November 30, 2010

National Days – Yemen and Benin

1. On which two continents are Yemen and Benin located?

2. Which two European countries colonized Yemen and Benin?

3. What do Yemen and Benin celebrate on this date?

Answers: 1.Yemen is on the Arabian Peninsula, in the “Near East” portion of Asia; Benin is on the southern side of the "bulge" of Africa – 2. The U.K. colonized southern Yemen; France colonized Benin – 3. Yemen celebrates its Nov. 30, 1967, independence from the U.K.; Benin celebrates the Nov. 30, 1975, renaming to Republic of Benin. The former name, Dahomey, was the name of just a portion of the nation, so a more neutral name was chose. Benin is the name of the body of water next to the country.

By the way:

Yemen's main national holiday is on May 22, which is Unity Day, celebrating the 1990 joining of North and South Yemen. 

Benin's main national holiday is August 1, celebrating its independence from France in 1960.

These are a few of my favorite things...
...about Yemen and Benin.

  • Yemen is the only nation on the Arabian peninsula to have a pure republic form of government. The other nations have kings (or sultans) of some sort.
  • More than 200 islands, located in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden, are part of Yemen. Most of the islands are volcanic in origin.
  • I read that almost everybody wears ceremonial daggers or swords—on a daily basis! I can't help wondering if “almost everybody” really means “almost every adult man”?
  • Shibam, in Yemen, is called the oldest skyscraper city of the world and also “the Manhattan of the desert.” Its many-storied buildings are made of mud bricks. With some buildings 100 feet tall, these are the tallest mud buildings in the world.
  • This website has a short, slow-fade slide show of Yemen. 
  • A memorial about the slave trade has been erected on the beach of Benin. Called The Door of No Return, it shows that slavery was a one-way trip into horror for most people.
  • Here is a photo gallery of animals you can see at Benin's Pendjari National Park.
  • Grand Popo is one of the most picturesque beaches of Benin.

November 29, 2010

Classified Day

For centuries people have been naming animals (and plants) and animal groups (and plant groups), making assumptions about which critters are like which other critters, sorting them according to what they look like and how they behave. Scientists call the study of classification of plants, animals, and other organisms taxonomy.

On this day in 1627, English naturalist John Ray was born. He ended up making contributions in classifying flowering plants, and he was the first person to define the word species in a scientific way. (Basically, he said that organisms are of the same species, even if they vary from one another, if they are related through reproduction.)

One of the things Ray believed and practiced was classifying creatures according to actual observations instead of according to pre-conceived groups created by either-or thinking. Instead of diagramming a rigid “tree of life” like this:

Ray allowed for a taxonomy like this:

On this day in 1762, French biologist Pierre Andre Latreille was born. He ended up making the first detailed classification of insects and crustaceans (which are shrimp, lobsters, crabs, and other shellfish).

Latreille may be the only person who saved his own life by discovering a new species. He was imprisoned during the French Revolution, and he was sentenced to death for refusing to pledge his allegiance to the new constitution. However, there in the prison he discovered a beetle that had not been known to science before. Because of this, two fellow naturalists were able to convince Latreille's captors to free him!

Classifying Fun

  • Kid Zone has a nice webpage covering some of the same content. 
  • Scientists classify plants, too. Here is a rather strange YouTube video—starring talking plants! 

Learn more about Taxonomy

  • Here is a serious discussion of the topic, written for kids. 
  • And here is a website with lots of information and activities about taxonomy. 
  • We currently classify organisms in five large groups called kingdoms. Check it out

November 28, 2010

First skywriting in U.S. skies – 1922

Ten thousand feet up, over Times Square in New York City, giant letters appeared in the sky. Made of white smoke, the letters spelled out, “Hello USA. Call Vanderbilt 7200.”

Within three hours, the Vanderbilt Hotel received 47,000 calls!

And a new advertising form was born.

Actually, pilot Captain Cyril Turner of Britain's Royal Air Force had earlier demonstrated sky writing in England, in May 1922. That time, he was advertising a newspaper, the Daily Mail.

Skywriting is formed when engine heat is used to turn a certain kind of oil into white smoke. This smoke is released under pressure. Of course, it is the plane's maneuvers, along with the starting and stopping of the smoke release, that makes the smoke form letters.

Skywriting is often done in summer. It requires cloudless skies (or at least nearly cloudless skies) and little wind. In this video you can see how slowly skywriting appears, and why strong winds would destroy the beginning of the message before the end has appeared. This video also features a cloud threatening to cover part of the message. 

Do It With Dots!

