January 31, 2011

Happy Birthday, Sam Loyd

Take a great game like chess and cross it with the fun of puzzles—and you might just get what is called a chess composer.

I didn't know such a job title existed, either, but apparently there are people who create chess problems for others to solve. Sam Loyd, who was born on this day in 1841, was a popular and witty chess composer. He can also be said to be a recreational mathematician.

He was obviously pretty good at chess. At one time he was one of the best chess players in the United States and #15 in the world. But he could never be truly great because he would go for complicated and fantastic layouts on the board rather than just going for the win.

Loyd was known for self-promotion—even to the point of lying about his accomplishments. For example, he claimed that he had created the 14-15 puzzle in which players slide number tiles within a frame in order to put them in numeric order—but he had nothing to do with the invention or popularization of the puzzle.

However, Loyd did create a number of popular chess problems, Tangram designs, and other sorts of puzzles or problems. One of the most famous chess problems ever is his Steinitz Gambit problem. Loyd's chess puzzles were so popular that he was inducted into the U.S. Chess Hall of Fame.

Learn chess online, for free, at Chess Kids Academy. 

Here is the Think Quest chess resource, which features some interactive Chess Puzzles. 

And here are Activity Village's chess lessons. 

Try Tangrams and other math puzzles. (I love the puzzles in Simon Tatham's pack!)

January 30, 2011

World's Tallest Geyser Discovered – 1901

Just in the nick of time, Dr. Humphrey Haines discovered the world's tallest and most powerful geyser. Called Waimangu Geyser, it was located on the North Island of New Zealand. Every 36 hours, this geyser hurled up water, black mud, and rocks as high as 600 to 1,500 feet into the air. This is between 5 to 10 times the height of Old Faithful!

It's higher than the Empire State Building!

Why did I say “just in the nick of time”? Well, this geyser went extinct in 1904 when a landslide changed the local water table.

People worldwide were interested in the find, and many tourists visited the geyser in the three years between discovery and extinction. Three of the tourists disregarded the repeated warnings of their guide to keep back at a safe distance, and unfortunately all four of them (even the guide) died in a sudden, violent eruption.

To learn more about geysers, check out this and also that earlier posts.

The Youngest Country on Earth

New Zealand calls itself the youngest country on earth because it was the last major landmass to be discovered and settled by humans. About 1,000 years ago, Polynesian people arrived by canoes. By 1250 A.D. (or C.E.), during a period known as the Middle Ages in Europe, and almost a half century after the Magna Carta was signed in England, these Polynesians had made permanent settlements on New Zealand.

Just a few hundred years later, European explorers reached New Zealand.

Learn more about New Zealand and the Maori.

(The Maori are New Zealand's indigenous people.)

Here is a lesson on making Maori Koru art. 

Here and here are two videos advertising New Zealand as a great place to visit. Okay, I admit it, they worked—I really want to go now! 

January 29, 2011

Happy Birthday, Frederick Mohs

This German geologist (a scientist who studies rocks and minerals and the origin and structure of the earth) is most famous for his Scale of Hardness.

Talc - 1
Born on this day in 1773, Mohs compared the hardness of various minerals, comparing each to the others by scratching one mineral onto another. Obviously, a harder material can scratch a softer one, but a softer material cannot scratch a harder one. Using his comparative data, Mohs created a scale that goes from one of the softest minerals, talc, at Number 1 to the hardest mineral, diamond, at Number 10. Of course, some minerals fall between the numbers and can be expressed as a decimal. For example, tin is considered 1.5. Also, the hardness of non-minerals can be expressed using the Mohs Scale; fingernails are about 2.5, for example, and copper pennies are about 3.2.
Diamond - 10

To see the Mohs Scale, click Number 3 on the left-hand side of the Geo Mysteries FAQs

Learn more about minerals.

Amethyst - 7
Mineral Matters includes lots of information, some collection tips, and some quiz games.  Be sure to check out the section on growing your own crystals!

Speaking of growing your own crystals, you can make your own rock candy by growing sugar crystals. Check out the simple directions here

Explore gems and minerals at the Smithsonian website. 

Azurite - 3.5
The Mineral Information Institute is a good resource for photographs of minerals. 

January 28, 2011

The word serendipity is invented -- 1754

It can seem weird to think about words being invented. When a new species of bird or a new planet is discovered, we immediately understand that that bird or planet will need to be named. If someone invents a new machine never before seen on Earth, of course she or he will need to invent a name for that machine. But how do other sorts of words get invented?

First of all, we usually say a new word is coined, not invented.

Second, often creative and imaginative authors coin new words. That is what happened with the word serendipity. An art historian and writer named Horace Walpole was writing a letter to another man named Horace (Horace Mann), and he needed a word for a discovery made through a happy accident. He remembered what he thought of as a silly fairy tale, "The Three Princes of Serendip," in which some princes discover the nature of a lost camel mostly through lucky accidents. (By the way, Serendip is the Persian name for Sri Lanka.) Referencing that 1557 fairy tale, Walpole referred to a lucky accident as a serendipity.

This is called Serendipity Cave.

Other coiners of words...

Shakespeare is famous for having coined words and phrases, although it may be that some of the words attributed to him were in use but had not yet been written. Words such as eyeball, honey-tongued, gloomy, and fanged are just a few of the many, many words that first appeared in print in a Shakespeare play or sonnet. If you want to check out an entire list of Shakespeare's coinages, go here.  http://www.pathguy.com/shakeswo.htm

Lewis Carroll (yesterday's birthday boy) also invented words. He didn't necessarily take words that already existed and put them together (as Shakespeare did with eye + ball), nor did he necessarily reference stories (as Walpole did with serendipity). He just flat-out invented nonsense words. Yet some of his nonsense words have been picked up and are these days used as real words: chortle, galumph, burble

People are still coining words. Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report, along with his writers, invented the word truthiness, which means a so-called "truth" that a person "knows from the gut" or from emotional appeal--but which has no relation to evidence or logic. With new technology terms like app and tweet have been coined, and some bad economic times have spurred the development of words like sub-prime and bailout.

For more on new words, check out this earlier post.

January 27, 2011

Happy Birthday, Lewis Carroll

A man named Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was born in England on this day in 1832.

Charles Dodgson wasn't all that famous.

He was a logician, mathematician, and photographer, and he wrote A Syllabus of Plane Algebraical Geometry in 1860, which the Science Gnus guy called "excruciatingly dull, fairly derivative, and long forgotten." He tutored math at Oxford University, and he wrote about a dozen more math books--but none of that made him famous.

Instead, the children's books Dodgson wrote under his pen-name, Lewis Carroll, is what made him famous. His books were Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There.

Celebrate Lewis Carroll's Birthday and Your Un-birthday!

A very merry unbirthday to you, to you!

Have a tea party, watch one of the versions of Alice in Wonderland on DVD, or read one of the Alice books. You could also choose to have a full-scale unbirthday party!

Here is a website with a fun interactive version of the story, and here are more games and curiouser-and-curiouser activities.

Here is a fansite with lots of resources on the Alice books.

January 26, 2011

Republic Day – India

Parades! Pageantry! Presidential speeches!

Today is one of the most important national holidays in India. It commemorates the day when the constitution came into force, in 1950, finally realizing the dreams of freedom fighters and Mahatma Gandhi and other patriots.

Today the President, Prime Minister, and governmental Ministers will host the Indonesian President and others at a grand parade in India's capital city, New Delhi. There India's military strength, perhaps including the newly-developed Light-Combat Aircraft, will be shown off. As in past R-Day parades, the President will award medals of valor, there will be a 21-gun salute, and members of the armed forces will march by (or, in the case of the Air Force, fly by). This will be followed by moving displays or tableaux of school children and dancers from all over the country. The parade and pageants will be televised.

Celebrate India!

Learn about Ancient India from Mr. Donn,  and learn about modern India here

You can also watch some of the YouTube videos on “Incredible India. (They are all made by different people, I think, and they have very different but wonderful vibes. Here is one.) 

Activity Village has some India-themed crafts for little kids, and India Site has articles about handicrafts in India. 

To learn about Mahatma Gandhi, an important leader during the India independence movement, see this earlier post.

January 25, 2011

Russian Students' Day (Saint Tatyana's Day)

This is the feast day of Saint Tatyana, the patron saint of students, and the day is used to mark the end of winter term. Students in Russia gleefully drop their books and skate, go to pop concerts, join in competitions, and party.

On this day in 1755, Russia's Empress Elizabeth signed a decree that opened the Moscow State University—another thing for students to celebrate. Moscow's students typically gather in Red Square to receive official congratulations from the mayor and to drink from the mayor's barrel of a honey drink called medovukha.

Celebrate Russian culture!

Learn about folk costumes, nesting dolls, and an important architectural treasure—through coloring!  Be sure to click “Learn” to find out about each item before printing and coloring each page!

Listen to some Russian kids' songs.  (Scroll down for the MP3s.)

Try some Russian recipes

For more on Russian culture, check out this earlier post

January 24, 2011

Gold Discovered in California – 1848

James Marshall was a pretty average guy—a carpenter and a sawmill operator. But on this date in 1848, he made a discovery that changed his life. Heck, it changed a whole lot of people's lives!

He was examining the channel below the sawmill he was constructing in partnership with John Sutter in California, which then belonged to Mexico. He noticed some shiny flecks in the channel bed, and he picked up one or two pieces for closer study. He knew a little bit about minerals, and when he saw that the shiny stuff was very bright, brittle, yet malleable (which means it could be beaten into different shapes, without breaking)—and, of course, that it was gold-colored!—Marshall knew that he had discovered precious, valuable gold!

According to his later recounting, he went to one of the carpenters working on the mill and said, “I have found it.” And when he explained that “it” meant gold, the other carpenter protested that it couldn't be gold. But Marshall was sure of himself. And of course, he was right!

However, Marshall's discovery did not make him rich. Instead, his sawmill failed when everybody dropped everything to search for gold, and his later business ventures, a vineyard and a gold mine, eventually failed as well. Neither Marshall, the guy who actually discovered the gold, nor Sutter, the guy who owned the land on which the discovery was made, benefitted from the discovery!

You may already know that people came to California from all over the world to search for gold (or to sell things to miners searching for gold). It is estimated that some 300,000 people came during the Gold Rush!

Find out more!

For more on the discovery of gold, go to the History Net

Take a virtual tour of the Oakland Museum's Gold Rush exhibit. 

Check out these web resources on the women of the Gold Rush. 

January 23, 2011

Partitioning of Poland – 1793

What makes a country a country?

I bet you think that the definition of a country is a specific chunk of land that has its own government. But of course you already know that cities, provinces, and states-that-are-part-of-countries are specific chunks of land with their own governments--and yet they are not countries, they are divisions within a country—so the definition is not as simple as that.

It turns out that a lot of what makes a country a country is that other people in the world recognize it as such. However, that's where it gets tricky: not everybody agrees! Some countries see Taiwan (or Chinese Taipei, or the Republic of China) as a country; others don't. Some countries recognize Kosovo as an independent country; others don't. There are many other examples of this sort of disagreement.

Well, on this date in 1793, Prussia and Russia carved up (or “partitioned”) Poland. Prussia obtained “Great Poland” and a number of other territories, and Russia obtained eastern provinces from Livonia to Moldavia. Poland ended up being less than one third its original size!

This wasn't the only partitioning of Poland. Poland was tussled over by Russia and Prussia and also Austria before this (in 1772) and after this (in 1795)! With that last partitioning, Poland no longer existed at all.

By which we of course do NOT mean that the land poof! Disappeared... Instead, we mean to say that people no longer acknowledged Poland as a separate, independent country—not, at least, until many years later.

Try Polish Paper Crafts

You're going to love gwiazdy, which is like an 8-sided paper snowflake.  And how about wycinanki? This folk art is cheery and heavy on the rooster motif! 

Puzzle your way to a Polish landscape

January 22, 2011

Cleopatra's Needle” Installed in NYC's Central Park – 1881

This 68-foot-tall, 224-ton Egyptian obelisk stands in New York City's Central Park, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Staring up at the huge chunk of stone, we might wonder how it got all the way from Egypt to the U.S.

By ship, of course—but it wasn't easy. Apparently Lt. Commander Henry Honeychurch Gorringe, U.S. Navy, wasn't able to get an Egyptian crew to sign on and sail to America, so he brought in a Serbian “crew” that—it turned out—not only didn't speak a word of English, but also didn't have any experience at sea!

The ship with the monument arrived at Staten Island in July of 1880. It was floated up the Hudson River and unloaded at the 51st Street dock, where 32 horses were hitched to it. The horses slowly pulled the stone to Central Park, where it was finally erected about half a year after its arrival in the U.S.

Curiouser and curiouser...

  • Although the obelisk is a genuine Ancient Egyptian monument, it had nothing to do with Cleopatra. As a matter of fact, the “needle” was already about 1,000 years old when she lived! ...Instead, it was carved and erected in the Egyptian city of Heliopolis on orders of the pharaoh Thutmose III, around 1450 BC.
  • The twin of this monument, built at the same time and place and also referred to as “Cleopatra's Needle,” was installed a few years earlier in London, England. A third Egyptian obelisk, which was erected at Ancient Egypt's Luxor Temple under the pharaoh Ramesses II, was installed in Paris earlier in the 1800s.
  • According to Sharon Waxman, author of Loot, “Storms and pollution [in New York City] have erased most of the hieroglyphics on a monument that had survived for some 3,500 years in Egypt without substantial damage.” Present-day Egypt is wisely reluctant to let go of any more of its precious historical and artistic treasures.

Learn more about Ancient Egypt

Try Mr. Donn's website. 

Or King Tut One – which has pictures to color and puzzles to solve! 

January 21, 2011

Happy Birthday, Sophia Jex-Blake

Would you care enough about education to rebel against your parents, struggle against society, and even face riots? Read about someone who did:

Born on this day in 1840, Sophia Jex-Blake was an English doctor and feminist. She was one of the first female doctors in the United Kingdom, and she led a campaign to allow women into med school. She even started two medical schools for women, one in London, England, and the other in Edinburgh, Scotland, where she started a women's hospital.

Jex-Blake had to be a revolutionary her whole life. When she wanted to go to college, her parents objected. She went, anyway, to Queen's College in London. While still a student, she was offered a job as a math tutor. She took the job, but her father refused her permission to accept a salary, so she did the tutoring as a volunteer. Later, Jex-Blake learned how difficult it was for women to attend medical school in the U.K. She went to the United States to learn about women's education there, and she was very influenced by the opportunities women had in the U.S. She decided to attend med school in the U.S., but her father died, and she went back to England to be with her mother.

Jex-Blake couldn't get any universities in England to accept her, but she persuaded Edinburgh University to admit her in 1869. Six other women joined her in the medical studies at Edinburgh. Get this—they cared so much about getting an education, they had to pay for their own separate lectures! Many people supported their efforts, but many opposed them—including lecturers, students, and townspeople. There was even a riot about the women med students in 1870!

There were so many administrative roadblocks to graduation, by 1873 the women had to accept that they couldn't get their medical degrees from Edinburgh. But Jex-Blake persevered. She helped establish the London School of Medicine for Women in 1874, and she urged Parliament to pass a bill that would enable medical schools to treat women and men equally. She passed the medical exams at the University of Berne (Switzerland) and was awarded an MD in 1877—and then went on to, not just practice medicine, but to work for women's rights to education, women's rights to practice medicine, and women's hospitals.

So, I ask again: Would you care enough about education to rebel against your parents, struggle against society, and even face riots? From our standpoint, Jex-Blake's story is crazy—but we are so lucky that people like her worked so hard to change the world.

January 20, 2011

U.S. Patent for First Successful Roller Coater – 1885

LaMarcus A. Thompson built the first successful roller coaster in Coney Island, New York.

He called it the “Gravity Pleasure Switchback Railway”—a name entirely unlike roller coaster names these days (the Cyclone, Viper, Intimidator are three examples). The ride only cost five cents (again, how different from today!—a coaster in Las Vegas costs $14 for just one ride!), and passengers sat sideways in cars pulled by gravity down low, gentle waves of a 600-foot rail line (in contrast to the steep hills, vertical loops and corkscrews of today). Thompson's coaster only reached speeds of 6 miles per hour (nowadays some coasters reach 100 miles per hour!), but people loved it and lined up to ride. Apparently the daily earnings of $600 per day were astounding. (I guess, when it's a nickel at a time!)
The roller coaster's beginnings are in Russia, where people would ride blocks of ice (with straw or fur seats) down wood-framed slides on specially constructed hills. In the summer wheeled carts rolled riders down large, undulating wooden ramps not unlike Thompson's railway.

Apparently in many languages roller coasters are called what could be translated as “Russian Mountains.” But in Russia the name for this sort of ride is “American Mountains”!

Celebrate roller coasters!
  • Design a fantastic ride just how you like it. Consider, not just the hills and turns and loops, but also the car design, the name, and the decorations.
  • Take a ride? If you are lucky enough to live near an affordable coaster, you could give in an honorary spin today.
  • Take a virtual ride. There are two links at the bottom of this earlier post
  • Virtually build a coaster or two. Roller coaster simulator gamesare lots of fun and can teach you a thing or two about physics, too. Try the free demo of No Limits Roller Coaster Simulator
  • Learn the physics of roller coasters from this primer

January 19, 2011

Wilkes Claims Antarctica for the U.S. -- 1840

On this day in 1840, Captain Charles Wilkes sighted a portion of Antarctica and claimed it to be a U.S. territory.

In his log, Wilkes wrote of his discovery of "an Antarctic continent west of the Balleny Islands." The word Antarctic means "opposite to the north."

This French map shows where Wilkes's expedition sailed.

