January 31 – Street Children's Day

Posted on January 31, 2015

This special day comes from the Austrian charitable organization Jugend Eine Welt – but Austrians would love it to become a worldwide holiday. The idea is to work toward emergency relief, food, shelter, clothing, and education for “street children” and other homeless children. Another idea behind the day is to enable young people to become volunteers who can help other youths.

All over the world, there are kids and teens under age 18 who don't have a home. The “street” has become their home. And of course, by street I mean abandoned buildings, vacant lots, freeway underpasses—anywhere in the city that they can find temporary shelter.

Some street children are called “thrownaway children,” children who have one or more parents or guardians but who have been forced out of their homes or have run away from home, often to escape abuse.

  • If you ever travel in places where you see street children begging for money, here is an article with some ideas of how to help the kids more than just giving them a nickel or a ballpoint pen. 

Also on this date:

Baseball player Jackie Robinson's birthday  


Chess composer Sam Lloyd's birthday

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January 30 – Yerba Buena Gets a New Name

Posted on January 30, 2015

Once upon a time there was a small settlement named Yerba Buena in the Spanish colony called Las Californias. It was named “good herb” because of the mint plants growing all over the area.

The town was located between the Presidio of San Francisco (a fort) and the Mission San Francisco de Asis (a church). It was started in 1776, and by 1792, when English explorer George Vancouver sailed into San Francisco Bay, he mentioned staying “in a place they called Yerba Buena.”

In the early 1800s, the colony of Las Californias was split into Alta (upper) and Baja (lower) California. And shortly after that split, Mexico won its independece from Spain. So Alta California, including Yerba Buena, became a part of Mexico.

But it was a part of Mexico that was far from the capital, Mexico City – even further than the rest of California! And little attention was paid to the town with its port and plaza and trading post.

By the middles of the 1800s, English settlers had built homes and started businesses in Yerba Buena, and when Mexico and the US locked horns in the Mexican American War over the control of, not only California, but Texas and the entire Southwest, in 1846, navy and marine officers claimed Alta California for the United States and raised an American flag in the plaza of Yerba Buena.

On this date in 1847, the Americans who now ruled Yerba Buena officially changed its name to San Francisco. Just one year later gold was discovered in California, and San Francisco almost immediately became the most important city on the West Coast. It grew like wildfire!

In 1845, the sleepy Spanish town of Yerba Buena had just 400 people. Fifteen years later, the same town (but now called San Francisco) was 56,000 people!

Yep, they do not call it the Gold Rush for nothing!

Today there are more than 800,000 people in San Francisco. That is a lot of people when you consider how small the city is! There are almost 18,000 people per square mile—more than six times the density of my own city!

Also on this date:

Fred Korematsu Day of Civil Liberties and the Constitution

Birthday of Thomas Rolfe, son of Pocahontas

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January 29 – Happy Birthday, Vic Stenger

Posted on January 29, 2015

Today's famous birthday was a scientist and author who delved into so many things I'm interested in: physics, quantum mechanics, cosmology, philosophy, and skepticism / pseudoscience!

Born in New Jersey on this date in 1935, Stenger died last year. But what he explored during his 79 years included the very, very teeny and the mind-numbingly huge, the beginning of time and the ending of the universe.

Stenger worked on furthering our
knowledge about things like quarks
and gluons.
And if you don't count all that grand sweep of ideas that Stenger explored, you can also look at the explorations he did right here on Earth: His study of physics took him from New Jersey to Los Angeles, to Hawaii, and to visiting positions at universities in Colorado, Germany, England, Italy, and Japan. Also, Stenger became a public speaker and promoted his books, science, and skepticism all over!

Here is an example of some of Stenger's work for skepticism. In 1990 he wrote a book called Physics and Psychics: The Search for a World Beyond the Senses. In that book, Stenger examined claims by well known psychics – claims about extrasensory perception (ESP) and paranormal activity, things unknown and unseen – and he explained how each of those claims could be explained with scientific principles that have the benefit of tons of testing and evidence to back them up. There is no need to resort to the supernatural when you can explain things with the natural.

One of the psychics whose tricks Stenger explained was Uri Geller. Geller was famous for supposedly bending spoons with his mind. But really he is just an illusionist or magician—and other magicians such as James Randi easily demonstrate the exact same tricks that Geller relies upon.

