Archive for February, 2015

Hey Pope Gregory, What Day Is It Now?

Tuesday, February 24th, 2015

On this day in 1582, Pope Gregory XIII announced a new calendar, modestly named after himself. (Italian astronomer Aloysius Lilius did the actual calculations but he was dead by 1582 so he wan’t around to claim naming rights.) The old, Julian calendar was no more, and the world jumped 10 days into the future – from February 14th to February 24th.

Think about it. Back in 1582, the Pope was so powerful that he could change what day it was, and everyone had to go along with him.

Well, not everyone. Just France, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and Poland made the switch in 1582. But by 1610 most of Europe was following the Gregorian calendar, and when Great Britain decided it wasn’t all a Catholic plot, and she and her colonies adopted the calendar in 1752, it pretty much became the world’s way of telling the date. There were some hold-outs, though; countries such as China and Russia that didn’t tend to listen to the Pope kept their old calendars. But they eventually gave in. Turkey was the last, joining the world in recognizing the Gregorian calendar in 1926.

But why change the date? The Julian calendar had been in place since 46 BCE and seemed to work fine. In fact, it was a fraction off our current length of 365.4245 days/year, so over time, Easter had been moving disturbingly away from the Spring Solstice. The Pope wanted to move Easter closer to Spring, and there you have it.

So, happy February 24th, everyone!


Pope Gregory XIII dated this document February 24, 1582, and suddenly it was.


Shared Birthdays: Washington and Schopenhauer

Monday, February 23rd, 2015

George Washington and Arthur Schopenhauer were born on February 22nd.*


Young George and Arthur, looking dreamy.

Besides sharing a birthday, you may wonder what connects these two men, one born in Pope’s Creek, British colony of Virginia (now Virginia, U.S.A.) and the other in Danzig, Prussia (now Gdansk, Poland). Well, they were alike in several ways:

Both Schopenhauer and Washington knew what it was like to be professionally shunned. Schopenhauer was disappointed in his own lack of popularity and envious of Hegel, who was much more trendy. Young George Washington craved a commission with the British army and was repeatedly turned down.

They both had fabulous hair, which is one of the things you first notice when you see their likeness. And contrary to what you may think, neither of them wore a wig.


George, Arthur, and their great hair.

Both Washington and Schopenhauer sought solace and peace. Schopenhauer was a natural pessimist who found solace in his theories of philosophy. Washington was not a particularly deep thinker and who found solace on his farm.

Personal Life: Washington married but had no children of his own. Schopenhauer didn’t marry, but he did have a daughter. She died in infancy.

Both were involved with slavery. Washington was a slave owner from age 11 until his death. Schopenhauer was an abolitionist and supported the abolitionist movement in the US.

Both were music lovers. George Washington was an excellent dancer. Schopenhauer played the flute.

Washington and Schopenhauer achieved fame at a young age. Washington became a military hero at age 22. Schopenhauer’s doctoral dissertation “On the Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason” was published when he was just 25.

Neither of them had middle names.

*Yes, we know that according to Julian calendar, Washington was born on February 11th. But the rest of Europe was following the Gregorian calendar at the time, and after 1752, so were Britain and the American colonies. Tomorrow’s post will provide further clarification.

Shared Birthdays: Galileo and Anthony

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

Today is the birthday of Galileo Galilei and Susan B. Anthony.

These two figures are towering examples of standing for what you believe in, no matter the odds. Except for Galileo, who decided not to stand for what he believed in in exchange for his life.

Susan B. Anthony faced jail time for attempting to vote in the 1872 presidential election, but in the end, she was let off. Galileo chose to play it safe and recanted his support of a heliocentric universe. However, he was then forced to live his last years under house arrest. Oh well.

Here are some facts about these two towering figures:

Susan B. Anthony was a tireless campaigner for the abolition of slavery and social equality and suffrage for women. Galileo perfected the telescope.

Both of them believed in a heliocentric system, in which the earth rotates around the sun, rather than the other way around. Unlike Galileo, however, Susan B. Anthony knew that the moon controlled the tides.

No one asked him, but Galileo probably disagreed with Susan B. Anthony that women should be allowed to vote.

Susan B. Anthony was memorialized on a US dollar coin in 1979. Galileo is memorialized by his right middle finger, which is on permanent display in Florence, Italy.

Neither of them married.


Shared Birthdays: Lincoln and Darwin

Thursday, February 12th, 2015

On this day in 1809, a poor family in Hodgenville, Kentucky, and a wealthy family in Shewsbury, Shopshire each celebrated the birth of a son, and two monumental figures of the 19th century – Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin – entered the world.

That’s right – the Great Emancipator and Mister Evolution were born on the exact same day.

Imagine the world in 1809: the United States was a confederation of States, without a strong federal government.

Creationism – in non-religious forms as well as religious ones – was the primary explanation of the origin of life in the universe.

The United States was on a path to conflict over slavery and whether or not the Union would hold. And there was a history of evolutionary thought in many forms. But it took Lincoln’s leadership and Darwin’s research to bring about these two major shifts.

There are few days in history when such influential people were born on the very same day. The 19th century wouldn’t have been the same without them.

So happy birthday to Lincoln and Darwin!


Young Abe and Charles


Alanson Crane Extinguished

Tuesday, February 10th, 2015

On February 10, 1863, Alanson Crane received Letters Patent No. 37,610 for his “Fire Extinguisher.”

Fires were much more dangerous and commonplace in 1863 than they are today. The (arson-set) fires of the Civil War draft riots caused $21 million in damages (in 2003 dollars), and a single (accidental) fire in December destroyed many manufacturers and burnt out more than 25 families living in tenements – almost an entire city block. Most buildings had no fire escapes, emergency exits, or fire-fighting equipment and safety codes were lax. (In fact, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire would not horrify citizens and spur them to reform for decades yet).

Of course, Crane’s fire extinguisher was not the hand-held tank we know today. It was a system of water pipes with perforations that were to be run through an entire building or house, something like a latter-day sprinkler system. He provided his design with a locking device to make sure its use was limited to an “authorized person.”

What if the authorized person was nowhere to be found? In that case, someone could trigger the water flow and, in Crane’s words, “flood the several floors with water, and thereby extinguish the fire at a moments notice and without the least injury to the building.” Good thinking, Alanson Crane. It’s important to have a contingency in cases like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, when the owners abandoned everyone else and fled to the roof to save themselves.


Jacques-Yves Cousteau tells the world, “Don’t Hold Your Breath”

Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015

On February 3, 1953, the former French Navy diver Jacques-Yves Cousteau published his work about undersea exploration, “The Silent World: A Story of Undersea Discovery and Adventure”.

Ten years earlier, while Cousteau was still a naval lieutenant, he and engineer Émile Gagnan designed the first scuba gear, eventually patenting it and naming their invention the “Aqua-Lung.”

The publication of “The Silent World” (with Frédéric Dumas) lead to the film of the same name (directed by Louis Malle), lead to the television series “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau” (featuring his family and colleagues), as well as (with photographer Luis Marden) articles about undersea exploration and marine life in articles for The National Geographic Magazine.

Cousteau (and his many colleagues and collaborators) introduced millions to their first view of the bottom of the ocean.

Thanks to Jacques-Yves Cousteau (et al.), the world is our oyster.

Actually, it’s NOT our oyster – as Cousteau the ardent environmentalist would want us to know.