Of course, Antarctica is not a U.S. territory. In the 1800s as more and more sailors spotted the continent, various expedition leaders made claims for their own nations. By the 1930s, the U.S. made an official policy that the nation made no claims on the southernmost continent but also recognized no other countries' claims. In the modern world, seven different nations still claim parts of the continent, but the Antarctic Treaty of 1959 to 1961, set aside the continent as an international zone and a scientific preserve for all. 
(The seven nations that still have territorial claims in Antarctica are Australia, New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina, all of which are quite close to Antarctica; and Britain, France, and Norway, all of which are far away in the Northern Hemisphere.)

For more on Antarctica, see thisthis, and this earlier post. For more on the Wilkes expedition, see this earlier post.

January 18, 2011

Winnie the Pooh Day

On this day in 1882, A.A. Milne was born in London, England. We celebrate his birthday by honoring his most beloved fictional character, the bear called Winnie the Pooh.

Winnie the Pooh and other animal characters such as Rabbit, Owl, Kanga, and Roo were friends with a little boy named Christopher Robin. They had many adventures involving blustery days and honey bees and such. The inspirations for these characters were A.A. Milne's real son, Christopher Robin, and his toys.

  • Celebrate by reading one of the Winnie the Pooh books, or by watching the excellent Disney video versions of the same.
  • Here is a Winnie the Pooh website, which has information and games and fun-fun-fun-fun-fun (as Tigger would say). And this website has recipes as well. (I wonder if some of them feature honey?)
  • Here are some Winnie the Pooh coloring pages to print.
  • Here is a delightful trailer for the Disney Pooh movie that will come out this summer. (Yeah!)

January 17, 2011

The Pope Moves Back to Rome -- 1377

After being in  France for 70 years, the papacy was moved by Pope Gregory XI back to Rome, Italy, on this day in 1377. Rome had been the historic seat of Catholic leadership, but a Frenchman who was made pope in 1305  refused to move to Rome. He and six other popes ruled from the charming walled city of Avignon.

However, shortly after Gregory XI moved to Rome, he died. Italians insisted on having an Italian pope, but French Catholics chose a French pope--so for about 30 years, there were two popes of the Roman Catholic Church. This was one split of the church that was called "the Great Schism." (There was another split that was called "the Great Schism," and other great schisms that were called other names as well.)

These days, we call the "popes" that ruled from Avignon from 1378 to 1417 the "anti-popes."

The Great Schism was apparently mended by several councils and several elections of other new popes.

Learn about Avignon

Here is a nice travelogue with photos. 

Here is a jigsaw puzzle. 

Here is a short video about the town.


January 16, 2011

Great Day for Skates

On this date in 1866, Everett Hosmer Barney got a patent for “clamp-on” roller skates that would attach to normal shoes and tighten with a key.

Barney was a Civil War arms producer who needed a new industry when the war was over. His invention made him a very rich man!

On this date in 1901, Frank Zamboni was born in Utah. He grew up to invent an ice re-surfacer we still call a zamboni.

It's important to have smooth ice for figure skating, skate races, and ice hockey. Before Zamboni invented the zamboni, several workers would have to scrape the ice with tractors, then shovel away the scrapings, and finally hose down the surface. People would still have to wait longer for the water to freeze into the new, fresh surface.

Zambonis do all three steps in one: a blade shaves the ice smooth, a device sweeps up the shavings, and another apparatus rinses the ice with a very thin layer of water that freezes in less than a minute. Within a very short time, one worker can drive a zamboni up and down an ice rink and create a smooth new ice surface.

Go skating today!
Roller blades, roller skates...
...or ice skates!

January 15, 2011

Queen Elizabeth I's Coronation – 1559

Although Elizabeth I became Queen of England in November of 1558, upon the death of her half sister Mary I, she was crowned on January 15, 1559, at Westminster Abbey.

On the evening before her coronation, Elizabeth made a “royal entry” or “triumphal progress” through the city of London. Her citizens crowded around to greet and honor her, and speeches were given and pageants held. Apparently Elizabeth responded to these honors in such an open and gracious way that the spectators loved her.

On the day of the coronation, Elizabeth was crowned by the Catholic bishop of Carlisle, and she was presented to her people while fifes, trumpets, drums, organs, and bells played.

Learn more about Elizabeth I.
  • Read this very short bio

  • Do a jigsaw puzzle (and marvel at the intricate clothing Elizabeth sometimes wore!). 

  • Do a coloring page (if you dare, given the aforementioned intricate clothing!).