes in living cells, e.g. muscle contraction, nerve impulse propagation, and chemical synthesis.

Basal metabolic rate (BMR): The rate of energy expenditure per unit time by an animal at rest

Calorie/kilocalorie: A unit of energy. A calorie is the amount of heat energy needed to raise the temperature of one gram of water by one degree Celsius at a pressure of one atmosphere, and the kilocalorie is the heat energy required to raise the temperature of one kilogram (rather than a gram) of water by one degree Celsius.

Lactic acid: An important body acid

Endocrine system: The system that provides chemical communications within the body using hormones

Endocrine glands: Groups of cells that make hormones.

Hormones: Any member of a class of signaling molecules produced by glands in multicellular organisms that are transported by the circulatory system to target distant organs to regulate physiology and behaviour. The body makes over 20 types of hormones.

Main glands, hormones and functions:

Pituitary gland: Makes growth hormone, prolactine, which control other endocrine glands, growth, mother’s milk production

Parathyroids gland: Makes parathormone which controls calcium levels in blood and bones.

Adrenals: Make adrenalin and aldosterone which control blood glucose level, heart rate, body’s salt level

The thyroid gland: Makes thyroxin which controls metabolism

The pancreas: Makes insulin and glucagon which control the use of glucose by the body

Urinary/renal system: The system that controls the amount of water in your body and filters blood. It includes two kidneys, a balloon-like sac called the bladder and the tubes connected to them.

Urethra: The tube that connects the bladder to the urinary meatus for the removal of urine from the body

Kidneys: The two bean-shaped organs on the left and right in the retroperitoneal space. They are about 11 centimetres in length. They receive blood from the paired renal arteries; blood exits into the paired renal veins. Each kidney is attached to a ureter, a tube that carries excreted urine to the bladder.

Lymphatic/immune system: The system comprising a network of lymphatic vessels that carry a clear fluid called lymph. It defends the body against pathogenic viruses that may endanger the body. The lymph contains the leftover interstitial fluid resulting from blood filtration.

Lymph: Lymph is the fluid that circulates throughout the lymphatic system

Lymph node: A kidney-shaped organ of the lymphatic system, and of the adaptive immune system, that is widely present throughout the body. Lymph nodes are major sites of white blood cells and important for the immune system.

Reproductive system: The sex organs required for the production of offspring

Reproduction: The process of creating new life

Male reproductive system: Penis, testicles, sperm, prostate gland, and scrotum

Penis: The primary sexual organ that male animals use to inseminate sexually receptive mates

Glans: A vascular structure located at the tip of the penis in males or a genital structure of the clitoris in females

Foreskin: The the double-layered fold of smooth muscle tissue, blood vessels, neurons, skin, and mucous membrane part of the penis that covers and protects the glans penis and the urinary meatus

Sperm: The male reproductive cell

Semen: The fluid made in the testicles that may contain spermatozoa (sperm)

Testicle: The testicle or testis (plural testes) is the male reproductive gland in all animals, including humans. It produces sperm and semen.

Prostate gland: A gland of the male reproductive system

Scrotum: The suspended dual-chambered sack of skin and smooth muscle that holds the two testacles

Female reproductive system: The uterus, Fallopian tubes, and ovaries

Ovulation: The release of eggs from the ovaries

Ovum: (Plural ova.) The egg cell

Menstruation/having a period: The (approximately) monthly discharge of blood and mucosal tissue (known as menses) from the inner lining of the uterus through the vagina

Menopause: The time in most women’s lives when menstrual periods stop permanently, and they are no longer able to bear children

Vagina: The elastic, muscular canal leading to the uterus in which sex takes place

Cervix: The lower part of the uterus that contracts and opens during childbirth

Fallopian tubes: The tubes leading from the ovaries to the uterus

Womb/uterus: The organ in which fetal development takes place.

Labia: The major externally visible portions of the vulva. It has two layers.

Sexual intercourse: The insertion and thrusting of the penis, usually when erect, into the vagina for sexual pleasure, reproduction, or both. This is also known as vaginal intercourse or vaginal sex. Other forms of penetrative sexual intercourse include anal sex (penetration of the anus by the penis), oral sex (penetration of the mouth by the penis or oral penetration of the female genitalia), fingering (sexual penetration by the fingers), and penetration by use of a dildo.

Ejaculation: The discharge of semen (normally containing sperm) from the male reproductory tract, usually accompanied by orgasm

Fertilization/conception: The union of a human egg (ovum) and sperm, usually occurring in the fallopian tube of the mother after sex

In vitro fertilization (IVF): A process by which egg cells are fertilized by sperm outside the womb, in vitro.

Contraception: Birth control

Embryo: The newly conceived form of life between the fertilized egg (zygote) stage and the fetus stage

Fetus: The unborn baby who is past the embryonic stage (about nine weeks into the pregnancy)

Placenta: The temporary organ that connects the developing fetus via the umbilical cord to the uterine wall to allow nutrient uptake, thermo-regulation, waste elimination, and gas exchange via the mother’s blood supply; to fight against internal infection; and to produce hormones which support pregnancy

Umbilical cord: The conduit between the developing fetus and the placenta inside a pregnant woman

Puberty: The process of physical changes through which a child’s body matures into an adult body capable of sexual reproduction

Adolescence: Phase of life after puberty and between childhood and adulthood; the teen years

Medical Science Knowledge Checklist

Disease: Anything that stops all or part of your body from working properly (other than injury)

Infection: The invasion of an organism’s body tissues by disease-causing agents, their multiplication, and the reaction of host tissues to the infectious agents and the toxins they produce

Immunity: The balanced state of multicellular organisms having adequate biological defenses to fight infection, disease, or other unwanted biological invasion, while having adequate tolerance to avoid allergy, and autoimmune diseases

Drug: A drug is any substance (other than food that provides nutritional support) that, when inhaled, injected, smoked, consumed, absorbed via a patch on the skin, or dissolved under the tongue causes a temporary physiological (and often psychological) change in the body

Preventative medicine: Measures taken for disease prevention, as opposed to disease treatment

Diagnosis: The identification of the nature and cause of a certain phenomenon

Bacteria: A type of biological cell. Among the first life forms to appear on Earth, and are present in most of its habitats. Most have not been discovered or studied.

Virus: A virus is a small infectious agent that replicates only inside the living cells of other organisms

White blood cell: The cells of the immune system that are involved in protecting the body against both infectious disease and foreign invaders

Vaccination: The administration of antigenic material (a vaccine) to stimulate an individual’s immune system to develop adaptive immunity to a pathogen

Antibiotics: A substance that kills bacterial. Not antiviral.

Pathogen: The scientific name for a germ. A germ in the oldest and broadest sense is anything that can produce disease, usually a microorganism like a bacteria or virus

Tumor: An abnormal and excessive growth of tissue that starts as a neoplasm, then forms a mass

Senescence: The gradual deterioration of functional characteristics due to age

Medical imaging: Creating images of the internal organs to help diagnose and treat disease

CT scan: Computed tomography scan. Formerly CAT scan. Uses computer-processed combinations of many X-ray measurements taken from different angles to produce cross-sectional images of internal organs.

MRI scan: Magnetic resonance imaging. Uses magnets and radio waves (not X-rays, as CT scans do) to create images of the internal organs.

Surgery: The use of knives, lasers and other instruments to explore inside the body or change or remove something in the body

Laser surgery: Laser surgery is a type of surgery that uses a laser (in contrast to using a scalpel) to cut tissue.

Alternative medicine: Unproven or disproven medical techniques and substances

Acupuncture: An unproven traditional Chinese alternative medicine in which thin needles are inserted into the body.

Basic Algebra, Geometry and Statistics (The ‘School in a Book’ Series)

Math isn’t that bad. It’s a pain, but doable. Hopefully this list will give you a clear map for mastering these subjects in a self-guided way. Please make use of some of the excellent resources out there, such as the free online lecture series by the Khan Academy, to learn and practice.

Note that I include here more than is strictly necessary for most elementary school and high schoolers to learn. Do learn basic statistics, but skip everything else after algebra I and geometry I if it doesn’t interest you or if it doesn’t fit with your college and career plans. (You’ll be fine, I promise.)

Pre-Algebra and Algebra 1:

Using factors and multiples

Using variables

Using algebraic symbols (parentheses, brackets, dots, slashes, etc.)

Solving basic algebraic equations

Solving inequalities

Calculating ratios, rates, percentages and proportions

Calculating exponents, radicals, and scientific notation

Solving algebraic expressions

Solving functions

Solving linear word problems

Understanding sequences

Systems of equations

Using absolute value

Using rational exponents

Using exponential growth

Using systems of equations

Working with expressions with exponents

Working with polynomials

Working with factorization

Working with quadratics

Working with rational and irrational numbers

Basic Geometry:

Calculating area

Calculating diameter

Calculating square footage

Calculating perimeter

Calculating volume

Graphing lines and slope

Understanding the differences between angles, polygons, lines, circles, triangles, right triangles and shapes

Calculating linear equations

Understanding transformations

Understanding congruence

Understanding similarity

Working with coordinate plane

Working with the Pythagorean theorem

Doing solid geometry

Doing analytic geometry

Basic Statistics:

Understanding data sets and samples

Knowing common experiment designs and the differences between them

Understanding data distribution

Reading and interpreting data

Graphing and modeling simple data

Understanding scatterplots

Calculating probability

Understanding randomization

Understanding and calculating mean, median and average

Understanding and calculating standard deviation

Understanding correlation and regression

Understanding statistical significance

Understanding positive correlation and negative correlation

Understanding bivariate numerical data

Running t-Tests, chi-square tests and ANOVA tests using statistical computation software

Algebra 2: 

Continuing to learn the concepts taught in Algebra 1, including a more in-depth study of graphing and solving equations, inequalities, and functions.

Trigonometry: 

Applying algebra and geometry skills to circular and periodic functions. This includes an understanding of sine, cosine and tangent.

Pre-Calculus: 

Learning about series and sequences, probability, statistics, limits, and derivatives.

Calculus: 

Continuing to learn about the concepts taught in pre-calculus, with an emphasis on integration and differentiation.

Basic Arithmetic and Measurement (The ‘School in a Book’ Series)

I almost didn’t include mathematics in this series. For one thing, there isn’t nearly enough space to explain all this stuff. For another, math is more standardized than most subjects and most people won’t have trouble finding a comprehensive curriculum to follow. (If you are homeschooling, I recommend the nice video series from the Khan Academy, a free online school. Even better for younger students: the hilarious Life of Fred series.) In the end though, I realized that this book wouldn’t be complete without at least listing the topics to cover and leaving it to you to decide how to make it fun.

One more note: If you’re teaching a young homeschooler and want to delay the more advanced arithmetic for a while, that shouldn’t be a major problem. However, math thinking does cause growth in places of the brain that other types of thinking do not. Instead of having your kids do long, repetitive math worksheets, I recommend math games and math puzzles, particularly those that emphasize spacial thinking. I didn’t realize how greatly those areas of my brain had been neglected after years of writing for a living till I took an aptitude test and totally failed the spacial thinking section. Don’t limit your kids’ options to become a mathematics professor, physicist or engineer.

Basic Arithmetic and Measurement Skills

Counting by twos, tens, fives and twenties
Understanding place value (ones, tens, hundreds, etc.)
Recognizing shapes, including three-dimensional shapes (cubes, cones, cylinders and spheres)
Adding and subtracting
Rounding
Multiplying (finding the product of two factors) and dividing (finding an unknown factor)
Using arrays
Understanding sets
Solving one-variable equations and inequalities
Adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing fractions
Adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing decimals
Adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing negative numbers
Understanding integers, whole numbers, negative numbers, positive numbers
Solving story problems
Understanding absolute value
Using coordinate planes
Reading bar graphs and line graphs
Measuring, including memorization of important conversions

Common English Measures

Distance

Inches (in) – 12 in = 1 ft
Feet (ft) – 3 ft = 1 yd
Yards (yd) – 1760 yd = 1 mi
Miles (mi) – 1 mi = 5280 ft

Weight

Ounces (oz) – 16 oz = 1 lb
Pounds (lb) – 2000 lb = 1 t
Tons (t) – 1 t = 2000 lb

Volume

Teaspoons (tsp) – 3 tsp = 1 tbsp
Tablespoons (tbsp) – 1 tbsp = 3 tsp
Fluid ounces (fl oz) – 8 fl oz = 1 cup
Cups (c) – 2 cups = 1 pt
Pints (pt) – 2pt = 1qt, 8 pt = 1 gal
Quarts (qt) – 4 qt = 1 gal
Gallons (gal) – 2 gal = 1 peck

Common Metric Measures

Distance

Millimeter (mm) – 1000 mm = 1 m
Centimeter (cm) – 100 cm = 1 m
Meter (m) – base unit (1)
Kilometer (km) – 1000 m = 1 km

Weight

Milligrams (mg) – 1000 mg = 1 g
Grams (g) – base unit (1)
Kilograms (kg) – 1000g = 1 kg, 1000 kg = 1 t
Metric ton (t) – 1000 kg = 1 t

Volume

Milliliters (mL) – 1000 mL = 1 L
Liters (L) – base unit (1)

Universal Measures of Time

Seconds (sec) – 60 sec = 1 min
Minutes (min) – 60 min = 1 hr
Hours (hr) – 24 hr = 1 day
Days – 7 days = 1 wk
Weeks (wk) – (about) 4 wk = 1 mo
Months (mo) – 12 mo = 1 yr
Years (yr) – 1 yr = 365 days
Decades – 1 decade = 10 yr
Centuries – 1 century = 100 yr
Millennium – 1 millennium = 1000 yr

Metric Prefixes

Nano – 1/1000000000
Micro – 1/1000000
Milli – 1/1000
Centi – 1/100
Deci – 1/10

Temperature Conversion (Centigrade/Fahrenheit)

C = (F – 32) X 5/9
F = (C X 9/5) + 32

Comprehensive Multimedia List: Educational Documentaries, Shows, Websites and Podcasts for Older Kids and Adults

Here’s my documentary philosophy in a nutshell: it’s far more important that you regularly watch documentaries than it is which documentaries you watch. The reason is twofold: first, documentaries are, by nature, mini adventures. They’re excursions into an unknown place in which you might not even be able to guess what’s around the corner. If you choose a documentary based on the importance of the subject matter, you lose this element of the unknown.

