February 2 – Welcome To Spring!

Today’s factismal: The woodchuck, or groundhog as it is often known, is the largest member of the squirrel family in North America.

Happy groundhog day, everyone! As you’ve probably heard, the world’s second-most famous rodent crept out of his burrow today and saw his shadow, indicating another six weeks of winter (boo!). As you might guess, being awakened in the middle of a six month-long nap does very little to aid Punxsutawney Phil’s prognostications; he’s only been right about 39% of the time.

A groundhog is moved after predicting six more weeks of winter (Image courtesy USFWS)

A groundhog is moved after predicting six more weeks of winter
(Image courtesy USFWS)

But why would anyone consult a groundhog about the seasons? And why on February 2nd? It all goes back to the Romans. 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. Traditionally, they would consult the auguries for the end of winter about this time every year. In the old days, they would slit the animals open and examine the entrails; today, we just see how sleepy they are.

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)

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 on a specific date. 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.  Winter would show up on November 1, Spring would start on February 2, Summer would begin on May 1, and Fall would roll in on August 1 . 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. Winter now started on December 1, Spring marched in on March 1, Summer commenced on June1,  and Fall began on September 1. (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?

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:

January 2 – Anemia Pint!

Today’s factismal: The human body creates two million red blood cells every second.

On a typical day, some 41,000 units of blood will be needed in the US alone. But no day is average; there are good days and bad days. And most of the bad blood days happen in January when there are more accidents and fewer people donating blood. As a result, blood banks are always critically short of blood during the long winter months. And that is why January is National Blood Donor Month.


Which blood type are you?

When you donate blood to the Red Cross, they use it specifically for saving lives through transfusions. But your one pint of blood may be used for as many as three different transfusions! They can do that because blood consists of plasma (55%), red blood cells (40%), white blood cells (3%), and platelets (2%). After you donate, your blood is tested for communicable diseases as a precautionary measure. Next it is separated into red blood cells (which carry oxygen), platelets (which cause the blood to clot), and plasma (which holds the other two). By using the red blood cells on one person, the platelets for a second, and giving the plasma to a third, your one donation can save three lives!

bloodOf the three components, red blood cells are the most important. That’s because the red blood cells are covered with proteins that can form clots if they don’t match the proteins in the serum. Fortunately, back in 1901, Karl Landsteiner discovered that most people have red blood cells that are covered with one of three different sets of proteins. He called them “groups A, B, and C”; this was changed into A, B, and O by later workers. And just six years later, in 1907 the first successful blood transfusion took place in New York. Thanks to his work, there are now more than 30 million successful blood donations every year in the US alone!

Blood Type Rh Factor How many have it?
O + 1 person in 3
O 1 person in 15
A + 1 person in 3
A 1 person in 16
B + 1 person in 12
B 1 person in 67
AB + 1 person in 29
AB 1 person in 167

If you’d like to be one of the 15 million people who donate blood every year, then why not contact the Red Cross? Every drop of blood that they get is used specifically for transfusions and they are always need more than they have, especially in January. So go give!


December 28 – Stayin’ Alive

Today’s factismal: Sixteen species have been removed from the Endangered Species List in 2016.

It is no secret that animals go extinct. Sometimes we cheer when that happens (smallpox, anyone?) but more often we bemoan the loss (the Carolina parakeet, the Western Black Rhino). Fortunately for the animals (and ourselves), we do more than just weep, wail, and gnash our teeth; we also work to preserve species like the tapir and the tiger to keep them from joining their brethren in extinction. And one of the most powerful tools for preserving animals on the brink of extinction is the Endangered Species Act, which was became law on December 28, 1973.

“Extinction? Yech!”
(My camera)

Today, thanks to the Endangered Species Act,  forty-seven species have gone from being in danger of extinction to being plentiful enough to be taken off the list (though some of them are still protected under other laws); sixteen of them have been delisted in the past year alone! Sadly, ten other species have become extinct during the same time period. And the Act continues to work today, thanks to citizen scientists like you.