With five airplanes, skywriting can appear more quickly. Each letter is created with five rows of dots rather than with continuous lines “drawn” on the sky by just a single plane. Here is a video in which a personal sentiment rather than an ad appears in the sky. 

If You Could Write Anything on the Sky...

...what would it be? Where would you write it? Who would read it?

I wonder who paid for this message... 
...and who it was meant for.


Perhaps the most famous skywriting in motion picture history wasn't made by a plane....
It was made by a witch! "Surrender Dorothy" appeared in the skies over the Emerald City, in The Wizard of Oz.

Here is a skywriting coloring page. 

November 27, 2010

Happy Birthday, New-Math Guy
(Edward Begle)

Edward Begle, who was born on this day in 1914 in Michigan, became a mathematician—a topologist, to be exact. (Topology is the study of shapes and spatial properties of things, even when those things are deformed—say, bent or curved around or stretched.) 

When the Soviet Union surprised the world by successfully launching a man into outer space (the 1957 Sputnik 1 launch), many people in the U.S. became upset. Americans had thought of themselves as leaders in space technology. Some people called for better education, especially in math and science. Because of these calls for newer, better math instruction, a group called the School Mathematics Study Group was launched, and Begle was chosen to be the director.

In the 1960s the group released educational materials for all levels of school (K-12), and the these materials and the philosophy behind them were dubbed “The New Math.”

Begle thought that traditional math relied too heavily on memorization and drill of algorithmic processes. (An algorithm is a set of steps designed to solve a problem. For example, when doing long division--425 divided by 25--you might say to yourself, “25 goes into 42 one time, 1 times 25 is 25; 42 take away 25 is 17; bring down the 5; 25 goes into 175 seven times, 7 times 25 is 175; 175 take away 175 is zero. So 425 divided by 25 is 17.” These repeated steps of dividing, multiplying, subtracting, and “bringing down” make up the algorithm of long division.) Many kids successfully memorized “math facts” but then later forgot them, and many kids didn't know which algorithm to use to solve particular math problems.

Begle thought it was more important that kids develop understanding of the fundamentals of mathematics.

Begle was right about all of that, and yet “New Math” has been considered a giant flop. By and large, students, parents, and even teachers didn't like it, and it was abandoned rather quickly. It is still sometimes referred to, even today—but almost always with scorn.

New Math and Me

I went to school while the New Math was being taught, and I actually liked it! We learned lots of stuff about sets, Venn diagrams, and number bases. I understood it, and I still remember it pretty well—although how much I've actually USED it is another thing altogether.

I was also taught traditional math algorithms with traditional drills and timed tests—and I hated that stuff! I obediently memorized algorithms but didn't understand most of it, and eventually things I supposedly knew how to do mushed into one big glom of half-remembered muck. I would get the steps to adding fractions mixed up with the steps to reducing fractions, say, or forget when and how to cross multiply. I became more and more sure that I was terrible at math.

Years later, I learned the “why” of all those steps and all those processes—and I got a lot better at math. If I can 't remember an algorithm, my understanding of what I'm actually doing helps to me re-invent it. My own experience, plus tons of research findings, show that Begle was correct when he said that understanding is more important than memorization.

If he was right, what went wrong with New Math?

Some of the topics introduced with the New Math materials were far outside of kids' experiences, and when stuff is completely irrelevant, it's usually hard to learn. Also, some of the abstract concepts were taught too early, when kids should be using real things that they can count and sort and measure. Finally, most teachers and parents felt uncomfortable with the new-ish concepts and wondered why on earth anyone needed to know that stuff, so the lessons were undercut by their attitudes.

If you've never learned about Number Bases...

...give the topic a whirl with Cut the Knot lessons.

November 26, 2010

Canada-on-Ice Day

On this day in 1975, Canadian ice dancer Patrice Lauzon was born in Montreal, Quebec. With his wife and partner Marie-France Dubreuil, he became the world silver medalist in 2006 and 2007, competed in the Olympics twice, and 4-time gold medalist of Canada.

On this day in 1981, Canadian hockey player Gina Kingsbury was born in Uranium City, Saskatchewan. She ranks second all-time in scoring among the St. Lawrence Skating Saints.

And on this day in 2009, Canadians worried about thinning ice!

The effects of global warming are very evident and already somewhat dire for people in the far north of Canada. Apparently houses are built based on the PERMAnent nature of permafrost, and so porches and houses are beginning to droop as the permafrost melts. Major flooding has been occurring in some communities, and hunting and berry production is down in some locations because of the disappearance of permafrost. Some residents comment that the land looks a lot like a desert now.

