November 30 – Map Quest

Today’s factismal: The first map of the Moon was made 407 years ago today.

Back in the 1600’s, there were only two things that everyone was sure of: death and the fact that things in the heavens were perfect. The first was kind of obvious thanks to smallpox, war, famine, and straight party ticket voting, and the second had to be true because Aristotle said it and the Roman Catholic Church believed it. At the time, it was thought that anything on Earth was corrupt thanks to Adam’s sin while anything in the skies was part of Heaven and therefore incorruptible. So you can imagine the furor when Galileo took the telescope he invented and turned it to the Moon – and then told everyone what he saw.

Galileo's telescope revolutionized our view of the Universe - literally!

Galileo’s telescope revolutionized our view of the Universe – literally!

And what he saw was revolutionary. Instead of being a perfect, smooth sphere, the Moon was covered with pockmarks and scars – what we know now to be impact craters and lava flows. While today all of the attention is given to Galileo’s proofs that the Earth was not the center of the Universe, it was his demonstration that the heavens were imperfect that struck the most direct blow at the Roman Catholic Church’s philosophy. As a result, even though anyone could verify the truth of Galileo’s work by simply looking, many preferred not to do so lest they also fall into heresy.

Galileo's map of the Moon (Image courtesy Galileo)

Galileo’s map of the Moon
(Image courtesy Galileo)

If you aren’t afraid of heresy then go out to look a the Moon tonight and take a long gander at the big black splotch that’s looking back at you. That’s Oceanus Procelarum, or the Ocean of Storms. It was named in 1655 (46 years after Galileo published his map) by Giovanni Riccioli, a Catholic priest who liked Galileo’s results but not his methods. To “punish” Galileo and his friends for disproving Church doctrine, he used the names of those who supported the heliocentric universe for the craters nearest Oceanus Procellarum which turns out to be one of the largest outflows of lava anywhere in the Solar System. That big white blotch on the eastern side of the stormy ocean? That’s Copernicus Crater, named for the chief heliocentricist and all-around troublemaker; those long white streaks are bits of lunar rock and dust that were thrown out when the asteroid slammed into the Moon and formed the crater.

A modern view of the Moon (Image courtesy NASA)

A modern view of the Moon
(Image courtesy NASA)

And while you may not believe it, we are still naming things on the Moon today! Even after four centuries of discoveries, there are still new features to see on the Moon and new things to identify. By mapping every crater and every lava flow and every mountain, we can get a better idea of how the Moon has changed over time and learn more about how the Solar System formed. And the best part is that you can help! Just head over to Cosmo Quest and start clicking on the Moon pictures to tell them what you see. For more information, land at:

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?

September 15 – Making the Tardigrade

Today’s factismal: The water bear has inspired a new type of glass.

If you have a crazy uncle (and who doesn’t?), odds are you’ve heard him say something like “Why do we spend so darn much on science? It never does nothing for us nohow!” Fortunately, it isn’t very hard to show your uncle where he’s wrong. For example, researchers have found new antibiotics from bacteria living in mud, have reduced the death rate to all-time lows using vaccines, turned fatal diseases into manageable problems, and found ways to speed shipping. And most recently, they have found a way to turn a tardigrade’s protective system into a stronger and clearer form of glass.

A tardigrade on a Q-tip (Image courtesy Darron Birgenheier)

A tardigrade on a Q-tip
(Image courtesy Darron Birgenheier)

What is a tradigrade, you ask? Why just one of the most amazing critters on Earth (or off of it). These little “water bears” shuffle about on moss, sucking the sap and being generally awesome. Also known as moss piglets, they have eight legs, a sharp snout, and an amazing ability to adapt. They are found in the depths of the ocean, on the highest mountains, in hot springs at 150°F, and below freezing ice. They can even go into a type of suspended animation when things get too extreme and come back to life when things get better later on.

A tardigrade getting along swimmingly (Image courtesy Tommy from Arad)

A tardigrade getting along swimmingly
(Image courtesy Tommy from Arad)

And that last trick was the clue that led to a new form of glass. When tardigrades go into suspended animation, they shed almost all of their water which mixes with proteins and other things on their outer shell and turns into a glasslike molecule that shields them from the environment. When researchers saw that, they decided to see if they could replicate the trick using ordinary glass. By depositing one thin layer of molecules at a time, they were able to build a glass that has a regular structure and some pretty irregular (for glass) properties. It was able to transmit light more efficiently, making it ideal for lasers and leds and solar cells. And it was stronger, making it ideal for screens and surgical tools. And all of this came about because some scientists looked at a tardigrade and asked “why can’t we do that?”

So the next time someone asks you what use science is, point to the handy tardigrade (assuming you can find one) and say “ask it!”

April 1 – All That Jazz

Today’s factismal: The central melody of a jazz tune is called the head.

Welcome to April, a month of weird weather, strange jokes, and lots of great music. That last happens because April is National Jazz Appreciation Month. But what is jazz? Simply put, jazz is the music that musicians like to play.

Many consider this to be the home of true jazz (My camera)

Many consider this to be the home of true jazz
(My camera)


There are two reasons that jazz musicians like jazz. The first is because it is so adaptable; you can turn just about any form of music into jazz. There are jazz versions of gospel songs, rock songs, brass band songs, and even classical music. The second is because jazz is a balance of improvisation and team work. Even though each player in a jazz combo has a solo to display his licks (the specific way he varies the tone and timing of notes), the combo must work together as a team to make the music make sense.

Jazz is played in small clubs and giant concert halls across the world (My camera)

Jazz is played in small clubs and giant concert halls across the world
(My camera)

Part of the way that they work together is by having each musician play her music in a different time; this is known as polyrythm. In jazz, it is common for some of the musicians to play three notes in the same amount of time that the others use to play two notes. Interestingly, the time used for each note in jazz also varies. For example, the first note of the three may get a full beat while the other two are given only half a beat each. In jazz lingo, these are swung notes. When everyone plays the same melody but uses different times, the music feels more vibrant.

Jazz is played everywhere that people love music (My camera)

Jazz is played everywhere that people love music
(My camera)

And part of the way that the musicians work together is by always returning to the central melody. Because the melody is usually played once with no changes at the start of the song, it is called the head. As the song progresses, the musicians each try out different variations on the melody, much as Bach did with his famous Goldberg variations (only without the wigs). The soloists will try changing the pitch while keeping the melody in a motivic improvisation. Or she might try shifting some of the notes in a paraphrase improvisation. But the best musicians will change the melody by inserting sets of notes known as licks into the melody in what is known as a formulaic improvisation.

The interesting thing is that citizen scientists are much like jazz players. We also work together as a team while working on our own individual solo projects that all come together to improve our understanding of the world around us. If you’d like to combine the two worlds even more closely, then why not Sing About Science? This project aims to gather all of the science songs ever written into one directory so that musicians and teachers and just plain geeks can find the right jazz:

November 10 – Would You Like To Play A Game?

Today’s factismal: The first video game was invented in 1947, 1951, 1958, 1961, or 1977.

Invention is a hard thing to define. Though we may think that we’ll know it when we see it, it is more common that we miss the small changes that build up to create a “new” invention. It happened with the light bulb (invented in 1802, 1841, 1872, and 1879), the laser (invented in 1917, 1953, and 1960), and the video game (invented in 1847, 1951, 1959, and 1977). But unlike the light bulb, which everyone “knows” was invented by Edison, and the laser, which everyone “knows” was invented by Maiman, the video game has no publicly proclaimed father – making it the most honest of the inventions!

The world's first video game (Image courtesy  Riki Manzoli)

The world’s first video game
(Image courtesy Riki Manzoli)

Perhaps the first video game (if we ignore the possible role of the Antikythera mechanism) was the eponymous Cathode Ray Tube Amusement Device. This device was nothing more than a modified oscilliscope (the cathode ray) with a button that they player would use to “fire” at a target (made from a piece of cellophane placed over the screen). Originally intended for training bombardiers, it enjoyed a brief life as an amusement device before the more active pinball took its place.

Soon after that came the introduction of a computer to the game, most notably with the release of OXO or Tic-Tac-Toe. Powered by a five-ton research computer with a memory 1/2,000,000th as large as the computer on your desk (ain’t progress great?), the computer would print out each move in a game of tic-tac-toe (or noughts and crosses as the Brits who invented the machine called the game) and won most of the time.

But a five-ton computer a reams of paper don’t exactly make for scintillating game play. And so it took the introduction of the CRT to computers in the late 1950s to give us “Mouse in a maze”, the forerunner of PacMan and all of the other “chase games”. But, unlike its children, in Mouse in a maze, the player constructed the maze and the computer ran the mouse, instead of the other way around.

Or is this the world's first video game? (Image courtesy Stanford Infolab)

Or is this the world’s first video game?
(Image courtesy Stanford Infolab)

It wasn’t until 1977 that video games took on their final incarnation when Bill Pitts and Hugh Tuck realized that there were folks who would pay money to play the games that they’d been giving away for free. So they added a coin slot to their version of “Galaxy Game” which pitted two player against each other in an attempt to destroy the other’s spaceship.

And the rest, as they say, is history. Within a few short years, video games would be in every mall in America and parents would be wondering what happened to their children and their spare change. And the games continue to change. Where it used to take a huge console to play a game, now you can carry it in your back pocket. And where games used to cost a quarter, now they run upwards of $50 each (but you get unlimited lives). But perhaps the best change of all in video games is that now you can play them and help scientists at the same time. Over at Citizen Sort,t hey are looking for a few good gamers to help them discover hidden connections in their data. To play, head over to:

November 5 – Holy Guacamole!

Today’s factismal: The world’s largest single aperture telescope is in Puerto Rico.

Quick! What’s big enough to hold 10,000 gallons of guacamole, deep enough to put a submarine in, precise enough to see supernovae 44 million light years away, and turns fifty-one years old this week? It is the Arecibo National Astronomy and Ionosphere Center (the Arecibo Observatory, or just Arecibo, for short).

The Arecibo "dish", big enough for a submarine to hide in (Image courtesy NAIC)

The Arecibo “dish”, big enough for a submarine to hide in
(Image courtesy NAIC)

Back in the late 1950s, scientists were just learning about the ionosphere and wanted to develop a tool that would allow them to probe its secrets. And other scientists were learning about radio emissions from planets and stars, and wanted a tool to learn about those. And when the first group of wonks met the second group of wonks, a new telescope was born.

The idea was simple: because the same energy (radio waves) that is used to probe the ionosphere is also used to learn more about distant planets and stars, instead of building two small instruments, why not build one huge one? They would get better resolution (thanks to the size of the reflecting dish), more power (thanks to the size of the transmitter/receiver), and more funding (thanks to the size of the project). And so they started looking for a place to build the world’s biggest (single aperture) telescope.

The remains of the very first supernova ever recorded (Image courtesy NASA)

The remains of the very first supernova ever recorded
(Image courtesy NASA)

They had quite a few requirements on the location. It had to be in the US (thanks to the Cold War). It had to be near the equator (so it could see the planets). It had to be in an area with eroded limestone features called karst (so that it would be easy to build). And the spot that best fit was a little place called Arecibo on the island of Puerto Rico. So that’s where they built it and, on November 1, 1963, they started getting signals.

An image of the Crab Nebula at radio frequencies (Image courtesy NASA)

An image of the Crab Nebula at radio frequencies (Image courtesy NASA)

And what amazing things they saw! At the end of six months, they had discovered that Mercury wasn’t tidally-locked to the Sun like the Moon is to Earth; instead, it had a funny 3:2 rotation so that the day on Mercury appears to take two years! Soon they proved the existence of neutron stars, and mapped asteroids, and found complex molecules in outer space. But they weren’t limited to discovering things; they could also help things discover us. On November 16, 1974, Carl Sagan and friends took over Arecibo and used it to send a message to the stars, letting ET know where to phone.

Jupiter at radio wavelengths (Image courtesy NASA)

Jupiter at radio wavelengths (Image courtesy NASA)

Arecibo continues its mission of discovery today. Though there are now larger telescopes made by linking several small telescopes together, it remains the largest single aperture telescope in the world and one of the most active telescopes, period. Twenty-four hours a day, 365.25 days a year, the astronomers at Arecibo are looking for the unusual, the beautiful, and the strange – all the normal facets of our wonderful universe. If you’d like to make a tour of that universe, then why not head over to WorldWide Telescope Ambassadors? They’ve got free web tools that allow you to create and share a trip through the most amazing parts of the sky:

August 20 – A Lot Of Brass

Today’s Factismal: Even though the saxophone is made out of brass, it is classified as a woodwind.

If you are an average person, then you probably don’t think much about musical instruments. The piano, the harp, the guitar – for most of us, they’ve always been there. But musicians know better. Every musical instrument had to be invented at some time by some person. The invention could happen when someone tries to duplicate an existing instrument electronically, as Moog did with the synthesizer. It could happen when someone notices an unusual sound being produced by something with another use, as happened with Theremin’s eponymous invention. Or it could happen when someone tries to combine the best parts of two different instruments, as Sax did with the saxophone.

Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone (and many other instruments) (Image courtesy Famous Belgians)

Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone (and many other instruments)
(Image courtesy Famous Belgians)

Sax was a musician living in Paris, who made a living by building musical instruments. His specialty was woodwinds and brass instruments and he had achieved a minor level of fame for some improvements he made to the bass clarinet. But Sax had noticed that there was a problem with most woodwinds: either they had a wide range but were quiet or they had a limited range but were loud. He decided to fix this by taking the mouthpiece of a clarinet (the most versatile of the woodwinds) and marrying it to the larger horn of an oboe (the loudest of the woodwinds). He tinkered with the design for a bit, including making them straight or curved depending on the register, until he found the right combination and revealed it to the world as the Saxophone.

Originally, he made saxophones out of wood. But as anyone who has priced a Stradivarius can attest, working with wood can be very expensive. Fortunately for Sax, a new process for stamping forms out of metal using the hydraulic press had just been invented. By adapting his design to a metal form, Sax was able to bring down the price of his new instrument which made it popular and him rich. Unfortunately, he also made a lot of enemies who attacked his patents and twice drove him into bankruptcy. Nevertheless, his instrument lives on as one of the most popular ways to make music ever invented.

If you’d like to see if you have what it takes to be a musician, then why not take the Perfect Pitch Test? These scientists are trying to determine why some people (like Florence Henderson) have the ability to determine any note by ear and other people (like me) couldn’t carry a tune if it were in a bucket.