December 31 - Hogmanay in Scotland

Posted on December 31, 2016

Cleaning the house and clearing all debts before “the bells” at midnight…

Gathering together with family and friends, exchanging gifts…

Singing “For Auld Lang Syne” right after midnight…

"Auld lang syne" means, roughly, for old time's sake.

Welcoming friends and strangers…especially dark-haired strangers first footing into the house with shortbread and whiskey…

Torchlight processions and fireworks…

There are many New Years’ Eve traditions in Scotland — some old and on their way out, some newer versions of celebration — and the holiday has its own unique name. 

Did you know…?

For part of the 1600s, celebrating Christmas was actually banned by law in Scotland! This ban was a result of the struggles in the British Isles between Catholic and Protestant churches, and since 1583 the Church of Scotland (Protestant; Presbyterian, to be exact) had discouraged Christmas and/or Yule celebrations. After the ban was lifted, the Church of Scotland continued to frown on the celebration, and those who did celebrate Christmas did so only quietly. 

Finally, in 1958, Christmas became a public holiday in Scotland.

So…what does this have to do with Hogmanay? I guess it makes sense that, if the mid-winter Pagan Yule celebration was not allowed, AND Christmas celebration was not allowed, people needed to have some holiday to really celebrate. That’s why Scottish people have so many rich traditions connected to New Year’s Eve - and it’s also why both New Year’s Day and January 2 are public holidays — to rest up after all the merry-making!

Ceilidh is Scottish folk music and
singing, traditional dancing, and

In Stonehaven, giant 20-pound fireballs are lit and swung around on long metal poles or chains!

In Edinburgh, there is a torchlight procession…

There are a LOT of torches!

…AND fireworks…

…and it’s always fun to burn a Viking ship!

Also on this date:

December 30 - Happy Birthday, Jerry Coyne!

Posted on December 30, 2016

Hey, any guy who likes cats, boots AND biology is cool with me!

Today is biology professor Jerry Coyne’s birthday. There are probably a lot of biologists who like cats and boots, but the way that Coyne first came to my attention is through his website / blog, which is called Why Evolution Is True. I also checked out his book of the same title!

I love it when scientists take the time to explain things to we, the public, in a really clear way, Two of my heroes when I was growing up were scientists who wrote about science for the all-of-us — Isaac Asimov and Carl Sagan — and although they are both gone now, I still think that many of their books and articles are worth reading. But science marches on! New discoveries are made! And sometimes new discoveries shine a different light on older data and theories, and we need to jigger our ideas a bit to consider the new findings. So it’s important that every generation produces scientists willing to write popular books about science.

Coyne, born on this date in 1949, isn't one of the youngest of science popularizers — but he is one of the scientists who jumped on the blog bandwagon, realizing the immediacy and no-cost communication that the internet can give. I salute Coyne and hope that many, many more younger scientists in all sorts of fields are also taking up the cause of explaining things to all of us not in their field. We cannot be good national and world citizens — for example, we cannot make good voting decisions — if we don’t understand the world we live in!

Here are a few ideas Coyne helps me to understand:

Biogeography is the study of where various species (plants, animals, and so on) live in space and through time. Of course we all know that some species do better in warm environments, and others are adapted to cold, and we know that some do better in very moist environments or underwater, whereas others have adapted to dry conditions. All of that definitely affects “what lives where” in some predictable ways.

However, geography has a ton to do with where species live, as well. If there is a way for animals to migrate to new areas with the right kind of conditions, for example, they will do so. But barriers such as high mountains, wide deserts, or huge oceans affect where animals can and cannot migrate. Ditto for plants, which often require wind or animals to disperse their seeds. By studying how the continents have moved over time, fossils, current migration patterns, island species, and current species habitats — we can piece together a better understanding of evolution.

Vestigial organs (and structures) are useless or poorly suited body parts that are evidence of evolution and a species’ ancestors. Some examples of vestigial body parts include non-functioning eyes in cave fish, goosebumps in humans, and hind leg bones in whales.  

Did you know that pythons and some other snakes have vestigial leg "buds"?

Transitional fossils are remains of life forms that have traits that are common to two different groups — an ancestral group and a descendant group. They are the “in-between” animals / plants / etc. — who have since died out — that show us how modern animals / plants / etc. evolved. Transitional fossils include tiktaalik (a transition between fish and amphibians), archaeopteryx (a transition between reptiles and birds), and the ancestral tree of whales, which include land animals. 

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December 29 - Happy Birthday, Elizabeth of Russia

Posted on December 29, 2016

She was one of the more popular of Russian rulers. 

Elizabeth, Empress of Russia, was popular partly because she decided to never execute even a single person during her reign, partly because she stood up to an enemy (Prussia), perhaps partly because she encouraged education and culture — the founding of the University of Moscow and the Imperial Academy of Arts, for example, and the building of the Winter Palace and Smolny Cathedral.

Saint Petersburg is the red dot in the northwest "corner"
of Russia!
 Born on this date in 1709, Elizabeth ruled during the time that Saint Petersburg was the capital. It was far from a central city in the huge empire (now nation) — but it is was a center for trade (it’s a port city!) and culture. Even now, the historic center of Saint Petersburg is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Imperial Academy of Arts, Smolny Cathedral, and the Winter Palace still draw crowds!

Above and next two, below,
the Imperial Academy of Arts.

Above and next two below,
Smolny Cathedral.

Above and next three below,
Winter Palace.
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