December 31 – Happy Birthday, Jacques Cartier

Posted on December 31, 2014

Okay, he kidnapped some guys. Actually, he kidnapped the sons of the chief. But he did (eventually) return them!

French explorer Jacques Cartier, born on this date in 1491, had been sent to the New World in 1534, in search of a passage to “Cathay” (Asia). If he couldn't find a way to Cathay, he was supposed to look for....(Do you know what the French king wanted? What did EVERY king want, back then?)!

Actually, Cartier discovered neither a passage to the Indies and China NOR gold. He discovered what he considered barren, uninviting land (Newfoundland) a bit of greener land (Prince Edward Island), some islands with lots of birds (which he named Iles aux Oiseaux—Islands of the Birds—and he and his crew proceeded to shoot more than a thousand of the birds, because, you know, it's what you do!), and a large bay (actually, the mouth of a river, the Gulf of Saint Lawrence).

He encountered a fleet of five canoes full of friendly Native Americans and traded small things with them as tokens of friendship. But later, when other canoes approached, he had canon shots fired to scare them away.

Then he saw some more Native Americans on shore, and Cartier and his men rowed ashore. Cartier met with Chief Donnacona of the St. Lawrence Iroquois, and he exchanged more gifts and used hand signs to create a friendly alliance.

But when Cartier erected a 30-foot wooden cross on the land—a cross marked “Vive le Roi de France(Long live the King of France)—Chief Donnacona became concerned. He made some hand signs that seemed to indicate to the Frenchmen that the land that the cross stood on, and all the land around it, belonged to him and his people. Cartier agreed with him and assured the chief that the cross was a marker so he could find his way back. He invited the chief and his three sons aboard his ship.

But then Cartier took two of the sons hostage. He put the chief and the third son ashore, told them that he would be back, and he would bring the two kidnapped sons back, and off he sailed for France.

Oh, my! What a way to treat the “allies” you just made!

Chief Donnacona's sons learned some French and communicated with Cartier about their home. Their village was located where Quebec is now situated, and they indicated that their land was called “Kanata.” Cartier wrote Kanata on his charts and maps—and that is how the name Canada came to be.

Chief Donnacona
Cartier did return the chief's sons to Canada the following year. He also brought the chief some gifts from the French King. Apparently, Chief Donnacona didn't trust Cartier but didn't out-and-out attack him, either!

I don't know how wise the chief's restraint was! In 1535, Cartier again kidnapped the same two sons, Donnacona himself, three other adult Iroquois natives, and four children. All of those Iroquoian hostages had to stay in France for five years, between Cartier's second and third voyages—and all of them died except for one of the children!

So not how you should treat your allies!!

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December 30 – Another “Island Universe” Is Announced

Posted on December 30, 2014

We Earthlings are not alone in our endless circuits around the Sun – there are seven other planets and vast numbers of other celestial bodies circling our star, making up our Solar System.

We Solar System-ites are not alone in our rush through space – our sun is but one of 100 BILLION stars in a vast, turning pinwheel in space, our Milky Way Galaxy.

Well, on this date in 1924, astronomer Edwin Hubble announced the discovery that a small smudge in our skies – what had been considered a spiral-shaped nebula (cloud of dust and gas in space) inside the Milky Way – was in fact another entirely-separate galaxy!

In other words, the Andromeda Nebula had to be renamed the Andromeda Galaxy.

Because the newly discovered independent galaxy was 2-and-a-half billion light years away from our galaxy, it seemed obvious that it was like another island in an ocean of empty space. Hubble referred to it as another “island universe.” He and other scientists immediately wondered if all the other known spiral nebulae are also separate galaxies, and of course it turns out that the ocean of space is dotted with many island universes.

(We now use the word universe to mean everything we can observe in the cosmos. And we use the word galaxy to mean a group of stars that, along with gas and dust and black holes and such, are held together by gravitational attraction.)

It turns out, indeed, that there are at least 100 billion galaxies in the universe! Here are a few of my favorites:

I guess you can say that, on this date in 1924, our known universe got a whole lot bigger!

How did he do that?

I hope you noticed that Hubble was not the first to actually see the Andromeda galaxy; instead, he was just the first to understand what it was: not a cloud of dust and a few stars within the Milky Way Galaxy, but its own separate collection of billions of stars and dust well outside the Milky Way.

The key to Hubble's discovery was figuring out how far away Andromeda really was. An astronomer named Henrietta Leavitt had figured out that a certain kind of variable star – a Cepheid variable – has a set ratio between its maximum brightness and the period of its brightness changes. A Cepheid that is quite close to us looks brighter than a Cepheid that is far (just as a nearby candle seems brighter than a distant candle), so we can use the dependable ratio to compute how far away the Cepheid is.

In other words, Leavitt's careful observations and analysis meant that we now had a measuring stick to use in space! And Hubble had to do some very careful observation and analysis to detect Cepheids as far away as those in Andromeda. But he succeeded in detecting some – hence his discovery we honor today!

This is what happens when
galaxies collide.

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December 29 – Happy Birthday, Carl Ludwig

Posted on December 29, 2014

I wouldn't go so far as to call this doctor and scientist “Mr. Urine,” but Carl Ludwig did develop the modern theory about the formation of urine!

Ludwig (who was born in Germany on this date in 1816) figured out that urine was formed by a filtration process in the kidneys, and then he modified his own theory to come up with the more complex understanding of urine formation that still stands today.

But there was a lot more to Ludwig's physiological contributions. He invented ways to measure blood pressure and blood flow, he invented a device to separate gases from blood, and he was the first to keep animal organs alive outside the body. He even researched anesthesia. He won numerous awards and is credited by scholars as having contributed to our understanding of every body system other than our sensory systems (sight, hearing, etc.).

But there's more. Ludwig was a professor and a great teacher. He founded a school: the Physiological Institute at the University of Leipzig.

And of course you know what I'm going to say next:
There's more. Way more. Ludwig (along with several others he discussed science and medicine with in Berlin) rejected the idea that had existed forever that biology had its own special laws and forces. That living things were completely different from nonliving things in their “vital force” – and that the physical and chemical laws that applied in other scientific endeavors had no bearing on biology.

Instead, Ludwig and his friends tried to understand the complexities of living things by looking at those laws of physics and chemistry.

And of course, they were right.

  • Here is a much-shorter, simpler, and cornier info-video about the urinary system, for young kids. 

Also on this date:

Explorer and scientist Joaquin de Acosta's birthday 

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December 28 – Endangered Species Act Day

Posted on December 28, 2014

This is a busy time of year – and lots of people are recovering from (or still enjoying) overeating, partying, hosting, and traveling. It's hard to get most people to care about sea turtles and sei whales when they have three loads of laundry to do or brand new video games to play.

So Endangered Species Day is not today; it's the third Friday in May.

But today is the anniversary of the signing of the Endangered Species Act. On this date in 1973, President Richard Nixon signed the bill into law.

This law was designed to protect species that were in danger of going extinct – especially when the cause for extinction was humankind's growth or activities. The U.S. Supreme Court later decided that the intent was to “reverse the trend toward species extinction.” 

Before this law was passed, there were laws that protected this creature and that other creature, and once in a while there were laws that protected certain types of creatures (such as migrating birds). One obvious creature to protect in the U.S. was the nation's symbol, the bald eagle.

But the Endangered Species Act helps to protect all the Endangered and Threatened species listed by the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


Also on this date:

Anniversary of the consecration of Westminster Abbey 

Pledge of Allegiance Day 

Anniversary of chewing gum patent

Anniversary of dishwasher patent

They're Always Changing the Map Day

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December 27 – Howdy Doody Day

Posted on December 27, 2014

What do you get when you mix puppetry, Western frontier themes, creative imagination, and a fight over rights to “intellectual property”?

Apparently, you get a popular kids' TV show called Howdy Doody! Starring a character known as (you guessed it!) Howdy Doody.

The creator of Howdy Doody was radio and TV personality Bob Smith. He created the voice-only character on his radio show, and when there was demand for a visual character, a puppeteer named Frank Paris was asked to make a Howdy Doody puppet.

This is the original
Howdy Doody puppet.
Recognize him?
No, neither did I!
Bob Smith first dressed up in Western garb to match his puppet, donned the name Buffalo Bob, and took center stage on this date in 1947. The TV show was a big hit, and the show lasted for 13 years!

So...where did the fight over rights come in?

The show became known and popular quickly, and within the year toymakers and department stores were getting requests from customers for Howdy Doody dolls, puppets, and other merchandise. Macy's department store contacted the puppeteer, Frank Paris, asking about the rights for a Howdy Doody doll. But Paris didn't hold the rights to the character or name – remember, it was all the creation of Bob Smith. Paris got angry and felt that he was being cheated out of his own rights as the puppet's maker.

So Paris made an immature flounce – just four hours before the show was to air live, he left the TV studios in anger. And he took the puppet with him!

Actually, it was not the first time that Paris had taken his puppet and left the show with no star. But it was the last.

Someone created a quickie prop – a map of the U.S. – and everyone else decided how to explain the puppet's absence. Soon, Buffalo Bob was on the air, explaining that Howdy Doody was gone because he was on the campaign trail, touring the nation with the candidates.

Buffalo Bob even added that, while Howdy Doody was on the road, he was getting some plastic surgery.

In the real world, the studio hired another puppeteer to make a better, handsomer version of the Howdy Doody puppet. It is Velma Dawson's version of Howdy Doody that was used and seen and loved all those years – and it is her version that old folks remember fondly – and it is her version that most people think is “the original.” The actual original, Paris's uglier puppet, has been mostly forgotten.

I think that this should teach us all NOT to take our ball (real or metaphorical) and flounce home!

Howdy Doody by the numbers

  • Howdy Doody had 48 freckles: one for every state in the nation. (Shortly before the show ended, Alaska became the 49th state, and the freckles count became outdated.)
  • The original Paris-version Howdy Doody was controlled by 11 strings. The new Dawson-version Howdy Doody had 14 strings.
  • Actually, there were three of the new Dawson-version Howdy Doody puppets: Howdy Doody (for close-ups), Double Doody (for long shots), and Photo Doody (the near-stringless marionette that was used in personal appearances, photo shoots, and parades).
  • Photo Doody was sold in 1997 for more than $113,000.

Also on this date:

Kwanzaa (from 12/26/11 to 1/1/12)

Astronomer Johannes Kepler's birthday

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