August 1, 2010

Happy Birthday, Maria Mitchell

Born on this day in 1818, in Massachusetts, Mitchell became a self-educated astronomer. She became known for her discovery of a new comet, and she went on to study sunspots, moons, and “surface features” of Jupiter and Saturn.


(Obviously, I really mean that Mitchell studied the “features of the top layer of clouds of Jupiter and Saturn.”)


Mitchell was a professor at Vassar College and was the first woman to be a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.




She said...


"We have a hunger of the mind which asks for knowledge of all around us, and the more we gain, the more is our desire..."


We especially need imagination in science.”


Question everything.”


Read about Mitchell.

Read the book Maria's Comet, by Deborah Hopkinson, or Rooftop Astronomer, by Stephanie McPherson.



Astronomy is fun!


July 31, 2010


Happy Birthday, Stephanie Kwolek

Born on this day in 1923 in Pennsylvania, Kwolek became a chemist and invented poly-paraphenylene terephtalamide. You know—Kevlar!

Kwolek was working for DuPont when she invented Kevlar, which is used for bicycle tires, racing sails, mooring lines, and (famously) body armor. It is a high-strength material, especially considering its weight: Kevlar is FIVE TIMES stronger than steel, weight-for-weight.

Kwolek received a patent in 1971 for Kevlar, and she has received at least 27 other patents and numerous awards for her work in polymer chemistry. A polymer is a natural or synthetic material made up of many (sometimes millions) of repeated units. Two examples of natural polymers are tortoise shell and amber. Plastics are polymers that humans artificially make.

Find out more about polymers.
  • Here is a polymer experiment using PVA glue and borax.
  • This experiment is a bit easier, because it combines white glue with borax.
  • Kwolek is quoted in this family guide to invention, put out by the Smithsonian Institution:
  • "All sorts of things can happen when you're open to new ideas and playing around with things.

July 30, 2010

Invention of Corn Flakes – 1898


On this day in 1898, William Kellogg and his brother discovered that cooking, drying, and rolling corn produced flakes that patients at their Battle Creek Sanitarium enjoyed eating. 

As a matter of fact, patients enjoyed the breakfast cereal so much, they wanted more to take home. Eventually Kellogg decided to mass-market corn flakes (and he added sugar to appeal more to the general public!).

Four years before, the Kellogg brothers accidentally discovered the flaking process when they found that some cooked wheat that had gone stale was still usable after rolling it it out. They had intended to roll out a large swath of dough, but were surprised to see the wheat flakes that formed instead. The Kelloggs patented their process and called the wheat cereal "Granose."

Corn flakes were even more popular than wheat, and in 1928 William Kellogg brought out another product: Rice Krispies. This cereal was another hit with the public, and Kellogg was on his way to creating a huge, successful company.


Did you know...?
  • When William Kellogg decided to put sugar on his mass-marketed cereals, his brother Dr. John Kellogg was angry. He was all about nutrition, and he didn't want to be associated with sugary cereals! The brothers split on the issue, and the familiar Kellogg's company we know today is only associated with William.
  • The Kelloggs didn't invent the idea of dry cereal for breakfast. A man named Dr. James Jackson invented a non-flaked dry cereal he called “Granula,” which was not like today's granola, but instead was like today's “Grape Nuts.”
  • One of the Kellogg's companies biggest competitors in the dry cereal market is Post. The person who started that company, Charles William Post, was actually one of Dr. Kellogg's patients. Some claim Post stole the recipe for corn flakes from the Kelloggs.

Celebrate with cereal!
I love cereal and milk! I could eat it three times a day, if I wasn't worried about nutrition and variety—but of course, I DO worry about nutrition and variety, and so should you:


  • Investigate your stash of dry cereal at home, or the shelves of cereal options at a grocery store. How do the cereals compare when considering nutrition? Calories? Cost?
  • One thing some nutritionists say we should avoid as much as possible in processed foods is high fructose corn syrup. Find out why by doing some research on the sweetener. Then do more research: Do any of the cereals you enjoy avoid this high fructose corn syrup? If not, how about buying and trying a cereal that doesn't have it. You might also want to write to the manufacturer of your favorite cereal and ask that it be removed.
  • You can eat dry cereal with milk or yogurt, bananas or berries, honey or...? Try a different combo today!

July 29, 2010



Olsok – Norway

This day honors St. Olaf, the patron saint of Norway, who died in battle on this date in 1030. Olaf was a king and the person who is said to have brought Christianity to Norway. To celebrate Olsok, which means “Wake of Olaf,” Norwegians traditionally lit huge bonfires on top of hills and held historical plays.

(A wake is the time when people watch over a dead body, before it is buried, and sometimes celebrate the deceased person's life. It is also the name for a parish festival held to commemorate a saint.)


Nowadays there are folk dance and music concerts plus religious services. There are also walking pilgrimages to Trondheim, where King Olaf was buried.



Celebrate Norway!

  • One of Norway's most famous artists is Edvard Munch. Have you ever seen his most famous painting, The Scream? Munch created several versions of this painting—in oil, tempera, and pastels—and he also made prints via lithography.
Many allusions to and versions of The Scream have shown up in popular culture. At right is a graffiti "shout out" to the powerful painting.

Did you know that versions of The Scream have been stolen? The 2004 theft of the The Scream remained a mystery for several years. A substantial cash reward (two million kroner) was put up for the return of the painting, but still no painting. According to Museyon Guides, the makers of the candy M & Ms offered two million M & Ms to the person who ensured the safe return of the paintings, and only a few days later the paintings were recovered!





July 28, 2010


Potter, Potatoes and Peru!




This is a great day for the letter “P”!
On this day in 1586, it is said, Thomas Harriot introduced potatoes to England and Ireland.


On this day in 1824, Peru declared its independence from Spain, courtesy in part to the efforts of General Jose de San Martin.

And on this day in 1866, artist, author and naturalist Beatrix Potter was born in England.


First, potatoes.

Thomas Harriot sailed on an expedition of discovery on behalf of his employer, Sir Walter Raleigh. Some say that on his return in July, 1586, Harriot showed off some potatoes and potato plants from the New World. The first potato plants in England were apparently promptly planted in Raleigh's garden.

(Notice that I am stressing the fact that some say that Harriot introduced potatoes to the British Isles. There are others who say Sir Francis Drake already did the honors, in 1580.)

Whether or not the Harriot story represents Brits' first taste of the tubers, it is certain that potatoes, so important in Irish and Russian cooking, in Belgian/French fried foods, and in many other cuisines around the world, was entirely unknown in the Old World until at least the mid-1500s. As a matter of fact, potatoes probably originated in the country we are honoring today: Peru.

Celebrate by cooking and eating potatoes!





Second, Peru.

As I already mentioned in an earlier post, Peru used to be one of the lands of the Inca Indians, who were conquered by Spaniards in the mid-1500s. It was those same Spaniards who grabbed good stuff, like gold and potatoes, to take home to Europe (Harriot, however, was English). The Spanish eventually made Peru into a colony―a colony that, with its Incan gold, paid for much of the Spanish empire all over the world. In the early 1800s, other Spanish colonies in South America began to rebel, but the leaders of Peru weren't sure whether to break away or remain loyal to the Spanish monarchy. It took the military campaigns of Jose de San Martin and Simon Bolivar to liberate Peru from Spanish rule.

Peruvians take two days to celebrate their independence! Tomorrow will be another “Patriotic Festival” (Fiesta Patria). You can share the celebration by making a red-and-white Peruvian flag and cooking up some Peruvian foods, including these desserts.
Third, Potter.

Born in England on this day in 1866, Beatrix Potter grew up to be one of the most important children's authors of the early nineteenth century.


Potter lived at a time when women were not encouraged to learn or practice science, but she still attempted to follow her interest in fungi and lichens. (She was one of the first people
to correctly suggest that lichens were fungi and algae working together.) Her uncle tried to introduce her as a student to the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, but she was rejected because of her sex. One of her papers was presented to the Linnean Society by her uncle, because as a woman she wasn't allowed to attendsociety meetings. The Royal Society refused to publish her scientific papers. Rejection, rejection, rejection—nevertheless, Potter's beautiful drawings and paintings of lichens and fungi, plus some insightful papers, did result in grudging respect. After she died, at least one of the scientific societies issued an apology for the way she was treated.

Potter found a more popular reception with her anthropomorphic animal books such as The Tale of Peter Rabbit. (Anthropomorphic means making animals behave like humans, usually including having them wear clothes and talking.) The drawing and painting ability thatcontributed to Potter's scientific work made her woodland animal illustrations immensely popular to this day.Enjoy Potter's work.
  • Read one of Beatrix Potter's many stories. If you don't have them in book form, here is a website to explore and enjoy.
  • Here is a picture of Peter Rabbit for you to color.
  • Here is a recipe for Biscuit Bonnets and Berry Baskets.
  • Here is a word search puzzle from Potter's Tale of Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle.
  • The Renee Zellweger/Ewan McGregor movie “Miss Potter” (Rated PG) is popular with some families. I have to admit, I don't think I've ever seen it. (Warning: apparently it's sad.)
  • Here is a Peter Rabbit online jigsaw puzzle—in 6 pieces, or 48, or many other cuts and levels of difficulty.
  • Beatrix Potter illustrated her books with water color paintings. Why don't you try your hand at painting animals with water colors?

July 27, 2010

Cigarette Warning Labels Mandated by Law in U.S. – 1965











On this day in 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed a bill requiring that cigarette packages must carry a health warning label. “Caution: Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health” began to appear on cigarette packages and cartons on January 1 of the next year.


Five years later, the U.S. warning labels were changed from the wishy-washy wording “may be hazardous” to a more definite warning: “Warning: The Surgeon General has determined that cigarette smoking is dangerous to your health.”


Since 1985, a series of different and specific warning labels have been used:

  • SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: Smoking Causes Lung Cancer, Heart Disease, Emphysema, And May Complicate Pregnancy.
  • SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: Quitting Smoking Now Greatly Reduces Serious Risks to Your Health.
  • SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: Smoking By Pregnant Women May Result in Fetal Injury, Premature Birth, And Low Birth Weight.
  • SURGEON GENERAL'S WARNING: Cigarette Smoke Contains Carbon Monoxide.

However, although the U.S. was the first nation in the world to require cigarette warning labels, these labels are now among the smallest in the world. For example, in Turkey the label “Smoking Kills” takes up a full third of the front of a package! And there is another label that covers almost half of the back of the package, with various warnings such as “Smoking can cause a slow and painful death.


In the Ukraine, packages are similarly blunt with large-sized warning labels: “Smokers die younger,” “Smoking causes impotence,” and “Cigarette smoke harms those around you.”


You won't believe what some countries do: The warning labels, printed with straight-to-the-point statements are not enough, so the packages also feature warning pictures and photos! In Singapore and New Zealand, packages include photos of damaged organs, including unsightly mouths and teeth. (Examples are shown here.) I won't include the warning pictures from Brazilian cigarette packages—they are SO gory and disturbing!


Help other kids learn why NOT to start smoking with these activities.










July 26, 2010


Rock Day

On this day in 1943, rock great Mick Jagger was born in England. He became the lead singer of the Rolling Stones and is also a songwriter, music producer, and even occasional actor.

AND On this day in 1969, scientists got their first look at moon rocks returned by the crew of Apollo 11.

Learn about rock music.

This website gives some early history of “rock and roll,” with plenty of links to explore further.



Rock for Kids brings music classes to kids in need―and much more. Check it out!







Learn about rocks as in actual, you know, rocks. Geology and stuff.
  • I love love love the book Everybody Needs a Rock, by Byrd Baylor, with wonderful illustrations by Peter Parnall.
  • Start a rock collection, or add to one you've already begun. You can pick up pretty rocks you find in nature (except of course in protected areas and wilderness preserves), and you can also buy rocks. Arts-and-crafts stores often sell small polished stones, and there are rock shops in some areas. We found a “rock guy” who lives near us and has a rather wildly unkempt yard FULL of rocks. He is super enthusiastic and knowledgeable, and he has sold us some great rocks and geodes at very reasonable prices.


Here is a website for kids who collect rocks.
  • Here is a virtual rock-and-mineral museum for your clicking pleasure.









July 25, 2010


Constitution Day – Puerto Rico


This holiday commemorates Puerto Rico's 1952 adoption of a constitution that makes it an unincorporated territory of the United States.


Puerto Ricans have a democratic republican government, with a governor, legislature, and judicial system. However, it is not an independent nation and is subject to the United States government, and the President of the U.S. is the head of state.


The people of Puerto Rico are represented in the U.S. Congress by a delegate, but that delegate doesn't have a vote. Puerto Ricans may vote in U.S. Presidential primary elections but not the presidential elections in November. They don't have to pay federal income tax.


(Thank goodness! “No taxation without representation” was a big deal in U.S. history.)


People born in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens. Although, as I just mentioned, Puerto Ricans living in Puerto Rico cannot vote in Presidential elections, anyone born in Puerto Rico who is living in one of the 50 states (or in the District of Columbia) is allowed to vote. Voting rights are certainly more complicated than I was told in government classes!


Here is a quick quiz on Puerto Rico:


1. Before the U.S. ruled this Caribbean island, which European country colonized it?


2. What is the capital of Puerto Rico?


3. What are the two official languages?


4. Where does Puerto Rico rank in size among these three nearby islands? Jamaica, Cuba, Hispaniola (which is the island of the Dominican Republic and Haiti)


ANSWERS at the bottom of the post.



Learn more about Puerto Rico.


Check out the Boricua Kids website. Be sure to check out the teeny-tiny (adorable!) frog, the coqui. There are pages on food, songs, and other interesting stuff. Be sure to check into the lesson plans, where you will find word search puzzles and bilingual poetry.



Do some crafts.

  • The first Puerto Ricans were the Taino Indians, who originated a style of white decorations on red pottery that is now traditional.

ANSWERS: 1.Spain – 2.San Juan – 3.English and Spanish – 4.Puerto Rico is the smallest of all of them


July 24, 2010

Children's Day – Vanuatu


Vanuatu is an island nation in the South Pacific, lying between Australia and Fiji. It isn't just one island, but rather an archipelago of 83 islands and islets.


Today the people of Vanuatu celebrate Children's Day, which has two primary themes: “Stop violence against children” and “Give a child the chance to express an opinion today.” In the morning marches are held, followed by speeches, a dance, and other activities at schools.


Kids get the afternoon off from school and are expected to have fun with their families. Some children receive presents from their parents, but the organization Save the Children yearly reminds the people of Vanuatu that it doesn't matter if parents can't afford to buy their kids presents―that the day is aimed at encouraging parents and kids to spend time together.



How'd they get there?


People have settled the various islands of Vanuatu for at least 4,000 years, undoubtedly arriving by boat. However, there are a limited number of plant and animal species on the islands. This is most likely explained by the fact that the islands are quite new, geologically speaking. There are no large mammals native to the island, although people have brought the usual critters with them (such as hogs, dogs, and cattle). The most common indigenous mammals seem to be bats and rats. There's not much mystery about how they got to the islands: the bats flew, like the many bird and insect species, and the rats were probably stowaways on people's dugouts and boats.


There are some saltwater crocodiles on the island. It is tempting to think that they swam over from nearby islands, wher

e crocs are common, but these particular crocodiles are all descended from crocodiles brought over by colonists. I was amazed to see how few crocs there were: only three, possibly four! Apparently they are not breeding (all males? all females? too old?), so the crocodiles of Vanuatu will soon die out.


The Vanuatuan animals that are very common are fish and more than 4,000 species of mollusks. Some of these creatures, including cone shells (one variety is pictured here, left) and stonefish, are fatally poisonous.


Mollusks are land or water creatures that create protective “homes” of one or two shells, plus squids and octopi. Some examples are snails, clams, conchs, and oysters. Learn more about mollusks at the Conchologists of America website.




Did you know?


  • One tourist attraction is a sunken luxury liner similar to the Titanic. Instead of being sunk super deep down in cold water, however, this luxury liner rests on a shallow sea floor in clear, diveable water.

  • Vanuatu boasts a banyan tree as large as a soccer field!

  • A hotel in the capital city of Port Villa (on the island of Efate), floats guests' beds out over a lagoon. Sounds nice!


July 23, 2010


Cloning Success – 1998


On this date in 1998 the “Yana team” (Ryuzo Yanagimachi and his research team from the University of Hawaii) published about their new technique for cloning mammals from adult cells. The team cloned more than 50 identical mice representing three different generations. The paper was published in the respected journal Nature.


Dolly the sheep, the first mammal successfully cloned, is perhaps the most famous clone as well.


Many plants and most animals reproduce sexually, which means that a male fish and a female fish together produce baby fish, male birds and female birds together make fertilized eggs, male plant parts and female plant parts work together to create seeds, and so forth. In sexual reproduction, there are two parents, each passing on half of his or her genetic material, and so almost every baby plant or animal ends up being unique. (Of course there are exceptions such as identical twins.)


Some organisms reproduce asexually. Bacteria, protists, many fungi and plants, and some animals are able to create offspring with just one parent―and the offspring has pretty much the same genes as that parent. (Again, there are exceptions such as mutation and “lateral gene transfer.”)


Cloning is a lot like asexual reproduction. Generally speaking, genetic material (inside a nucleus) is taken from a single individual and is inserted into an egg that has no nucleus. If the cell begins dividing, it is transferred to a surrogate mother. Another artificial cloning method involves deliberately creating identical twins by dividing a cell at a crucial state of development―and both pieces go on to create identical organisms.


There is a lot of controversy over cloning―especially over cloning humans―but actually farmers and gardeners have been cloning plants for centuries or even millennia! One could say that it is unfair to use the word cloning for processes such as grafting, but the word was used in horticulture first!



For more on cloning, check out “Eureka Science.”


For more on the ethics of cloning, here is an old Salon interview. (Note: it is more than ten years old. Nevertheless, I found it interesting.)

July 22, 2010

Revolution Day – The Gambia

National Tree Planting Day – Central African Republic

Birthday of King Sobhuza II – Swaziland

On this day three different African nations are celebrating three different holidays.

The Gambia, which is the smallest nation on the mainland continent of Africa, runs on either side of the river “The Gambia” and is surrounded almost entirely by Senegal. On this day The Gambia commemorates the 1994 ousting of the Jawara government by the Armed Forces Provisional Ruling Council. According to Wikipedia, the AFPRC, led by Yahya Jammeh (pictured left), has moved toward making the Gambia more democratic, and several rounds of apparently fair elections have been held.

The Central African Republic is a landlocked nation right in the center of Africa. Although it is one of the poorest nations in Africa and the world, The Ecologist magazine estimated that it is the world's leading country in sustainable development. The CAR has potential in eco-tourism, because there is a lot of wildlife and rain forest visitors will want to see, so hopefully it will keep up the work to be green. Planting trees is a good start!

















Swaziland is another tiny country (like the Gambia) that is landlocked (like the CAR). In fact, it is almost entirely surrounded by South Africa. On this day an important former king (pictured left) is honored. King Sobhuza II ruled 82 years and 9 months (although part of that rule was when he was very young, and his grandmother acted as regent). This is the longest precisely dated reign on record.

King Sobhuza married 70 wives and had 210 children. When he died in 1982, he had over one thousand grandchildren!


Find the African nations the Gambia, Swaziland, and the Central African Republic on this interactive map by moving the cursor over it.


Enjoy African foods.
Did you know that yams, wheat, and okra come from Africa? Here are some recipes from the Gambia, Swaziland, and the Central African Republic.





July 21, 2010

Independence Day – Belgium
This day commemorates the day in 1931 when Belgium was granted independence from the Netherlands.

