September 22 – Falling All Over The Place

Today’s factismal: Today is the first day of Fall, the twenty-second day of fall, and the fifty-third day of fall.

Well, Summer is over at last. Then again, according to some folks Summer has been done for quite some time. How can that be? It all has to do with people and our need to categorize things. The problem is that different groups of people can look at the same thing and break it apart in different ways. For example, today marks the first day of Fall for the astronomers. (Unless you are in the Southern Hemisphere, in which case, it is the first day of Spring.) For a meteorologist, today is the twenty-second day of Fall. And for folks who studied the classics, it is the middle of Fall!

It all started back in the days of the early Roman kings (about 2,700 years ago) when the calendar ran from late spring to early winter and then went silent for a couple of months. The Romans held various fertility and harvest festivals to celebrate the seasons, but the actual date when those were held slipped around a bit thanks to those missing two months. It wasn’t until Julius Caesar fixed the calendar that we started seeing folks who could say with any authority (a legion of armed men is authority, right?) that Summer was officially over and Fall had begun.

Visitors to the National Cherry Blossom Festival (My camera)

We no longer use the blooming of trees to determine the seasons – or do we? (My camera)

The interesting thing is that, while the various Roman provinces didn’t like the Romans very much (after all, what had Rome done for them other than the aqueducts, sanitation, roads, education, and the wine?), they loved the calendar because it made it easier for them to observe their religious rites and mark their seasons. And one of the most influential (at least in Europe) set of seasons was the one that modern pagans call “the Wheel of the Year”, which divided the year into four seasons (Spring, Summer, Winter, and Fall) and arranged them so that the middle of each season happened on an astronomically significant date. The middle of Winter would show up on December 20 (the Winter Solstice), the middle of Spring would occur on March 20 (the Vernal Equinox), the middle of Summer would be on June 20 (the Summer Solstice), and the middle of Fall would roll in on September 21 (the Autumnal Equinox). This method of timing the seasons lasted for more than 1,900 years; you can see its influence in things such as Shakespeare’s “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” which takes place on the Summer solstice. And while the dates have slipped a bit due to the Earth’s wobble in its orbit, the basic idea remains and is celebrated in many countries.

But as we moved into the 20th century, we decided that those dates didn’t work well for us (mainly because there is nothing special to mark February first as the start of Spring). So we came up with a new system. Actually, we came up with two new systems. Around 1950, the meteorologists decided that the seasons would start on the first day of a specific month, so that each season was roughly the same length of time. Spring ran March, April, and May, Summer took up June, July, and August, Fall was September, October, and November, and Winter was December, January, and February. (These seasons are generally referred to as “meteorological spring” etc.)

M42 (Orion Nebula) Over Virginia (My camera)

The stars don’t set our calendar either – or do they? (My camera)

At about the same time, the astronomers decided that they weren’t going to let no stinking pagans decide when the seasons started based on obsolete astrological superstitions; instead, they’d start the seasons based on the stars. So the astronomers decreed that Spring would begin on the Vernal Equinox, Summer would come in on the Summer Solstice, Fall would commence on the Autumnal Equinox, and Winter would hold sway beginning on the Winter Solstice. That this effectively shifted the seasons by half a wavelength was irrelevant; it just made more sense to the astronomers.(These seasons are generally referred to as “astronomical spring” etc.)

The three seasonal calendars in use today

The three seasonal calendars in use today

So, as a result, we now have three different dates to start each season. Of course, Mama Nature is famous for not reading calendars (as anyone who has been caught in a May snowstorm can attest); she starts her seasons when she wants and marks it by changes in the plants and animals. And it turns out that there are a lot of scientists who are more interested in reading her calendar than man’s. If you would like to help them do so by recording when the leaves change color or the butterflies leave or the buds blossom in your area, then why not write a few pages in Nature’s Notebook?

September 21 – The Heat Is On

Today’s factismal: This summer was the warmest since we started keeping records in 1880. The previous record-holder was last summer.

If you think that it was just too darn hot outside this summer, you aren’t alone. Meteorologically speaking, this summer (June, July, and August) was the warmest that we’ve ever recorded. Even more interesting is that the previous record holder was last summer. And even more interesting than that is that we’ve had fifteen months in a row of record warm temperatures, globally speaking. And even more interesting than that is the last time we had a global average temperature that was below average was back in December of 1984 – 32 years ago! And the last time we had a year that was cooler than average was in 1976 – 40 years ago!

