February 28, 2011

French Scientist Day

Today is the birthday of these French scientists:

Rene-Antoine Ferchault de Reaumur (1683) – entomology
Louis Godin (1704) – astronomy
Rene-Just Hauy (1743) – mineralogy
Edmond Fremy (1814) – chemistry
Henri-Edouard-Prosper Breuil (1877) – archeology
Pierre Fatou (1878) – mathematics

Which of these fine gentlemen from the 1600s to the 1800s, do you think, did each achievement?

  1. Who is most known for discovering a salt that acts to promote oxidation?
  2. Who went to Peru to help take measurements to determine the size and shape of the earth?
  3. Who studied the relationship between the growth of insects and temperature?
  4. Who is noted for his studies of cave art?
  5. Who accidentally discovered the geometrical law of crystallization when he dropped some calcite?
  6. Who studied iterative and recursive processes?

ANSWERS: 1.Fremy – 2.Godin – 3.Reaumur – 4.Breuil – 5.Hauy – 6.Fatou

February 27, 2011

Happy Birthday, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
          John Steinbeck!

A great day for American authors!

Separated by about a century, today marks the anniversary of Longfellow's 1807 birth and Steinbeck's 1902 birth.

Can you pick out which of these fits Longfellow and which fits Steinbeck?
  1. Author of Grapes of Wrath
  2. Wrote The Song of Hiawatha
  3. Author of Paul Revere's Ride
  4. Wrote Of Mice and Men
  5. Won the Nobel Prize for Literature
  6. Was born in Portland, Maine
  7. Translated Dante's Divine Comedy
  8. Wrote long poems
  9. Wrote brilliant novels
  10. Was born in Salinas, California
  11. Won a Pulitzer Prize
  12. Was a professor at Harvard

ANSWERS: 1.Steinbeck – 2.Longfellow – 3.Longfellow – 4.Steinbeck – 5.Steinbeck – 6.Longfellow – 7.Longfellow – 8.Longfellow – 9.Steinbeck – 10.Steinbeck – 11.Steinbeck – 12. Longfellow

  • One reason some people like Longfellow's poems is because they are like songs. Check out this video: someone is actually singing an excerpt of his poem “The Song of Hiawatha.”

  • Read a short story by Steinbeck, or even one of his novels. Several of his books, including Cannery Row and East of Eden, have become movies (both rated PG).

February 26, 2011

Glass-blowing Machine Patented – 1895 –

What has 6 to 20 arms and blows air into hot liquid?

Michael Joseph Owens's glass-blowing machine.

Glass blowing has been practiced since before the ancient Roman Empire, but Owens created a machine that could automatically make more than one bottle at a time. The machine cut loose the finished pieces, which were then carried by conveyor belt to the annealing oven, where they were slowly cooled. (Annealing helps to make glass stronger, less brittle.)

On this date in 1895, Owens received a patent for his invention. A later version of the machine could make four bottles per second. Altogether, Owens received more than 45 patents for glass-blowing apparatus.

Explore some more...

Check out glass blowing by hand on this video

And here is a video of a glass-blowing machine. 

Maybe there is a glass-blowing shop, class, or museum near you. If so, check it out!

February 25, 2011

First Black U.S. Senator – 1870

Hiram Rhodes Revels became the first black person to serve in the U.S. Congress, representing Mississippi for two years during Reconstruction.

You may wonder why he served only two years, when Senate seats are held for six years. Well, Revels was sworn in to serve out the unexpired term of Jefferson Davis, who had quit the Senate when Mississippi and other Southern states broke away from the U.S. Davis ended up being the president of the so-called Confederate States of America.

Amazing, but true...

To this day, only five other African Americans, besides for Revels, have ever served in the U.S. Senate! Can you name any of them?*

T-shirt Design
We are all Africans...

The concept of different races is not a scientific idea. People of “different races” are more similar than they are different; or rather, the differences between individuals are way more important and numerous than are any differences between so-called races.

And since all of humanity began in Africa, a slogan sometimes seen today, “We are all Africans,” certainly has some truth.

Why do I bring this up as I discuss Revels? Well, his father was “mixed race” (black and white), and his mother was white. But because Revels was part black, he was considered black—not unlike our current president!