A rear view of a humpback's nose (My camera)

Thanks to the Endangered Species Act, this humpback whale is no longer endangered
(My camera)

One of the more interesting and useful parts of the act is the provision that allows any US citizen to petition to have a species listed if it meets any one of five different criteria:

  1. If its habitat or range is threatened with the present or threatened destruction, modification, or curtailment. (Think: polar bears.)
  2. If too many of the species have been used for commercial, recreational, scientific, or educational purposes. (Think: whales.)
  3. If disease or predation is causing a decline in the species. (Think: song birds.)
  4. If existing regulatory mechanisms don’t do enough to protect the species.
  5. If other factors threaten to make it extinct (Think: dinosaurs).

If petitioning NOAA (for marine species) or the Fish and Wildlife Service (for land species) to add a species to the list seems like too much paperwork (and who could blame you), then there are other ways that a citizen scientist can contribute.

A bison grazing near the Great Salt Lake (My camera)

Bison were once critically endangered
(My camera)

The most obvious of these is by helping biologists discover which animals they’ve snapped pictures of in the wild. The Toledo Zoo Wild Shots team has planted cameras all over the world and needs volunteers like you to look at the pictures and let them know if there are any animals in them. To learn more (and see some pretty cool pictures), head over to:

December 26 – One Geek A’Counting

Today’s factismal: There are six types of bird in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.

Everyone knows the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. That’s no surprise, given that it has been a perennial favorite since 1780. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it is played approximately twelve zillion times in versions ranging from the traditional to the bizarre. But what many don’t know is that the song is based on the traditional period of Christmastide (also known as Yuletide).

For some reason, the ostrich is not mentioned in the Twelve Days of Christmas (My camera)

For some reason, the ostrich is not mentioned in the Twelve Days of Christmas
(My camera)

This twelve-day period stretches from Christmas day (the first day of Christmas) to January 5 (Twelfth Night) and culminates on Epiphany (the day when the Magi found Jesus). The days are:

  1. December 25 – Christmas (A partridge in a pear tree)
  2. December 26 – Feast of St. Stephen (Two turtle doves)
  3. December 27 – Feast of St. John the Evangelist (Three French hens)
  4. December 28 – Feast of the Holy Innocents (Four colly birds)
  5. December 29 – Feast of St. Thomas Becket (Five gold rings)
  6. December 30 – Feast of St. Anysia (Six geese-a-laying)
  7. December 31 – Feast of St. Sylvester (Seven swans-a-swimming)
  8. January 1 – Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord (Eight maids-a-milking)
  9. January 2 – Octave-Day of St. Stephen (Nine ladies dancing)
  10. January 3 – Octave-Day of St. John (Ten lords-a-leaping)
  11. January 4 – Octave-Day of the Holy Innocents (Eleven pipers piping)
  12. January 5 – Vigil of the Feast of the Epiphany (Twelve drummers drumming)
  13. January 6 – The Feast of the Epiphany (Christmas is over. Time to pay the bills!)

If you kept track of the birds, you’ll know that the song mentions six different types of bird and a total of 23 birds (assuming that you don’t count the endless repetitions; if you count those, then there are 184 – imagine the mess!).

This isn't a partridge and that ain't no pear tree! (My camera)

This isn’t a partridge and that ain’t no pear tree!
(My camera)

But what you might not know is that there is another grand tradition that also spans the twelve days of Christmas: the Christmas Bird Count! Run for the past 114 years by the Audubon Society, this event tries to tally all of the birds in the world so that researchers know which ones are doing well and which need help. If you’d like to take part, fly on over to:

December 21 – Running, Jumping, Standing Still

Today’s factismal:  Today is the first day of winter – but only if you are an astronomer.

Today is one of the more interesting days in the year. It is the day in which the Sun stops its apparent southward movement through the sky and starts to move northward once more. On this day, the Sun appears to stand still (at least as far as the North/South question is concerned), hence the name “solstice” (Latin for “Sun stand”). Today, astronomers use the change in the Sun’s apparent movement to declare the start of “astronomical winter”. But 10,000 years ago, people used it to mark the middle of winter. So today is both the start and the middle of winter!

