April 24 – Happy Birthday, John Graunt

Posted on April 24, 2014

At the time that Graunt lived,
the European fashion for
hats was the capotain, seen
here. Both men and women
wore capotain hats.
Today's birthday boy made and sold hats—in other words, he was a haberdasher.

I am not writing about him because of his haberdashery, though. As a matter of fact, if ALL he ever did was make and sell hats, I never would have heard of John Graunt. He did, after all, live about 400 years ago!

No, the reason I am writing about Graunt—the reason he is famous—is that he was one of the world's first demographers.

Demography is the study of human populations through statistics, such as numbers of births, deaths, and marriages, amount of income, and so on. Graunt, born on this date in 1620, was able to use more than a century's worth of records of baptisms and deaths, kept in English churches, to answer questions about death rates. He discovered that death rates differed for men and women, and that death rates differed for city and rural populations.

Because he looked at the causes of death, Graunt is also considered one of the first experts on epidemiology (the study of the spread of diseases). He even tried to help England's king create a system of warning of the onset and spread of bubonic plague, using statistics; even though the system never was completed, Graunt's efforts did create the first statistically based estimation of the population of London.

Graunt presented his demographic studies to the Royal Society. Apparently many members of the Royal Society wanted nothing to do with Graunt and did not want a mere haberdasher to be elected to their august organization. But Charles II, King of England, brought Graunt into the society despite their reluctance.

Unfortunately, Graunt lived at a time when religious differences were tearing apart the nation; Graunt had converted to Catholicism shortly before the Great Fire of London, and when the fire was blamed on Catholics, Graunt lost his job. He ended his life very poor, suffering from some of the diseases he may have studied.

Explore demography

In the almost four centuries since Graunt, improvements in medicine and hygiene have improved our lives and health. However, all is not equal all over the world. Check out this graph of life expectancy (above), which shows that women tend to outlive men and the not-at-all-surprising fact that people in richer nations tend to outlive people in poorer nations. The Wikipedia article that provides the graph also gives the rankings and the hard numbers. Try to guess where your own nation will appear in the chart (#1? #7?) before you check it out. 

ChartsBin has a map that shows the daily calorie intake per capita (per person), all over the world. 

Demographic studies often tell us sad truths. I looked at this bar graph (below) showing the income gap by race in my own nation, the United States. I hoped that the fact that the numbers were from ten years ago would mean that the gap had shrunk...

...but then I spotted this graph (below) of the income gap by race and gender, and I realized that the gap has probably grown. This graph shows growth in the income gap along racial and gender lines for the last forty years of the last fifty years, and I fear that the trend has continued! Can you discover whether or not the gap has widened even more from 2004 to 2014?
The dates along the bottom of the graph range from '68 (1968) to '08 (2008),
with each number being two years beyond the last.

The average annual income is shown by the horizontal bars, with $10K
being the bottommost line, then $20K, $30K, $40K, $50K, and the
top line being $60K.
In other words, each horizontal line is separated from the one
below by ten thousand dollars.


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April 23 – Impossible Astronaut Day

Posted on April 23, 2014

If you see people with tally marks all over their arms and faces today, do not be alarmed. Instead, wish them a happy Impossible Astronaut Day!

On this date in 2011, the popular television show Doctor Who ran an episode called “The Impossible Astronaut.” This was the first episode in which the aliens called The Silence are actually seen.

Some Doctor Who fans (or Whovians) call the day “Silence Day” – but that's pretty confusing since the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network's “Day of Silence” is in April, too. I'm going to stick with calling it “Impossible Astronaut Day”!

Now, I know you're wondering why marking yourself with tally marks is a commemoration of a TV show about The Silence. What gives?

The Silence are the sorts of aliens who make suggestions. They are alien enough to be frightening to look at, but the moment someone looks away, he or she forgets about the encounter. Still, the person remembers the suggestion (while forgetting where the suggestion came from).

This power makes The Silence hard to locate, hard to fight against, hard, even, to know that they exist! But if you could write tally marks on your skin BEFORE looking away, it makes it harder to forget...

Last year on Impossible Astronaut Day, thousands of Whovians went to school and work with tally marks on their arms. Fans are hoping that even more people will wear tally marks today!

Doctor Who fans who cannot or don't
want to write on themselves might
choose to mark up an old t-shirt.

By the way, if you decide to tally your face and arms, do NOT use a Sharpie pen or any other permanent marker on your skin! Washable markers or, even better, an eyebrow pencil or eyeliner will make marks that can be washed off fairly easily!