Belgium is an unusual country because it quite small―a little bit smaller than the state of Maryland―but it has two distinct languages and peoples. In the north, called Flanders, live Flemish people who speak Dutch (a Germanic language). In the south, called Wallonia, live Walloons, who speak French (a Latin language).


When we went to Belgium, we felt a bit confused. We flew into Brussels (the capital city), which is mostly French speaking,but which lies in the Dutch-speaking Flanders. We drove to a small town in the Dutch-speaking region and stayed with a French-speaking family. When we went to visit various towns and sights, there were quite likely to be two different names for our destinations―the Dutch version and the French version. An example of this is the charming, canal-crossed town of Brugge (Dutch, pronounced broo-gha) or Bruges (French and English, pronounced broozh). Another example is the large city of Antwerp, which is also called Antwerpen (Dutch) and Anvers (French).
This is Brugge.

We were told that “everyone” would speak English, but that wasn't the case at all. Still, enough people spoke English that we got by okay, including the English-speaking Egyptian man who made Italian food for us in Dutch-speaking Belgium!

Did you know...?

Not only is Belgium one of the founding members of the European Union (EU), the headquarters is there.

Belgium is the “B-E” part of Benelux, which is a term for its economic union with the NEtherlands and LUXembourg. These three countries are also called the Low Countries because the land is mostly at or even below sea level.



Celebrate Belgium

Eat thick (Belgian) waffles or even a waffle sandwich. Eat “French” (really Belgian) fries. Top it off with yummy Belgian chocolate. Here are some recipes.

Read an Agatha Christie murder mystery―but make sure it involves Hercule Poirot, Christie's most famous detective and Belgian charmer.

Take a peek at Belgian oil paintings from past greats.

July 20, 2010


Moon Day

On this day in 1969, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong became the first humans to land on the moon. During the 21 hours that the two astronauts were on the moon, they planted a U.S. Flag on the lunar surface, spoke to President Richard Nixon through a telephone-radio connection, took the first real moon walks, and collected more than 47 pounds of lunar rocks.


And they did it all on TV! I was among the more than 600 million people watching―and for me it was THE highlight of TV in my childhood! (You Tube has copies of the first broadcast from another world.)


Armstrong, Aldrin and astronaut Michael Collins flew to the moon on the space flight called Apollo 11. Once there, Collins stayed with the command ship, Columbia, while Aldrin steered the landing craft, Eagle, to the lunar surface, landing in the so-called Sea of Tranquility. (There is no liquid water on the moon, so it isn't really a sea.) NASA personnel in Houston, Texas, stayed in touch with the astronauts through radio transmissions and cheered them on.





Some of the big moments included Neil Armstrong announcing, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” and, when he first stepped down onto the dusty moon, “That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”












Did you know...?

  • One of the first things Aldrin did on the moon was to take communion privately and quietly. His church in Webster, Texas, still has the chalice used in the Lunar Communion.

  • The astronauts were supposed to sleep for five hours after landing on the moon, before they went outside. But like little kids too excited to sleep, they skipped the sleep period.

  • Recordings of the original transmission of that first moonwalk were accidentally destroyed. Of course, there are lots of copies of the video in broadcast format, but NASA was happy when copies of the original footage were located in Australia, in one of the places that originally received the lunar broadcast.

  • Some people have concocted a crazy conspiracy theory that humans have never really flown to and walked on the moon. They claim that all of the moon landings (there were five more after Apollo 11) were hoaxes! One of the moon-landing deniers was bugging Buzz Aldrin for several minutes―in his face, over and over again accusing him of being a liar and a thief, and even calling him a coward―when Aldrin finally, famously, punched him in the face. The moon-landing denier sued Aldrin for the attack, but the lawsuit was quickly thrown out of court. (If you want to watch this widely-viewed incident, here it is.) And here is a website that briefly shows why the the moon-landing deniers are wrong.

Learn more about the moon landing


This website was created by NASA to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of Apollo 11―now it's been 41 years since humans landed on the moon!


If you would rather read a more personal account, this website was created by a man who turned 13 on the day humans first walked on the moon.


Take a quiz on the moon at the National Geographic website.