The average global temperature has risen quite a bit in the past 136 years (Data courtesy NDC)

The average global temperature has risen quite a bit in the past 136 years; the blue line is the 20th century average global temperature
(Data courtesy NDC)

So why are we getting warmer? It is no secret; as a matter of fact, this very thing was predicted back in 1896 based on a discovery made in 1859. It is the CO2 that we are adding to the atmosphere. CO2 happens to block some of the “heat radiation” given off by the Earth. This is reabsorbed by the atmosphere, raising its temperature slightly. (Think of it as being like the interest given to you by a bank. You give them a dollar and every year they give you four cents more as interest. Over time, that interest builds up and so does your bank account.) Of course, lots of other factors come into play when you are talking about a planet , so the temperature change isn’t instantaneous and it has some wiggles in it. But overall, the pattern is clear: increasing CO2 increases temperature and changes climate.

The change from the 20th century average temperature. Blues are colder than average; oranges and reads are warmer than average. (Image courtesy NOAA)

The change from the 20th century average temperature. Blues are colder than average; oranges and reads are warmer than average.
(Image courtesy NOAA)

As a citizen scientist, there are two sets of things you can do. The first is to reduce the amount of energy you use; a nice benefit of this is that you also save money. For example, making sure that your tires are properly inflated will save you the equivalent of $0.10 per gallon and save the US the equivalent of 1.2 billion gallons of oil. Adding a layer of insulation to your water heater (like that blanket on your bed) will save you about $30 per year and save the US another 500 million gallons of oil. There are plenty of other way you can save money while saving the planet. But if you still want to do more, why not help record the changes that global warming is bringing to your neighborhood? Join the Citizen Weather Observer Program and help them monitor how temperatures, weather, and other things are changing. To learn more, head to:


September 19 – A Confusion of Terms

Today’s factismal: There are more than fifty different terms for groups of birds.

If you are a typical hunter-gatherer (or mathematician), then you tend to count like this: one bird, two birds, three birds, many birds. Anything more than three is just “many”, simply because that’s all that you need to know. But, if you are a typical smarty-pants hunter-gatherer (or mathematician), then you don’t want to keep saying many. (“I saw many geese. I saw many crows. I saw many people saying many.”) So you’ll come up with a term to use instead; your English teacher would tell you that the term you use is called a collective noun. And it turns out that English is rife with collective nouns for the many different types of birds; there are at least 58 different terms!

They include:
A band of jays
A bevy of quail
A bouquet of pheasants
A brood of hens
A building of rooks
A cast of hawks
A cauldron of raptors
A charm of finches
A chattering of starlings
A clamor of rooks
A colony of penguins
A company of parrots
A congress of ravens
A congregation of plovers
A convocation of eagles
A cover of coots
A covey of partridges
A deceit of lapwings
A descent of woodpeckers
A dissimulation of herons
A dole of doves
An exaltation of larks
A fall of woodcocks
A flight of cormorants
A flock of swifts
A flush of mallards
A herd of cranes
A host of sparrows
A kettle of nighthawks
A knob of widgeons
A murmuration of starlings
A murder of crows
A muster of storks
A nye of pheasants
An ostentation of peacocks
A pack of grouse
A paddling of ducks on the lake
A parliament of owls
A party of jays
A peep of chickens
A pitying of turtledoves
A raft of ducks
A rafter of turkeys
A run of poultry
A siege of bitterns
A skein of geese in flight
A gaggle of geese on the ground
A sord of mallards
A spring of teal
A team of ducks in flight
A tidings of magpies
A trip of dotterel
An unkindness of ravens
A walk of snipe
A watch of nightingales
A wedge of swans
A whiteness of swans
A wisp of snipe

A whiteness of swans, swimming (My camera)

A whiteness of swans, swimming
(My camera)

As you can tell from the list, many of the names come from the characteristics of the birds (e.g., the wedge shape that a group of swans makes in flight or how ducks get around the pond). And others are borrowings from old English and other languages. But they are all fun to use. So the next time you see a bunch of birds, don’t say “I saw many starlings”; amaze your friends and confuse your enemies by saying “I saw a murmuration of starlings”.

A flock of swifts nesting under a bridge (My camera)

A flock of swifts nesting under a bridge
(My camera)

And if you are the sort of person who would say “I saw a watch of nightingales”, then why not wing over to eBird, where you’ll be among birds of a feather? You can enter information about any birds you see and get information about birds that other people see, all in real time:

September 15 – My Beautiful Balloon

Today’s factismal: The world’s first weather balloon was launched 112 years ago today.

