May 31, 2013 - Mmmm.... Macaroon Day!

In Italian, it is maccarone.
           In French, macaron.
         In English, macaroon.
In my mouth—so yummy!



The word macaroon comes from an Italian or Latin word for crush or beat. These delightful cookies are named this because the main ingredient is crushed almonds. In addition to almond paste, most macaroons have whipped egg whites, coconut, and of course sugar.

Macaroons have been around for centuries, with some early recipes being in the very first cookbooks. Here are a few up-to-date recipes:

Martha Stewart offers recipes for multiple versions. Sixteen different types, to be exact! I'm pretty much gaining weight just by looking at the pictures!

Food-dot-com offers “Really Easy Macaroons.” 

Have you ever opened a coconut? Here's how. 


Also on this date:











National Reconciliation Week in Australia










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May 30, 2013 - Loomis Day

Loomis was a dentist.
Today we are encouraged to celebrate Mahlon Loomis for “thinking outside of the box.” He came up with the idea of wireless communication—a telegraph that would harness the electrical currents in the Earth's upper atmosphere to transfer telegraph messages without the need for wires.

Loomis did not come up with a working idea of how to do this! His patent application not only had no schematic diagram about how to build a wireless telegraph, nor any theoretical backing for his concept, it was also very close to the idea and even wording of a patent application already awarded to William Henry Ward. Both patents applications were vague and impractical.

Loomis did do an experiment that seemed to demonstrate the first wireless communication in the world. He flew two kites at equal heights 14 miles away from one another; each kite was tied to a copper string, and each string was attached to a galvanometer. Loomis was able to use one kite to move the other kite's meter!
This is NOT what was happening during
the experiment!

Loomis thought that, because the two kites were flown at the same height, he was creating a closed circuit as electricity moved from a transmitter, up a wire, through a particular layer of atmosphere, and down the other wire to the meter. However, scientists now know that the atmosphere creating one leg of a closed circuit is impossible. Instead, scientists speculate, Loomis was unknowingly creating a radio signal with one apparatus, and the equal-length wire of the other kite was resonant with that signal and therefore acted as a radio receiver. Interesting, huh?

What would we do without
wireless technology today?
Loomis received his patent on this date in 1872. I personally find value in people thinking up all sorts of outlandish possibilities—artists and science fiction writers are two groups of people who often make these sorts of contributions to society—but I admire even more the scientists who work hard to discover principles of the universe and engineers who work hard to create devices that work. Loomis didn't succeed at either of these – but he did indeed think outside of the box!

Also on this date:



























Anniversary of the discovery of krypton










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May 29, 2013 - Rhode Island and Wisconsin become states



Separated by almost 60 years, Rhode Island and Wisconsin both became states of the United States on two different May 29ths.

Can you figure out which of the statements below refers to Rhode Island, and which to Wisconsin?

1. ________ is the smallest state but has the longest official name.
2. ________ is in the Great Lakes region.
3. ________ became a state in 1848.
4. ________ has Milwaukee as its largest city.
5. ________ became a state in 1790.
6. ________ has Providence as its largest city and capital.
7. ________ was one of the original thirteen colonies.
8. ________ is known as “America's Dairyland.”
9. ________ is located in New England.
10.________ has Madison as its capital.

Here are the answers:

1. RI - The official name is Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. The colony we call Rhode Island was formed by the merger of two separate settlements: one on what we now call Aquidneck Island, but was then called Rhode Island, and one on the mainland.
2. WI – Wisconsin borders on both Lake Michigan and Lake Superior.
3. WI
4. WI – Both Wisconsin and Milwaukee are names that come from Native American languages.
5. RI – Rhode Island was the last of the 13 original colonies to ratify the Constitution and therefore join the new American nation.
6. RI – Providence was one of the first cities established in the U.S.
7. RI – This colony was started by Roger Williams as a place for religious tolerance. Williams had been kicked out of Massachusetts for not agreeing with every bit of the Puritans' religion. (It's sad to me to reflect that, although Rhode Island began as place of religious freedom in a time where such a thing was extremely rare, just last year a teenage girl named Jessica Ahlquist was persecuted with hate mail, death threats, and verbal attacks because she is an atheist. What about your reputation for religious tolerance, Rhode Island?)
8. WI – Although the state motto is a bland “Forward,” some people want to change it to “Eat cheese or die.” Wisconsin is not only a major dairy state, it is best known for its cheese.
9. RI – The states of New England include, in addition to Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine.
10. WI – I personally think that Oshkosh should be the capital, because I like that name, but Madison is named for former James Madison.



Also on this date:













Anniversary of the first successful climb of Mount Everest




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May 28, 2013 - Feast Day of St. Bernard of Montjoux

Bernard of Montjoux was probably born around 1020, probably in what is now Italy. He worked as a priest in the Italian Alps. He built schools and hospitals, but he is most famous for building shelters for mountain climbers and travelers using a path across the Pennine Alps. The pass that people used to cross the mountains was always covered by seven to eight feet of snow—with drifts up to 40 feet deep! Of course, travelers moving through so much snow faced dangers, such as getting lost and hypothermia, and in this location there was particular danger from avalanches.

