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?

February 1 – Have A Heart!

Today’s factismal: February is American Heart Month!

Quick! If you are a woman, gather three of your female friends. Odds are that one of the four of you has heart disease. That’s because 42.9 million women in the USA, or about 28% of the female population has heart disease. And it isn’t just women who suffer from this; about one in every twelve men has heart disease. And heart disease is the number one killer in the USA, accounting for nearly a quarter of all deaths. Heart disease kills more Americans than accidents, diabetes, kidney failure, influenza, suicide, and murder combined.

One in four women and one on twelve men suffer from heart disease

One in four women and one on twelve men suffer from heart disease

And heart disease takes many forms. There’s atrial fibrillation, where the top part of the heart beats in 8/8 time while the bottom part does a waltz. There’s coronary artery disease, where the pipes that lead to your heart get clogged up with fatty plaque. There’s heart failure, where the heart moves only a little blood even when your body wants a lot. And then there’s a heart attack, where your heart just throws in the towel and decides to take a rest on the sidelines for a bit.

Heart disease rates across the USA (Image courtesy CDC)

Heart disease rates across the USA
(Image courtesy CDC)

Fortunately, there are almost as many ways to combat heart disease as there are types of heart disease. Adding just 30 minutes of light exercise each day by walking, working in the garden, or going for a bike ride, is enough to reduce the effects of heart disease by nearly 3/4. Eating a low-fat, low salt diet cuts the risk of stroke and heart attack by more than 1/3. And keeping an upbeat attitude has also been shown to improve health (and to get you more friends to share those long walks with).

If you’d like to learn more about heart health and American Heart Health Month, then head on over to:

January 20 – Nice Ice Babies

Today’s Factismal: Today is Penguin Awareness Day.

Today is a day of Earth-shattering importance. I do not refer to the minor affairs of politics. No! I refer to the fact that today, of all days, is Penguin Awareness Day!

Penguins are among the world’s most mis-understood animals. When they aren’t being mis-cast in cola commercials, they are being portrayed as tap-dancing dandies. In truth, the seventeen living species of penguins are far more interesting than their stereotypes. In honor of World Penguin Awareness Day, here are ten quick facts about penguins:

  1. Penguins don’t just live in Antarctica. The Galapagos Penguin lives on the Galapagos Islands, right on the Equator. In addition, there are penguins in Africa (the Africa penguin), New Zealand (Snares, Erect-crested, Yellow-eyed, and Fiordland penguins), Australia (the Little Blue penguin), and South America (King, Magellanic, and Rock-hopper penguins).

    A penguin's stomach lining; the green color comes form the krill. (My camera)

    A penguin’s stomach lining; the green color comes form the krill. (My camera)

  2. Penguins mostly eat krill. Though penguins enjoy fish when they can get it, they mostly dine on tiny little shrimpoids called krill. The problem with that is that krill is rich in fluoride, which can be poisonous in high concentration. In order to avoid that, penguins throw up their stomach linings, forming bright green puddles of goo on the shore.

    A proud Chinstrap father huddles over his chicks (my camera)

    A proud Chinstrap father huddles over his chicks (my camera)

  3. Penguin chicks don’t all hatch at the same time. If all of the penguin eggs were laid at the same time and hatched together, then the whole colony would be vulnerable to an unseasonable cold snap or strong storm. By staggering the clutches of eggs, the colony ensures that there will always be another generation. As a result, it is very common to see eggs, hatchlings, and young adults in the same colony.
  4. Like all birds, penguins just have one opening for pooping, peeing, and laying eggs. Called the cloaca, which is Latin for “sewer”, this arrangement is common in amphibians and reptiles as well.

    A Gentoo tobogganing in the snow (My camera)

    A Gentoo tobogganing in the snow (My camera)

  5. Penguins will “swim” on snow by lying on their bellies and pushing along with their feet and fins. Biologists call this “tobogganing”; everyone else just calls it cute. They do this in order to move quickly, which helps them avoid predators.

    A Gentoo gathering pebbles for his nest (My camera)

    A Gentoo gathering pebbles for his nest (My camera)

  6. Most penguins build their nests out of pebbles. Because penguins live in extreme environments, there isn’t much in the way of plant growth. So there aren’t any twigs to use for a nest. But there are lots of rocks. Building a nest out of rocks also allows the nest to drain quickly when it rains. But because there aren’t enough really good pebbles lying around, penguins will steal them from other penguins’ nests!

    The world's largest congregation of Chinstrap penguins (My camera)

    The world’s largest congregation of Chinstrap penguins (My camera)

  7. The world’s largest Chinstrap colony is on an active volcano. More than 200,000 chinstrap penguins live in one colony on Deception Island. This active volcano had its last eruption in 1969

    The barbs on penguin tongues keep their dinner where it belongs (My camera)

    The barbs on penguin tongues keep their dinner where it belongs (My camera)

  8. Penguin tongues have barbs. The barbs all point back into the throat, which helps the penguin as it tries to swallow things that would much rather be swimming away.

    Chinstrap penguins porpoising through the water (My camera)

    Chinstrap penguins porpoising through the water (My camera)

  9. Penguins are the fastest swimming bird. They can go as fast as 20 mph while porpoising. As the name suggests, porpoising means that the penguin jumps in and out of the water like a porpoise. This helps them move very quickly and keeps them out of the water where orcas and seals (both of whom think penguins are quite tasty) live.

    A Gentoo takes the plunge (My camera)

    A Gentoo takes the plunge (My camera)

  10. Penguins spend about three-quarters of their lives in the water, searching for food. It takes a lot of energy to be a bird, and it takes even more to be a bird that lives in a cold region. As a result, penguins must eat almost constantly in order to build up enough fat to survive the winter. Since their food lives in the water, that means that penguins must spend a lot of time in the water, hunting for food.

If you’d like to watch penguins as they frolic, then please hie you 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 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 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:

November 1 – Not-So-Sweet

Today’s factismal: November is National Diabetes Awareness Month

Diabetes mellitus (its name means “passing through sweet”, a reference to the increased sugar levels in the urine of diabetics) is one of the more common diseases; world-wide, nearly 300 million people have diabetes. In the US about one out of every ten people have diabetes and one out of every four has prediabetes, indicating that they are at a higher risk for developing the disease. And diabetes is nothing new. Egyptians in the court of King Tut diagnosed it, as did the Greeks of Socrates’ time who gave the disease its name. And until 1922, diabetes was a death sentence.

There are 30 million people in the USA with diabetes and 86 million with prediabetes

There are 30 million people in the USA with diabetes and 86 million with prediabetes

Diabetes damages blood vessels, leading to stroke, heart attacks, blindness, and kidney damage ; it also attacks nerves, muscle, and even your gums. In advanced cases, the patient’s body releases glucose in response to low insulin levels and put them into a coma that led to death. Though the less severe complications can be treated with a combination of diet and exercise (which is still the recommended course of action today), there was no cure for diabetic coma. Once a patient slipped into a coma, death was sure to follow within a few weeks. And even the diets used to treat patients in the 1900s were severe enough to cause death; a typical “menu” included under 400 calories a day (roughly what you would get from an Egg McMuffin) and so led to weight loss and starvation.

But that changed in 1922. Just one year earlier, Banting and Best had identified a lack of insulin as the culprit in diabetes, and had managed to develop a method for extracting insulin from the pancreas of sheep. (Interestingly, only Banting was awarded the Nobel Prize for the discovery. That made him so mad that he refused to accept the medal and shared the prize money with Best!) Their discovery was put to the test by Leonard Thompson, a 14 year old boy who had just been diagnosed with diabetes.

The first injection was nearly a disaster. Early extraction methods sometimes left impurities in the insulin, and one of those sparked an allergic reaction that nearly killed Leonard. But he survived and did not go into a coma, which was miracle enough in those days. Another researcher was able to develop a better method for extracting insulin using beef pancreases. The new insulin was a success and allowed Leonard to live to the ripe old age of 27, when he died of pneumonia. Insulin was soon the “go-to” medicine for diabetes; within five years, it was available world-wide and diabetes had changed from a death sentence to a manageable condition.

So how do you prevent diabetes? Simple: eat well, exercise a lot, and pick the right parents. Diets low in sugar and fat and high in fiber have been shown to reduce the odds of getting diabetes. (They also help keep you looking good and feeling strong. Score!) Exercise does more than burn calories; it also improves your muscle’s ability to use glucose which eases the workload on your insulin-producing cells. (It also helps keep you looking good and feeling strong. Score!) And diabetes has been shown to be more common in some families and ethnic groups; if your parents or siblings have diabetes, there is an increased chance that you’ll get it, too. Unfortunately, it is very hard to pick the right parents so you should concentrate on your diet and exercise.

If you’d like to see your odds of getting diabetes, why not take the Diabetes risk test?

And if you score too high for comfort, then head over to the American Diabetes Month® website to learn more: