February 10 – V & A Day

Posted on February 10, 2016

When one of my daughters was staying in London for the summer, she told me that she wanted to take me to the V & A Museum. “The Viennay?” I asked. “I've never heard of that. What sort of museum is it?”

At that point, I spotted the logo in a brochure she was handing me:

Oh! The V and A! Victoria and Albert!”

I loved the museum, a lot. But today isn't really about the V & A Museum. Instead, it's about the couple themselves.

On this date in 1840, Queen Victoria of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Empress of India, married her first cousin. He was Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. He was born in what is now Germany. When he married Queen Victoria, he did not become king; instead, he became Prince Consort. It's sort of like being the First Lady, the wife of the U.S. President; being a Prince Consort doesn't necessarily mean you have any power or even particular duties, but you generally can exert a lot of influence, organize or champion programs, and work on issues that are important to you.

Victoria and Albert were a good pair. The Queen depended more and more on Albert's advice; he took on responsibilities in running the household, their many estates, and the office; and he supported causes such as the worldwide abolition of slavery and education reform.

The two had nine children, all of whom lived to be adults, and several of whom had very long lives. The oldest son eventually became King of England, Edward VII; the oldest daughter became German Empress and Queen of Prussia.

Victoria and Albert had 42 grandchildren! Four of them became reigning monarchs, and five of them were consorts of monarchs. Back then, it was really common for royal and noble families across Europe to arrange marriages among their children, to keep the power “all in the family” and to try to keep the peace among nations and empires through intermarriage and familial relationships. Sometimes Victoria is called “the grandmother of Europe.”

Unfortunately, Albert died too soon, at age 42. Victoria was so grief-stricken, she mourned him the rest of her life – she even wore black for the rest of her life – 40 more years! Albert's rooms were kept as they had been during his life – dusted and cleaned, and even hot water brought every morning and linens and towels changed every day! And we are talking about his rooms in all four of their homes: Buckingham Palace, Balmoral Castle, Osborne House, and Windsor Castle! (Apparently, this sort of thing was done back then among very rich people, so this isn't as freaky as it sounds.)

The Victoria era was a time of huge changes – England gradually became a modern constitutional monarchy, the modern idea of Christmas as a time of gift-giving largely developed, ideas of universal education and literacy grew and spread, developments in printing technologies made visual art and literature available even to the masses.

Also on this date:

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February 9 – Happy Birthday, Brian Greene

Posted on February 9, 2016

 Brian Greene has worked on mirror symmetry and the flop transition, and he deals with Calabi-Yau manifolds, relating the conifold to one of its orbifolds.

If you aren't sure what any of that means, that makes two of us. Actually, given the fact that my spell check program doesn't know many of those words, I suspect that makes billions and billions of us that don't know what that means!

Okay, let's get down to things we DO get: Brian Greene, born on this day in 1963, is a theoretical physicist and string theorist. He is also a professor at Columbia University, an author of books for the general public, chairman of the World Science Festival, and occasional TV personality on The Big Bang Theory and PBS specials.

String theory is a possible explanation for why there is gravity, along with other deep questions of physics and cosmology. String theorists hope their theory can join the theories of Relativity and of Quantum Mechanics, the physics of the very large and the physics of the very small. Basically, it is a Theory of Everything.

(I think!)

Actually, several sources explain that string theory is a theory of quantum gravity, which is the field of physics that is trying to describe the force of gravity according to the principles of quantum mechanics.

If you want to know more about string theory, check out this website: String Theory for Kids (and Clever Adults)

Here is a super-short explanation of string theory...and here is today's birthday honoree, Brian Greene himself, talking about string theory.

Glaciologist and aerial photographer Erich Dagobert von Drygalski's birthday

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February 8 – Year of the Monkey

Posted on February 8, 2016

Los Angeles Chinese New Year parade
Chinese New Year is one of the world's biggest holidays. More than a billion people celebrate it, all over the world, especially in Asian countries such as China, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macau, Thailand, Mauritius, North and South Korea, Singapore, Vietnam, and Philippines. There are major celebrations in cities on other continents – especially cities with large populations of Chinese people. Here are just a few cities in the U.S. with large Chinese New Year celebrations: San Francisco, New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Los Angeles.

This year is called the Year of the Monkey. There are 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac, and each year is assigned to one sign in a rotation. Babies born in 2016 are born in the Year of the Monkey, as are people who were born in 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, and so on...

According to ancient Chinese lore, people born in the Year of the Monkey are supposed to be innovative, clever, and enthusiastic. But of course this tradition is considered just-for-fun, these days – there's no data that supports the idea that people born in particular years are more innovative and clever than people born in other years!

To learn more about Chinese New Year, check out these earlier posts:

About those monkeys...

All monkeys are primates (a large group – what is referred to as “an order” of mammals). But lemurs, tarsiers, chimpanzees, gorillas, and we humans are also primates – and none of us are monkeys!
Almost all monkeys have tails. Most New World monkeys have prehensile tails that can grip branches (or whatever), but Old World monkeys have non-prehensile tails that are just used for balance. Barbary macaques (sometimes called Barbary apes, even though they are not apes) have no tail at all.

The term “monkey” isn't very useful in biology. That's because the Old World monkeys are more closely related to apes, including humans, than they are to New World monkeys. So although the term “Old World monkeys” is useful, and the term “New World monkeys” is useful, just the term “monkeys” is NOT useful as a taxonomic label.

Here are a few examples of Old World monkeys:

And here are a few New World monkeys:

Also on this date:

Opera Day   

Culture Day in Slovenia

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February 7 – National Periodic Table Day

Posted on February 7, 2016

Not long ago I wrote about Dmitri Mendeleev's Periodic Table of the Elements. I linked to an interactive table, a video, some cool Periodic Table products, and of course the wonderful Periodic Table song. 

So...why is TODAY Periodic Table Day?

As with all scientists, Mendeleev came up with his contribution by “standing on the shoulders” of past scientists who had made earlier contributions. (One of the most respected scientists ever was Sir Isaac Newton, and he once wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”) That's one of the most marvelous things about science – whatever works is kept, ideas that are disproven fall away, and we hone in little by little to a better, truer understanding of life, the universe, and everything.

Today we acknowledge one of the earlier scientists who noticed the pattern to the properties of elements. On this date in 1863, English chemist John Newlands published one of the first table of elements. At that time, 63 elements were known; Newlands arranged the elements by increasing atomic weight and assigned them atomic numbers that showed that order. He grouped them into 11 different groups and suggested the “Law of Octaves”: any one element has similar properties to elements eight places before and behind it on his table.

Newlands was correct about there being patterns of properties, and he was able to correctly predict an element that was eventually discovered and named germanium. However, at the time he presented his idea, it was ridiculed by many other chemists, and his lecture presenting the idea was not published.

Actually, Newlands arrangement of the elements was not as helpful to chemists and did not make as many accurate predictions as Mendeleev's table, so in my opinion, Mendeleev deserves the credit that he receives. However, Newlands did have some great ideas, and he ended up fighting to receive some credit and recognition after Mendeleev's table was published and praised!


You are hopefully wondering why the chemical elements should follow a pattern of eight.

It's because electrons of atoms can only exist at certain energy levels (and therefore certain distances from the atom's nucleus). And the first several energy levels can hold up to two electrons (in the first shell) or up to eight electrons (in the next two shells). Check out this video

And the outermost electrons (which are called the valence electrons) are the ones that react with other elements. Check out this video

Also on this date:

Superbowl Sunday

Author Charles Dickens's birthday

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