The second reason is that no matter the subject, documentaries expand your mind. They increase your knowledge of politics, economics, history and psychology, and along with these, your mental flexibility and creativity. After I watched Being Elmo, I wondered what other art forms are currently underappreciated and what might be done with them in the future. After I watched The Staircase I considered the snowball effect that often happens when the desire to be right trumps the desire to know the truth.

In short: documentaries make you smarter. They do. Even if you’re just learning about puppets.

There’s a third reason to watch documentaries, too, I suppose: they get us talking, leading to some top-notch conversations with friends and family.

The following list of documentaries, then, is merely a suggested starting point. My advice is to watch any documentaries you can find that interest you–any, and every, and all.

By the way, IMDB has a few great top-100 lists for documentaries, and many more for other film categories. When looking for something to watch, don’t peruse Netflix; find stuff on there first instead.

A final note: this list is a work in progress. Check back for updates anytime. (There’s a link to this series, School in a Book, on mollieplayer.com.)

Best Educational Documentaries and Shows for Older Children and Adults

Planet Earth*
Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey*
Through the Wormhole*
America: The Story of Us*
American Experience*
Food, Inc.
King Corn
The Future of Food
Food Matters
Ken Burns: America
American Masters
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
A Brief History of Time (1991)
The Civil War (1990)
Guns, Germs, and Steel (2005– )

The Arrival of a Train (1896)
In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)
Nanook of the North (1922)
Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)
Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Las Hurdes (1933)
The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936)
Night Mail (1936)
Triumph of the Will (1935)
Night and Fog (1956)
Primary (1960)
Empire (1964)
The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)
Jaguar (1968)
Titicut Follies (1967)
The Hour of the Furnaces (1968)
Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
The Atomic Cafe (1982)
Babies (2010)
Black Gold (2006)
Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids (2004)
Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Broken Rainbow (1985)
Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)
Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary (2008)
Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
The Celluloid Closet (1995)
Crumb (1994)
Devil’s Playground (2002)
Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back (1967)
Earth (2007)
500 Nations (1995)
500 Years Later (2005)
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
Freakonomics (2010)
GasLand (2010)
Gates of Heaven (1978)
Gaza Strip (2002)
Ghosts of Cité Soleil (2006)
The Gleaners & I (2000)
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)
Good Hair (2009)
Grizzly Man (2005)
Hell House (2001)
Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977)
Hoop Dreams (1994)
How Bruce Lee Changed the World (2009 TV Movie)
Human Planet (2011)
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Inside Deep Throat (2005)
Invisible Children (2006)
I.O.U.S.A. (2008)
Jesus Camp (2006)
Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
Lake of Fire (2006)
Life and Debt (2001)
Mad Hot Ballroom (2005)
Man on Wire (2008)
March of the Penguins (2005)
Matthew Barney: No Restraint (2006)
Microcosmos (1996)
Mojados: Through the Night (2004)
Murderball (2005)
No End in Sight (2007)
Paper Clips (2004)
Paragraph 175 (2000)
Paris Is Burning (1990)
Powaqqatsi (1988)
Restrepo (2010)
Religulous (2008)
Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time (2001)
Rize (2005)
Salesman (1969)
Sans Soleil (1983)
Scared Straight! (1978)
Shoah (1985)
Sicko (2007)
The Silent World (1956)
Spellbound (2002)
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Super Size Me (2004)
This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006)
This Is It (2009)
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Trekkies (1997)
Touching the Void (2003)
Waiting for ‘Superman’ (2010)
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005)
War Dance (2007)
The War Game (1965 TV Movie)
Wasteland (2010)
Wheel of Time (2003)
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006–2007)

How It’s Made
Myth Busters
Drive Thru History
Timeshift
The Most Extreme
How the States Got Their Shapes
Worst Case Scenario
Ancient Discoveries
Chasing Mummies
Steven Hawking’s SciFi Masters
The Adventures of Captain Hartz
The Unknown War
Castle Secrets and Legends
Get Schooled
Super Structures of the World
United Stats of America
Joseph Campbell: Myths
Travel with Kids
The Rachel Divide
Amanda Knox
Searching for Sugar Man
Going Clear
Paradise Lost
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Life Itself
The Wolfpack
Amy
Room 237
Grey Gardens
Undefeated
How to Survive a Plague
Abacus
Jiro Dreams of Sushi*
Blackfish
The Act of Killing
Icarus
13th
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Casting Jonbenet
20 Feet from Stardom
Strong Island
The Look of Silence
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Citizen Four
The Cove
Faces Places
The Staircase
The Keepers
Herb & Dorothy
Iris
Sour Grapes
Bisbee ’17
Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun?
Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
The Last Race
Minding the Gap
Shirkers
306 Hollywood
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Three Identical Strangers
McQueen
Momentum Generation
Breakthrough

Best Educational Websites for Older Children and Adults

TED talks*
Wikipedia

Best Educational Podcasts for Older Kids and Adults

Revisionist History with Malcom Gladwell
Invisibilia by NPR
Maven Interviews
Where Should We Begin

Other Recommended Resources: Older Kids and Adults (The ‘School in a Book’ Series)

When I was in school, nonfiction was textbooks. And the encyclopedia and the dictionary, too. What nobody told me is that there’s another kind of nonfiction out there. There’s the kind that’s actually fun to read.

Modern nonfiction is some of the most entertaining, well-written stuff you can find. (After all, if you want to make money writing about neuroscience, for example, you’d better make it relevant, understandable, and full of fascinating anecdotes, right?) It’s stimulating and informative, but that’s not all it is: it’s a road map for becoming a better person. Nonfiction can widen your perspective, give you wisdom, make you stronger . . . maybe even make you a happier person. Nonfiction helps us come up with new goals and ideas about what our lives can encompass–then takes our hands and helps us draw the circles.

With this in mind, here is my carefully curated list of what are, in my humble opinion, the best, most inspiring works of nonfiction in existence. To make the list, books must be:

  • Engaging;
  • Perspective-altering; and
  • Uniquely informative.

Though this list may seem overwhelmingly long, my promise to you is that I haven’t put anything on it that doesn’t truly deserve to be here. With some exceptions, these books aren’t stuffed with humdrum filler; they’re solid. And the exceptions are exceptions for a reason.

Also, they’re books I’ve actually read. Which is why this list is definitely a work in progress; I’m always reading awesome new stuff, and I’ll update this page regularly and tell you about it. (The permalink for this post is on my homepage.)

Note that the best of the best are marked with asterisks.

It’s such a great time to be a reader, isn’t it?

Comprehensive Reading List: Nonfiction

Excellent Textbooks and Reference Books

The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child, Susan Wise Bauer (four-part series)*
A good world history encyclopedia (either aimed at children or adults)*
History Year by Year: The History of the World, from the Stone Age to the Digital Age by DK Publishing
A good science encyclopedia
A good geography encyclopedia*
Travel guides as needed/desired*
The What Your Kindergartener Needs to Know series by E.D. Hirsch (through sixth grade)* (excellent resource for homeschoolers)
The Science Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained and the rest of this series*
How Science Works: The Facts Visually Explained (How Things Work) and the rest of this series*
Everything You Need to Ace World History in One Big Fat Notebook: The Complete Middle School Study Guide and the rest of the Big Fat Notebooks series by Workman Publishing*

Important Classic History and Philosophy Texts

The Holy Bible
The Koran
The Analects,
Confucius (551–479 BC)
Tao Te Ching, Lao Tze (c. 6th century BC)
The Art of War, Sun Tzu (late sixth century BC)
Selected writings of Plato (c. 428–347 BC)
Rhetoric,
Aristotle (384–322 BC)
De Republica
and other writings, Cicero (106–43 BC)
Lives of Noble Greeks and Romans, Plutarch (c. 46–120)
Enchiridion, Epictetus (c. 55–135)
The Confessions, Saint Augustine (354–430)
The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius (c. 480–524)
Selected writings of Thomas Aquinas, Thomas Aquinas
The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis (c. 1380–1471)
In Praise of Folly, Erasmus (1466–1536)
Novum Organum, Frances Bacon (1561–1626)
The Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679)
Meditations on First Philosophy, Rene Descartes (1596–1650)
Discourse on Method, Rene Descartes (1596–1650)
Essay Concerning Human Understanding, John Locke (1632–1704)
The Second Treatise of Government, John Locke (1632–1704)
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790)
Rights of Man, Thomas Paine (1737–1809)
Common Sense, Thomas Paine (1737–1809)*
The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, Olaudah Equiano (c. 1745–1797)
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Thomas de Quincey (1785–1859)*
Narrative of Sojourner Truth, Sojourner Truth (1797–1883)*
Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896)*
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Harriet Jacobs (1813–1897)*
Walden, Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)*
Other works by Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862)
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Frederick Douglass (1818–1895)*
The Souls of Black Folks, W. E. B. DuBois (1868–1963)
Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938)*
The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
The Constitution of the United States
The Gettysburg Address
The Magna Carta
The Diary of a Young Girl,
Anne Frank (1929-1945)*
Go Ask Alice, Anonymous*
The Story of My Life, Helen Keller (1880–1968)*
Roots,
Alex Haley*
In Cold Blood,
Truman Capote*
Autobiography of Malcom X,
Malcom X*
Mythology,
Edith Hamilton*
Black Boy, Richard Wright (1908–1960)*
Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin (1920–1980)*

Optional Advanced Classic History and Philosophy Texts

Selected writings of Buddha (c. 500–300 BC)
Selected writings of Herodotus (c. 484–425 BC)
Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle (384–322 BC)
Wars of the Jews, Josephus (37–100)
Annals, Tacitus (c. 56–117)
The Early History of Rome, Livy (c. 64 BC–AD 17)
The Twelve Caesars, Suetonius (c. 69–after 122)
The Campaigns of Alexander, Arrian (c. 89–after 160)
On the Nature of Things, Lucretius (c. 99–55 BC)
Meditations, Marcus Aurelius (121–180)
The City of God, St. Augustine (354–430)
The Imitation of Christ, Thomas a Kempis (c. 1380–1471)
The Education of a Christian Prince, Erasmus (1466–1536)
Commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther (1483–1546)
The Freedom of a Christian, Martin Luther (1483–1546)
Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin (1509–1564)
Selected writings of John Knox (c. 1513–1572)
The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila, Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)
The Interior Castle, St. Teresa of Avila (1515–1582)*
Dark Night of the Soul, St. John of the Cross (1542–1591)
The Defense of Poesy, Sir Philip Sidney (1554–1586)
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Samuel Pepys (1633–1703)
Wonders of the Invisible World, Cotton Mather (1663–1728)
An Essay on Criticism, Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
An Essay on Man, Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
The Way to Wealth, Ben Franklin (1706-1790)
The Social Contract, Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778)
The Journal of John Woolman, John Woolman (1720–1772)
The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith (1723–1790)
A Critique of Pure Reason, Immanuel Kant (1724–1804)
On American Taxation, Edmund Burke (1729–1797)
Life of Johnson, James Boswell (1740–1795)
Memoir, Correspondence and Misc., Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826)
The Federalist, Alexander Hamilton (1755–1804)
The Memoirs of Victor Hugo, Victor Hugo (1802–1885)
Democracy in America, Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859)
On Liberty, John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)*
A Child’s History of England, Charles Dickens (1812–1870)
For Self-Examination, Soren Kierkegaard (1813–1855)
The Communist Manifesto, Karl Marx (1818–1883)
The Education of Henry Adams, Henry Adams (1838–1918)
Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Frederich Nietzsche (1844–1900)
Beyond Good and Evil, Frederich Nietzsche (1844–1900)
An Autobiography, Annie Besant (1847–1933)
Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)
The Ego and the Id, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)
The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)
Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler
Notes on Nursing, Florence Nightingale
The Ecclesiastical History, Adam Bede
The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer

Other Recommended History, Geography and Philosophy Books

Diary of Anne Frank, Anne Frank*
Roots,
Alex Haley*
In Cold Blood,
Truman Capote*
Autobiography of Malcom X,
Malcom X*
The Power of One,
Bryce Courtenay
Citizen Soldiers,
Stephen E. Ambrose
Alexander of Macedon,
Peter Green
The Devil’s Triangle, Richard Winer
Treblinka, Jean-Francois Steiner
The War Magician, David Fisher
Is Paris Burning?, Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre
An American Life, Ronald Reagan
Plain Speaking, Merle Miller
Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen
Twelve Great Philosophers, Wayne Pomerleau
Mythology, Edith Hamilton*
Aku-Aku, Thor Heyerdahl
1776, David McCullough
The Bridge at Chappaquiddick, Jack Olsen
The Night of the Grizzlies, Jack Olsen
Enola Gay, Gordon Thomas and Max Morgan Witts
Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, Paul Theroux
The Road to Little Dribbling, Bill Bryson
Don’t Know Much About History, Kenneth Davis*
Bomb, Steve Sheinkin
Cyberpunk, Katie Hafner
How the Web Was Won, Paul Andrews
The Hundred Year Diet, Susan Yager
Inside the Third Reich, Albert Speer
Citizen Soldiers, Stephen E. Ambrose
Miracle at Philadelphia, Catherine Drinker Bower*
Black Boy, Richard Wright (1908–1960)*
Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin (1920–1980)*
The Naked and the Dead, Norman Mailer

Best Science Books

A good science encyclopedia for children*
A Brief History of Time, Stephen Hawking*
The Particle at the Edge of the Universe, Sean Carroll*
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, Richard Feynman*
The Meaning of It All, Richard Feynman*
The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene*
Origin of the Species, Charles Darwin (1809–1882)
Zoobiquity, Barbara Natterson-Horowitz
Bonk, Mary Roach
Spook, Mary Roach
Endurance,
Scott Kelly
Being Mortal,
Arul Gawande*
Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser
Genome,
Matt Ridley
Gulp!, Mary Roach
Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe,
Robert Lanza and Bob Berman*
Fringe-ology: How I Tried to Explain Away the Unexplainable–and Couldn’t, Steve Volk

Best Politics and Economics Books

Freakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Superfreakonomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Capitalism and other books by Ayn Rand, Ayn Rand
Discover Your Inner Economist, Tyler Cowen
Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Robert T. Kiyosaki*
The Four-Hour Work Week, Timothy Ferriss
God and Man at Yale, William F. Buckley

Best Psychology and Sociology Books

The Disappearance of Childhood, Neil Postman
Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman*
The Plug-In Drug, Marie Winn
Reviving Ophelia, Mary Pipher
The War Against Boys, Christina Hoff Summers
Escape From Freedom, Erich Fromm
The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg*
Switch, Chip Heath and Dan Heath*
Made to Stick, Chip and Dan Heath*
How We Decide, Jonah Lehrer
Decisive, Chip Heath and Dan Heath
What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures, Malcom Gladwell
David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants, Malcom Gladwell
Other books by Malcom Gladwell
The Feeling Good Handbook, Kenneth Burns*
The Consuming Instinct, Gad Saad
The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home, Dan Ariely
Irrationally Yours, Dan Ariely
Dressing Your Truth: Discover Your Type of Beauty, Carol Tuttle*
Authentic Happiness, Martin Seligman
Learned Optimism, Martin Seligman
Flourish, Martin Seligman*
Flow, Mihaly Csikszentmivaly*
The Science of Happiness, Stefan Klein
The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky
Happiness: The Science Behind Your Smile, Daniel Nettle
Happiness: Lessons from a New Science, Richard Layard
Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Ed Diener & Robert Biswas-Diener
Happiness, Ed Diener
The Happiness Equation, Neil Pasricha*
Engineering Happiness, Manel Baucells and Rakesh Sarin*
The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor
What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, David DiSalvo
The Inner Game of Work, W. Timothy Gallway*
The Paradox of Choice, Barry Schwartz
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcom Gladwell*
The Progress Paradox, Gregg Easterbrook
The Mindful Brain, Daniel Siegel
The Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantarn
Daring Greatly and other books by Brené Brown, Brené Brown
The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon*
Molecules of Emotion: Why You Feel the Way You Feel, Candace Pert*
Everything You Need to Know to Feel Go(o)d, Candace Pert
A Field Guide to Lucid Dreaming, Dylan Tuccillo, Jared Zeizel and Thomas Peisel

Best Diet and Health Books

The Diet Alternative, Diane Hampton
French Women Don’t Get Fat, Mireille Guiliano
The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan
Food Rules, Michael Pollan
Good Calories, Bad Calories, Gary Taubes
Why We Get Fat and What to Do About It, Gary Taubes
Neanderthin, Ray Audette
Overcoming Emotional Eating and other books by Geneen Roth, Geneen Roth
Intuitive Eating, Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch
How to Make Almost Any Diet Work, Anne Katherine
Fasting and Eating for Health, Joel Fuhrman
How I Gave Up My Low-Fat Diet and Lost 40 Pounds, Dana Carpender
The Diet Cure, Julia Ross

Best Writing Books

The Elements of Style, William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
Spunk & Bite, Arthur Plotnik
Hey, Whipple, Squeeze This, Luke Sullivan
A Whack On the Side of the Head, Roger von Oech
Plot and Structure, James Scott Bell
On Writing, Steven King
Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
The Writer’s Journey, Christopher Vogler
Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maas
The Fire in Fiction, Donald Maas
How Fiction Works, James Wood
Writing Irresistible Kidlit, Mary Kole
Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster
Manuscript Makeover, Elizabeth Hyon
Your Life Is A Book, Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann
Hooked, Leslie Edgerton
Good Prose, Tracy Kidder
Sick in the Head, Judd Apatow
The Memoir Project, Marion Roach Smith

Best Education Books

The Well-Trained Mind, Susan Wise Bauer*
The Well-Educated Mind, Susan Wise Bauer*
How Children Fail, John Holt*
How Children Learn, John Holt
Learning All the Time, John Holt
Instead of Education, John Holt
The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin*
Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn*
The Homework Myth, Alfie Kohn
No Contest, Alfie Kohn
Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek
Books Children Love, Elizabeth L. Wilson
Study Is Hard Work, William H. Armstrong
In Their Own Way, Thomas Armstrong
Seven Kinds of Smart, Thomas Armstrong*
Unschooling Rules, Clark Aldrich
Un-Jobbing, Michael Fogler
The Unschooling Handbook, Mary Griffith
The Mismeasure of Man, Stephen Jay Gould

Best Marketing Books

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Robert Cialdini*
Never Eat Alone, Keith Ferrazzi*
What Would Google Do?, Jeff Jarvis*
Viral Loop, Adam L. Peneberg
The Whuffie Factor, Tara Hunt
The Long Tail, Chris Anderson*
Trust Agents, Chris Brogan*
Get Slightly Famous, Steven Von Yoder
Delivering Happiness, Tony Hsich
Whacha Gonna Do With That Duck?, Seth Godin
Linchpin, Seth Godin
Other books by Seth Godin
Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcom Gladwell
Grapevine, Dave Balter and John Butman

Best Relationships Books

His Needs, Her Needs, Willard F. Harley, Jr.*
Venus on Fire, Mars on Ice, John Gray*
The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work and other books by John Gottman, John Gottman*
Love Is Never Enough, Aaron Beck*
The Surprising Secrets of Highly Happy Marriages, Shaunti Feldhahn
The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands, Dr. Laura Schlessinger
For Better, Tara Parker-Pope
A New Earth, Eckhart Tolle*
I Need Your Love – Is That True?: How to Stop Seeking Love, Approval, and Appreciation and Start Finding Them, Byron Katie and Michael Katz*

Best Parenting Books

Between Parents and Child, Haim G. Ginott
Liberated Parents, Liberated Children, Adele Faber
Siblings Without Rivalry, Adele Faber
Parenting with Dignity, Mac Bledsoe
Parenting with Love and Logic, Foster Cline
The Child Whisperer, Carol Tuttle
If I Have to Tell You One More Time, Amy McCready
Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv
The Case for Make-Believe, Susan Linn
Unconditional Parenting, Alfie Kohn
Punished by Rewards, Alfie Kohn
Brain Rules for Baby, John Medina
Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child, John Mordechai
Attachment Parenting, Katie Allison Granju
The Baby Book, Barry Sears
The Discipline Book, Barry Sears
Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids, Bryan Douglas Caplan
Home Grown,
Ben Hewitt
Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
Raising Your Spirited Child, Mary Sheedy Kurcinka
Oh, Crap! Potty Training, Jamie Glowaki

Best Memoirs

The Story of My Life, Helen KellerA Stolen Life, Jaycee Dugard
A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout
Into the Wild, John Krakauer
Wild, Cheryl Strayed
The Two Kinds of Decay, Sarah Manguso
Primates of Park Avenue, Wednesday Martin
Jay J. Armes, Investigator, Jay J. Armes and Fredrick Nolan
Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klostermann
Klostermann II, Chuck Klostermann
Fargo Rock City, Chuck Klosterman
Killing Yourself to Live, Chuck Klosterman
Eating the Dinosaur, Chuck Klosterman
An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken
How Starbucks Saved My Life, Michael Gill
Found, Jennifer Lauck
It Was Me All Along, Andie Mitchell
Let’s Take the Long Way Home,
Bossypants, Tina Fey
Girl in a Band, Kim Gordon
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, Haruki Murakami
Sex Object, Jessica Valenti
They Left Us Everything, Plum Johnson
In Memory of Bread,
Ordinary Light,
Passage, Connie Willis
Glitter and Glue, Kelly Corrigan
The Middle Place, Kelly Corrigan
Lift, Kelly Corrigan
Dying, Cory Taylor
The Happiness Project, Gretchen Rubin
When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi
The Rules Do Not Apply, Ariel Levy
Hunger, Roxane Gay
What Comes Next and How to Like It, Abigail Thomas
The Seven Good Years, Etgar Keret
The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey
The Chronology of Water, Lidia Yuknavitch
My Glory Was I Had Such Friends, Amy Silverstein
Flat Broke With Two Goats, Jennifer McGaha
Fifty Acres and a Poodle, Jeanne Marie Laskas
Fifty Years in Polygamy, Kristyn Decker
Why I Left the Amish, Saloma Miller Furlong
Cult Child, Vennie Kocsis
Favorite Wife, Susan Schmidt
“It’s Not About the Sex” My Ass, Joanne Hanks and Steve Cuno
Banished,
Growing Up Amish, Ira Wagler
Educated, Tara Westover
Cult Insanity,
Go Ask Alice, Anonymous
Straight Pepper Diet, Joseph W. Naus
Coming Clean
Fall to Pieces,
Mary Forsberg Weiland
Girl Walks Out of A Bar, Lisa Smith
Manic, Terri Cheney
Madness, Marya Hornbacher
Lies That Chelsea Handler Told Me, Chelsea Handler
My Horizontal Life, Chelsea Handler
Official Book Club Selection, Kathy Griffin
I Regret Nothing, Jen Lancaster
MWF Seeking BFF, Rachel Bersche
Jennifer, Gwyneth and Me, Rachel Bersche
A Queer and Pleasant Danger, Kate Bornstein
What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding, Kristin Newman
A Backpack, a Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka, Lev Golinkin
Eating Ice Cream With My Dog, Frances Kuffel
A Year of No Sugar, Eve O. Schaub
It Was Food vs. Me-And I Won, Nancy Goodman
Massive, Julia Bell
The Taming of the Chew, Denise Lamothe
Hungry, Allen Zadoff
The Good Eater, Ron Saxen
The Fat Girl’s Guide to Life, Wendy Shanker
Locked Up for Eating Too Much, Debbie Danowski
Full, Kimber Simpkins
Learning to Eat Along the Way, Margaret Bendet
Dying to Be Me, Anita Moorjani
Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda
The Search For Grace: A Documented Case of Murder and Reincarnation, Bruce Goldberg
Zero Limits: The Secret Hawaiian System for Wealth, Health, Peace, and More, Joe Vitale
Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert
Many Lives, Many Masters: The True Story of a Prominent Psychiatrist, His Young Patient, and the Past-Life Therapy That Changed Both Their Lives, Brian Weiss
Ten Percent Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story, Dan Harris
A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken
The Practice of the Presence of God, Brother Lawrence

Best How-To and Miscellaneous Books

How to Read a Book by Mortimer Adler
The Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer and Marior Rombauer Becker
The Story of the Incredible Orchestra, Bruce Koscielniak
The Nourishing Homestead, Ben Hewitt
The Miracle of Mindfulness: An Introduction to the Practice of Meditation, Thich Nhat Hanh
Loving What Is: Four Questions That Can Change Your Life, Byron Katie and Stephen Mitchell
The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, Eckhart Tolle
Who Would You Be Without Your Story?: Dialogues with Byron Katie, Byron Katie
A Mind at Home With Itself, Byron Katie
A Thousand Names for Joy, Byron Katie
Conversations with God, Parts One through Three, Neale Donald Walsch
Whatever Arises, Love That, Matt Kahn
The Shack, William Young

Here’s my documentary philosophy in a nutshell: it’s far more important that you regularly watch documentaries than it is which documentaries you watch. The reason is twofold: first, documentaries are, by nature, mini adventures. They’re excursions into an unknown place in which you might not even be able to guess what’s around the corner. If you choose a documentary based on the importance of the subject matter, you lose this element of the unknown.

The second reason is that no matter the subject, documentaries expand your mind. They increase your knowledge of politics, economics, history and psychology, and along with these, your mental flexibility and creativity. After I watched Being Elmo, I wondered what other art forms are currently underappreciated and what might be done with them in the future. After I watched The Staircase I considered the snowball effect that often happens when the desire to be right trumps the desire to know the truth.

In short: documentaries make you smarter. They do. Even if you’re just learning about puppets.

There’s a third reason to watch documentaries, too, I suppose: they get us talking, leading to some top-notch conversations with friends and family.

The following list of documentaries, then, is merely a suggested starting point. My advice is to watch any documentaries you can find that interest you–any, and every, and all.

By the way, IMDB has a few great top-100 lists for documentaries, and many more for other film categories. When looking for something to watch, don’t peruse Netflix; find stuff on there first instead.

A final note: this list is a work in progress. Check back for updates anytime. (There’s a link to this series, School in a Book, on mollieplayer.com.)

Best Educational Documentaries and Shows for Older Children and Adults

Planet Earth*
Cosmos: A Space-Time Odyssey*
Through the Wormhole*
America: The Story of Us*
American Experience*
Food, Inc.
King Corn
The Future of Food
Food Matters
Ken Burns: America
American Masters
The Thin Blue Line (1988)
A Brief History of Time (1991)
The Civil War (1990)
Guns, Germs, and Steel (2005– )

The Arrival of a Train (1896)
In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)
Nanook of the North (1922)
Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927)
Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Las Hurdes (1933)
The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936)
Night Mail (1936)
Triumph of the Will (1935)
Night and Fog (1956)
Primary (1960)
Empire (1964)
The Sorrow and the Pity (1969)
Jaguar (1968)
Titicut Follies (1967)
The Hour of the Furnaces (1968)
Harlan County U.S.A. (1976)
The Atomic Cafe (1982)
Babies (2010)
Black Gold (2006)
Born Into Brothels: Calcutta’s Red Light Kids (2004)
Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Broken Rainbow (1985)
Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
Capitalism: A Love Story (2009)
Capturing Reality: The Art of Documentary (2008)
Capturing the Friedmans (2003)
The Celluloid Closet (1995)
Crumb (1994)
Devil’s Playground (2002)
Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back (1967)
Earth (2007)
500 Nations (1995)
500 Years Later (2005)
The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003)
Freakonomics (2010)
GasLand (2010)
Gates of Heaven (1978)
Gaza Strip (2002)
Ghosts of Cité Soleil (2006)
The Gleaners & I (2000)
Gonzo: The Life and Work of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson (2008)
Good Hair (2009)
Grizzly Man (2005)
Hell House (2001)
Hitler: A Film from Germany (1977)
Hoop Dreams (1994)
How Bruce Lee Changed the World (2009 TV Movie)
Human Planet (2011)
An Inconvenient Truth (2006)
Inside Deep Throat (2005)
Invisible Children (2006)
I.O.U.S.A. (2008)
Jesus Camp (2006)
Koyaanisqatsi (1982)
Lake of Fire (2006)
Life and Debt (2001)
Mad Hot Ballroom (2005)
Man on Wire (2008)
March of the Penguins (2005)
Matthew Barney: No Restraint (2006)
Microcosmos (1996)
Mojados: Through the Night (2004)
Murderball (2005)
No End in Sight (2007)
Paper Clips (2004)
Paragraph 175 (2000)
Paris Is Burning (1990)
Powaqqatsi (1988)
Restrepo (2010)
Religulous (2008)
Rivers and Tides: Andy Goldsworthy Working with Time (2001)
Rize (2005)
Salesman (1969)
Sans Soleil (1983)
Scared Straight! (1978)
Shoah (1985)
Sicko (2007)
The Silent World (1956)
Spellbound (2002)
Stop Making Sense (1984)
Super Size Me (2004)
This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006)
This Is It (2009)
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)
Trekkies (1997)
Touching the Void (2003)
Waiting for ‘Superman’ (2010)
Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price (2005)
War Dance (2007)
The War Game (1965 TV Movie)
Wasteland (2010)
Wheel of Time (2003)
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (2006–2007)

How It’s Made
Myth Busters
Drive Thru History
Timeshift
The Most Extreme
How the States Got Their Shapes
Worst Case Scenario
Ancient Discoveries
Chasing Mummies
Steven Hawking’s SciFi Masters
The Adventures of Captain Hartz
The Unknown War
Castle Secrets and Legends
Get Schooled
Super Structures of the World
United Stats of America
Joseph Campbell: Myths
Travel with Kids
The Rachel Divide
Amanda Knox
Searching for Sugar Man
Going Clear
Paradise Lost
Cave of Forgotten Dreams
Life Itself
The Wolfpack
Amy
Room 237
Grey Gardens
Undefeated
How to Survive a Plague
Abacus
Jiro Dreams of Sushi*
Blackfish
The Act of Killing
Icarus
13th
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Casting Jonbenet
20 Feet from Stardom
Strong Island
The Look of Silence
Exit Through the Gift Shop
Citizen Four
The Cove
Faces Places
The Staircase
The Keepers
Herb & Dorothy
Iris
Sour Grapes
Bisbee ’17
Did You Wonder Who Fired The Gun?
Free Solo
Hale County This Morning, This Evening
The Last Race
Minding the Gap
Shirkers
306 Hollywood
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Three Identical Strangers
McQueen
Momentum Generation
Breakthrough

Best Educational Websites

TED talks*
Wikipedia

Best Educational Podcasts

Revisionist History with Malcom Gladwell
Invisibilia by NPR
Maven Interviews
Where Should We Begin

*You can also review my Best Spirituality Books list here.

Other Recommended Resources: Children’s

Honestly, there aren’t as many awesome educational shows for kids as I would prefer. A few are pretty outdated, and many are a bit frenetic in pace and tone (over-stimulation can desensitize kids to the pleasures of reading and quiet play), or simply not as educational as advertised. For this list, then, I looked for the exceptions to these limitations: the shows that are informative and calm but engaging, too.

Note that this list doesn’t include classic films for children, which you can find elsewhere in this series.

The best of these resources are marked with asterisks.

Best Educational Documentaries and Shows for Children

Tumble Leaf*
The Magic Schoolbus*
Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood*
Peg + Cat*
Reading Rainbow (original version)*
Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood
Wishbone
Zoom
Beakman’s World
Destination Truth
Wild Krats
Bill Nye the Science Guy
Odd Squad
Electric Company (updated version)
Earth to Luna
Cyberchase
Word Girl
Animal Atlas
Design Squad Nation
Xploration Outer Space
Beakman’s World
Jaques Cousteau’s Ocean Tales
Scigirls
Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego
Xploration Awesome Planet
Brain Games
Genius by Steven Hawking
Get the Math

Best Educational Websites for Children

The free online video series by the Khan Academy*
National Geographic Kids (YouTube series)

Best Educational Podcasts for Children

But Why*
Tumble*
The Past and the Curious*
Elderberry Tales*
Pants on Fire
What If World

Basic Film Studies: Classic Children’s Films

I know I’m not the only one who just can’t stand the thought of my kids missing out on the movies that meant so much to me. Besides, who wouldn’t want to snuggle up to their littles and watch Anne of Green Gables again from a new, savvier perspective? (In case you’re wondering, thirty years later, that movie didn’t disappoint at all.)

Classic Children’s Films

Wizard of Oz
Return to Oz
Alice in Wonderland
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial
Labyrinth
The Neverending Story
Goonies
The Karate Kid
Star Wars: A New Hope
Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back
Star Wars: Return of the Jedi
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (original version)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (new version)
Ghostbusters (original version)
The Muppet Movie (original version)
The Lord of the Rings series
The Chronicles of Narnia series
The Harry Potter series
The Anne of Green Gables Series
The Anne of Avonlea Series
Bambi
Sleeping Beauty
Beauty and the Beast
Lion King
Cinderella
Aladdin
Little Mermaid
Beauty and the Beast
Snow White
Pinocchio
Dumbo
The Sound of Music
The Parent Trap (original version)
Swiss Family Robinson
Charlotte’s Web
Lilo and Stitch
Benji
Old Yeller
Winnie the Pooh
Hugo
The Red Balloon
The Jungle Book
Pippi Longstocking
The Adventures of Milo and Otis
Totoro
Grave of the Fireflies
Spirited Away
Finding Nemo
Frozen
Moana
Babe
Freaky Friday
Big
Home Alone
Home Alone 2
Matilda
The Incredibles
How to Train Your Dragon
Wall-E
The Sandlot
Enchanted
The Iron Giant
Tangled
A Little Princess
Escape to Witch Mountain
Pete’s Dragon

A Christmas Carol
Miracle on 34th Street
A Christmas Story
How the Grinch Stole Christmas
A Charlie Brown Christmas
Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer
Frosty the Snowman
The Muppet Christmas Carol

Author news: New, improved “Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby” will soon be published by Creativia

This summer, I signed a contract with Creativia, an excellent small publisher who is taking on Fights You’ll Have After Having a Baby. Working with them has been an awesome experience so far, and guess what? There’s an audiobook version in the works, too. Stay tuned for details on how to get your new, improved version of the book.

Much love,

Mollie

Interview with Evan Griffith: “How do you know which opportunities to pursue?”

Recently, I enjoyed an email exchange with my friend and fellow spirituality blogger Evan Griffith, a person who thinks deeply and is deeply . . . alive. Just the kind of person I like having around, in other words. I needed some advice about when to say “yes” and when to say “maybe later.” Here is what he generously offered.

Mollie: I am having a hard time deciding which opportunities are yeses and which are nos. Some are a clear yes or no, while others are just things that come up and either sound good or don’t.

First question: Do I only do the things I have a clear yes or no about? Pray about everything and be ruthless about waiting for a clear yes before moving forward?

Evan: You get to the pithy heart of things, man.

My inclination is to tell you to only engage in the clear yeses.

I say this partly because of what I know of your life, and partly because you need to keep creating books, putting work out there. Only say yes to powerful projects that keenly interest you–and keep diving deep into your self challenges, sharing them with all of us.

Mollie: Second question: If I do decide to only go with the clear yeses, how do I locate new opportunities? Do I seek them out or do I just wait and let them come if they come? I have always thought it was a recipe for mediocrity and small-mindedness to not search and explore; it really, really limits what you are able to do with your life to just the things that, for example, a suburban mom runs across. There’s a whole world of stuff to do, and sometimes I have a nagging suspicion that I’m not doing as much as I could. On the other hand, I have a friend who is never seeking out the next big thing and she is very, very happy and very Zen. Desire is bad, remember? Buddhism? Byron Katie also says she never plans anything, really. She makes day-by-day plans and if they happen, great, and if they don’t, then that’s fine, too.

Evan: My take is that 1) you stay ready to seize new opportunities that you search out, while also 2) not expending a great deal of energy to do so.

Here’s how that might look: You challenge yourself to take on a project that expands you, one that is fully within your personal mission but also stretches your boundaries a bit. In this way you are continuing to create your life’s work–AND at the same time making connections beyond your immediate community. This allows you to reach out and Zen it, too. You can reach out as much or as little as each week allows.

P.S.: I’m in the camp who believes desire is good–that it’s only negative when you attach too strongly to any one particular path. Abraham Hicks/law of attraction ideas are to me a contemporary restating of the Tao– finding the path of least effort to what is most meaningful. This way you get to have desires and soul surf your way there–or to an approximation of there–or even somewhere you didn’t know was there until your soul surfing toward the original there took you there . . .

Mollie: Extra credit question: What about when I felt something was a clear yes, but then it didn’t turn out well at all? Was I wrong?

I often wonder about that, too. There are times when my clear yes worked out swimmingly, and there have been yes pathways taken that seemed to bear no fruit–or worse, sucked!

I don’t have an answer. Except in the sense of kaizen: continuous small changes or improvements toward a goal. In my understanding of kaizen, every undertaking leads you to greater understanding of what works and what doesn’t, what’s right for you and what isn’t. This clarity leads you to better experiments, better improvements, other small changes that can be made toward your ultimate goal. 

I would add that enjoying this process like a scientist, where no answer is good or bad but simply an enlightening answer that allows for further inquiry, is the ultimate spiritual mode of living.

Evan Griffith

Science Overview (The ‘School in a Book’ Series)

Like most other subjects, science is best learned through conversation. Experiments are great, too, but they’re not always necessary. If like me you have little kids who can’t yet handle close proximity to anything magnetic, explosive or filled with water, choose a few scientific concepts to talk about per day, and send the older kid to a fun science class. (Video demonstrations are great, too.)

That said, if you can manage it, there’s a huge number of great science project ideas out there, and hands-on stuff is definitely a great memory aid.

For excellent science textbooks, references and pleasure reading, see my list Comprehensive Reading List: Nonfiction.

Essential Science Projects

Treasure collecting from nature
Growing plants
Building science-related structures and models with mixed media
Building science-related structures and models with Lego (such as solar system models, lifelike animal and vehicle replicas, etc.)
Block building
Train set building
Playing with magnets
Breaking open and identifying rocks
Building circuits
Taking nighttime walks
Watching astronomical events (like a lunar eclipse, shooting stars or the Aurora Borealis)
Using a telescope and a microscope
Attempting to decompose various man-made and organic materials in bags (to compare rates of decomposition)
Making homemade environmentally friendly house cleaners (using borax, lemon juice, baking soda, vinegar and more)
Growing crystals
Using a compass
Making a water filter with sand, rocks, clay and charcoal
Making a model of our solar system
Making a balloon rocket
Making a volcano using baking soda and vinegar
Making a bottle submarine
Making invisible ink
Hunting for fossils
Making a rainbow
Making and testing a hypothesis and using the scientific method
Reading a map
Identifying the four directions
Identifying plants, animals, climate type, time zone, seasonal changes in local area
Understanding world time zones
Choosing many other science projects from science books

History Overview (The ‘School in a Book’ Series)

There is no shortage of historical timelines on the Internet. Here’s why I created my own: I wanted a timeline that read more like a continuous story than a list of separate occurrences, and I wanted to limit the number of dates to the most important. In other words, I wanted a brief timeline that my kids and I would actually remember.

Whenever possible, I chunked events into centuries or groups of centuries, which I believe greatly aids in memorization. While knowing a large number of specific dates is usually not vital to one’s understanding of the unfolding of world events, I do want my kids to be able to recall at all times the century in which an important event before 1800 took place, and the decade in which an important event since then took place.

Here is what I created from The Kingfisher History Encyclopedia, The Story of the World series by Susan Wise Bauer, The Timetables of History by Bernard Grun, Factmonster.com and one or two other sources. It (almost) goes without saying that excellent history texts that weave characterization, suspense and detail into these awesome occurrences, such as the ones I recommend in the nonfiction reading section of this text, is absolutely vital to an appreciation for the beauty and educational importance of history.

History questions for discussion:

What are some of the things that all cultures of history shared in common?

What are some of the reasons towns and civilizations spring up independently in so many different parts of the world within a few hundred years of each other?

Are there any good civilizations in history?

Are there any bad ones?

Are there some countries that are more moral than others?

What are the main reasons nations and states initiated warfare?

Why did smaller tribes wage war?

Why did larger civilizations wage war?

How was history influenced by the growth of the human brain?

What are some examples of religious wars?

To what extent were they motivated by the spread of religious ideas and the quashing of other religious ideas and to what extent were they motivated by other desires or needs?

Why did safe, prosperous nations, like Rome, continuously try to grow larger?

Was this a wise strategy?

What are some of the historical reasons for poverty?

History isn’t hard. It’s just stories. Lots of stories. And remembering dates and names is important, too. One of the main reasons I made my history timelines is that when you’ve committed certain important dates to memory, they anchor you to new information you gain throughout your life.

Don’t be afraid of dates. Dates are awesome.