Meteorologists in St. Louis, Missouri, have something to celebrate today. More than a century ago, they launched the very first weather balloon intended for use in weather reporting. Though scientists had been launching balloons with scientific instruments since 1896, this was the first balloon intended to be used specifically for predicting the weather. The balloon carried a recording thermometer and a pressure gauge in a small package that was recovered after the balloon burst in the stratosphere. Today, the National Weather Service launches balloons from 92 sites in the USA; they are just part of the more than 900 sites that launch twice a day (morning and evening) to get information.

Launching a weather balloon during World War II (Image courtesy NOAA)

Launching a weather balloon during World War II
(Image courtesy NOAA)

So why would they bother? Simply because we knew then as we know now that it isn’t enough to measure the temperature and pressure and other weather factors in just one place; if you want an accurate prediction of what is going to happen next, you need lots of data that goes up through the atmosphere as well as across the globe. And balloons do that! They can rise as far as 20 miles before they pop, and they will fly up to 125 miles away. Each year, some 75,000 instrument packages are sent up in weather balloons. And thanks to WiFi, we are getting more data than ever from them.

A modern weather balloon launch (Image courtesy NOAA)

A modern weather balloon launch
(Image courtesy NOAA)

But that’s still not enough to make the meteorologists happy. (That’s a meteorologist for you – always raining on our parade!) They want more data – and that’s where you come in! They have set up a group to record temperature, pressure, and (most importantly) precipitation. Known as CoCoRAHS, these folks feed valuable information to the meteorologists who use it to make better weather predictions. To learn more, float on over to:


September 12 – One Small Pox

Today’s factismal: The last death due to smallpox happened thirty-eight years ago.

Normally, extinction is not something that we’d celebrate. It means that something is gone forever, taking its unique genetic signature with it. For animals such as the Carolina parakeet and the Western Black Rhinoceros, it is a tragedy. But for diseases such as smallpox and rinderpest, it is a cause for celebration. That’s because smallpox infected millions of people and killed two million each year; even if you were lucky enough to survive, you’d be marked forever by the disease with scars covering much of your body.

The smallpox virus (Image courtesy CDC)

The smallpox virus
(Image courtesy CDC)

Starting in 1950, a concerted effort was made to eradicate smallpox in South America. Vaccines were prepared and injected into people in every country on the continent. The success was so great that a world-wide initiative was proposed in 1958. Within a short time, smallpox was eliminated in North America (you can tell when an American was born by looking at their left shoulder; if they have a scar from the smallpox vaccination, they were born before 1965). By 1975, smallpox was only found in one small part of Africa. And two years later, it was gone from the wild.

Janet Parker, the last known victim of smallpox (Image courtesy Ben Gross)

Janet Parker, the last known victim of smallpox
(Image courtesy Ben Gross)

But it still lived in laboratories. And that’s where the last victim of smallpox caught it. In 1978, Janet Parker was a medical photographer documenting the work done at the University of Birmingham Medical School where she was accidentally exposed to the virus. Two weeks later, she became the last person that smallpox would claim. Ever since then, smallpox has been extinct except for two small samples kept in epidemiology labs in the US and Russia as a hedge against any future outbreaks.

When will the polio vaccine make scenes like this just a memory? (Image courtesy US NIH)

When will the polio vaccine make scenes like this just a memory?
(Image courtesy US NIH)

Now smallpox isn’t the only disease out there. And it isn’t the only one that we can conquer with education and vaccination.  Today there is a concerted effort to drive polio into extinction. This disease causes muscles to weaken and atrophy and bones to warp; in extreme cases, it can cause the diaphragm to weaken so much that the person suffocates. If you’d like to help drive this disease into extinction, then make certain that you and your family have had your vaccinations, and join the Global Polio Eradication Initiative:

September 9 – Rubbernecking

Today’s factismal: Scientists have recently identified four distinct species of giraffe.

Giraffes have been in the news a lot lately, and for an unusual reason. It isn’t because they’ve been robbing banks or running for office; no, it is because there are both a lot more and a lot fewer giraffes than we used to think. How can it be both? Welcome to science!

The giraffe's spots help hide them in the brush (My camera)

The giraffe’s spots help hide them in the brush
(My camera)

Scientists used to classify giraffes into nine different subspecies, mostly named after the region where they were first identified: Nubian, Angolan (Namibian), Kordofan, Masai (Kilimanjaro), Rothschild’s, South African, Rhodesian, and the common reticulated giraffe. Each subspecies of giraffe lives in a different part of Africa with a different environment. For example, the shorter trees of mean the Kordofan giraffe is smaller than the Masai which lives in a region with taller trees. And the common reticulated giraffe is adapted to live in almost any savanah or woodland in Africa. Now the interesting thing about a subspecies is that it can (and will) have children with a member of another subspecies. So, under the old classification, we could expect to see giraffes that are children of South African and Rhodesian or of reticulated and Rothschild’s.

Two juvenile giraffes on the road to adulthood (My camera)

Two juvenile giraffes on the road to adulthood
(My camera)

But when scientists started looking at the DNA of the giraffe subspecies, they discovered something interesting. Though some of the subspecies were interbreeding, many were not and had not for more than a million years. They weren’t subspecies at all; they were distinct species! And “giraffe” didn’t mean one type of animal – it meant four!Just as there are several species of “cat” (e.g., lion, tigers, and housecats {oh, my!}), there are now four species of giraffe:

  • Southern giraffe (Giraffa giraffa),
  • Reticulated giraffe (G. reticulata),
  • Masai giraffe (G. tippelskirchi),
  • Northern giraffe (G. camelopardalis) and Nubian giraffe subspecies (G. c. camelopardis)
A giraffe nibbling on acacia trees (My camera)

A giraffe nibbling on acacia trees
(My camera)

Now this has implications beyond just telling us which giraffes have been having fun. For example, there are about 90,000 giraffes in the wild if we count all four species. That’s enough to make them of Least Concern to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature even though the number of giraffes has declined by about 40% since 2001. But that 90,000 isn’t distributed evenly. There are a lot of reticulated giraffes and Southern giraffes and not nearly as many Masai giraffes; as a result, some of the species may be in danger of extinction.

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike (My camera)

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike
(My camera)

So how can we tell? With science, of course. Snapshot Serengeti has been operating camera traps in Africa for several years now and they’d love for you to go through their photographs and tell them which animals you see. And you’ll see more than just the four species of giraffe. There are lions and tigers and warthogs (oh, my). So head on over and let them know what you find!

September 8 – Something’s In The Water

Today’s factismal: 162 years ago, a cholera epidemic was stopped by removing a pump handle.

Cholera is one of those disgusting diseases that nobody likes. Princesses never die of it in fairy tales and heroes never conquer it – except in real life. And that’s a story far more interesting than any fairy tale!

The story starts, as all good stories must, long ago and far away in the hidden depths of India more than 2000 years ago. A bacterium decided that it wanted to give up its free-wheeling days and live in the human gut, just as millions of other bacteria do. Unfortunately for the people, the bacterium was Vibrio cholerae (“creator of cholera”). This unloveable little bug causes muscle cramps, restlessness, irritability, a rapid heart rate, vomiting and diarrhea. Without that last complication, it would be just another unpleasant form of food poisoning. But with it, the victim can lose so much water that they die. To make a bad thing worse, the diarrhea acts to spread the bug to yet more victims by contaminating the water supply.

Public (health) Enemy #1: Cholera (Image courtesy Dartmouth College)

Public (health) Enemy #1: Cholera
(Image courtesy Dartmouth College)

That last happens because it wasn’t until the turn of the last century that people started to realize that the best place for an outhouse was far away from the place they got their water; before then, the outhouse and the well were frequently side-by-side. As a result, any contamination from the outhouse could easily slip back into the well water and keep the cycle going. This was bad in the countryside. In a city, it was disaster.

Most cities were designed to get their water either from cisterns that were fed by aqueducts or from wells drilled under the city. And, until very recently, few cities had sewers capable of removing all of the “output” from their citizens; sewage often backed up and overflowed into the cisterns. And if some of that sewage happened to come from someone with cholera, an epidemic was born.

Our hero, John Snow (Image courtesy Wikipedia)

Our hero, John Snow
(Image courtesy Wikipedia)

That’s what happened in London in 1854. Large numbers of people were dying of cholera; more that 127 in the first three days of the epidemic and more than 600 before it was done. Those that could fled the city for safer climes. But the poorest people, who were also those most likely to get cholera, couldn’t flee. Luckily for them, a hero by the name of John Snow was able to track down the common factor in all of the cases: everyone was getting their water from the same pump. Though nobody at the time knew how cholera was transmitted (Snow suspected bacteria but couldn’t prove it), Snow had enough evidence to convince the town council to remove the pump handle at the center of the outbreak. With the handle gone, people stopped getting contaminated water and the outbreak was over and John Snow had helped invent the science of epidemiology.

If you’d like to help the epidemiologists of today, then why not work with them on chronic diseases at the Chronic Collaborative Care Network (C3N):