Enjoy ice...

Go ice skating today.

There are many ways to enjoy ice skating—going around and around a rink is great exercise and, with music, a lot of fun. 

Some people love learning figure skating moves and competing, and a hot, relatively new form of this sport is synchronized skating. (Watch this YouTube video if you've never seen synchro skating—it's really cool, and it definitely should be made into an Olympic sport!) 

Some people love speed skating, and of course the rough-and-tumble version of speed skating, short track, is a favorite of Apollo-Ono-loving Olympic viewers. 

And then there is the most important game on ice skates: hockey! This sport is popular at all levels—even at the become-a-You-Tube-star-at-age-9 level.

Save the ice...

Here is a guide for what you and your family can do to “save the North Pole.” 

November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Day – U.S., Guam, Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands

Painting By Jennie A. Brownscombe

Many people in the U.S. are familiar with the story of the “first Thanksgiving” – which was really just a gathering and a large feast and 3-day celebration of a bountiful harvest – NOT a holiday per se. However, Americans might not remember some of the finer points of the story, such as the name of the Indian/Native American group who had helped the European settlers learn to grow important food crops, and who subsequently shared the harvest celebration with them.

It was Native Americans from the Wampanoag tribal group.

One of the Wampanoag Indians was Squanto, apparently the last of the Patuxet tribe (which was wiped out by an epidemic). Squanto had been enslaved by an English sea captain and later purchased and eventually set free by Spanish monks; he had also worked as a translator on an English ship. Because of his familiarity with the English language, he was able to act as a middleman between the Pilgrims and Massasoit, the Wampanoag sachem.

To learn more about the Wampanoag Tribes, check out this informational site

The Wampanoag Indians divided food production between men and women—the men hunted and fished, and the women gathered nuts, fruits, shellfish, and did the farming of the “three sisters”—beans, squash, and corn. The women were responsible for around three-fourths of the food production!

And speaking of food...

Mmm....the Traditional Thanksgiving Feast!

Lest you Americans think you are eating a “traditional” Thanksgiving meal—you with the turkey and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie—to be traditional in the sense of traditional-to-1621, you would have to serve venison (deer), ducks, goose, shrimp, lobster, fish (including eel—yum!), mussels, clams, and perhaps seals, eagles, and swans!!!! Oh, yeah, a lot of meat!

It may be that there was wild turkey, too, but our best source doesn't list turkey in his description of the feast.

There were no potatoes, milk, or sugar, and not much flour. So there was no pie of any sort, no cranberry sauce as we know it (which requires sugar), little or no gravy (which requires flour), little bread.

Still, there was probably stewed pumpkin, radishes, beans, squash, grapes, walnuts, plums, berries, watercress, lettuce, carrots, and a kind of fried cornbread.

For a brief history of Thanksgiving, see last year's post

Fun Links

  • Here you will find a game enjoyed by many Native American kids, and another played by English settlers.  You can make the games yourself!

  • Here is a coloring page showing a wetu, or Wampanoag home. And here is a coloring page showing the Plymouth colony (six years later than that first Thankgiving). 

  • And here are some recipes. Do you want to use an old-time Wampanoag recipe for succotash? Better get yourself some bear fat! can turn to the modernized version, which uses vegetable oil. 

November 24, 2010

First observation of transit of Venus – 1639

Every once in a while, one of the planets gets between us and the Sun. These planets are too far away to cast a shadow on our planet or to block much of the sunlight—in other words, they don't eclipse the Sun like the Moon occasionally does. Instead, from our point of view, they appear as tiny black dots that travel across the disc of the Sun. This is called a transit.

Only two planets can be seen in transit across the Sun from the Earth. Do you know which ones they are?

ANSWER: Mercury and Venus are both closer to the Sun than we are here on Earth, so they are the only planets that can get between us.

Anyway, Jeremiah Horrocks was an English astronomer. He was the only person known to have predicted the transit of Venus on this date in 1639, and he is one of only two to have observed and recorded it. (His friend William Crabtree was the other.)

You may be wondering how he—or anybody—could watch a transit across the blindingly bright Sun. Well, he focused the image of the Sun through a simple telescope onto a piece of cardboard. He then watched the not-so-bright image on the cardboard. People still make this simple kind of helioscope these days, although astronomers have of course figured out more sophisticated systems with which they study the Sun.

NOTE: Never look at the image of the Sun EVEN through a helioscope without adult supervision.

A Rare Treat!