By the way, Revels was never a slave. He was born free in North Carolina, and he became a minister who went to seminary and college. He preached in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, and Maryland, and he helped set up schools for black children. He was a chaplain in the Union army and helped raise two black regiments during the Civil War, and he took part in the battle of Vicksburg in Mississippi.

* The other five black U.S. Senators were:

Blanche Bruce – R – Mississippi 1875-1881 (former slave)
Edward Brooke III – R – Massachusetts 1987-1979
Carol Braun – D – Illinois 1993-1999
Barack Obama – D – Illinois 2005-2008
Roland Burris – D – Illinois 2009-2010

February 24, 2011

Happy Birthday, Jacques de Vaucanson

When do you suppose the first robots were built? In the 1990s? The 80s?

Maybe the first robots were built in the 1940s, in the early days of computers?

Nope. According to some sources, the first true robots were built by de Vaucanson, a French inventor and artist, way back in 1737.

The 1700s was a time when there was a “craze” about self-operating machines called automata, which have existed in one form or another since ancient times. Most of these automata were just toys. De Vaucanson upped the ante by building biomechanical robots that were revolutionary for their “life-like sophistication.” 

You may be wondering just what kind of robots this 18th-Century inventor would create.

I bet you'd never guess...

He built The Flute Player, The Tambourine Player, and The Digesting Duck

De Vaucanson's robot flute-player was a life-size figure of a shepherd whose robot fingers were gloved in real skin. The robot could play 12 different songs on the tabor and the pipe.

The Digesting Duck had over 400 moving parts and could flap its wings, drink water, eat grain, and “defecate.” It seemed that the duck was actually digesting the food that it ate and then “pooping” it out again – but it was a trick! The robot duck actually had a hidden compartment of “digested food” to defecate. De Vaucanson probably created the fraud so that he could impress the wealthy and the powerful so the money would keep coming to him and his lab.

The illustration seen here was by an American who saw the digesting duck demonstration. This is what he thought the insides might look like in order to digest food. But, of course, the duck didn't actually digest food--so this drawing is all wrong!

De Vaucanson invented some things that were more immediately practical. While creating his robot duck, he invented the world's first flexible rubber tube. He also created the first completely automated loom to weave cloth.

More robots!

Check out robot news at Robot Cafe

Buy a robot kit! Sure, you could go to Amazon.com, but take a peek at the Edmund Scientific website, too. 

For more, check out this earlier post

February 23, 2011

This Land Is Your Land” – 1940

Folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie wrote his most famous song on this day in 1940. We know this because, when he died, his daughter went through his files and found the handwritten lyrics on a piece of paper. Some of the words and the title had been crossed out and reworked, and the piece was signed “Woody G.” and dated.

Apparently Guthrie wrote the song in response to Irving Berlin's “God Bless America.” Guthrie was sick of constantly hearing the latter song on the radio, and (according to Wikipedia), he considered the lyrics “unrealistic and complacent.” 

Here are the lyrics of "This Land Is Your Land":
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.
As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
I saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me.
I roamed and I rambled and I followed my footsteps
To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts
While all around me a voice was sounding
This land was made for you and me.
When the sun came shining, and I was strolling
And the wheat fields waving and the dust clouds rolling
A voice was chanting, As the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.
This land is your land, this land is my land
From California to the New York Island
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters
This land was made for you and me.
And here is an audio sampling of Guthrie singing the song.

Did you know...?

  • Various other countries enjoy different versions of the song. For example, one line in Canada's version says, “From the Arctic Circle to the Great Lakes waters...” Irish people sing, “From the hills of Kerry to the streets of Derry...” And the people of the Bahamas sing, “From Grand Bahama down to Inagua, From the Berry Islands, down to Mayaguana...”

  • This song has been parodied many times. A parody is a version that spoofs something, trying for humor or even trying to ridicule an idea.

  • Guthrie sometimes added different verses to his song. For example, this verse makes a statement about private property:

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said "No Trespassing."
But on the other side it didn't say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.
  • Perhaps the verse above explains why Guthrie was “blacklisted” by Senator Joe McCarthy, who was largely responsible for an anti-Communist “witch hunt” in the 1950s. McCarthy destroyed the lives of many people with his reckless accusations and attacks on public figures, but Guthrie just seemed to shrug off the accusation with a joke: "I ain't a Communist necessarily, but I been in the red all my life."
  • Guthrie didn't care about copyright, so as soon as he wrote most of his songs, he released them into the public domain. Here is the copyright notice for “This Land Is Your Land”:

This song is Copyrighted in U.S., under Seal of Copyright # 154085, for a period of 28 years, and anybody caught singin it without our permission, will be mighty good friends of ourn, cause we don't give a dern. Publish it. Write it. Sing it. Swing to it. Yodel it. We wrote it, that's all we wanted to do.

Write your own version of the song--or even a full-blown parody. You might want to choose a tune you love and write original lyrics to that song. I have written "good-bye" or birthday songs for friends with personalized lyrics--and it's lots of fun!

February 22, 2011

World Thinking Day

Every year on February 22, the World Association of Girl Guides and Girl Scouts celebrates “World Thinking Day.”

This year the theme is “Empowering Girls Will Change Our World.” See the official website for info and for ideas about observing the day. 

Oprah Winfrey has highlighted three low-cost ways of making donations that will help empower women and girls. The ideas come from the book Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide (by Kristof and WuDunn).

February 21, 2011

First Woman Dentist – 1866

Lucy Hobbs met up with a lot of closed doors—just because she was a woman. But Hobbs made a habit of responding to a closed door by just looking for another door.

She was denied admission to medical school because she was a woman. She learned dentistry as a private pupil and managed to apprentice with a dentist—but then she was still denied admission to dental college because—you got it—she was a woman.

She persevered and opened up a practice in Cincinnati, Ohio, and later Iowa. Finally, four years into her career as a dentist, Hobbs was admitted to the Ohio College of Dental Surgery.

And on this date in 1866, Lucy Hobbs became the first woman in the nation (and probably the world) to receive a DDS degree (a doctorate in dentistry).

By the way, later in her career Hobbs moved her dental practice to Chicago, Ohio. There she met and married Civil War veteran James Taylor. He was working as a railway maintenance worker but his wife taught him dentistry, and he too became a dentist.

Learn about dental health.

Healthy Teeth is a great website. 

Colgate Kids has a coloring page and games. 

Here is a word-search puzzle. 

Today is also Presidents' Day in the U.S. 
The date is chosen to be near George Washington's Feb. 22 and Abraham Lincoln's Feb. 12 birthdays. For more on these birthdays, see last year's posts.

February 20, 2011

Norwegian Islands Pawned – 1472

Have you ever heard of a pawn shop? That's a place where a person can borrow money, leaving something valuable as collateral. When the person repays the loan, he or she gets that valuable item back--but, after an established period of time, if the person does not pay back the loan, the pawnbroker owns the item and can sell it for a profit.

Now, how does someone drag something as large as an inhabited island into a pawn shop?

Of course, that's ridiculous! However, King Christian I of Denmark and Norway was a bit broke when his daughter married King James III of Scotland. The practice in those days was for parents of a bride to pay a dowry to the groom, and Margaret's dowry was set at 60,000 florins of the Rhine--which was a lot of money. Christian I didn't have that much cash laying about—so he paid 2,000 florins and then pledged ownership of Orkney and Shetland Islands to Scotland until he could pay off the remainder.

It seems that the king didn't check with the inhabitants of the island; nor did he get the advice of the Council of the Realm—he just pawned the islands. He was smart enough to include a clause in the contract that he or future kings of Norway could redeem the islands for a fixed sum of 210 kg of gold or 2,310 kg of silver. (However, during the 1800s and 1900s, Norwegian leaders made several attempts to redeem the debt and reclaim the islands—and Scotland refused.)

And so it was that, in 1469, James III of Scotland married Margaret of Denmark.

And, on this date in 1472, Scotland peacefully annexed the Orkney and Shetland Islands.

Enjoy a film about the Orkney Islands. Or check out the Orkney landscapes now, in winter. (It looks pretty cold!) 

Here is a much shorter video of the Shetland Islands. 

February 19, 2011

Happy Birthday, Carolus Clusius

A Flemish guy brought a Turkish flower to the Netherlands—and helped start a craze!

Born on this day in 1526, and also known as Charles de L'Ecluse, Carolus Clusius was a Flemish botanist, which means a scientist who specializes in plants. He studied alpine plants, helped introduce potatoes to Germany, surveyed plants in many parts of Europe, and planted the first “official” tulip bulbs in the Netherlands.

Tulips are colorful, showy flowers that grow from bulbs. They used to grow in North Africa, Southern Europe, and parts of Asia from Iran to China. The Turkish people (who created the Ottoman Empire) cultivated the flowers, and several Europeans brought tulips and tulip cultivation to the attention of the general public.

Clusius planted tulips at the Imperials Botanical Gardens of Vienna (now Austria) in 1573 and later at the Leiden University's garden, in the Netherlands, in 1594. His bulbs lead to two interesting events:

Tulip Mania

Tulips quickly became status symbols, and people so badly wanted bulbs that would grow into one- or two-colored tulips that they began to pay high, higher, and even higher prices for them. Some people stole bulbs out of Clusius's university garden (one thief got away with more than a hundred bulbs!), and some people began to pay their debts with tulip bulbs. Yes, that's right, tulips became a type of money!

How high did the prices rise? Well, at one point, just one tulip bulb might be worth MORE THAN 10 TIMES the amount a skilled craftsman would make IN A YEAR!!!


With the prices climbing so much higher than tulip bulbs are actually worth, an economic 'bubble formed,” and of course there was a collapse in the value placed on tulips—in February of 1637, tulip prices plunged, and tulip mania was over.

By the way, the most popular tulip colors were the two-toned tulips such as the red-and-white tulip shown here. We now know that the reason for the multicolored stripes or “breaking colors” is a virus!

The Netherlands' Association with Tulips

Even though tulips first grew in North Africa and parts of Asia, and were first commercially grown in the Ottoman Empire, they became so well loved in the Netherlands and have been grown so successfully there for so many centuries, most people think of the flowers as a symbol of the Netherlands!

Make origami tulips.... Here's how. 

Even little kids can make handprint tulips. 

February 18, 2011

Happy Birthday to the Vacuum Cleaner

On this day in 1901, Hubert Cecil Booth received a patent on a machine that really sucked. Until that time, all carpet cleaners that cleaned using the vacuum principle were hand-powered, which made them difficult to operate. Apparently it's not incredibly easy to turn a hand crank while pushing a bulky machine across the floor. Who knew?

An American named John Thurman created a carpet “renovator” that cleaned by blowing dust into a receptacle. This sounds a bit like a leaf blower, and I imagine quite a bit of the dust that was blown out of the carpet floated a while in the air and ended up settling back into the carpet long after the machine and its receptacle had moved on.

British engineer H. Cecil Booth saw Thurman's dust-blower machine in operation and decided it made much more sense to suck dirt up rather than just blowing it around.

So, Booth had a great idea. What's the next step?


Booth tested his idea by placing a cloth handkerchief onto a restaurant chair—and then using his mouth to provide suction! The test worked—a lot of dust and dirt collected on the underside of the handkerchief. (I know, yuck.)

Booth went on to invent a horse-drawn vacuum cleaner that was driven by an oil engine. It had no brushes, just hoses and nozzles. Uniformed operators would drive up in bright red horse-drawn vans, unreel a length of hose, and put the hose through a window of a building. Once the vacuum cleaner was turned on, air was sucked up through the nozzle and hose and over cloth filters. The operators would use the cleaner to vacuum all the rooms of the building.

Booth's vacuum cleaner, called the “Puffing Billy,” sounds big, noisy, and possibly stinky, but the British crown gave Booth a prestigious job: cleaning the carpets of Westminster Abbey before Edward VII's coronation. Booth's company succeeded even after Hoover won over the household vacuum market (an old-time ad is pictured here, right)—because Booth's vacuum got bigger and more powerful for the industrial market, cleaning even factories and warehouses. (Of course, there were many changes made to the original “Puffing Billy,” including the use of an electric motor rather than an oil engine.)

I have never seen a large street vac, have you?

Celebrate by vacuuming your carpets and upholstery!

What is a vacuum?

A vacuum is a volume of space that is pretty much empty of matter. A perfect vacuum would have zero particles, but this cannot be created in practice and, even though space between the stars and especially space between the galaxies is a higher-quality vacuum than any humans can create, there are still some particles there.

(Even if we could somehow get rid of every single particle in a chunk of space, it still wouldn't be empty, thanks to vacuum fluctuation: particles would pop in and out of existence! Weird, huh? But that's quantum physics for you!)

A vacuum chamber
A vacuum cleaner works by creating suction by reducing air pressure just a bit—just 20% or so. Other uses require lower air pressure. One of the earliest uses of vacuum is inside the incandescent light bulb. Vacuum is also used inside thermos bottles, electron microscopes, vacuum tubes, and cathode ray tubes. Today we use vacuum chambers for electron beam welding, vacuum packing, manufacturing adhesives, metallurgy, and other scientific and industrial processes.

February 17, 2011

Happy Birthday, Michael Jordan

The greatest basketball player of all time (according to many) was born on this day in 1963.

Playing for the University of North Carolina and for the NBA's Chicago Bulls, he was nicknamed Air Jordan and His Airness because he could leap so high (he could even perform slam dunks from the free-throw line!). He helped the Bulls “three-peat”—winning three NBA Championships in a row.

Jordan earned five MVP awards, ten All-NBA First Team designations, nine All-Defensive First Team honors, fourteen NBA All-Star Game appearances, three All-Star Game MVP awards. He owns several basketball records, was voted the greatest North American athlete of the 20th Century by ESPN, and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.

Jordan has also been a successful product spokesperson, including for Nike Air Jordan sneakers, has appeared in a movie or two, and is the majority owner of the NBA's Charlotte Bobcats.

Did you know...?
  • As a sophomore in high school, Jordan tried out for the varsity basketball game but was considered too short. He was 5'11”. A friend of his, who was taller, did make varsity as a sophomore.
  • Jordan eventually wasn't “too short”—he ended up growing to a height of 6'6”!
  • Jordan retired from basketball mid-career and played minor-league and, briefly, professional baseball. A couple years later, Jordan made a short, sweet announcement with the press release, “I'm back.”

Learn basketball with some fun-and-vigorous drills

February 16, 2011

Independence Day – Lithuania

A nation has a lot of choices of when to celebrate its “birthday” or its independence. For example, the United States celebrates its independence on July 4, the date in 1776 that the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress. Americans could celebrate on the date that the Congress voted to declare independence (July 2), the date the declaration was signed (probably August 2), the date that, years later, the British army surrendered in Yorktown (October 19), or the date almost a year later that the Treaty of Paris formally ended the Revolutionary War (September 3). I'm pretty sure we could invent a rationale to celebrate independence on some other dates as well.

Lithuania has even more choices for when to celebrate its establishment as an independent nation. A medieval version of the country was established waaaay back in the twelfth century (1100s), and the Kingdom of Lithuania was united under Mindaugas in the 1230s. Eventually the nation was called the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. This government was dissolved when Lithuania became part of a Polish-Lithuanian union, and the Russian Empire annexed Lithuania in 1795. Lithuanians rebelled against Russia in November of 1830 and again in January of 1863, but it wasn't until Russia was weakened by World War I, in the early twentieth century (1900s), that Lithuania was able to successfully pull away and re-establish its independence.

On September 18, 1917, a conference of Lithuanians adopted a resolution to establish its independence. On September 21, 1917, a Council of Lithuania was elected to “codify” the decision—to write out a formal declaration of independence, I guess. December 11, 1917, a first draft was passed. On January 8, 1918, a second draft was approved, and on February 16 the third and final draft was passed.

Later in the twentieth century, in 1940, the Soviet Union took over Lithuania, and again Lithuanians had to wait for the power that ruled them to weaken. Lithuania was the first country to break off from the Soviet Union in 1990, formally re-establishing independence on March 11, 1990.

One would think that perhaps this latest independence date, March 11, would be celebrated today, but Lithuanians then and now argue that the February 16, 1918, Act establishing Lithuania as an independent nation never lost its legal status. Both dates are acknowledged with receptions and observances, but it is February 16 that is the official holiday.

Browse a photo gallery of Lithuania. 

I learned a lot about Lithuania from this video.  Of course, it's very much a video cheering on only the good stuff—a rah, rah propaganda video—but well done and interesting.

For more about Lithuania's fight for independence, check out this earlier post.