September 30, 2011 - World's First Nuclear Submarine

-- 1954

It could dive longer, faster, and deeper than any submarine before it.

The USS Nautilus, commissioned on this day in 1954, wasn't limited in range and speed by the diesel engines of previous submarines. Also, with a nuclear reactor, there was no need to surface to recharge batteries.

Because of the new-found larger range, the Nautilus was the first submarine to travel under the Arctic ice and cross the North Pole. As a matter of fact, in her first years of operation, the Nautilus broke many records. There were also a few shortcomings in design that engineers eagerly learned from; the later generations of nuclear submarines were improved versions.

She was retired in 1980 and now serves as a museum of submarine history in Groton, Connecti-cut.

Watch a video to learn about nuclear power. This one is for older students, 
and younger kids might prefer this one

Find out more about nuclear submarines at How Stuff Works.

I found this short video odd because there is no narrator—just a musical sound track—and because, once in a while, someone is on-camera, talking—but we don't hear what he is saying! Still, the video does give you a great idea of the tight quarters and some of the “bustle” of living on a nuclear submarine! 

September 29, 2011 - Inventors' Day

– Argentina

Say you live back in the time when writing means that you have to dip a quill into ink, carefully carry it over your paper to the spot on the page you left off, hoping you don't drip, and then you begin to scratch your quill across the paper, writing the next little bit-- but then the fragile quill catches a bit on the paper—or breaks a bit because it's at the end of its life—and BLOT! That page is done for!

Or maybe you live in the time when fountain pens have been invented, and there are little canisters of ink right inside your pen! No dipping necessary! Even better, the tip of the pen is metal! It'll never break, and it the texture of the paper is no match for metal, and so you never drip or blot!


But then you realize that you just smeared the last word you wrote as you moved your hand back to the beginning of the next line.

And...the page is ruined! Sigh.

A man named Laszlo Jozsef Biro noticed that newspaper ink was quick-drying and non-smearing. That's the kind of ink people should have in their pens, he thought.

But newspaper ink was too thick. It gummed up fountain pens rather than flowing out to make smooth lines.

Biro worked with his brother Georg, a chemist, to make a new kind of pen tip: a ball that would turn in a socket, and that would pick up ink from a cartridge as it rolled and then transfer it onto the paper as it rolled some more.

And so the world got its first ballpoint pen!

From Hungary to Argentina...

Today Argentinians honor all people, everywhere, who invent things, but Inventors' Day is set on the birthday of Laszlo Biro, who was born on this day in 1899 in Budapest, Hungary. He patented his invention of the ballpoint pen in Paris in 1938, and in 1943 he and his brother moved to Argentina, where they filed another patent and formed a pen-manufacturing company.

Do you have some invention ideas?

Check out some invention websites on the internet...
  • Creativity Pool is a place to share ideas and get ideas. Warning: this is a place where somebody else might grab your idea and create the invention. So don't share ideas if you intend to carry them out! 
  • Invention Idea -dot-org teaches the steps to funding your invention idea.
  • About-dot-com offers 11 practical lessons on turning an invention into money.

September 28, 2011 - Rosh Hashanah

Today is the Jewish New Year and the first of the High Holy Days—ten days leading up to and including Yom Kippur, which is the Day of Atonement. (“Atonement” means making amends for wrongs done in the past.)

Like other holidays, Rosh Hashanah starts at sundown and continues until sundown tomorrow.

This is a happy holiday, marked by the blowing of a horn called shofar and eating sweet foods such as honey and apples, to bring a sweet new year. However, there is a solemn side, too, since the High Holy Days are a time of repentance, feeling sorry for any wrongdoing from the previous year. This time of year is marked by fasting, prayer, and services at the synagogue.

Also on this date:
Day of Czech Statehood – Czech Republic

Prague is the beautiful capital of the Czech Republic.
The Czech state, which is in the middle of Europe, used to be called Bohemia. At times it was a part of the Great Moravian Empire, the Austro-Hungarian empire, and Czechoslovakia. After World War II, it was a communist-ruled state, but on January 1, 1993, Czechoslovakia was peacefully dissolved into the two current nations: the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic.

So, why celebrate statehood on September 28?

Well, in the Czech Republic, this is Saint Wenceslas Day. A long time ago, on this day in 935, Wenceslas, the Duke of Bohemia and “Good King Wenceslas” of Christmas carol fame, was murdered by his brother. Wenceslas became the “patron saint” of the Czechs.

What does “bohemian” mean?

A person might be called a bohemian if he or she lives an unconventional life, perhaps moving about frequently, with few ties to family, job, or community, and usually involved with the arts. The term began in the 1800s, in France, to describe “gypsies” and other Romani people who came to France through Bohemia.

Sometimes vagabonds, wanderers, and adventurers are called bohemians. Artists, actors, musicians, and writers who have little money and who have anti-establishment viewpoints are often referred to as bohemians. A certain gypsy style of fashion is sometimes referred to as bohemian....

But I personally have never heard someone referred to as Bohemian because he or she came from the Czech Republic!

September 27, 2011 - Happy Birthday, Google!

A googol is a really, really large number: a one with 100 zeros.


And the inventors of the web-search engine Google wanted a name that would hint that their search engine was connected to a really, really large number of websites. So they took the math term, gave it a small spelling tweak, and Google was born!

Before there was Google...

Yes, there really was life before there was Google. There was even an internet, also known as the World Wide Web, before there was Google. After all, Google is only 13 years old today!

Back in the “olden days,” the early 1990s, there was Archie, a program that downloaded the directory listings of all the files available on the web. If you knew a file name, you could manually search for it in Archie. (The name Archie comes from the word “archive,” which means a collection of documents or records.)

Then there were Veronica and Jughead. (These program names come from characters in “Archie” comic books, so these names were a play on the name of the original web tool.) With Veronica, people could search using a keyword; and with Jughead, people could get menu information.

Wandex was an index of the World Wide Web and probably the first true search engine. It was invented in 1993. At least five more search engines were produced during the following year; but then, in 1995, there was a “BOOM” of search engines offered up to users. (Notice how quickly we moved from “first” to “boom” – just two years!) These included Magellan, Excite, Infoseek, Inktomi, Northern Light, AltaVista, and Yahoo! Yahoo was the most popular and is still used today – but since its launch in 1998, Google took over. These days, Google is used for 91% of all searches, Yahoo! is used for only 4% of all searches, and the third-place search engine, bing (launched just a few years ago), is used for 3% of all searches.

So I guess you could say that Google pretty much dominates the scene!

Why Google? Users can search the internet more easily because the Google algorithm searches entire web pages for keywords (not just the directory or website names), and it displays results arranged from the most-linked-to websites to the least-linked-to sites. This is based on the idea that the best, most useful, most interesting, and most beautiful websites will be linked to most often.

A Name Is a Noun, Except When It's a Verb

Not only has the name “Google” become almost synonymous with the term “search engine,” because of its enormous popularity, but it has become a verb, even. “Why don't you google that?” means, “Why don't you look that up on the internet?” We could say “google it” when we mean look something up on Ask Jeeves or on—but we probably say “google it” because we know with 91% certainty that the person is going to look it up on Google!

There have been a few other names of companies that have become nouns that mean a particular item of any brand—for example, we often use “kleenex” to refer to facial tissue of any brand—but there have been few company names that have become both nouns and verbs. Can you think of any?

  • One is “xerox,” which can mean either “a copy” or “to copy,” even if the copying machine is made by a company other than Xerox. For example:

Please bring a xerox of your birth certificate.
Don't forget to xerox your birth certificate.
  • Another is "rollerblades" (the noun, which is often used for in-line skates of any brand) and "rollerblading" (the verb).
  • Some people say “hoovering” to mean "to vacuum," after a famous vacuum cleaner manufacturer, Hoover.

September 26, 2011 - Happy Birthday, Johnny Appleseed

Born John Chapman on this day in 1774, he earned his nickname by wandering over large parts of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, introducing apple trees by planting nurseries. He would return every year or two to tend to his nursery, but while he was wandering he would leave the nurseries in the care of a neighbor. He gave away many apple trees but still ended up with a lot of valuable land and nurseries.

Johnny Appleseed was considered kind and generous, and he was ahead of his time in his thoughts about conservation and the treatment of animals.

Here is a quickie story that shows some of those character traits. One day Johnny Appleseed heard that a horse was going to be “put down” due to an injury. (That means that the horse was going to be killed in a humane, hopefully painless, way.) He saved the horse's life by purchasing it. He then purchased a few acres of nice, grassy land on which he could keep the injured horse. He allowed the horse to roam around the land, eating grass and recovering from its injury. When the horse was fully recovered, Johnny Appleseed gave the creature to a poor family that needed a horse, saying that the only payment he wanted was a promise to treat the horse well.

It is said that Johnny Appleseed always treated animals—even wild animals—exceptionally well. He was a vegetarian, and he was a big believer in not disturbing wild animals. He is even said to have spent some chilly nights rather than accidentally killing insects with his campfire!

Celebrate by eating apples!

Little kids might also enjoy these apple-themed crafts and activities. 

By the way...

Some pictures of Johnny Appleseed show him walking around with a huge bag of seeds, just indiscriminately tossing hands full of seeds everywhere he went. (This is what Miss Rumphias is supposed to have done with lupine seeds—but she is a fictional character!)

In truth, however, as I mentioned, he carefully planted seeds and seedlings in nurseries.

September 25, 2011 - Health Alert, 1878: Smoking Is Harmful!

Almost a century before the U.S. surgeon general issued a report confirming the dangers of smoking tobacco, on this date in 1878 the English doctor Charles R. Drysdale published his findings about the dangers of tobacco in The Times of London.

Drysdale had discovered evidence of tobacco's harm to the heart, lungs, and even skin, and he had written on these dangers for about a decade, including an entire book called Tobacco and the Diseases It Produces. As the senior physician to the Metropolitan Free Hospital in London, Drysdale's warnings should perhaps have had a lot of influence on the public. Yet it was a good long while before the general public began to acknowledge that smoking tobacco is harmful.

Perhaps Drysdale's polite and academic writing didn't impact people. He wrote that smoking tobacco was “the most evident of all the retrograde influences of our time.” But a couple of centuries earlier (and without the scientific research to back him up), England's King James I was a lot more direct: He wrote that the use of tobacco was “a custome loathsome to the eye, hateful to the Nose, harmefull to the braine, dangerous to the Lungs, and the blacke stinking fume thereof, neerest resembling the horrible Stigian smoke of the pit that is bottomelesse.” And in 1634 the Russian Czar ordered that people who smoked or sold tobacco would thereafter have their noses slit! Yuck!

However, King James's harsh words, and the Czar's repulsive punishment, didn't slow the adoption of the tobacco habit, either.

When speaking about the harm of smoking, it is important to remember that it's not just that smokers suffer earlier deaths, on average, than non-smokers; smokers also tend to suffer with many more, and more severe, illnesses all through their lives and from premature wrinkling of the skin. They have to put up with cravings and withdrawals while in non-smoking places (on airplanes, in schools, in many restaurants and other public places), and they have to deal with discoloration of their teeth and fingers, and odor. And all of this pain and suffering, stink and stain and death--it all costs smokers a lot of money! Of course the computation of how much smokers spend on cigarettes depends on how long they smoke, and how much they smoke each day, but the average smoker can count on spending thousands of dollars every year, and about 92,000 pounds in a lifetime, in the U.K., or $100,000 to $200,000 in a lifetime, in the U.S.

People disagree about the best way to warn people about the dangers of smoking. Check out this earlier post about warning labels—including the disgusting-photos type of warning label. 

September 24, 2011 - National Punctuation Day


It's a day to comment on commas, exaggerate! with exclamation points, and smile (with... semi-satisfaction) over semi-colons. It's a day to question quotation marks and--quite possibly--quote some great questions. 

Punctuation exists to help readers understand whatever they are trying to read. The help us quickly understand ideas below the level of written or printed words. To get an idea of how much harder it might be to read if there were no such thing as punctuation, check out this paragraph:

Did you get the signature you need to go on the field trip the teacher asked Karen Yes I did Okay I need the paper to turn in with the school principal Okay Wait I cant find it Oh dear the teacher said Look again if you cant find it you wont be able to go I would hate to leave you behind Karen took everything out of her backpack and even looked through her textbooks and notebook She couldnt find the signed permission slip anywhere She was very upset She wished shed listened a little bit better her mom who was always telling her to keep track of her stuff and to be more organized


Today you have a great excuse to add frosting, raisins, berries, chocolate chips, nuts, or other sweet goodness to your food – in the form of punctuation marks, of course! Make cupcakes or cookies, and decorate each with a different punctuation mark. Or how about pancakes with blueberry punctuation marks?

For dinner, make it a pepperoni punctuation pizza!

Learn or practice!

Here is a website dedicated to teaching how to use punctuation marks. 

What do you think?

With texting and speedy writing on internet-based websites such as Facebook, Google Plus, and blog comments, people are using less and less punctuation. Some people deliberately skip using apostrophes and quotation marks while texting or writing comments on Facebook because they accidentally hit “Enter” while trying to use those nearby keys or buttons. Even in more professional writing that is edited and published, such as newspaper or magazine articles and books, there is a move to streamlining text and using less punctuation.

Is this a good thing? What do you think?

Here is the website of the National Punctuation Day people.

September 23, 2011 - Happy Birthday, Armand-Hippolyte-Louis Fizeau

How do you measure the fastest thing known in the universe?

Fizeau, a French physicist who was born on this date in 1819, was the first person to successfully (although approximately) measure the speed of light without using astronomical calculations. How did he do it?

Fizeau sent a narrow beam of light between gear teeth on the edge of a rotating wheel. The beam of light traveled 8 kilometers (about 5 miles) to a mirror and then bounced back to the wheel. If the spin was fast enough, a tooth would block the light. Because Fizeau knew the rotational speed of the wheel and the mirror's distance, Fizeau was able to directly measure that light travels 299,792,458 meters per second (approximately 186,000 miles per second). Actually, that is the speed of light in a vacuum (no air or other material). Light travels slightly slower in air—ONLY 299,792,368 meters per second—and slightly slower yet through glass or water. Fizeau's measurements were good enough to show the difference between light traveling in air and in water.

Fizeau also made discoveries about polarization of light, the expansion of crystals, the Doppler effect, and even daguerreotypes (early photography).

September 22, 2011 - Car-Free Day

AND Elephant Appreciation Day

Today is special for two excellent reasons: it is a day when many people all over the world will give up driving their cars and take to the streets on bikes and foot, reclaiming city streets and enjoying a slower pace; and it is also a day to learn about and honor elephants.

Some people, somewhere in the world, might combine the two, parking their car and catching a ride on their elephants!


In his famous song “Imagine,” John Lennon didn't say, “Imagine all the people walking and cycling car-free...” But can you imagine it, anyway? Can you imagine a cleaner future with no freeways and traffic jams and car accidents? How would people get around without cars?

Well, of course people already take trains and subways, walk and bicycle. New York City is famous for being a city with a lot of people on foot and in subways; London boasts its “Underground,” Paris its “Metro,” and many other cities offer rapid transit as well. Some cities have wonderful bike lanes and bike trails, including Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Portland, Oregon, in the U.S., and (worldwide) Amsterdam in the Netherlands.  

But futurists and science fiction writers sometimes picture different sorts of transport. Isaac Asimov pictured cities with moving strips like those at airports – but a series of strips of increasing speeds. Pedestrians would hop onto a slow-moving strip, then move to faster and faster strips; as they neared their destination, pedestrians would move back down the slower strips until they reached the unmoving sidewalk. Many sci-fi writers have aircabs and flycycles and other air-borne vehicles in their future worlds, and of course there is the longed-for jet pack! 

Take a peek at these pictured possibilities. 

For information about the people who organize Car-Free Day, go here.

Now, for our pachyderm friends...

Elephants are unique for their incredibly useful trunks. Elephants use their trunks to tear plants and raise food to their mouths, of course—but did you know that an elephant's trunk is delicate enough to be able to pluck a single blade of grass, yet also strong enough to rip up small trees? Other uses for the trunk are to suck up water and then blow it into their mouths for drinking, or spray it onto their bodies for bathing. Elephants also spray dirt and mud onto their bodies for a sort of sunscreen. Trunks are also used as snorkels when swimming.

Elephants use their trunks to make “hand”shake greetings, caresses, wrestling moves, or threat displays. Elephants even defend themselves with their trunks! They sometimes flail their trunks at attackers, and sometimes they are able to grasp and fling away intruders.

Trunks are also useful in smelling. An elephant's trunk is like a periscope for odors – the elephant can raise its trunk into the air and swivel it from side to side to determine the location of other elephants, possible attackers, or food,

And let us never forget the most important use for elephant trunks – to hold a paintbrush. Just kidding! But you've got to see this and this other video of elephants painting, if you've never seen them before!   By the way, these videos are not “tricks” – the elephants really do apply the paint to the canvas, as you see, although humans load the brushes for them. In the case of the elephant painting an elephant, she was trained to do the particular brush strokes that make up the picture, but it is interesting to see how carefully she goes over previous brushstrokes to make them darker, and I also find it interesting to see that, although she has good control, it looks like hard work for her to maintain that control. The abstract paintings that elephants make are supposed to be unique, original, the elephants' own creations.

To learn more about elephants, even the ones who don't paint, check out the National Geographic Kids site or the page “About Elephants.”

September 21, 2011 - Independence Day – Belize

It used to be called “British Honduras,” and it is the only nation in Central America with a history of British colonization and with English as its official language.

Yet Guatemala has claimed some or all of Belize as its own rightful land, and many languages, including Spanish, Kriol, Maya, and Garifuna, are commonly spoken there.

Belize was granted full independence on this date in 1981.

  • Belize is pretty small (a bit smaller than Massachusetts) to host such a melting pot of cultures, but its history of conquest, colonization, slavery, and peaceful mixing has made it extremely diverse. You can get some idea of the natural beauties and cultural diversity of Belize from this tourism video

  • To learn more about the Maya, you will find lots of posts on Mr. Donn's site

September 20, 2011 - Otis Opened an Elevator Factory

– 1853

Elisha Otis was a tinkerer. He had two sons that liked to tinker with machines, too. Otis achieved fame for one particular invention, out of his many: the safety elevator.

At age 40, Otis needed to get debris up several floors, but the hoisting platforms that others had invented often broke and were therefore dangerous. In order to avoid the risk, Otis and his sons tinkered around with machinery until they had created a safety elevator.

Otis got two orders for his safety elevator, and on this day in 1853, he opened his elevator factory.

However, no more orders came for the next several months.

Otis soon seized an opportunity to demonstrate his safety elevator at the 1854 World's Fair, which was held in New York. He thought up a stunt that guaranteed him publicity: he stood on a rasied platform and had a guy with an axe cut the rope that was holding up the platform. Because of Otis's safety brake, the platform only fell a few inches.

The orders for safety elevators started to come in after than demonstration! As a matter of fact, the Otis elevator company received continuous orders that doubled in number each year. Eventually the company supplied elevators to the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building (shown here, right), the World Trade Center, Disney's “Tower of Terror” ride, and many other famous buildings. Without Otis's invention, skyscrapers couldn't exist.

Find out more...

September 19, 2011 - Talk Like a Pirate Day

Arr, it's that time o' the year again, and if ye don't be knowin' what 'tis I'm saying, see this here and this there. Have yerself a right merry time, matey!


Happy Birthday, George Cadbury!

When I say Cadbury, you say chocolate. Ready?


Born on this day in 1839, in England, George Cadbury grew up in the chocolate business. His dad had started the business, and when he retired George and his brother Richard took over. Cadbury's was the first company in Britain to sell cocoa, which was a powder made from roasting, winnowing, and grinding cocoa beans, and then—very important!--adding sugar. Cadbury's also made milk chocolate by adding fresh full-cream milk to the cocoa powder.

The Cadbury brothers believed in the social rights of workers. When they could afford to, they moved the factory to a country location, and they built a “factory town” with houses provided to workers at low cost. Everyone had fresh air and yards and gardens—a wonderful change from the dirty, crowded conditions in cities of the time. They installed canteens and sports grounds in the town. George Cadbury (after his brother died) even started committees of workers to suggest ideas that would improve their lives. Based on ideas from these committees, workers got annuities, deposit accounts, and education facilities.

(Cadbury made other important donations and contributions, including working for old-age pensions and against war and sweatshop labor. He even bought a newspaper so that he could spread his anti-imperialist ideas.)


  • Buy a Cadbury chocolate bar! (Be sure to speak “pirate” to the sales clerk!)

  • Consider finding and supporting companies that respect workers' rights and make contributions to society.

September 18, 2011 - Chile's Independence Day

This long, skinny nation is a strip of land between the Pacific Ocean and the Andes Mountains. 

Not surprisingly, with a length of 4,600+ kilometers (or 2,800+ miles), Chile is the longest north-south country in the world. Even though it is such a narrow stretch of land (only 420 km, or 265 mi, at its widest), the landscapes vary a lot. There is everything from the driest desert in the world—the Atacama Desert—to rainy forests and lakes, to fertile valleys, to a string of volcanoes and a maze of fjords, islands, peninsulas, and canals. Chile even has glaciers and icebergs. Check out this variety in a short video called “Chile * All Ways Surprising.” 

On this day in 1810, Chile proclaimed itself a separate republic within the Spanish monarchy. At this time, Europe was in a bit of a mess. Napoleon was busy attacking and conquering much of continental Europe, and he'd kicked out Spain's king, Charles IV, and put on the throne his own brother Joseph. In faraway Chile, the people didn't want to acknowledge Joseph as their ruler and instead declared their loyalty to Ferdinand, the son of the deposed king. After that, a movement for true independence for Chile began to be popular.

Pepe's Chile website  features a list of ten things to do to celebrate Chile's Fiestas Patrias (“Patriotic Festival,” or Independence Day). 

September 17, 2011 - Van Leeuwenhoek Spots “Animalcules”

 in Dental Plaque! (Ewwww!) – 1683

Until the late 1600s, nobody knew that there were tiny, invisible creatures living among (and in!) us. But on this date in 1683, Antony Van Leeuwenhoek wrote a letter to Britain's Royal Society describing tiny one-celled creatures he discovered while looking through a microscope.

He called these creatures “animalcules,” but today we call them bacteria.

Microscopes had been invented almost a century earlier, and even compound microscopes (those that combine ocular and objective lenses) had been created by Van Leeuwenhoek's time. However, the early compound microscopes were not able to get clear images at more than twenty or thirty times magnification. Van Leeuwenhoek was able to look at much smaller things using the simple microscopes he himself made—the best in the world, for the time—achieving magnifications above 200 times!

And what did he study using his powerful microscope? Plaque scraped from his own teeth and from the teeth of four other people.

Van Leeuwenhoek was surprised to see living creatures “very prettily a-moving.” Some shot through the plaque-and-water mixture, straight and swift, and others “spun round like a top.”

Van Leeuwenhoek later discovered foraminifera fossils, blood cells, animal sperm cells, and vacuoles in cells. (These are like storage bins inside cells. They contain water and important molecules.)

With all of this discovery, you are probably not surprised that Van Leeuwenhoek is considered the “Father of Microbiology.”

Learn more...
Biology4Kids has a website about microorganisms. 

Microbe World has tons of links to explore,  and Science Kids offers videos of microscopic activity. 

To learn about other founders of microbiology, check out this and this other earlier posts. (Both posts include other topics not related to microbiology. Just scan down to the picture of the microscope!) There are also activities such as a fun virtual microscope.