Geller didn't like being revealed as a fake in Stenger's book, so the so-called psychic sued both Stenger and the publishers. However, the case was dismissed, and Geller was ordered to pay legal fees of nearly $50,000!

Stenger also worked hard to decouple (separate) quantum physics from the silliness that people keep spewing about life on the universe – stuff they SAY comes from quantum physics but that really comes from their misunderstanding of quantum physics. Examples of that silliness include the movies What the Bleep Do We Know? and The Secret, as well as the book The Secret. Stenger helped show why these movies and book are incorrect about the power of the mind.

Also on this date:

Flight pioneer Lawrence Hargrave's birthday

Geologist Frederick Mohs's birthday

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January 28 – Happy Birthday, Jackson Pollock

Posted on January 28, 2015

Today's famous birthday is a highly regarded artist. Someone who is considered a major figure in the abstract expressionist movement. Someone whose work is well known, influential, and high priced!

Also, strangely enough, someone whose work is sometimes criticized as “just a big mess,” or “not even art.”

Jackson Pollock was born on this date in 1912, and he died when he was just 44 years old, way back in 1956. So he is not a modern guy in the sense that he is alive now, or even that he was alive during the 2000s, or even much of the last half of the 1900s. 

However, Pollock is considered a modern artist. He is also considered to be someone who turned the modern art world upside down!

What made Jackson so famous, so controversial, so influential?

For the most part, Jackson didn't stand at an easel and paint a canvas with a brush or palette knife. 

Instead, he stood over a canvas stretched out on the floor, and he poured paint, or he dripped paint. 

He even flung paint. Sometimes he used sticks and trowels rather than brushes and palette knives.

With all that pouring and dripping and flinging, Jackson's works certainly weren't realistic representations of people, creatures, places, and things. Instead, his pieces were abstract. They were expressions of pure line and color. They were motion caught by the canvas. They were spattering splatters and drapes of drips.

Some of Pollack's paintings are more monotone,
some are very colorful. Which do you prefer?

Celebrate Pollock by trying a poured-paint or dripped-paint piece yourself!

Here and here are some ideas of how to create a Pollock-like masterpiece. 

Or eat a rice crispy treat inspired by Pollock! 

Also on this date:

Anniversary of first ski tow in the U.S.

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January 27 – National Geographic Day

Posted on January 27, 2015

Today we celebrate the anniversary of the founding of the National Geographic Society on this date in 1888.

National Geographic wasn't a magazine, yet—but the founders started the society in order to increase the public's knowledge about geography. The 33 men who started the organization included geographers, explorers, and cartographers (mapmakers)—just the guys you would expect to start such an organization!—but the group also included lawyers, teachers, financiers, and military officers.

They realized that Americans were increasingly curious about other places and peoples. They chose a lawyer and a philanthropist to head the Society, because they hoped that the Society would be able to reach out to the layman (in other words, reach all the people who aren't explorers and geographers themselves).

This is one of the most
famous magazine covers
of any magazine, of all time.

Of course, it's National
Nine months later, the first issue of National Geographic Magazine was published. But the magazine wasn't reaching very many laymen, as the Society had hoped. The articles were short and technical and largely text. In 1899, a man named Gilbert Grosvenor took over as editor and made some big changes. Suddenly articles of general interest began to appear. And those articles were illustrated by gorgeous photographs!

In just a few years, the magazine went from a thousand subscribers to two million subscribers!

The profits from the magazine are used to sponsor more expeditions and research projects. The Society has given grants for such now-famous endeavors as Robert Peary's journey to the North Pole, Richard Byrd's flight over the South Pole, Jacques Cousteau's underwater exploration, and Jane Goodall's observation of wild chimpanzees.

These days, even though few people still purchase magazines because of all the content available online (often for free), National Geographic Magazine boasts about nine million subscribers (many, no doubt, libraries in which many people enjoy each magazine!). And the National Geographic Society is one of the world's largest non-profit scientific and educational institutions.

  • Here is a cool zoomable world map.
  • And there are loads of maps available for sale.

Also on this date:

Author Lewis Carroll's birthday

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