June 30, 2011 - Excelsior Diamond Discovered

– 1893

How'd you like to be a worker at a mine, just busy loading a truck with spadeful after spadeful of dirt—and then you spot the world's largest diamond? What would you do?

The African man who found the Excelsior Diamond in South Africa, on this day in 1893, hid it from his overseer and personally delivered it to the manager of the mine. The blue-white diamond weighed more than 970 carats, and news of its discovery quickly spread all over the world.

For 12 years, this was the record holder of the largest diamond ever found. However, it was supplanted as “the biggest” by the Cullinan Diamond, which was more than 3,000 carats!

The Excelsior Diamond was eventually cut into ten stones.

By the way, do you wonder what happened to the man that found the diamond? He was given a 500-pound reward plus a horse equipped with a saddle and bridle.

Did you know...?

  • Diamonds are made of carbon, the same material that makes the graphite in our pencils and coal!
  • Diamonds are formed in high-pressure, high-temperature conditions deep underground, in the Earth's mantle.
  • Diamonds are the hardest natural material known, so they are often used in cutting and polishing tools.
  • Many diamonds are clear and colorless. Small amounts of impurities (such as one atom of the contaminant per million carbon atoms) can give a diamond color. If the contaminating atoms are boron, the diamond is blue; nitrogen atoms make a diamond look yellow, and diamonds that have been exposed to radiation can become greenish.

To see some famous diamonds, check out this website

June 29, 2011 - Oxymoron Discovered on Island

On this day in 1994, Dr. Tom Rockwell and his student Kevin Colson found the fossilized skull and shoulder blades of a pygmy mammoth sticking out the sand and rock on Santa Rosa Island, in California.

(The word pygmy means “small,” and mammoth means “large,” so the pygmy mammoth's name is an oxymoron—that is, a phrase that seems to contradict itself. Of course, mammoths are creatures in the elephant family that were quite hairy compared to modern elephants, and that are now extinct. Pygmy mammoths are mammoths that happen to be smaller than other mammoths.)

It turned out that the fossilized skeleton of the pygmy mammoth was nearly complete. This is the only full-sized skeleton of this particular species found anywhere, and it is also the first to be dated—it's about 12,840 years old.

How do skeletons become fossils?

Most organisms rot away to nothing when they die. Very few become fossils—but so many creatures have lived in earth's loooong history, scientists have still managed to find billions of fossils, representing hundreds of thousands of different species.

Here's one way in which an organism can become fossilized:

  • An animal dies and falls to the bottom of a sea or lake.
  • Soft parts rot away, leaving the skeleton.
  • Dirt, sand, bits of rock and shell, and other sediment falls onto the skeleton and buries it.
  • As more sediment piles on, pressure increases on the lower layers, and they turn to hard rock.
  • The bones dissolve by ground water, leaving holes of the same shape, which act as molds.
  • Minerals crystallize inside the molds, creating fossils made of minerals but in the same shape as the original bones.
  • Later (as in millions of years later), the rock is uplifted and exposed by erosion. The fossils are now exposed, waiting to be discovered.

For a longer description of this process, go here.

June 28, 2011 - Constitution Day

– Ukraine

Concerts and fireworks mark the day that, in 1998, Ukraine adopted its constitution, which made it a semi-presidential republic.

For decades Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, which was dominated by Russia. Today the Ukrainian language, which is the official language, is supplemented by most speakers also knowing Russian. In some areas, Russian is more common, especially in the cities.

Ukraine is the largest country in Europe, and it's famous for its Easter eggs, called pysanky, and (unhappily) for the nuclear disaster in Chernobyl. There are lots of beautiful buildings to see in Urkaine, as you can see here and on this travel site

June 27, 2011 - Independence Day

– Djibouti

This tiny African nation, which borders the Red Sea, became independent of France in 1977. More than half the population lives in the capital, Djibouti City.

Apparently tourists in Djibouti can snorkel and dive to view “pristine” (untouched) coral reefs, or stroke a cheetah at an animal refuge, or swim with huge whale sharks (which eat only the tiniest creatures, so it's safe). There is an old Arabic town called Tadjoura, hot springs that are hot enough to cook fish (!), and Lake Assal, a crater lake that is the lowest spot in Africa and the third lowest spot on Earth (other than ocean-floor deepnesses such as the Mariana Trench). Lake Assal is also one of the saltiest lakes in the world. 

Another salt lake, Lake Abbe, is known for its tall limestone chimneys that puff out steam. The movie Planet of the Apes was filmed there.

To learn more about Djibouti, go to Squidoo or Every Culture.

June 26, 2011 - Invention of the Toothbrush

– 1498

People used chew sticks, toothpicks, and even cloths to clean their teeth.

They rubbed sulfur oil, salt water (saline), or baking soda on their teeth.

They even frayed one end of a twig from a nice-smelling bush or tree to clean their teeth and freshen their breath.

But, until this day in 1498, people didn't brush their teeth.

The Emperor of China patented a toothbrush made of bamboo with stiff hogback bristles attached at right angles to the bamboo. Tooth hygiene was much easier with a brush rather than a stick, and word of the invention traveled back to Europe and, eventually, all over the world.

Celebrate! Buy new toothbrushes today!

Did you know you should...
  • use a toothbrush with soft nylon bristles.

  • change your toothbrush every 3 to 5 months, plus after every cold or flu.

  • clean your toothbrush with running water after each brushing and allow it to air-dry in an upright position without contacting other toothbrushes.

For more tips, click here.

June 25, 2011 - Statehood Day

– Croatia

A lot changed in Croatia in the year 1991. On May 19, there was a referendum about whether or not to break away from Yugoslavia. (About 94% of the population voted Yes, let's break away!) On June 25, the Croatian parliament declared Croatia's independence. And on October 8, parliament cut all remaining ties with Yugoslavia.

To commemorate this series of events, today is Statehood Day, and October 8 is Independence Day.

(In contrast, my own country, the United States, only celebrates declaring independence on July 4, 1776, not the date that the Revolutionary War ended and the U.S. actually became independent, September 3, 1783. The September date is the date that the American Revolutionary War was formally over, as the U.S. and Britain signed the Treaty of Paris. The bulk of the fighting was over on October 19, 1781, when Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. The U.S. could conceivably have national holidays on July 4, September 3, AND October 19...)

Back to Croatia...

Croatia is the home of the cravat, or necktie. This piece of clothing used to be part of the Croatian soldier's uniform, and it was seen and copied all over Europe in the early 1600s. The French king Louis XIV loved the cravat and adopted the fashion, and it became so popular it was commonplace.

Nowadays men can dress up or individualize their work clothes with ties—sometimes even wearing ties that are funny!

Another thing that apparently has its start in Croatia is the fountain pen.

For more...

To learn about the interesting karst geology of Croatia, check out this earlier post.

June 24, 2011 - Inti Raymi

– Peru

Just as the Danes celebrate the Sun during Midsummer Party, Peruvians in the high-altitude city of Cuzco hold a Sun ceremony called Inti Raymi, or Festival of the Sun.

This isn't held, like the Danish Midsummer Party, near the summer solstice. Instead, it is held near the winter solstice!

(Remember, Peru is south of the equator, and so it has seasons opposite those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere.)

Inti Raymi is actually a reenactment of an ancient Incan ceremony. In 1572, the Spaniards banned the Sun festival, but some people still celebrated in secret. Today, it's a secret no more: Inti Raymi is the second largest festival in all of South America, and hundreds of thousands of people travel to Cuzco to participate.

The long trip made by tourists is made worthwhile by Sun festival events that take place for 5 to 7 days. There are expos, street fairs, and free concerts. But the biggest day of the festival is today, June 24: this is the historical reenactment of the Incan traditions. Actors with elaborate costumes make a procession and wind through streets decorated with flowers, and then climb the steps of the sacred altar of the Inca. Speeches are made. A white llama is sacrificed (“now in a very realistic stage act,” according to About-dot-com). A bonfire is lit. Costumed dancers dance around the bonfire.

And so a new year begins.

For more on the Inca civilization, check out this and that earlier posts.

June 23, 2011 - Midsummer Party

– Denmark

It may be, in the past, that people gathered around bonfires on the shortest night of the year to ward off evil spirits, but nowadays people still enjoy this cozy tradition for the fun with friends and family. Large bonfires are burned in several open spots in Copenhagen, and undoubtedly other interior cities, but they are most common along the coast, where people bring blankets to sit on and picnic baskets full of food and beverages to enjoy while waiting for darkness. A speech is commonly given by someone of some import, such as a mayor or local artist, and people sing “Midsummer Song,” also known as “We Love Our Country.” Since universities and schools have just finished their courses for the year, students have a tradition of throwing lecture notes into the fire!

I read that people enjoying bonfires along the coast can see numerous other bonfires. That seems like a nice thing to me—and I imagine being able to hear people singing, faintly, from afar, and deciding to join in...

Hold your own Midsummer Party!

  • Go to a beach, lake, or backyard with a fire ring, and have the traditional bonfire. Sing songs!

  • Drink apple cider or pear juice, perhaps made “sparkling” with the addition of 7-up or Sprite. Eat a picnic supper.

  • Wear flowers in your hair, and make garlands out of greenery, perhaps decorated with more flowers. 

June 22, 2011 - Happy Birthday, George Vancouver

Born on this day in 1757, Vancouver was an officer in the British Royal Navy. He explored the Hawaiian Islands and Australia and, more famously, the northwestern coast of North America. He charted (which means mapped) what is now Alaska, Washington, Oregon, and British Columbia (Canada). Vancouver, which is the largest city in British Columbia, is named for him. Confusingly, the island off the coast of Vancouver is named Vancouver Island, and there are also a city named Vancouver in Washington and a mountain named Vancouver in Alaska.
Vancouver is a
large, modern city.

Actually, Vancouver Island used to be named Quadra and Vancouver Island. When George Vancouver arrived at the island, he met with a Spanish commander named Juan Francisco Bodega y Quadra, and the two were supposed to hammer out an agreement about ownership of buildings and land. They exchanged information about the landforms and harbors, copying each others' charts, and they decided on the name for the island. However, many years later, Spanish influence in the area had so declined that people dropped the “Quadra” part.

A map of this northwest region will show you that there are many islands and inlets of water, so mapping it must have been difficult. Apparently sailors took to the water in small boats powered by oar or sail to survey the area.

Try creating a map...

If you can, walk around a pond or park and map it by trying to imagine what it would look like from the air. Later you can Google map the area and see how your map compares to an actual aerial photo.

June 21, 2011 - National Aboriginal Day

– Canada
Ojibwa girls in jingle dresses

Today is the first day of the 11-days of Celebrate Canada, which end on July 1, Canada Day. Events tend to flock to the weekends, so a few days ago, for example, there was an Aboriginal Arts Festival in Ottawa, and a few days from now there will be a traditional Pow Wow in Toronto and a festival in St. Albert, Alberta. Today there will be local parades and dancing and opportunities to learn about and enjoy Aboriginal cultures. Check out this short video.

Inuit art
Innu flag
The Aboriginal peoples of Canada include Inuit, Metis, and about 630 First Nations, including Odanak, Ouje Bougounou Cree, Innu, and Temegama Ojibwa.

Kids' Stop is billed as a fun zone for kids with lots of info about Aboriginal history, language, games, and stories. 
Inuit moms

June 20, 2011 - Bald Eagle adopted as U.S. symbol

– 1782

Benjamin Franklin wanted the U.S. symbol to be a wild turkey who, he said, was intelligent and brave yet prudent (careful). Franklin thought the bald eagle had a “bad” character, since it was known to steal fish from people. 

Basically, a bald eagle will eat just about everything and is opportunistic—in other words, it's a perfect symbol for the U.S.!
Enough Congressmen agreed that the bald eagle was chosen as the national bird and symbol on this day in 1782.
Learn about bald eagles at National Geographic Kids.

Defenders of Wildlife has some ideas of how to help protect bald eagles. 

Here are a bald eagle coloring page and jigsaw puzzle

June 19, 2011 - First movie theater

– 1905

The dawn of the age of the nickelodeon!

On this date in 1905, Harry Davis and John P. Harris opened a small storefront theater in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania. They called it Nickelodeon because they charged a nickel (and because the Greek word for roofed theater was odeion).

Ten- to fifteen-minute films played in the theater continuously, including short narratives, “actualities” (documentaries), illustrated songs, dance acts, sporting events, melodramas, and so forth.

Hundreds of copy-cat nickelodeons opened up all over the country, but starting in 1915, the day of the nickelodeon was essentially over. The new films being made were longer and drew larger audiences, and new movie theaters were built with larger auditoriums and higher admission prices. (Yep, people had to pay an entire DIME to see a movie!)

Now you know where the name Nickelodeon came from!

Celebrate by watching something other than a mainstream movie. How about an animated short or a documentary? You might try Blast Off! or  Oktopodi,  for animated shorts. Powers of Ten  and What On Earth is Wrong with Gravity? are some possibilities for documentaries. 

June 18, 2011 - Missing Neutrinos Found!

– 2001

When you're as teensy as an electron, it's hard to see you!

But electrons have a negative charge, so we can at least detect that charge. They interact with matter because they are charged—for example, the electrons streaming away from the Sun excite atoms in our atmosphere and cause colorful curtains of light called aurorae.

There are other particles streaming away from the Sun that are just as tiny as electrons but that have no charge. These neutral particles are called neutrinos. And boy, are they hard to detect!!!

Way back in 1930 theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli predicted that there should be such a thing as a neutrino. When physicists make such predictions, they are working with data and equations, and they sometimes find that something is missing in their data—the math doesn't come out right unless some other thing, still unknown, exists. Pauli was in that situation—he thought that there must be a particle as large as an electron, but with no charge. He named this not-yet-discovered particle a neutron.

A few years later, another physicist discovered a much larger neutral particle that he named neutron. So the as-yet-undiscovered particle got renamed neutrino.

In 1956, physicists were able to detect neutrinos (well, it turned out that they were closely-related particles called anti-neutrinos) created in nuclear reactors. And in the 1960s, scientists were able to detect and even count neutrinos coming from the Sun, using huge tanks of dry-cleaning liquid deep, deep underground. (Those few incoming neutrinos that hit a chlorine atom in the liquid changed the chlorine to argon. The amount of argon in the liquid was then measured.)

Once they were able to detect and measure neutrinos, scientists noticed that Earth was receiving only one third to one half of the expected solar neutrinos. Again, our equations were scrutinized—this time, the equations that modeled how nuclear fusion operates deep in the Sun's core. Could there be something wrong with our model? Could something be missing?

The Sudbury Neutrino Observatory reported on this day in 2001 that the missing neutrinos were there, all along, but had changed “flavors” in their long journey through the outer layers of the Sun, through space, and through our own atmosphere. The earlier neutrino detectors had only detected electron neutrinos, but the SNO used heavy-water detectors that also detected muon and tau neutrinos. With data on all three flavors of neutrinos, the expected number was found, and our model of how the Sun operates was confirmed.

Have you always wanted...
...a muon neutrino of your very own? Get it here

Older students might enjoy the Particle Adventure