Bernard built a hospice in that pass, 8,000 feet above sea level. A few years later, he established another hospice in another pass, about 7,000 feet above sea level.

These hospices have been used by travelers for nearly 1,000 years! They were famous for their hospitality to all travelers, offering not just shelter but also food, clothing, and medical aid. The canons who lived there and cared for the travelers trained large dogs to help search for people lost in snowstorms or buried in avalanches. Of course, you will have guessed that the dogs are known as St. Bernards!

Nowadays there are still about 35 people living at the hospices and offering help to travelers and adventurers. St. Bernard dogs still live there, too—but they are mostly pets; these days helicopters are used in rescue operations.

What a great legacy—Bernard is considered the patron saint of skiing, snowboarding, hiking, backpacking, and mountaineering. And a wonderful breed of dog is named after him!

By the way...

Many St. Bernard dogs are pictured with small barrels attached to their collars. But the search-and-rescue dogs at Bernard's hospices never carried such barrels. A 17-year-old painter named Edwin Landseer painted Alpine dogs trying to help an injured traveler, in 1820, and he painted a small barrel around one of the dog's necks. Landseer said that the barrel contained brandy, a restorative for cold, possibly injured travelers. In actual fact, brandy would make a person suffering from exposure even more cold, so it should never be used as a “restorative” in this situation!

Still, the imagination of a young artist has added something to the public image of St. Bernard dogs. Many owners of “Saints,” as they are sometimes called, purchase collars decorated with the small barrels—some of them marked with a red cross. Apparently many of the small barrels on collars do not have any opening, so not only are the barrels empty, there is no way to fill them nor to sip or gulp liquid from them!

I thought it was funny that such small-barrel collars are even kept at the hospice, these days; even though the Alpine guides assure us that the breed never carried brandy or any other beverage in barrels around their necks, visitors want to take photos of dogs with barrels, so the guides keep a few on hand!


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Also on this date:











Anniversary of the Battle of the Eclipse


May 27, 2013 - Happy Birthday, Lawrence M. Krauss

You gotta love a physicist who writes and speaks about the physics of Star Trek! Krauss has studied and written about lots of other topics, as well, of course. Cosmology, the fear of physics, dark matter and dark energy, string theory, and why there is something rather than nothing—these are some of the subjects Krauss spends his time studying and discussing.

I got to hear one of Krauss's public lectures several years ago. He is energetic and fun to listen to—and I always think the sort of Big Questions that he investigates are fascinating!

Check out some of Krauss's ideas about the technologies found on Star Trek.

Here is a documentary about the Big Bang

Want to know more about dark matter and dark energy? Check out the National Geographic explanation or the NASA explanation.

Here is a 4-minute video that touches on a few central ideas of cosmology. 

Did you know that there is a website devoted to the Big Questions Online


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Also on this date:

Memorial Day in the USA













May 26, 2013 - William of Ockham Flees

– 1328

Why would a friar and theologian have to flee for his liberty—and maybe even his life—from the Pope?

Well, it may not surprise you a bit. Many people have argued and fought over religious ideas—is THIS the right way? or is THAT?—and sometimes the Powers That Be have had people who disagreed with them arrested or even executed. In this case several Franciscans disagreed with ideas being taught by Pope John XXII, but the Pope was the one with the power. So the Franciscans, including English friar William of Ockham, stole away in the dark of night, and ran off to live in the court of another who disagreed with the Pope: Holy Roman Emperor Louis IV.

Now, here's a question:

You probably know that the Vatican, where the Pope heads the Catholic Church, is in Rome. Wouldn't you also think that the Holy Roman Emperor would ALSO be in Rome? Just how far did Ockham and the other Franciscans have to flee, going from the Pope's place to the Emperor's court?

It turns out that, during this turbulent time of the Middle Ages, neither this particular Pope nor this particular Emperor lived in Rome.

You see, Louis IVwho had lived and ruled in Munich, in Bavaria (part of what is now known as Germany)was in a constant state of feud with Pope John XXII . John excommunicated Louis (which means kicked him out of the Catholic Church), and Louis deposed John (which means kicked him out of being the Pope). John didn't accept the deposition, of course, and moved from Rome, Italy, to Avignon, France. (To this day we consider that John XXII remained Pope at this time, and the guy that Louis installed as Pope, Nicholas V, is now called the Antipope.) Robert, King of Naples, sent a fleet and an army to kick Louis out of Rome, and both Louis IV and the Antipope fled—all the way back to Munich.

So, when William of Ockham fled from the Pope of the Holy Roman Catholic Church to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, he traveled from Avignon, France, to Munich, Bavaria (Germany).

The story is much more complex than even that, but I don't want to get into any more of those messy details. Instead, I want to tell you why we know Ockham's name:

Because of “Occam's Razor.”

(AKA Ockham's Razor.)

We're not talking about the thing Ockham used to shave. Instead, we are talking about a philosophical principle. Ockham wrote many scholarly papers, and one logical principle that he used over and over in his papers is that the simplest explanation is often best.

According to Occam's Razor, if there are several hypotheses about why the universe is the way it is, all other things being equal, we should select the hypothesis with the fewest assumptions.

In other words, if there are two competing theories that make exactly the same predictions, the simpler one is better.

The principle is called a “razor” because, with it, one can shave away unnecessary assumptions.

Here's an often-used example of Occam's Razor:

If you live in America and you hear hoofbeats—but you can't see what made the sounds—you should assume horses, not zebras. And certainly not unicorns!

Here are some other examples:

If you zipped a dollar bill into your jacket pocket and a few hours later you discover a hole in your pocket, and no dollar, you should assume that the money fell through the hole, not that someone hypnotized you, unzipped your pocket, and stole the money.

If, on the other hand, you accidentally left your wallet (bulging with money) on the bench of a diner and then went back three hours later, only to discover that it was gone and, no, nobody turned it in—well, in that sad case you should assume that somebody stole your wallet and money rather than more elaborate possibilities.
  • Did the wallet somehow disappear into another dimension?
  • Was the person who bussed the table blind, and did she or he accidentally sweep up the wallet and throw it into the trash?
  • Did, perhaps, a small flying saucer whisk into the restaurant, undetected, and disintegrate your wallet with a carefully calibrated laser beam that left the bench unmarked?

Oh, boy, without Occam's Razor, we could come up with soooo many different scenarios of what happened to that wallet and money!

But we really don't need to spin a hundred unlikely explanations when there is a mundane-but-likely explanation that fits the evidence.

Important Note:

Occam's Razor is just a guideline for our thinking. It can prove nothing! Careful observation, measurement, experiment, replication, modeling, mathematical calculation—all are more important to figuring out what's what, and why, then just thinking up “the simplest solution.”

For example, a homicide detective should be alert to the possibility that the simple solution “the butler did it,” even when backed up with a piece or two of circumstantial evidence and an eyewitness report, might not be correct. A shrewd detective would realize that the eyewitness who just gained a million dollars from a death might have lied about what he or she saw, and maybe even planted a few “clues” to frame the butler he or she hopes to pin the murder on. 

In this murder case, we shouldn't pounce on the easy answer as necessarily correct, but we also shouldn't insist that the most likely person is somehow, perversely, the least likely (even if it seems that way in murder mysteries). Instead, we should dig deeper, find more evidence, follow the money, question the eyewitness several more times, interview everybody else...Work, work, work—and see if more evidence points the finger more conclusively at the butler, or elsewhere.


How Stuff Works offers a longer exploration of Occam's Razor.


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Also on this date:










Astronaut Sally Ride's birthday – Note: I wrote this profile of Ride before she died in July, 2012. The nation lost a hero and the world lost a vibrant contributor to science education.


May 25, 2013 - Happy Birthday, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson!

What a colorful life Luther Robinson led!

For one thing, he began tap dancing for money at an early age (some say age 5), and he soon dropped out of school to pursue his career. Tragically, both of his parents died, so his grandmother became his guardian. He didn't like his first name, Luther, so he convinced his brother Bill to switch names. 

(Later on, the new Luther decided that HE didn't like the name Luther, either, so he changed his name agains, to Percy.)

Robinson was still young when he first joined a dancing troupe, and he eventually worked on a vaudeville team, in nightclubs, on Broadway, and in movies. He is well known for tap dancing with Adelaide Hall in Broadway shows and with Shirley Temple in movies.

Interestingly enough, with all his tap-dancing success and despite his early start as a performer, Robinson never danced for white audiences until he was 50 years old. Of course, America was much more segregated back then than now. You will probably not be surprised to hear that Robinson faced racism. One story he liked to tell concerned sitting down to eat in a restaurant. A white customer complained to the restaurant manager that he didn't want a “colored person” eating in the same restaurant, and the manager suggested to Robinson that perhaps he should leave. Robinson just smiled and asked the manager if he had a ten-dollar bill. Puzzled, the manager gave him the money. Robinson pulled out six $10 bills from his own wallet and mixed them up. “Here, let's see you pick out the colored one,” he said to the manager. The restaurant manager saw the point and took Robinson's order.

(Are you puzzled? This is the way the story is told—in six or seven different places all over the internet!—but I would've thought that Robinson would have said, “Here, let's see you pick out the white one.” Or something like that.)






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Also, for the rest of May: May holidays, historical events in May, and May birthdays.


Also on this date:

















Writer Ralph Waldo Emerson's birthday