Totally Tally

I bet you knew that “hash marks” is another name for tally marks, and that this counting system is often used in games and sports. After all, it's easier to mark down one more tally mark on a score sheet than it is to erase a number and write the next higher number...over and over and over again, as the game continues.

And for a sign like this grim sign, you couldn't possibly carve a number into the wood, then somehow erase it and carve another number into the wood. Tally marks make the task easier—although just as depressing!

But did you know that different cultures use different sorts of tally marks?


This familiar system is used in most of Europe and North America, Turkey, Zimbabwe, Australia, and New Zealand.

These tally marks are used in France, Spain, most of South America, and in French-speaking Africa.

This system is used within the field of forestry.





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April 22 – “In God We Trust” Day

Posted on April 22, 2014

This is “In God We Trust” Day because it was on this date in 1864 that an act passed Congress authorizing that the phrase be used on a particular U.S. coin.

Did you realize that, for almost the entire first century of the existence of the United States, “In God We Trust” had never been seen on official U.S. seals, letterheads, or money?

And it wasn't until 1956—180 years after the beginning of the nation—that “In God We Trust” became the official motto.

Given that the nation was founded on the idea that there should be no official state religion—and that there should be a separation between religion and government—how did this obvious religious reference come to be adopted as the government's official motto?

A bit of history...

Before “In God We Trust,” there was E pluribus unum. This Latin phrase means “Out of many, one,” an obvious reference to the fact that 13 different colonies had banded together to create one nation. This phrase appears on a banner in the eagle's beak on the Seal of the United States, adopted by Congress in 1782, and the phrase functioned as the new nation's motto for many years.

However, there never was a law specifically adopting the phrase as the official motto.

Actually, it's a pretty lovely phrase. These days, it calls to mind the idea of the U.S. as a “melting pot”: out of many peoples, races, religions, languages, and ancestries, one nation of Americans.

E pluribus unum appeared on U.S. coins starting in 1795 (it appeared even earlier on state coins).

The competing phrase “In God We Trust” was first suggested at a time when E pluribus unum was failing to describe the country: the nation was being torn in half by a bloody Civil War.

During such a scary time—a time when many wondered if the nation would even survive—many people turned to prayers, appeals to their god (or gods) to right the wrong, end the violence, fix what was broken. The Secretary of Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, received multiple letters asking that he ask Congress to put something about “the Almighty God” on the nation's coins, and he ended up doing so.

The phrase “In God We Trust” was used on some coins, starting in 1864, not on others, and disappeared from coins on which it had been previously used for decades; in other words, the phrase appeared on coins only spottily. However, all U.S. coins struck since 1938 have featured the phrase.

Is it constitutional?

People who don't believe in a god, and probably people who believe in multiple gods – a group that includes about 10 to 12 percent of Americans, including most Buddhists, many other religious and spiritual minorities, agnostics, and atheists – are excluded by this motto. Some people point out that they feel left out of the “we” part of the motto—and feeling left out is not a good feeling. Of course, it's ridiculous to have the motto “In God Some of Us Trust” – but at least that would be accurate!

Because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution forbids the government either supporting or hindering religion, this motto, whether on coins or elsewhere, really is unconstitutional. Some have argued that the word “god” and the concept of trusting god is not particularly religious; court cases people have brought against the motto have failed, at least in some cases, because the judges ruled that the word “god” doesn't actually refer to a particular character. It does not, they say, refer to the God-of-the-Bible. It's more as if the word “god” stands in for concepts such as a “higher power,” perhaps the Force of Star Wars. If that is true, it seems that even the majority of Americans – Americans who are Christian and who believe in God – are left out of the motto...because most of them would not say that they trust a mysterious, nameless universal Force.

Basically, the motto leaves out millions upon millions of Americans – or it taints the concept of trusting in God by saying that the phrase doesn't really mean “God.” Either way, it's not constitutional. It should be replaced with the original phrase, E pluribus unum, which was chosen by our founding fathers and which is as descriptive as the nation now as it was then.


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Earth Day (and another post about Earth Day)

















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April 21 – Henry VIII Becomes King

Posted on April 21, 2014


This guy was a big, blustering man who led a really big life!

Henry VIII was about 6-foot-two (1.88 m)...at a time when that was VERY tall.

And not only was Henry VIII the King of England, starting when his father (Henry VII) died on this date in 1509, but he oversaw the legal joining of Wales and England, so he became the king of Wales, too. Oh, and he became king of Ireland as well! And when Henry VIII separated his nation from the Roman Catholic Church, thereby starting the state religion known as “the Church of England” or the “Anglican Church,” he became the Supreme Head of the new church! He even continued the “nominal” claim to be King of France. (That means that he ruled France in name only – he didn't really have any power in France.)

Part of Henry VIII living a big life was that, in his prime, he was considered an attractive, educated, and charismatic ruler. He wielded a lot of power as king, but he also thought of himself as an author and as a musical composer.


The biggest thing of the big guy – the thing that most of us most remember about him – was that Henry VIII was married six times. He was desperate to have sons, because he thought that only male heirs to the throne could maintain the Tudor dynasty and keep the peace after the bloody “Wars of the Roses,” when several nobles fought for the right to rule England. And when his first wife did not give him a son, Henry had his marriage ended.

And he had to fight with the Pope, break away from Roman Catholicism, and start the Church of England in order to get that divorce!

Henry's second wife had miscarriages and was executed on charges of witchcraft and incest (she was almost surely innocent); his third wife birthed a son but then soon died from complications from that birth; Henry divorced his fourth wife and executed his fifth wife, this time for so-called “treason”; and his sixth and last wife outlived the king.

You may wonder why Henry still tried to have sons after having one with his third wife. At the time, a lot of children died before becoming adults, and people in general died younger. Henry VIII probably thought he should have multiple sons in case his first died too early.

A few years before Henry died, an act by Parliament put his daughters by various wives – Mary and Elizabeth – back in succession after his only son, Edward. It was quite lucky for England that that happened, since Elizabeth I eventually did rule (after her brother Edward, who became king at age 9, died at age 15, and after her sister ruled and died as well). Elizabeth I ruled was long and successful, a “golden age” when England defeated its long-time enemy, Spain, when music and theatre and literature flourished, when world exploration and trade occurred, when national pride rose. Elizabeth I ruled for about 45 years, almost a decade longer than her father.



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April 20 – Easter and Eostre

Posted on April 20, 2014
As I have mentioned in earlier posts, like this one, and this other one, and this third one, Easter is a Christian holiday that celebrates the tradition that Jesus died and was resurrected just after the Jewish holiday of the Passover. I've also mentioned that the holiday is celebrated with spring-and-fertility symbols such as bunnies and eggs. But I haven't yet explained the name for the holiday, Easter.

Most historians think that Easter got its name from Eostre or Ostara, a Germanic pagan goddess. How did a Christian holiday get named for a pagan goddess?

Back in the day, the Romans conquered vast territories and managed to rule an empire for hundreds and hundreds of years. We're talking more than two million square miles (more than six million square kilometers) of lands in Africa, Asia, and Europe. How did the Romans hold on to so much land and so many people?


The Romans were pretty smart about allowing people to keep their beloved customs and beliefs. Instead of trying to foist their own gods and holidays on people, the Romans tended to absorb the gods and goddesses from every other religion into their own, and they often integrated the holidays of others' with their own celebrations. When the Roman Empire became Christian, the Roman Catholic Church continued to absorb everybody else's customs—but of course modified them with Christian characters and meanings.

In languages other than German and English, the holiday we English speakers call Easter (and German speakers call Ostern) is derived from the Latin word for Easter, which is Pascha. And that, in turn, is derived from the Hebrew word Pesach, which means Passover. Here is the name of Easter in some other languages:
Spanish – Pascua
Italian – Pasqua
French – Paques
Dutch – Pasen
Danish – Paaske
Bulgarian – Paskha
Swedish – Pask
Icelandic – Paskar

Why would Easter have a name unrelated to all these other names in England and Germany? Perhaps it's because Eostre (Ostara) was already being celebrated in those places during the time of the year of the Christian celebration of Jesus's death and resurrection—so in the typical Roman fashion, the pagan holiday became absorbed and modified.

Another thing to notice is that Easter is related to the word east (and the German Ostern is related to the German word for east, osten). What does the holiday, or the goddess Eostre, have to do with the direction east?

If you think about it, no matter where you are in the world, “east” is defined as the direction of the dawn, of sun up. So it is the direction of the rebirth of day, the resurrection of the sun (when viewed with an ancient lens). It makes some sense to name a goddess of fertility and birth with a word connected to dawn and rebirth.

According to Jacob Grimm (yes, he was one of the Grimm Brothers), Eostre was the goddess of “radiant dawn, of upspringing light,” and of springtime resurrection and rebirth. In many places in the world, in the spring, the land seems to come back to life after being dead and bare during the winter months. Leaves give forth new leaves, flowers bloom, grasses sprout, and in many cases new babies are born. Eggs and bunnies are obvious tie-ins to this springtime / fertility motif.


Also on this date:


Anniversary of the demonstration of the first American electron microscope





Anniversary of the start of Jacques Cartier's Voyage of Discovery






Detective Story Day











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