August 31, 2012 - White Rose Day in Australia

This Australian holiday is in honor of the late Princess Diana, who died in a tragic auto accident on this date in 1997. She was a good person who worked for international charities, and there was extensive mourning all over the world when she died. I remember being in Paris in 1999, at a memorial for Diana near the tunnel where she died, and even though it was almost two years later, there were tons of flowers and stuffed animals and other offerings at the site.

So...Diana was English, Princess of Wales (basically, Great Britain or United Kingdom), and she died in France. Why is her death commemorated with white roses in Australia?

Australia is part of the Commonwealth of Nations. That means that, although Australia is a wholly separate and independent nation from the U.K., the British royalty serves as its royalty, too. In other words, Queen Elizabeth II is not just the Queen of England, she is the Queen of Australia, too. Therefore, Princess Di (as she was often called) was a princess of Australia.

(Other Commonwealth realms include Canada, Jamaica, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea. There are 16 Commonwealth realms in all.)

Princess Diana was widely thought of as classy and fashionable, caring and kind. She once said, “Being a princess isn't all it's cracked up to be.” Indeed, her days as a princess were not happy, and her fame likely brought her more problems than joys. On the other hand, of course she adored her two sons, Prince William and Prince Harry!

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August 30, 2012 - National Toasted Marshmallow Day

Here it is: the ultimate guide to toasting the perfect marshmallow. Remember to toast a marshmallow over embers, not flames. 

Did you know...?

The earliest known marshmallows were made in Ancient Egypt.

The name “marshmallow” comes from the fact that this spongy candy used to be made with the juice from the roots of the marshmallow plant. Now most marshmallows are made with gelatin instead.

The marshmallow sap had medicinal qualities, so marshmallows were created to soothe sore throats. (Nowadays, marshmallows have no medicinal properties!)

Check out...

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August 29, 2012 - According to Hoyle Day

Back in the day, when people wanted to assure others that they were quoting from an expert, they would say the phrase, “According to Hoyle...”

And this phrase was used whether people were discussing a new law or art history, the rules of a card game or mathematical theories.

Who was this guy Hoyle? And how did he know so much about all sorts of things?

Well, Edmond Hoyle, who was born in the 1600s and died on this date in 1769, was probably not an expert in so many different things; his name just became part of a phrase used to quote from experts of any name.

But he was a bit of an expert on the rules of card games. He was paid to tutor members of high society on the game of whist, and he began to publish his rule book for Whist. Eventually his publisher also printed Hoyle's rule books for piquet, chess, quadrille, backgammon and brag. At first each set of game rules was sold separately, in thin phamphlet-like printings, eventually all the rules were combined into one games rule book. Even today, many games rule books have Hoyle's name on the cover (even though he did not write them).

Hoyle's name was so linked to games, especially card games, that he became a charter member of the Poker Hall of Fame in 1979—even though poker hadn't yet been invented during his life!

Celebrate Hoyle by playing card games!

Here is a huge index of card games rule! 

This resource for card games rules is much smaller, but the games have been chosen as favorites with kids. 

And here is a free site where kids can play card games online. 

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August 28, 2012 - U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing Begins Operations

– 1862

These are the guys who design and print U.S. money. 

The Bureau of Engraving and Printing also designs and prints some other special government items: Treasury securities, military commissions and award certificates, invitations and admission cards, and ID cards, forms, and other special security documents.

Notice all this stuff is printed on paper (although some is plasticized). You may think, well, not ALL money is paper—what about coins? But the BEP only creates paper currency; an entirely different organization, the U.S. mint, produces coins.

If you ever visit Washington, D.C., or Fort Worth, Texas, be sure to take the tour of the BEP and watch money being made. In the meantime, check out this one-two-three-part video.
Money around the world

Check out all the different paper currency from all over the globe.  I rather like Hong Kong's dollars and Nepal's rupees. What's your favorite? (By the way, be sure to check out Zimbabwe's one-hundred trillion dollar bill. Wh-wh-what???)

Design your own money

The BEP website has a program that helps you to decide your own bill. For a ton more freedom to design any sort of bill you want, of course, get out some paper and colored pencils and draw your very own! 

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August 27, 2012 - “The Duchess” Who Wasn't Day

In America, her books were published under the name The Duchess. But the Irish writer Margaret Wolfe Hungerford wasn't a duchess. (A duchess is the wife or widow of a duke, or a woman who has the rank equal to “duke” in her own right.) I guess that's why whoever makes up wacky holidays calls this one “The Duchess” Who Wasn't Day.

Hungerford wrote light romantic fiction. Her books were not “important,” but the fun and flirtatious dialogue made them popular throughout the English speaking world of the late 1800s. Molly Bawn was her most famous book.

Born on this date in 1855 in Country Cork, Ireland, Hungerford's most famous bit of writing is this line:

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

Celebrate “The Duchess”

  • When an author uses a pen name, it is called a pseudonym. Why do you think a Victorian woman who was a wife and mother might use a pseudonym?
  • If you wrote a book and wanted to use a pseudonym, what would it be?
  • Think about Hungerford's most famous line. Do you think that it is true that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”? What does it even mean?

    By the way,
    this idea had been expressed before Hungerford wrote it, but it never been expressed in these words. Reading some earlier versions of the thought, I think Hungerford's version is shorter and therefore better. Check out the history of the saying in the Phrase Finder.
If everyone finds the
same sorts of scenes
beautiful, is the saying

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August 26, 2012 - Heroes' Day in Namibia

Like so many other places, the dry lands of Namibia had been ruled by various outsider groups and governments, including Germany and South Africa.

This patriotic holiday commemorates the Namibian War of Independence, which began on this date in 1966. Namibians didn't succeed in winning full independence from South Africa until 1990.

The nation is one of the least densely populated countries in the world. This is because of the vast Namib Desert, which lies along the Atlantic coast. (It is surprising to me to have a desert alongside the ocean!) This is oldest desert in the world. Part of the desert is covered in “sand seas,” or sand dunes; these dunes are the second largest in the world—up to 980 feet high!

The coastal part of the Namib Desert has more than 180 days of thick fog each year. The fog has led to many shipwrecks—more than 1,000 wrecks are strewn along the “Skeleton Coast”—but does provide moisture for the desert plants and creatures. There is a richer diversity of life forms in this desert than in any other desert on Earth, including even wild horses!


Here is a gorgeous video of the Namib Desert, including the famous sand dunes. 
 Some people ski down the sand dunes, just as they would down snowy mountains, as you can see in this video

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Women's Equality Day here... 

...and here

August 25, 2012 - The Great Moon Hoax

– 1835

Did you know that the best known astronomer of his time, Sir John Herschel, discovered life on the Moon? And I'm talking really obvious life: creatures that looked a lot like bison, goats, unicorns, beavers without tails, and humanoids with giant bat wings. And buildings that looked a lot like temples here on Earth.

Of course, you know already that Herschel made no such discovery! But did an esteemed scientist hoax everybody?

No, no he did not.

The six articles detailing the exciting (but false) “discovery,” which were printed beginning on this date in 1835 in the New York Sun, were supposed to be written by the traveling companion and assistant of Herschel, a man named Dr. Andrew Grant. However, there was no such person. All available evidence points instead to the articles being written by Richard A. Locke, who worked for the newspaper.

This story sold a lot of newspapers, apparently. Several weeks after publication, it had been established that the story wasn't true—but the newspaper never issued a retraction. In other words, they never said in print, “Sorry, guys, those articles were not true.” And Locke never admitted writing the articles.

At first Herschel was a bit amused by the hoax. When asked about it by others, he remarked that his real observations of the moon could never be as exciting. But as more and more people asked him about his “discoveries”—and he realized that they still believed the stories to be true—Herschel became annoyed. I bet he wished that the paper used as many inches debunking the story as it did telling the tall tale in the first place!

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August 24, 2012 - Pluto Demoted Day

The news shocked the world. (Apparently.) 

Kids cried. Adults grumbled. People wrote irate Letters to the Editor. (Umm...really?)

All because poor little Pluto, so small and far away, and so incapable of defending itself, was kicked out of the planet family!

It was demoted to—gasp! the horror!—dwarf planet!!!

Back on August 24, 2006, when the International Astronomical Union voted to relabel Pluto based on many new findings in astronomy, I nodded my head. New data often requires us to re-sort, re-categorize, re-label. It's something to cheer, because it means we humans have learned more; we're closer to achieving an accurate picture of the universe.

But some people got very upset! Some children sent hate mail to astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson. Legislatures of two states voted to refuse to recognize the IAU's decision. People “yelled” at each other on the internet (and you know how rarely THAT happens!).

One of the reasons that some people got upset, apparently, is because Pluto getting kicked out of planethood messes up the mnemonics that kids learn to remember the order of the planets in the solar system. One of the most common of these mnemonics is: “My Very Energetic Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.” (Mercury – Venus – Earth – Mars – Jupiter – Saturn – Uranus – Neptune – Pluto.)

But this is silly. For one thing, Pluto sometimes dips inside Neptune's orbit, and making the sentence end with the words “served us pizzas nine” sounds pretty goofy. (If Pluto were a planet, it would have been the eighth, not ninth, planet from 1979 to 1999.) Also, surely we can easily come up with a new mnemonic? How about “My Very Energetic Mother Just Served Us Nachos,” or even “My Very Easygoing Mother Just Served Us Nothing”?

I gather that it is Americans, and American school children, that got especially upset about Pluto's demotion. The guy who discovered Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh, was an American astronomer, and Walt Disney named Mickey Mouse's dog “Pluto” after the planet to celebrate that discovery. Maybe a lot of people were upset by Pluto being kicked out of the planet club because it is the smallest planet (by far—it's really tiny, even compared to the very small Mercury), and people want to stick up for the little guy, and root for the underdog.

To which some people have replied, “Why are you getting so upset about this? You don't hear Pluto complaining, do you?”

And some people have pointed out that, it's not as if Pluto were blown up, or ejected out of the solar system. It's just where it always has been. We just have added the word "dwarf" to its category. what is a planet?

The IAU was struggling with the question of whether or not to call some newly discovered bodies planets. Eris, Makemake, and Haumea all orbit far from the Sun, like Pluto, they're spherical, like Pluto, and some of them are roughly the size of Pluto. If Pluto is a planet, shouldn't they be planets, too?

So, does the solar system have 10 planets? Or 12? Or more and more as we discover more and more?

(If so, we're gonna need a much bigger mnemonic!)

Some scientists reasoned that Pluto and these other Kuiper Belt Objects could be considered a new sort of thing in the solar system. Instead of being the last and littlest planet, Pluto could be thought of as the first and one of the largest Plutoids (KBOs that are large enough to be roughly spherical in shape).

See, it's not a DEmotion, it's a PROmotion!

The definition of a planet is:
  • an object that circles a star (the IAU definition said “that circles the sun,” but that was a mistake that would leave out all of the planets we have discovered circling other stars)
  • an object large enough to be spherical
  • an object that has “cleared the neighborhood” around its orbit. That would exclude the largest asteroids in the asteroid belt as well as the largest Plutoids in the Kuiper belt.

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August 23, 2012 - Happy Birthday, Georges Cuvier

According to Wolfram Research, Cuvier's students dressed up in devil costumes and woke up their professor in the middle of the night. They chanted, “Cuvier, Cuvier, we have come to eat you!”

Apparently not the least bit fazed, Cuvier looked around at the “devils” and said, All animals with horns are herbivores. You cannot eat me.” Then he went back to sleep.

(I'm sure you know that herbivores are animals that eat only plants. Some examples of horned herbivores are rhinos, sheep, goats, bison, cattle, giraffes, muskox, antelopes.)

Georges Cuvier, born on this date in 1769, was a French zoologist (a scientist who studies animals). He helped to establish two new fields of study: comparative anatomy (studying the similarities and differences between body structures) and paleontology (the study of prehistoric life).

Cuvier had strong opinions on all sorts of biological and geological theories. For example, he thought that most fossils were mineralized bones of animals that no longer existed. Well, he was right—and this seems pretty obvious to us now, but in the late 1700s, many people believed that no species had ever gone extinct. Cuvier thought that the fossil record showed that animals didn't change and evolve over time—that new species suddenly appeared and just as suddenly (later) disappeared. He brought up the fact that mummified humans, ibises (a kind of bird), and cats are just like modern humans, ibises, and cats, and he said that that was evidence that animals don't evolve. A scientist named Lamarck shrugged away this point, pointing out that the Egyptian mummies Cuvier examined are only a few thousand years old, not hundreds of thousands of years old (or, we know now, millions of years old)—and, Lamarck argued, evolution happened too slowly to show much change after only a few thousand years. On this point, Cuvier was wrong and Lamarck was right. (But on other discussion points, Lamarck was wrong and Cuvier right!)

Other topics of inquiry during Cuvier's life include catastrophism (the idea that lifeforms are sometimes impacted and even driven to extinction by natural catastrophes), stratigraphy (the idea that older sedimentary rocks lay under younger sedimentary rock layers—which helps us figure out the relative age of fossils found inside those rocks), and the “correlation of parts” (the idea that the five bones in a bat's wing are related to the five fingers in a human hand, and so on).

It's interesting to me to see that scientists who are brilliant, knowledgeable—even ahead of their time—can still be very wrong about things. We can't judge ideas based only on how highly esteemed the person saying them is—we have to look for evidence, and sometimes we have to wait years for enough evidence. Eventually, data showed that some of Cuvier's ideas were right and that others of his ideas were wrong. (Just remember, though, if Cuvier had had the luxury of being born in the twentieth or twenty-first century, when soooooo much more is known about biology and sooooooooo many more fossils have been found and dug up, he would almost assuredly see eye-to-eye with today's scientists on these matters.)

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