October 31 – National Magic Day

Posted October 31, 2016

Houdini was best known as an
escape artist.
Today marks the end of International Magic Week  and is the day that world famous magician Harry Houdini died. 

It's also Halloween, with all the tricks and magical witchcraft and fun that holiday can involve. So, naturally, it is Magic Day!

Magic is a kind of performance art in which the performer does seemingly impossible things. Some magicians seem to state that they are using “real” magic or tapping into supernatural forces, but these days especially, almost all magicians point out that they are creating illusions. As a matter of fact, many magicians don't call themselves magicians, but prefer the term illusionist.

By the way, back in the 1930s, Mrs. Houdini was asked permission to celebrate Magic Day on the anniversary of her husband's 1926 death, and she said “yes.” That makes National Magic Day even more special as an honor to the great Houdini.

Magic equals art plus science.

It's PPP: performance – personality – practice! And also preparation – props – and maybe even a few plants (stooges) in the audience.

You can learn magic online, these days, or you can buy and practice using a magic kit.

Or just learn a few fun tricks to razzle dazzle your friends. 

Or watch one of the many magic videos available online. Here's one. And here is another. 

Also on this date:

Halloween (All Hallows' Eve)

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October 30 – Happy Birthday, Barun De

Posted October 30, 2016

Today we celebrate an Indian historian who was born on this date in 1932.

Barun De was a senior professor, an editor, and an academic in a variety of organizations and universities. He was the founder and director of the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences in Calcutta, and he served as member and chairman for museums and heritage conservation committees.

He researched in particular the colonial conquest of India and the national movement that ended India's time as a British colony.

Indian history is, of course, long and complex. The Indus Valley is famous for early civilizations, and a lot of impactful world religions got their start in India. Inventions of everything from rulers to shampoo (the word shampoo is derived from a Hindustani word!); from chess to Pachisi; from the spinning wheel to fabrics such as calico, chintz, and muslin; from yoga to zero – many aspects of our world were first invented, discovered, or used in India.

Barun De was born in Bengal. This region is mostly a low-lying river delta system that has been partitioned into different nations – Bangladesh (once East Pakistan) to the east and India to the west. The portions of Bengal that are in India make up the state that has been called West Bengal for years – but apparently has been newly renamed Bengal. The capital city of that state is Kolkata (once called Calcutta) – and that is the city where De was born, where he died, and where he studied and worked and lived most of his 80 years. 

Kolkata is a mix of serene and frenetic busy-ness.

Check out Kolkata:

Kolkata is even more a blend of past and present than most cities. The hand-pulled rickshaw is associated in many people's minds with the city – but it is also associated with cruelty to the rickshawwallahs. Apparently they are being replaced with battery-operated modern vehicles.

The widest tree in the world in the Great Banyan Tree in Kolkata's botanic gardens. Strangely, it still lives and grows, even though it no longer has a trunk! Check it out!

Kolkata has a lot of “biggest in the world” / “largest in India” / “biggest in Asia” bragging rights. One of the ones that interests me the most is the fact that its book fair is the world's largest non-trade book fair, and it is the most-attended book fair in the world, as well. It is recognized as the world's third-largest conglomeration of books, and it is Asia's largest book fair.

In other book-lover's-paradise news, Kolkata's College Street is often called the world's second largest second-hand book market in the world.

Also on this date:


Anniversary of the Declaration of the Slovak Nation 

International Magic Week

Haunted Refrigerator Night

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October 29 – Gaspra Gets a Close-Up

Posted October 29, 2016

Gaspra's colors are
exaggerated in this photo.
On this date in 1991, the American Galileo spacecraft became the first probe to visit an asteroid.

Galileo made its closest approach to 951 Gaspra by passing it fewer than 1,600 kilometers away (about 994 miles away); it took 57 photos that imaged about 80% of the asteroid.

Of course, Galileo was on its way to bigger and better things – Jupiter, to be exact. And it did a slightly more distant flyby of 243 Ida, in 1993, so it was also the second probe to visit an asteroid!

Since the early 1990s, there have been other space probe flyby successes, plus a few that orbited, landed on, and even returned samples from asteroids! Check out the asteroid probes listed in Wikipedia

Why flyby asteroids?

Asteroids are minor planets or hunks of rock that circle the Sun, as opposed to circling a planet like a moon or satellite.

Although the eight planets of the Solar System are always in different spots in their orbits, the orbits seem to be spaced pretty nicely, with the inner planets spaced closer together than the outer planets. Just where it seems that there SHOULD be a planet, between Mars and Jupiter, instead there is a ring of small worlds and rocks and rubble. The first asteroid was discovered way back in 1801.

There are enough asteroids in that region, between the two planets, that the term asteroid belt began to be used in the 1850s. About a thousand asteroids had been discovered by 1921, and by now we can estimate that the asteroid belt includes between one and two million asteroids larger than 1 km (0.6 mile) in diameter, along with millions of smaller ones!

There are asteroids located elsewhere, including some that are near Earth and some that accompany Jupiter in its orbit, located in clumps before and after the huge planet. The latter are named the Trojan and Greek asteroids.

Asteroids in the asteroid belt appear here in white.
Can you see the scattering of near-Earth asteroids,
 inside of Mars's orbit, shown here as colored dots? 

The diagram of the location of the various asteroids, above, and diagrams like it cannot show both the location and the size of asteroids in the same scale. It looks as if traveling through the asteroid belt would look like this:

But instead it would look like this:

In other words, it would look like you were traveling through empty space rather than through a field of rubble. However, you would be traveling quickly, and asteroids travel quickly, so even a tiny impact could be dangerous. That's why it would be important to track all the known and viewable asteroids and make sure that there would be no impact.

By the way...

There are other smaller-than-planet bodies that circle the Sun at a much greater distance. We don't call them asteroids if they orbit the Sun among the outermost of the planets or beyond; instead, we commonly call them Kuiper Belt Objects, plutoids or dwarf planets. KBOs tend to be icier and some become comets with long, eliptical orbits, burning off the icy elements as they approach the Sun.

Back to 951 Gaspra

Like most asteroids, Gaspra isn't large enough to have a spherical shape. (If a body is large, gravity pulls hard enough that even rock is pulled into a sphere.)

Like other asteroids, Gaspra has many small craters that speak to the fact that it was born out of collision (it was likely was once part of a larger body, called a parent asteroid) and continues to suffer from collisions.

Because of its irregular shape, Gaspra looks like it changes shape as it rotates. It has very weak gravity, of course, since it is teeny (the Moon has only one-sixth of the Earth's gravity, and Gaspra is maybe a millionth the size of the Moon!), but the gravitational field is also lopsided...because the asteroid is lopsided!

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October 28 – Foundation of the Independent Czechoslovak State

Posted October 28, 2016

Apparently many cities in the Czech Republic have streets named “October 28th Street” (in the Czech language, of course!).

That's because Czechs had hungered for reforms and rights under the Austrian Empire (later called the Austro-Hungarian Empire). A movement to revive the Czech language and national identity had begun. When the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed at the end of World War I, Czechoslovakia was created on October 28, 1918.

Since then, there have been many changes for the people of Czechoslovakia – being occupied by Germany during WWII, becoming a communist state under Soviet influence during the Cold War, being occupied by Soviet troops after the attempt at reform called the Prague Spring, becoming a republic after the 1989 Velvet Revolution and fall of communism, and peacefully dividing from Slovakia in 1993.

Still, October 28 remains an important historical touchstone – the anniversary of the day when the Czech people were able to realize their goal of becoming an independent, self-governing nation!

(Slovakia does not celebrate October 28.)

I've posted before about the Czech Republic, but here are a few new tidbits:
  • The Czech Republic is divided into two main regions: Bohemia and Moravia. Apparently the identity as Moravians – separate from being “Czechs” – is pretty strong among people who live in the eastern region, and a quarter of all Moravians actually want to split off from the Czech Republic to be their own nation.
Of course, that means that three quarters of all Moravians do NOT want such a split! (This polling info is about four years old, by the way, but I hope it is still current.)
In general, Moravia is a bit more rural than Bohemia. I read that it is very green. Um...yeah!
Even this cave (Punkevni) is pretty darned green!

  • I read that many Czechs and Slovaks did not want Czechoslovakia to split up, and that the peoples of the two nations often refers to each other as “brothers.” Again, there seems to be a disparity in urban/rural, industrial/agricultural – with the Czech Republic being more urban and industrial, with its largest city, Prague, being one of the cultural centers of Europe!
  • Even though most people think that Germany or Wales are the castle capitals of the world, the Guiness Book of World Records stated that, aside from the teeny-tiny principality of Liechtenstein, Czechoslovakia was the most densely “castellated” country in Europe. Of course, that was before Czechoslovakia was devided into two separate countries. Still, we can say that the Czech Republic is up there in having lots of castles, chateaux, and palaces – including ruins of each – per square kilometer.

    Some of the castles / chateaux are being used in a variety of ways, these days (at least one as a home for the elderly, which is very nice), some are tourist destinations, some are ruins, and some are privately owned and closed to visitors. There are so many that it's impossible to buy a castle map and just see them all, but tourists are urged to buy several different castle-tour maps and to make their own discoveries of great spots.

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