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Miss Leavitt's Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe (2005) by George Johnson. New York: W.W. Norton.

This book tells two important stories. The first is about an astronomy assistant, Henrietta Swan Leavitt, who worked as a "computer" at the Harvard College Observatory from the late 1880s until she passed away from cancer in 1921. Her supervisor, Edward Charles Pickering, put her in charge of determining the brightness of stars, particularly those ninety-six stars observed in the northern hemisphere called the North Polar Sequence. She meticulously used photographic plates gathered from observatories in different parts of the world to measure the brightness of each star. These measurements served as a standard by which the brightness of other stars could be determined. But Leavitt's most important contribution to astronomy was her development of a method for measuring the relative distance of stars. This work was based on her observation that variable stars (called Cepheids) have different periodic rates of blinking related to their apparent brightness. She was able to formulate a law of relative distances between stars based on data gathered from a group of Cepheids in the southern hemisphere known as the Small Magellanic Cloud.

Johnson's second story is concerned with how astronomers developed methods for determining the actual distances of stars and galaxies by using such mathematical tools as parallax measurement and triangulation. Eventually, they developed more advanced methods for measuring the size and speed of expansion of the universe. This story includes many of the grand characters of astronomy, Harlow Shapley, Herber Curtis and Edwin Hubble. Johnson indicates in the Preface that he originally planned to write a book about how astronomers in the 1920s began to search beyond the Milky Way to discover other galaxies and new information about the universe. But the story of Miss Leavitt's work demanded more detailed investigation and recognition. Clearly she made important contributions to astronomy through her detailed observations and calculations. By reading about her life and the other major astronomers discussed in Miss Leavitt's Stars, gifted students will broaden their understanding of the methods and people who have increased our understanding of the enormous physical expanse known as the universe.

"Imagine trying to find people to do such precise work for 25 cents an hour - what amounted to the minimum wage. Today the job would probably have to be farmed out to star-counting sweatshops in Asia. . . ." (Chapter 1: Black Stars, White Nights, p. 19)

Selected Descriptions of How Early Experiences were Related to the Later Achievements of the Following Highly Gifted Individuals:

Shostakovich: A Life (2000) by Laurel E. Fay. New York: Oxford University Press.

The biographer discusses the early musical interests and abilities of this genius of Russian classical music.

"In the spring of 1915, Mitya [Shostakovich] was taken to the musical theater for the first time, to see Rimsky-Korsakov's Tale of Tsar Sultan. As much as he enjoyed the opera, it did not budge him from his indisposition to study music. He later confessed that what finally piqued his interest was a 'Galop' for piano six-hands by Streabogg (pseudonym for Jean-Louis Goebbaerts, a prolific nineteenth-century Belgian composer of light piano pieces) that he heard his sister play with her girlfriends. He asked his mother to help him pick out two of the parts on the keyboard. In the summer of 1915, just as she had done at the same age with his sister Mariya, his mother sat her eight-year old son down at the piano for his first lesson. Within minutes, she recognized that she was dealing with a youngster of precocious musical ability, possessing perfect pitch and a phenomenal memory. He demanded from the outset to be given a piece to play, so his mother placed the piano arrangement of an andante from a Haydn symphony in front of him. After asking her to explain the meaning of the various accidentals, he proceeded to play the andante slowly, but with perfect accuracy. Shostakovich later recalled that his uncommon musical memory encouraged him to engage in deception, at least until he was caught in the act. His mother would play him a piece. At his next lesson, he would perform it, pretending to play it from score when, in actual fact he was reproducing it from memory. In any event, mastery of notation came quickly and he was soon effortlessly playing the Haydn andante, a Mozart minuet, Chaikovsky's Children's Album, and more. He also exhibited an exceptional facility for sight-reading. In retrospect, he would commend his mother as a fantastic teacher for beginners: 'She managed to convey her love of music. She didn't pester one with exercises, didn't exact hours of practice. She simply wanted us to receive a good musical education.' " (pp. 9-10)

Genius: In Their Own Words -The Intellectual Journeys of Seven Great 20th Century Thinkers (2002) David Ramsay Steele (Editor). Chicago: Open Court Press.

The developer of the Theory of Relativity describes a childhood observation of magnetism that had a profound effect on his life.

"I have no doubt but that our thinking goes on for the most part without the use of signs (words) and beyond that to a considerable degree unconsciously. For how, otherwise, should it happen that sometimes we 'wonder' quite spontaneously about some experience? This 'wondering' appears to occur when an experience comes into conflict with a world of concepts already sufficiently fixed within us. Whenever such a conflict is experienced sharply and intensively it reacts back upon our world of thought in a decisive way. The development of this world of thought is in a certain sense a continuous flight from 'wonder.'

"A wonder of this kind I experienced as a child of four or five years when my father showed me a compass. That this needle behaved in such a determined way did not at all fit into the kind of occurrences that could find a place in the unconscious world of concepts (efficacy produced by direct 'touch'). I can still remember--or at least believe I can remember--that this experience made a deep and lasting impression upon me. Something deeply hidden had to be behind things. What man sees before him from infancy causes no reaction of this kind; he is not surprised by the falling of bodies, by wind and rain, nor by the moon, nor by the fact that the moon does not fall down, nor by the differences between living and nonliving matter." (Albert Einstein, p. 24)

Mark Twain's Pioneering Work on Multiculturalism

Michael E. Walters

Center for the Study of the Humanities in the Schools.

"Habit is habit, and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs a step at a time." (Pudd'nhead Wilson by Mark Twain, Chapter 6, p. 34, Barnes & Noble version)

Pudd'nhead Wilson, the 1894 novel by Mark Twain, is a trove for understanding the concept of multiculturalism, especially for individuals with gifted sensibilities. In this novel, the conflict of nature (genetics) and nurture (environment) unfolds within the social confines of slavery and race. A mulatto nurse maid switches her son with a white child and the consequences explore the ongoing debate between nature and nurture.

The term multiculturalism is not an academic thought that was recently conceived by the necessities of political correctness. A main trait of the gifted sensibility is the ability to understand art and one's personal environment in a multicultural perspective. Pudd'nhead Wilson has three major forms of this multiculturalism. The first concerns the main characters in the novel. Their historical conditions were expressed by Twain in ways that show comprehension of different views held by various races, cultures and classes. Twain was among the first white American writers to convey the feelings of black Americans concerning their attitudes about slavery. He also depicted the different types of slave owners - the brutal and those who sought to be considered humane in an inhumane social fabric - and he described the different social classes of whites in his mythic southern Missouri town of Dawson's Landing, Missouri. His sociological landscaping was a forerunner to the style of his fellow Midwestern writer, Sinclair Lewis, who wrote books in the first half of the twentieth century in a manner similar to Twain. Lewis showed the interaction of human conduct and social institutions, e.g., religion, education, business and social clubs.

The second form of multiculturalism in Pudd'nhead Wilson is its unique emphasis on linguistic understanding. Twain used black dialect to show the humanity and dignity of his characters. He also highlighted the role that language played in social discrimination. Language was a linguistic process for justifying slavery and the social philosophy of racial superiority.

Twain's life is the third form of multiculturalism that influenced his writing of Pudd'nhead Wilson and other books. He was born in a part of Missouri that was pro-slavery but many areas of this state were also opposed to slavery. He spent a decade being a Mississippi river pilot where he encountered different cultures. He then moved to the West living in Nevada and California where he learned about various groups such as silver miners and cowboys. His first public lectures were based on articles concerning his travels in the Hawaiian Islands. After he became a public figure, he lived in the Northeastern United States, interacting with Irish, Jewish and Italian immigrants.

Throughout his life he wrote travelogues about his journeys across the globe. He not only visited Europe (England and Italy), but also the Middle East (Turkey) and the Far East (India). His books, The Innocents Abroad (1869) and Following the Equator: A Journey around the World (1897), reflected that his multiculturalism was deeply ingrained and global. To enlighten themselves about studying different cultural groups, gifted students should read the works of Mark Twain.

Maurice D. Fisher, Publisher, Copyright © by Gifted Education Press, June-July 2006