June 20 – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Today’s factismal: Today is the first day of Summer, the twentieth day of Summer, and the middle of Summer.

Right now, you are probably seeing lots of posts complaining that today is only the first day of Summer and it is already unbearably hot. (Of course, if you live in the Southern hemisphere, you are probably hearing lots of people complain about how everyone ignores the fact that it is Winter where they live and those dumb folks in the North never remember it.) Well, we can’t do much about the heat, but we can do something about it only being the first day of Summer  because it isn’t. Today actually marks the first day of Summer for the astronomers. For a meteorologist, today is the twentieth day of Summer. And for folks who read Shakespeare, it is the middle of Summer!

How can all three of them be right?The answer lies, as it so often does, in the ineluctable propensity of mankind to name things. Back in the days of the early Roman kings (about 2,700 years ago), 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 Spring was officially over and Summer 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?
https://www.usanpn.org/natures_notebook

March 20 – Spring Forward

Today’s factismal: Today is the first day of Spring, the twentieth day of Spring, and the forty-ninth day of Spring.

Right now, you are probably scratching your head, wondering if I’ve lost my mind. How can one season start three different times? The answer lies, as it so often does, in the ineluctable propensity of mankind to name things. Back in the days of the early Roman kings (about 2,700 years ago), 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 Spring was officially over and Summer 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 21 (the Winter Solstice), the middle of Spring would occur on March 20 (the Vernal Equinox), the middle of Summer would be on June 21 (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.

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?
https://www.usanpn.org/natures_notebook

November 9 – Singing In The Brain

Today’s factismal: In 1992, Thomas School yodeled 22 tones in one second, setting a new world’s record.

Let’s suppose that it is 1500 and you live on an Alpine meadow where you herd your goats, and that your best friend lives on an Alpine meadow across the valley where he herds his goats. Now let’s suppose that you just thought of the world’s funniest joke and want to tell it to him. You could pull out your cell phone, except that they haven’t been invented yet. You could walk over to tell it to him, but it is an all day journey down into the valley and back up. You could try to tell it to him by semaphore except he may not see you waving your arms. Or you could sing it to him.

Believe it or not, that’s exactly what the people in the Alps do. Over the years, they have developed a way to call across the mountains by singing. And they aren’t alone; yodeling is used by tribes in Africa, groups in Pakistan, and even field hands in America. By using a series of musical tones to carry information, the goatherds and other folks were able to send the information clearly and easily. Where words would blur and become confused by echoes, musical tones remain clear and easy to understand.

Today, the goatherds have cellular phones and yodeling is mostly found on country and western albums. But it still remains as a reminder of what life was like back when the only way to talk to a friend was to sing.

If you’d like to help anthropologists as they learn more about the ways we communicate, then head on over to the Open Anthropology Project:
http://openanthcoop.ning.com/

September 28 – Oh, Baby!

Today’s Factismal: When a baby smiles with its teeth apart and showing, the baby is frightened. When a baby smiles with its teeth hidden, the baby is happy.

The human smile is a puzzling thing. We know that we do it when we are happy, but why do we do it? And why do we smile with our teeth together when most other primates smile with them apart? And when does this behavior start? Is it programmed into us by society or is it more intrinsic?

These monkeys aren't mad - they are playing (Image courtesy Psychology Today)

These monkeys aren’t mad – they are playing!
(Image courtesy Psychology Today)

It turns out that when a typical primate smiles with its teeth apart and gums pulled up to show off the teeth, it is usually (but not always) showing aggression. And when it smiles with its teeth together or the lips down to hide the teeth, it is showing submission. The only exception to this behavior appears to be what primatologists call “rapid facial mimicry” and what parents call “making faces”. Two or more primates will grimace at each other, trying to match the other’s face, as a way of becoming better friends. (No word on if their faces ever freeze that way.)

This baby is having a good time - or is he? (Image courtesy Baby Laughter Project)

This baby is having a good time – or is he?
(Image courtesy Baby Laughter Project)

Being primates ourselves, humans exhibit many of the same behaviors. But society always adds a veneer of confusion onto the basic data, which is why scientists who study the evolution of human behavior like to watch babies – they haven’t been as influenced by social norms and show a purer response. And they’ve found that human babies tend to follow the primate rule: teeth together and gums hidden, happy baby; teeth apart and gums showing, unhappy baby. And it isn’t just babies that follow these rules; the same pattern has been observed in blind people who have never had an opportunity to see others smile.

Of course, babies do more than smile; they also laugh. And that’s another rich field for research (and a little squee). If you happen to be the parent of a young baby, then the folks at the Baby Laughter Project would like your help in finding out why babies laugh and what that tells us about how our brains develop. If you’d like to help (or just want to watch videos of laughing babies), then head over to
http://babylaughter.net/

September 14 – Sounds Like

Today’s factismal: Hominins are humans and their direct ancestors. Hominids are hominins, the other great apes, and their ancestors. And hominoids are hominids and gibbons and their ancestors.

One of the fascinating things to see in science is how terminology changes over time. The carbonic acid in the air of 1897 becomes the carbon dioxide of today. Anthroposcopy (literally, “looking at a man”) becomes physiognomy (“study of features”) becomes obsolete. An accoucheuse becomes a midwife. Priestly’s phlogisticated air becomes Lavoisier‘s azote becomes today’s nitrogen. And Leakey’s hominid becomes today’s hominin.

Usually, the change in terminology comes about as we learn more. For example, we once thought that humans were distinct and completely different from every other species out there. As a result, we gave ourselves a name that showed that distinction; we called all of the humans and their ancestor species “hominids” (“human-ish” in paleontology-speak). But then we learned that humans are very closely related to some great apes and not so closely related to others. Thanks to DNA analysis and fossil interpretation, we found that humans and chimpanzees and gorillas are practically cousins (first and second-degree, respectively) while orangutans are more distant relatives and gibbons are that branch of the family that we never speak of in polite society.

familytreeAs a result, the term that used to be just for us now includes our cousins; a hominid is any member of the great ape family including humans, both species of chimpanzees, both species of gorilla, and both species of orangutan. Hominoid is even more inclusive and invites the gibbons into the party, where hominin is more restrictive and only allows the humans through the gates.

Though much of the evidence for this comes from comparing the DNA of each species, quite a lot still depends on the fossils that we find. The best fossils for this part of our story are found in the Turkana Basin, which stretches from northern Kenya down into southern Ethiopia. Much of the area is made up of rocks that are 1.4 to 1.8 million years old, which means that they were laid down just about the time that our ancestors laid down for a nap. As a result, they are rich both in hominin fossils and in the fossils that hominins made; things like tools, fish bones, and foot prints. And if you’d like to help find fossils in those rocks, all you have to do is head over to Fossil Finder. There you’ll look at images and point out anything interesting that you see. To learn more, burrow over to:
http://www.fossilfinder.org/

August 24 – Getting Stoned

Today’s factismal: Chimpanzees have been stuck in the Stone Age for about 4,300 years.

It is no surprise to anyone today that animals use tools. Elephants use stepstools to get fruit. Fish crack clamshells on coral to get mussels. Birds drop turtles on stones to crack the shells open and kill playwrights. And gorillas use twigs and sticks to nab termites. But what is a surprise is that some animals may be further along the path of tool-making that we thought.

A family of chimpanzees using tools(My camera)

A family of chimpanzees using tools
(My camera)

Most animals’ tools are impromptu (like the fish and the coral) and relatively primitive (like the gorilla and the twigs). Very few show any indication of forethought and planning. The good thing about this sort of tool is that they can be very easy to find. The bad thing is that they don’t make very good tools because they wear out quickly and aren’t properly shaped. The solution to the problem is to use something that is easy to find, relatively durable, and can be shaped; the solution is to use stone. Humans made that discovery about 3,300,000 years ago in Lomekwi, Kenya. There humans started hitting one rock with another to form new tools (called knapping). Since this was a new art to them, they weren’t very good at it; it would take 700,000 years of practice before the hominins in the Olduvai Gorge came up with the idea of using steady pressure instead of a hard blow to create a sharper edge. Fast-forward to today and those simple stone tools have given way to integrated circuits and spaceships.

A chimpanzee grabbing a light snack of ants(My camera)

A chimpanzee grabbing a light snack of ants
(My camera)

Most chimpanzees live in East Africa, where the jungle is dense and the ground is rich and loamy; as a result, there aren’t many stones to be found. But a sub-group of chimpanzees lives in West Africa where the ground is rich in stones. And that group has been observed making and using stone tools. Interestingly, when archeologists explored a layer of soil that was about 4,300 years old, they found tools there that matched the ones that the chimpanzees were using today. The best explanation for that is chimpanzees are currently in their Stone Age.

A chimpanzee teaching her young how to make stone tools (Image courtesy Etsuko Nogami)

A chimpanzee teaching her young how to make stone tools
(Image courtesy Etsuko Nogami)

If you’d like to learn more about chimpanzees and maybe even see them using a few tools, why not join Chimp & See? This citizen science project is looking for people like you to watch their films and help them identify tool-using behaviors. To learn more, swing on over to:
http://www.chimpandsee.org/

June 28 – Some Enchanted Island

Oododem made by the Salish people (My camera)

Oododem made by the Salish people
(My camera)

The Salish are Native Americans who live in Puget Sound. Their language is known as “lushtoseed” or “salt water language” due to their proximity to the ocean. Before Europeans settled the area, the Salish fished for salmon in cedar canoes and built huge lodges out of cedar logs. Some trees were turned into what we call totem poles and they call odoodem; the carvings on each pole tell a story about the carver’s family or their beliefs. Cedar was also used for baskets, hats, and even clothing! In addition, they farmed goats and dogs for their fur, which was spun into wool and woven into rugs and blankets.