Transits of Venus are very rare. They happen in pairs that are eight years apart—and these pairs are separated by more than 100 years! The last transit of Venus occurred in 2004 (pictured here), and the next will occur in June of 2012. That will surely be the last of our lifetimes!

So mark your calendar now for June 5 or 6, depending on your location, 2012... Hmm. I don't have a calendar that far ahead, do you? In the meantime, here is a website called "Transit of Venus." Notice that North Americans will be able to watch the 2012 transit at sunset; most Europeans and some Africans, Asians, and Australians will be able to watch it at sunrise. Alaskans and eastern Asians and Australians will be able to watch the entire transit. 

You can watch a transit using a pinhole camera or by focusing the image of the Sun through one lens of a pair of binoculars onto a sheet of paper or cardboard. See more specific directions here

Again: Don't look at the sun directly, or through binoculars or camera lens or telescope. Allow the light from the sun to pass through the lens or pinhole onto another surface. With an adult supervising.

November 23, 2010

Dinosaur Fossils Found in Antarctica – 1969

Antarctica is continent covered by ice about a mile thick. Despite the fact that the oceans surrounding the continent team with life—penguins and seals, giant squid and whales, its frozen interior lands are almost lifeless.

But it wasn't always so!

On this day in 1969, Dr. David Eliot of Ohio State University discovered the fossilized bones of Lystrosaurus, a four-foot-tall reptile that lived 200 million years ago. It was a creature that lived in warm climates.


Remains of Lystrosaurus had earlier been found in southern Africa and Asia, so the new finding of Antarctic dinosaurs proved that the three continents had once been joined in a super-continent we call Gondwana. The portion of this supercontinent that is now Antarctica was located straddling the equator, which explains its mild temperatures, but when Godwanna broke up millions of years ago, and the various chunks of land drifted about, Antarctica drifted to the polar location we see today.

The theory that continents have drift around on the surface of the Earth is called, naturally, continental drift. Alfred Wegner first proposed continental drift in 1912, and most scientists were skeptical of the idea. However, evidence from the geographical shape and geological content of the continents, tectonic forces in the Atlantic Ocean (which even today is getting measurably wider as the ocean-floor plates pull away from each other), plants and animals, and fossil remains, data on the flip-flop of the planet's magnetic poles—all of that evidence has shown Wegner's idea to be correct. Also, geologists have come up with a mechanism to explain how continents can move around: plate tectonics.

Did you know...?

Way back in the 1700s, Benjamin Franklin noticed that Africa and South America seem to fit together like jigsaw puzzle pieces, and he suggested that they were once connected. Of course, unlike Wegner, Franklin did not collect comparative data to try to prove the point.

The Earth's magnetic field has “flip-flopped” many times in the past, with North becoming South and vice versa. This field reversal doesn't happen overnight, but instead takes thousands of years. And it may be that it is about to flip soon! Apparently the North-South switcheroo happens once every 250,000 years, give or take a few hundred years—but it has been 750,000 years since the last pole reversal! We are loooong overdue! Also, right now Earth's magnetic field is lessening year after year—and it is believed that this is a first sign of an oncoming magnetic field flip.

Find out more...

Enchanted Learning has an animated map that shows continental drift. 

Here is another animation (you can slide the button at the bottom at will, or you can “play” the animation.  If this animation doesn't work for you, here are more links. 

Older students might like to complete a lesson on the fossils of Antarctica. There are links to several interesting websites/articles here.

Here is a lesson on continental drift and plate tectonics. Can you use the shell of a hard-boiled egg as you model plates of Earth's crust?

And here are a variety of Power Point presentations on the topics of plate tectonics and continental drift.

November 22, 2010

Fantastic Flyers Day

On this day in 1899, aviator Wiley Post was born. He got his flying license in 1926—and it was signed by Orville Wright—despite the fact that he wore an eye patch because he'd lost his left eye in an oilfield accident.

Post made some contributions to the world of aviation, aside from being an early flyer. With navigator Harold Gatty, he set a record for around-the-world travel, and he was the first to fly around the world solo. He invented one of the first pressurized suits to wear when he flew around the world, and he did research on jet streams.

Unfortunately, Post died flying. In 1935 he piloted a small plane with humorist Will Rogers as his passenger. They traveled from Seattle to Alaska safely, despite the fact that the small plane was nose-heavy due to the size of the floats needed for water landings, but on one take-off (at Point Barrow, Alaska), the engine failed and the plane crashed. Both men died instantly.

On this day in 1971, Elgen Long became the first person to fly over both poles in one flight. Long flew around the world, starting and ending at San Francisco, California, and flying over both the North and South Poles.

In that one flight, Long set 15 world records and firsts! He also received worldwide acclaim.

What are jet streams?

Jet streams are fast-moving air currents. They are caused by Earth's rotation, because the air around the equator has to move very quickly to “keep up” with the planet's rotation, but the air at the poles has to move hardly at all. This speed difference makes a difference as the air at higher altitudes “slips” and falls behind the speed of the air below.

The slipped air is affected by temperature differences and differences in water content—and these differences are affected, in turn, by the location of continents and oceans.

The upshot is that some parts of the atmosphere travel faster than other parts.

Jet streams are important in weather prediction and especially in air travel. Flights that can take advantage of the jet streams, which flow from west to east, can travel more quickly than can flights that have to battle against the flow. Also, turbulence is associated with the edges of jet streams.

To learn more about jet streams, check out Kids Ahead

November 21, 2010

Happy Birthday, Rene Magritte

This Belgian artist was born on November 21, 1898. Rene Magritte was a surrealist artist. Like other surrealist art, his paintings were surprising, unexpected, humorous in some cases, and (of course) surreal.

The idea of surrealism is to look at ordinary things in different ways.

Magritte made portraits of men in bowler hats—portraits with a weird twist that always hide the faces. For example, in one painting an apple hangs directly in front of the man's face. Magritte also painted scenes in which the foregrounds were mixed in with the backgrounds, and he even painted some paintings of paintings. Check out the short Magritte article at Art Smarts 4 Kids and click all the links to see these and other Magritte awesomeness. 

Art Smarts 4 Kids also has an idea for making a Magritte-style picture here

Try this Magritte-inspired project. 

One of Magritte's paintings was called Personal Values. It looked like a room with various items—each drawn to a different scale—inside. Use the picture as inspiration to make your own Personal Values poster—either draw, painting, or collage pictures of things that are important to you. 

Browse some Magritte images here

November 20, 2010

Happy Birthday, Edwin Hubble

Born on this day in 1889 in Missouri, Hubble's family soon moved with him to Illinois. This early move perhaps presaged a varied and movement-filled life.

As a high school student, Hubble was into sports, especially track and field, and he set his state's high-jump record in 1906. In college he studied philosophy and science, and he got a Bachelor of Science degree, but then he went to Oxford University in England to study law and to get a master's degree in Spanish!

Hubble taught Spanish, physics, and math in a high school in Indiana, coached basketball, and passed the Kentucky bar (which would have allowed him to practice law in that state). Instead he entered the U. S. Army during World War I.

Home from the war, Hubble enrolled in a doctorate program in astronomy, and in 1917 he earned his PhD in that subject. Today we know Hubble from his career in astronomy. Still, that career focused on movement.

Hubble's biggest contribution was the demonstration that there were galaxies other than our own Milky Way, and that these galaxies are shooting away from each other at tremendous speeds. In other words, Hubble showed that the universe is huger than most had ever imagined, and that it was expanding.

Most people today are familiar with the name Hubble because of the space telescope that was named after him.

Extra-galactic Astronomy

One reason I am excited about Hubble is that he did some of his most important work pretty much where I grew up, at the Mount Wilson Observatory, which is very near my childhood home of Pasadena, California.

The other reason I am excited about Hubble is that he pretty much created an entire science—the study of stuff outside of our galaxy. (“Outside of our galaxy” is what extra-galactic means.)

There is a type of variable star whose behavior is very predictable, and we can deduce the distance of these stars simply by measuring their apparent brightness. (Obviously, if two stars were exactly the same size and temperature, the closer star would appear to be brighter.) In 1923 Hubble identified two of these Cepheid variable stars whose distances proved that they lay far outside our galaxy. They were part of what were then known as spiral nebulae. Hubble showed that these spiral features were not spiral-shaped clouds of gas and dust inside our Milky Way Galaxy, but were instead large, far-away spiral-shaped galaxies made up of billions of stars.

Hubble eagerly collected data from other Cepheid variable stars and discovered that, the farther away they were from our galaxy, the faster they and the galaxies they are a part of seemed to be moving away. This relationship, called Hubble's Law, can be explained by the idea of an expanding universe with a beginning known as the Big Bang.

For information on how we know the speed at which galaxies and other astronomical bodies are moving, check out this earlier post

Some links...

Here are some demonstrations that speak to some aspects of modern astronomy, including the concept of the expanding universe. 

And here is a T-shirt about the expanding universe. 

Here is a NASA site with a short talk about the expanding universe.