The analemma tracked out by the Sun over the year (Image courtesy the Analemma)

The analemma tracked out by the Sun over the year
(Image courtesy the Analemma)

So how did people track the Sun 10,000 years ago? The same way that we do today; they plotted the position of the Sun at noon using a stick and pebbles (teachers: this makes a great class science project!). The pebbles created a figure-eight pattern that the Greeks named after the pedestal of a sundial; they called it an “analemma”. Of course, 10,000 years ago, they sometimes used some pretty big pebbles – Stonehenge is one example of a solstice calculator.

Stonehenge was used (in part) to calculate the winter solstice (Image courtesy English Heritage)

Stonehenge was used (in part) to calculate the winter solstice
(Image courtesy English Heritage)

Today we’ve managed to shrink the size of the stones that we use to do calculations, and we’ve found ways to get more calculations from them. And one of the best way of doing this is by linking your silicon-based calculator (that is, your computer) to others so that researchers can perform calculations that are too big or too complicated for any single computer. (Match that, Stonehenge!) One project that is using this sort of distributed computing is the SkyNet. They want to process radio astronomy data using your spare CPUs. To take part, set your browser to:

December 18 – Oh, Nuts!

Today’s factismal: When the Nutcracker debuted on December 18, 1892, it was a flop.

Ask someone about Christmas traditions today and odds are that they’ll mention going to see either a ballet of the Nutcracker or listening to a concert of it. Every tradition has a start, and the Nutcracker is no exception. However, unlike many other holiday traditions (wassailing, gift-giving, sodium bicarbonate), the Nutcracker wasn’t an immediate hit. As a matter of fact, it was a complete flop.

The music was written by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky when he was at the height of his popularity and was based on a well-known and loved children’s story, The Nutcracker and the Mouse King. In the story, a child named Clara falls asleep and dreams that her favorite Christmas toy does battle with the forces of the Mouse King; when she helps the toys win the battle, she is rewarded by being taken to the land of sweets where the various goodies dance for her before she eats them. (Lewis Carol must have been taking notes…) Tchaikovsky kept the story but phrased it as a ballet. He spent the better part of two years working on the score before it debuted in St. Petersburg, but was never happy with the final version.

The Nutcracker being done by the ballet corp that made it popular (Image courtesy San Francisco Ballet)

The Nutcracker being done by the ballet corp that made it popular
(Image courtesy San Francisco Ballet)

And neither was the audience at the debut performance. They found it confusing and boring and many left the theater. Tchaikovsky would later blame his co-worker Marius Petipa for many of the short-comings in the ballet. Petipa demanded that he have control over the music that Tchaikovsky wrote, down to the number of bars in each number and the tempo that they were performed. Tchaikovsky was crushed, but found some measure of content (and healthy music sales) in the response to a much-abridged suite that he extracted from the ballet.

And there the music stayed for nearly fifty years. Though a few daring ballets did perform the entire piece, most considered it a minor work of a major composer and ignored it in favor of more modern productions. And most non-ballet music lovers only knew it through the excerpt that Tchaikovsky had promoted and that Disney used for his failure, Fantasia. But in 1944, the San Francisco Ballet revived the production and made it click. For the first time, the Nutcracker was popular. And ever since, it has been a part of the holiday.

A large part of the reason that it has been so popular is that the music is undeniably catchy. Though it is not Tchaikovsky’s best work (I’d argue for Capriccio Italien), it is one of his most recognizable. Each act has a distinct musical signature that allows the audience to identify and enjoy it almost immediately; in the business, this is known as a hook. But what is interesting about hooks is that we still don’t know how they work and why they are so memorable. Fortunately, there is a group of scientists who are researching this very topic. Called logically enough #Hooked, they are trying to understand hooks so that they can be applied to other areas of our life. If you’d like to take part in their experiment, then swing on by: