January 4 – Happy Newtonmas!

Today’s factismal: Isaac Newton was born on January 4, 1643.

About a week ago, you may have seen texts fling about from various folks, telling the tale of a baby who was born on Christmas and would go on to change the world – a baby by the name of Isaac Newton. The only problem is that the texts are wrong (sort of). You see, by our calendar, Isaac Newton was born on January 4, not December 25. And therein lies a tale.

Isaac Newton, the man who changed science even if he couldn't get his birthday right (Image courtesy Barrington Bramley)

Isaac Newton, the man who changed science even if he couldn’t get his birthday right
(Image courtesy Barrington Bramley)

You see, calendars are tricky things.  Until the time of Julius Caesar (yes, that Julius Caesar), the Roman calendar was a mess. The original Romulan (no, not those Romulans!) calendar had just ten months and covered just 304 days of the year – the period between December and March were just considered to be one long, cold, winter of despair. Obviously, this wasn’t a very good way of keeping track of time. So Numa, the second king of Rome, changed it.

Numa, the Roman who created the first

Numa, the Roman who created the first “good” calendar
(Image courtesy User Hedning on sv.wikipedia)

Numa added two more months between December and March, and brought the length of the year up to 355 days. But, as every schoolkid knows today, the year is actually closer to 365.25 days long. As a result, the calendar slowly slipped ahead of the actual year, with the embarrassing result of the equinox being declared several weeks before it actually happened! In order to fix this, the chief priest (called the Pontifex Maximus or “Chief Bridge Builder”) would slip in after February an intercalendary month known as a Mensis Intercalaris every so often. Because of the extreme difference between the length of the calendar and the length of the actual year, this had to be done roughly every other year.

But then Roman politics came into play. You see, the Pontifex Maximus was usually also the person who was in charge or one of his friends. As a result, the Pontifex Maximus could add in a Mensis Intercalaris or two when his party was in power (thus making the year and their term in power longer) or withhold them when the other guys were (thus making the year shorter). The worst offender for this was, you guessed it, Julius Caesar who made the year of his third consulship 445 days long!

Julius Caesar conquered the Gauls and the calendar (Image courtesy H. F. Helmolt )

Julius Caesar conquered the Gauls and the calendar
(Image courtesy H. F. Helmolt )

This move offended just about everyone. In order to push it through, Caesar had to promise to reform the calendar so that nobody else could play that sort of trick again. (For a more modern example of this sort of political shenanigans, consider FDR’s four presidential terms.) He did it by making the year 365 days long and adding in an intercalendary day at the end of February every four years, starting with the year 46 BCE.

Now this would have been the end of the story, other than the various maneuverings over the names of months, except for one important fact: the year is not 365.25 days long. Instead, it is 365 days, 5 hours 49 minutes, and 12 seconds long, or a difference of 10 minutes and 48 seconds. Though the difference might not seem like much, it added up over the course of a few centuries. By 1582 CE, the calendar was nearly eleven days behind, throwing everything out of whack.

A comparison of the three calendars. The Gregorian comes closest to our modern year.

A comparison of the three calendars. Pope Gregory’s calendar comes closest to matching our modern year.

So it was up to the new Pontifex Maximus, Pope Gregory XIII, to fix the mess. He did it by jumping the calendar forward ten days and by changing the number of leap years. Under Gregory, every fourth year would be a leap year unless it fell on a century (i.e., 1000, 1200); only every fourth century year (i.e., those divisible by 400) would be leap years. That neatly fixed the lagging calendar and patched the problem so that another intercalendary day wouldn’t be needed until the year 10,000.

But Europe in 1582 CE isn’t the same as Rome in 46 BCE, and though the Pope might call himself the Pontifex Maximus, he didn’t have complete control over the world’s calendars. As a result, many countries didn’t adopt the new calendar until much later. Italy, of course, adopted it immediately. France took up the new calendar less than a year later. But it wasn’t until 1752 that England finally adopted the new calendar. And that is why, though Isaac Newton was born on Christmas day in England, he was really born on January 4 by our calendar. So Happy Newtonmas!

And if you’d like to celebrate, why not do so by lending some of your computer time to LHC@Home? They’ll use your spare computer time to help solve mysteries such as “What is Dark Matter?” and “What would happen if π were exactly 3?” To learn more, page over to:

November 4 – Riches Of Kings

Today’s factismal: The tomb of the “boy king” Tutankhamen was discovered by accident in 1922.

Ask any scientist if they believe in luck and she’ll probably tell you “no” and then regale you with stories of discoveries that happened by chance. (The scientist isn’t being inconsistent; most discoveries are the result of decades of hard, painstaking work. The accidents are remembered because they are so rare.) Becquerel and radioactivity. Fleming and penicillin. Nobel and dynamite. And Carter and Tutankhamen.

A boat from an Egyptian tomb (My camera)

A boat from an Egyptian tomb
(My camera)

Howard Carter was already a famous Egyptologist when the accident happened. At the time of the accident, he had been looking for antiquities in Egypt for thirty-one years and had already discovered two important tombs (Thutmose I and Thutmose III). But he knew that there was more out there to be discovered and so, with the patronage of Lord Carnarvon, he had spent five fruitless years looking for an intact tomb. (Because they were filled with gold and other treasures, most tombs in the region had been broken into and plundered, making it very hard to understand how the Egyptians treated their dead.) However, his methodical searching and lack of results had begun to wear on the patience of his patron, who threatened to cut off funds at the end of the year.

The lid of a sarcophagus (My camera)

The lid of a sarcophagus
(My camera)

And that’s where chance smiled on Carter. On November 4, 1922, one of his workers stumbled on a stone while clearing out the dirt from yet another failed excavation. Carter looked at the stone and recognized it as a step. He and his workers eagerly cleared out the stairwell and twenty-two days later ceremoniously opened the tomb while his patron looked on and smiled. They had discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen, who we would later learn ruled Egypt from the time he was nine until his early death at 19. The tomb was in pristine condition, with so many artifacts that it took ten years to unearth them all. Today, “King Tut” is perhaps the best known of all Egypt’s rulers thanks in no small part to Carter’s lucky step.

A gilded coffin from within a sarcophagus (My camera)

A gilded coffin from within a sarcophagus
(My camera)

Right now, an effort even more titanic than Carter’s five year search for tombs is underway. Egyptologists are trying to decipher a treasure trove of papyri (ancient scrolls) that were unearthed in an Egyptian trash heap nearly a century ago. These 500,000 fragments need citizen scientists like you to help decipher their hidden messages. By playing a video game, you’ll help scholars transcribe and translate papyri that cover everything from the Bible to the comedies of Menander to bills and loan documents. To play the game, head over to the Ancient lives web site:

April 28 – Tiki Two

Today’s Factismal: Thor Heyerdahl and his crew started their 4,340 mi voyage from South America to Polynesia on the Kon-Tiki, 69 years ago today.

If you want to start an argument in an anthropology department, then ask how the Polynesian islands were settled. Though most anthropologists hold that the settlers all came from the shores of Asia, there are a dedicated few who think that at least some of the settlers arrived there from South America. And both sides have some evidence to support their ideas.

The most accepted theory of how Polynesia was settled (Image courtesy Christophe Cagé)

The most accepted theory of how Polynesia was settled
(Image courtesy Christophe Cagé)

The “out of Asia” group has it easy. The ocean currents mostly flow from Asia toward Polynesia, and the two groups have many physical and social characteristics in common. But the “South American” group also has evidence; the sweet potato is native to South America and Polynesia but not Asia, and there are statues with similar shapes in both areas. “Big deal”, was the common rebuttal, “There’s no way that people could make it from South America to Polynesia on a raft”.

The Kon-Tiki raft sets sail (Image courtesy NASA)

The Kon-Tiki raft sets sail
(Image courtesy NASA)

Tired of hearing the argument from incredulity, Thor Heyerdahl decided to put the theory to the test. With six co-workers, he built a 45 ft long raft out of all native materials such as balsa wood logs and hemp rope, gave it a mast of mangrove wood and a sail of woven bamboo shoots, and then set out on his great adventure. For the next 101 days, they followed the Humbolt current and slowly sailed from South America to the island of Raroia in the heart of Polynesia. They had proven that the trip was possible.

Of course, that didn’t settle the question; just because the trip was possible that didn’t mean that it had actually been made. Indeed, as the recent attempt to recreate the Kon Tiki’s voyage showed, the trip is far more difficult than many think. But one of the arguments against the hypothesis had been conclusively squashed. Even better, the film that Thor made of the journey went on to win an Academy award, a first in anthropology. Research continues today on just how many people could have migrated from South America to Polynesia and what their impact would have been.

If you’d like to take part in a great expedition but don’t have three months to spare (or you get sea sick), then why not join in on the National Geographic’s Field Expedition: Mongolia – Valley of the Khans project? They need citizen scientists to look at images on their home computers and help them identify lost archeological sites:

March 10 – Roman Holiday

Today’s Factismal: The First Punic War ended 2,257 years ago with Rome’s decisive defeat of Carthage’s navy.

In 264 BCE, there were two major powerhouses in the Mediterranean: the old, established empire of Carthage and the newer, rapidly-expanding republic of Rome. Carthage traced their heritage to the Phoenicians (which is why the Romans called them “Punici” or “Phoenician” and why we call these the Punic wars). From their sea-loving forebears, the Carthaginians had inherited a wide-spread empire that used trade and a strong navy to dominate the known world.

The Mediterranean balance of power in 264 BCE (Image courtesy Jon Platek)

The Mediterranean balance of power in 264 BCE (Image courtesy Jon Platek)

The Roman Republic was a newcomer to the world stage. The earlier Roman kingdom had transmogrified into a republic with a strong senatorial caste (as is the case in Maryland, senators weren’t elected; they inherited their position) . The privileged senators were also burdened with many duties, chief among them being the continued expansion of Rome’s borders. Naturally, this soon brought Rome and her army into conflict with Carthage and her navy. (A similar situation was responsible for the War of 1812.)

The First Punic War (there were three) started with a Roman invasion of Sicily. Starting with Messina, the Romans soon seized control of the entire island (a tactic that Patton would advocate more than 2200 year later). Though Syracuse remained a nominal free state, it was effectively turned into a Roman possession, which allowed Rome to turn its sights farther away from home.

The Romans then developed a new weapon to use against the Carthaginians. Because they knew that Rome could never match Carthage in pure sea craft but the Carthaginians could never defeat the Roman army, Roman generals devised a way to use army tactics on the high seas. They added a boarding plank onto Roman triremes so that the Roman ship could lock onto Carthaginian ones and force them to fight hand-to-hand, where the Romans excelled.

The Med after the First Punic War (Image modified from Jon Pal)

The Mediterranean after the First Punic War (Image modified from Jon Platek)

The tactic was overwhelmingly successful. Within eight years, Roman forces had landed on Africa and brought the fight to the walls of Carthage. Though the African campaign soon bogged down, it forced Carthage to split its attention. Not only did the Carthaginians have to retake Sicily, they had to defend their home turf. But Rome was seriously over-extended, which prevented them from being able to exploit their advantage and bring the war to a conclusive ending. It wasn’t until the Battle of the Aegates Islands on March 10, 241 BCE, that the Romans were able to destroy a large enough portion of the Carthaginian navy to force a peace. The war had dragged on for 23 years, but Rome was the victor. And the rest was history.

We know the history of the Punic wars because the Romans were meticulous note-takers and record-keepers. But archeologists have only scratched the surface of the pile of manuscripts left behind by the Romans. If you’d like to help them discover more about how the Romans lived, then why not join the Ancient Lives project?

January 25 – No, It Isn’t

Today’s factismal: Today is not National Opposite Day.

If you lived about 2600 years ago in Greece, you would have had very little to do other than fight off invaders, enslave the survivors, and make up paradoxes. In your spare time, you’d name the Constellations after your favorite dirty stories, er, myths, and invent mathematics and physics (but get both of them very, very wrong). But paradoxes were what you really wanted to do; if you invented a good one, you’d be famous across the land. That’s because the Greeks felt that we could only understand Nature by using logic and since paradoxes point out where logic breaks down, they helped us understand Nature best.

One of the paradoxes of Greece: the temples were also centers of science. Temple of Apollo on Aegina. (My camera)

One of the paradoxes of Greece: the temples were also centers of science. Temple of Apollo on Aegina.
(My camera)

And while Greece was full of philosophers creating new ideas and testing them with new paradoxes, one of the best came from Epimenides, a Greek who was born just off the mainland on the isle of Crete. According to legend, Epimenides was born in 900 BC, slept for 57 years in a cave, and died around 600 BC. And according to what archaeologists have found, he once wrote “Cretans, all liars” as part of an ode to Zeus; modern versions of the saying have changed it slightly to “All Cretans are liars”.

The stoa (porch) where Greek philosophers liked to hang out. (My camera)

The stoa (porch) where Greek philosophers liked to hang out.
(My camera)

Now, given that Epimenides was from Crete, is his statement true or not? If he speaks the truth, then all Cretans must be liars which means that he is a liar which means that his statement cannot be true. But if it is false, then Cretans must be truth tellers which means that his statement is true and all Cretans are liars. (As is the case with all paradoxes, there is a way out; it lies in the word “all”. If only some Cretans are liars, then the statement “All Cretans are liars” can both be a lie {because only some are} and still allow him to be a liar.) This paradox has entertained and befuddled folks ever since the time that Epimenides first told it (or didn’t). In many ways, his paradox was the model for National Opposite Day, which is today.

And if you’d like to be a model scientist, why not head over to Ancient Lives? They need your help in (literally) piecing together the past. You’ll match up pieces of papyrus and help the archaeologists discover more about how the Greeks once lived. Who knows – you may even help them uncover a new paradox! To learn more, head over to:

October 5 – Read Any Good Books Lately?

Today’s Factismal: The Codex Sinaiticus (“paper book from Sinai”) was discovered 156 years ago; we are still discovering new parts today.

There is an old adage that one person’s trash is another person’s treasure. For anthropologists, that is doubly true – not only do they look for treasures like the riches of King Tut, but they also dig through piles of trash called middens looking for clues as to how people once lived. And sometimes the two collide.

That was the case for the Codex Sinaiticus. Constantin von Tischendorf was an archeologist that would have made Indiana Jones proud. He was a renowned scholar who read Ancient Greek and Aramaic and who was willing to take long, dangerous journeys in search of priceless manuscripts. And in the Greek monastery at Mount Sinai, he hit the jackpot.

The Book of Lamentations (Image courtesy http://www.codexsinaiticus.org)

The Book of Lamentations
(Image courtesy http://www.codexsinaiticus.org)

While digging through a trash basket, he found scraps of what appeared to be very old paper with Bible verses written in Ancient Greek. He asked the monks why the papers had been thrown in the trash; you can imagine his horror when he was told that the paper was worthless and being used to start fires! Tischendorf convinced the abbot to give him the paper and not to burn any more old manuscripts until he had an opportunity to look them over. And, though it took him fifteen years and three more trips, he eventually rescued what is widely regarded to be one of the most complete copies of the original Bible ever found.

Known today as the Codex Sinaiticus (“paper book from Sinai”), the ancient text has helped scholars understand how the text has changed over the centuries and to trace the history of the writing of the Bible. It has also shed a strong light on how manuscripts were created in the period of its writing (somewhen between 325 CE and 360 CE). The Codex Sinaiticus was transcribed by at least four different scribes and proof-read by several others; there are literally thousands of hand-written notes in the margins correcting mistakes that had been made.

Ecclesiastes with corrections in red (Image courtesy lll)

Ecclesiastes with corrections in red
(Image courtesy http://www.codexsinaiticus.org)

Interestingly, the work on the Codex Sinaiticus and other ancient manuscripts continues today. The papyrus and vellum of ancient documents has been rained on, scorched by fire, eaten by bugs, and left out in the Sun to fade. As a result, only fragments are readable by scholars. However, their work is being made easier now by citizen scientists who volunteer to identify patterns that the anthropologists can use to translate the works. If you’d like to help, then consider going to Ancient Lives:

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: