November 30, 2012 - Saint Andrew's Day – Scotland

St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, so this feast day is Scotland's national day.

 You may wonder why Scotland rates a “national day,” since it is not “really” a nation. Instead, Scotland joins Wales, England, and Northern Ireland in the nation known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Although Scotland has been a part of Great Britain for more than 300 years, it has a separate legal system. Since 1999 Scotland has had a separate parliament that makes laws for “home affairs” (Scottish-only issues). And Scots will vote in 2014 to determine whether Scotland stays part of the U.K. or becomes fully independent.

Right now, it's looking as if less than a third of all Scots want independence, but things could change! I found a lot of debate about whether Scotland should stay or go on the internet. It will be interesting to see what happens...

Explore Scotland...

Did you know...?

Although the ancient Roman Empire ruled the rest of the island of Great Britain (called Britannia by the Romans) from year 43 to around 410, it didn't rule over Scotland (called Caledonia). The natural thing for the Romans was to try to conquer the entire main island, and they did win some battles in Scotland. However, they didn't hold onto Scottish lands, and by the time of Emperor Hadrian's reign, it seemed that the best thing to do was to stop trying to control them. Indeed, Hadrian's orders were to build a wall and defend the Roman-Empire portion of Britain from Caledonia.

The Scots were so fierce and troublesome, apparently, that Hadrian's Wall became the most heavily fortified border in the entire 2.5-million square mile Empire!

Hadrian's Wall was 80 Roman miles long and was made from stone in some areas and from turf in other areas. It varied from 10 to 20 feet wide and from 11 to 20 feet high, and it was fortified by ditches, berms, and forts. We can still see some parts of this wall today!

To learn more about Scotland...

Check out this earlier blog post on tartans, this post on Scotland's northern islands, this other post about the Loch Ness Monster, and this one on Scottish poet Robert Burns

Also on this date:

Yemen's Independence Day 

Benin's National Day 

November 29, 2012 - Anniversary of the Launch of the First U.S. Satellite with an Animal

Enos, a five-year-old chimpanzee, wasn't the first animal to orbit the Earth. That honor belongs to a Soviet dog named Laika, who was launched and achieved orbit in 1957. (It is a dubious honor, since Laika wasn't expected to survive and indeed did die in orbit. Still, Russian officials recently unveiled a monument to Laika, who was a stray dog that Soviet scientists found and trained for spaceflight; many stray dogs no doubt have shorter lives and worse deaths.)

Enos also wasn't the first animal to be launched into space by U.S. scientists. In 1947 scientists launched fruit flies into space, and these insects survived cosmic radiation and other spaceflight conditions.

Enos wasn't even the first chimp in space! That honor goes to Ham, who was launched into a sub-orbital spaceflight in 1961. He wasn't just a passenger; he pushed levers as he had been trained to do—and he was only a smidge slower than usual, down on Earth, so he proved that humans could perform tasks on a spaceflight.

No, Enos wasn't the first this or that or this other, but he was the first animal to achieve orbit on a U.S. spacecraft, and he was the first ever chimpanzee to achieve orbit.

Enos had more than 1,250 hours of training for his flight, including aircraft flights on which he encountered a certain amount of g force. And on this date in 1961, Enos flew into space on board Mercury Atlas 5. He was to complete three orbits.

Enos and the Mercury spacecraft completed the first orbit in one hour and 28 seconds. They completed a second orbit, but they were then brought back to Earth because the spacecraft was not maintaining altitude as it should.

Enos had a luckier ending than poor Laika. He survived splashdown and, when removed from his capsule, rescuers say that he jumped for joy and ran around the deck of the recovery ship, shaking their hands.

Here's an old movie clip about Enos and his flight. Unfortunately, we have no film of a joyful Enos shaking people's hands. 

This much longer movie about chimp astronauts doesn't focus on Enos at all, but gives you a good idea of what training he had to undergo. 

Also on this date:

November 28, 2012 - Happy Birthday, William Blake

Author, painter, engraver, mystic, artist...William Blake was a real Renaissance man who lived in Great Britain several centuries after the Renaissance. (A “Renaissance man” is defined as someone with many talents or interests, especially in the humanities.)

Blake is also one of those examples of someone who is appreciated more by later generations. During his own time, many thought that Blake was “mad” (crazy) because he had such different ideas, and he died penniless and largely unrecognized. Nowadays, his reception is mixed. Some people dismiss his art. Many have never heard of him. However, his originality and creativity have earned Blake high praise from many others—one art critic even said that William Blake is “far and away the greatest artist Britain has ever produced.” 

William Blake was born on this date in 1757 in London. He lived almost his entire life in that great city, and he is often credited as being one of the first of the "Romantics"—helping to start the artistic and literary movement known as Romanticism.

  • Repeat After Us offers audio files of various people reading aloud Blake's poems. 
  • Read Write Think offers several links to Blake's artwork, plus activity suggestions. 

Also on this date:

Anniversary of the first skywriting in U.S. skies 

Chad's Republic Day 

Panama's Independence Day 

November 27, 2012 - Giving Tuesday

The people promoting this day say:

Giving back” can mean donating money or time to a non-profit organization. It would be especially great if you make connections with a local non-profit you can really get to know and believe in, a place where you can volunteer once a month or on some other regular schedule!

Don't forget that there are all kinds of giving. I'm glad that some people donate time and money and effort to feeding orphaned children in Africa, but I tend to spend my money on science non-profits. Here are two of my own favorites:

According to Bill Nye, the Science Guy, space exploration is vital to humankind. We not only benefit from the awesome majesty of space photography and are uplifted by the courage of our astronauts, we benefit daily and directly by discoveries and inventions made through space exploration, such as satellite technology and weather warnings and cell phones and GPS devices and ATM machines. Many of us benefit from discoveries in medicine, such as an artificial heart pump and non-surgical therapy for cataracts, that came from space exploration. We benefit from the development of special protective coatings (now used to protect the Statue of Liberty, among other things) and NASA's food safety system (now adopted by the FDA) and even art restoration technology!

The Planetary Society advocates for continuing space exploration and seeds important and innovative projects. It also promotes education.

I have donated both time and money to this center; it's awesome. Established in 1962, YSC specializes in presenting quality science, math and computer classes for students grades K -8.

Perhaps you have a science education organization near you?

Also on this date:

November 26, 2012 Anniversary of the First Exhibition of a Lion in America

There was a time when most people in the world would live and die without ever getting to see a lion.

Or a giraffe. Or a hippo, rhino, gorilla, zebra, or elephant.

It is startling to think about people living their entire lives without ever seeing even one of all the exotic animals we get to see—on TV and in movies, in books and photos and on the internet—but also live, “in the flesh,” in zoos and circuses and other exhibits.

I just went to the Los Angeles Zoo and had a fantastic time seeing all the typical (to us! – to we lucky ones who live in modern times!) zoo animals such as koalas and monkeys and tigers. I had an even better time seeing some unusual animals I had never seen before, such as the Chinese giant salamander (a 6-foot-long salamander!) and the Babirusa (a “pig deer” whose tusks grow up through its snout and begin to look almost like antlers!).

And now, today, I am reading that the very first exotic animal ever known to be exhibited in America was a lion shown in Boston, Massachusetts, on this date in 1716.

So this exhibit was one exotic animal. Not a zoo.

Five years later Bostonians got another thrilling creature exhibition: a camel.

Whoo-oo! TWO animals!

People in America had to wait more than a century and a half for an entire zoo to open; in 1874 the Philadelphia Zoo opened and invited visitors to view more than 800 animals. 

By the way...

The African lion exhibited in Boston in 1716 was exotic because it came from far, far away. But did you know that there used to be an animal called an American lion?

I'm not talking about that fearsome modern creature we sometimes call the mountain lion—but that we more commonly call a puma, panther, or cougar. I'm talking about an animal that lived for thousands of years in North and South America—a huge member of the cat family that was 25% larger than the modern African lion—a creature that went extinct around 10 to 11 thousand years ago: the American lion.

America's second “exotic creature,” the camel, also used to live here and actually first evolved here. For thousands of years various species of camels lived in the Americas. Some migrated over a land bridge to Asia, and all the camels that stayed in the Americas went extinct about 10 to 11 thousand years ago.

If you are wondering why both American lions and American camels died out about 10 to 11 thousand years ago, you should know that the saber-tooth cat, mammoth, mastodon, giant sloth, American horse, giant beaver, and other large mammals also died out at the same time. Scientists aren't sure why so many megafauna (large animal) species went extinct during the late Pleisotcene, but climate change, habitat shifts, and human hunting probably all played a role.

Did you know...?

Some scientists have suggested “rewilding” America by bringing over large mammals such as African lions, cheetahs, camels, and elephants to the North American prairies and allowing them to freely roam in “ecological history parks” or “Pleistocene parks.” This would restore some of the ecological balance that humans have disrupted by removing so many large species—especially predators—and it would be a second safeguard for today's endangered animals (zoos are the first safeguard). You can read about rewilding here and here.

Also on this date:

November 25, 2012 - Anniversary of the Development of Cable Television

Cable TV is one of those things that was invented by a lot of different people, working separately but far apart.

If you Google “Who invented cable TV?” you will get several different answers. No matter who is claimed as the inventor, though, the timing is roughly the same: cable TV became a thing in 1948.

Now, why would anyone pay for cable TV when they could just “pluck” broadcasts out of the air for free? The answer is that many people couldn't get broadcast TV because they lived in a remote area or a valley—places where the television signals weren't floating around, accessible to the ordinary antenna on a TV set. So bright people here and there erected large antennas on a hilltop or tall building and then ran a cable from that antenna to the televisions.

One of the guys who did this was Ed Parsons from Astoria, Oregon.

Parsons owned a radio station, and so he was in the “broadcast business.” His wife had seen a TV at a broadcasters' convention, and she wanted one. Parsons heard that a radio station in Seattle was going to begin to broadcast TV signals, so he put a large antenna on the roof of the Astoria Hotel. He then ran a coaxial cable from the antenna, across the street to his apartment, to a television set that he bought.

And on this date in 1948, Ed Parsons and his wife became the only people in Astoria that could watch television in their home!

Of course, other people heard about it and wanted to be able to watch TV, too, so soon Parsons was installing cable TV in other peoples' homes, as well. (He didn't charge a monthly cable TV charge, but he did of course have people pay for the materials and his work in running cable from his antenna to their brand-new television sets.)

By the way, one of the other names for early cable TV was CATV, or Community Antenna Television.

Also on this date:

November 24, 2012 - Anniversary of the Discovery of “Lucy”

Lucy is one of the most famous of our long-ago ancestors. I'm not talking about a human named Lucy, I'm talking a LOT longer ago than that!

Lucy lived more than three million years ago!

Lucy is the name for the collection of several hundred pieces of bones that once made up almost half of a hominin (ancestor of modern humans) that we call Australopithecus afarensis. She and others of her kind were a bit taller than a yardstick (or meter stick)—Lucy is estimated to have been 3 feet 7 inches tall—and to weigh 60 to 70 pounds (around 29 kilograms). They walked upright like modern humans but had small brains like non-human apes.

Lucy was found on this date in 1974, in Ethiopia, in Africa.

Donald Johanson and other scientists made the discovery, which was quickly and widely publicized. Why did the archeologists call the skeleton Lucy? At the time of the discovery, the Beatles song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds was playing loudly and repeatedly on a tape player at the archeological camp.

Check out...
Lucy compared to modern human.

Also on this date: