Science symbol

UNESCO designated November 10 as World Science Day for Peace and Development in 2001, and it has been celebrated as such every year since 2002. The 2018 theme is Science, a Human Right. According to UNESCO, this day “highlights the important role of science in society and the need to engage the wider public in debates on emerging scientific issues. It also underlines the importance and relevance of science in our daily lives.” In other words, spend today noticing and pondering the innumerable ways in which science has made your life better—there are many of them!

Image credit: By en:User:AllyUnion, User:Stannered (en:Image:Science-symbol2.png) [CC BY 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Graph of the equation of time

When what you mean is not apparent

When someone asks me how I’m doing, I habitually answer, “Fine,” because that’s what social convention dictates—whether or not I really am fine. Most people probably don’t want to hear the detailed truth, and would be sorry they asked if I told them. Similarly, when people ask what I do for a living, more often than not they’re looking for a quick and easy way to categorize me, rather than a litany of the sundry and somewhat unconventional means by which I earn a living. So I tend to oblige with a short answer that requires no further discussion.

One day, however, I was at a party, and I decided to tell people that my occupation was “Curator of Interesting Things.” One guy I spoke to—let’s call him “Bob” (for that is his name)—seemed particularly intrigued by the notion of Interesting Thing of the Day. He scribbled down the URL and promised me he’d send me some suggestions for topics to write about. A few days later, Bob sent me a link to a news article that led off with the following tantalizing claim: “Now we may know why the South lost the Civil War: Confederate time was about a half-hour slower than Yankee time.” I had heard of famous historical blunders based on confusion over differing calendars, but not over differing clocks. How cool.

Time Is On Our Side

The article never delivered on the teaser, though. It did discuss the fact that the North and the South used different methods of reckoning time, and it went on to speculate that those differences might shed light on the final moments of a Confederate submarine that disappeared shortly after sinking a Union ship. The time differences had nothing to do with the outcome of the war, but the reason for the differences was quite interesting indeed.

The South based their timekeeping on apparent solar time, in which noon is the moment the sun reaches its highest point. This is a sensible enough approach, but it has two problems. First, because of the angle at which the Earth is tilted and the elliptical shape of its orbit around the sun, the interval between noons on two successive days is not identical throughout the year. Although one day may be only a few seconds shorter or longer than the next, the cumulative effect of those extra seconds can mean a difference of nearly 16 minutes over several months. Second, the sun arrives at its apex at a different time depending on one’s longitude, so “noon” on the east coast will be earlier than “noon” hundreds of miles to the west—thus making synchronization tricky.

Just an Average Day

The problem of irregular day lengths is addressed by the use of mean solar time, in which all days are exactly 24 hours long (based on the average noon-to-noon interval)—at the cost of being somewhat out of sync with the sundial. The North, in addition to following mean solar time, used Washington, D.C. as the reference point for noon. These two facts combined to make Union time about 26 minutes ahead of Confederate time. It was not until 1883 that standard time zones were first adopted (thus eliminating the problem of local variations in mean solar time); they became law in the United States in 1918.

As for the equation of time, here it is: EqT = apparent solar time – mean solar time. This equation (or a table derived from it) is what you need to use if you have a sundial in your garden, because the sundial will almost always be out of sync with your clocks. If you plot this equation on a graph, it makes a pair of broad curves over the course of a year. On the other hand, if you were to plot the position of the sun in the sky (from a fixed point on Earth) at the same time every day for a year, it would make an asymmetrical figure 8, a shape known as the analemma—the Latin word for sundial.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on October 3, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on August 27, 2004.

Image credit: By User:Drini derivative work: Zazou (Equation of time.png) [CC BY-SA 2.5, GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Carl Sagan

Astronomer, cosmologist, author, and original Cosmos host Carl Sagan was born on November 9, 1934. Although he was a somewhat controversial figure, he did more than perhaps anyone of his era to promote science and critical thinking. He was especially interested in the prospect of extraterrestrial life, which he explored in his novel Contact (later made into a movie of the same name), and he was a supporter and advocate of SETI. Sagan died in 1996, but today, on his birthday, we remember his enormous contributions to the popularization of science.

Image credit: NASA JPL

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Extreme Ironing on Rivelin Needle, Sheffield, UK

Pressing your luck

My fondness for gadgets goes way back—back to those innocent days of my childhood when anything that ran on electricity and had buttons qualified as a gadget. I must have been about five years old when, one Christmas, I asked my parents for an iron. I’d seen one in a toy catalog—but it was a real iron. It had a plug and it got hot and everything (though presumably the temperature was kept low enough that kids wouldn’t burn themselves). And, crucially, it had four buttons. I didn’t know what the buttons did and I didn’t care. But I knew that I wanted and needed four of them. When Christmas arrived, I excitedly tore open my presents, and there, sure enough, was my very own iron. But wait! What’s this? This iron has only three buttons! It’s the wrong iron! It’s all wrong! Christmas is ruined! I yelled and I cried and I tried, with little success, to explain to my parents between sobs that really that fourth button was the crucial ingredient, without which the gift was, heartbreakingly, worthless to me. It must have been the following year that I began typing my Christmas lists—complete with catalog numbers, so that there could be no mistakes.

As an adult—no doubt due to this traumatic experience—I’ve never been much for ironing. But I must admit, some of those new cordless, digital, titanium-clad irons do look mighty tempting. That, a small ironing board, a good pair of sneakers, and nerves of steel are all I’d need to participate in the latest sports craze: extreme ironing.

Iron Supplement

When I first heard about extreme ironing, I assumed it had to be some kind of joke. Of course, the whole genre of activities loosely grouped under the heading “extreme sports” is, for a sports-averse person such as myself, a kind of joke. Be that as it may, there are in fact thousands of extreme ironers out there (who sometimes refer to themselves, um, ironically, as ironists) and tens of thousands of webpages describing the activity. Make that tens of thousands and one.

To do extreme ironing, you must carry an iron, ironing board, and laundry as you participate in some other “extreme” activity. The idea is to do some ironing (and, preferably, get someone to photograph you in the act) while rock climbing, snowboarding, skydiving, surfing, cattle-roping, scuba diving, or what-have-you. The Facebook page of the Extreme Ironing Bureau (yes, there is such a thing) says, “The sport combines the thrills of an extreme sport with the satisfaction of a well-pressed shirt.” Of course, that shirt probably won’t look terribly crisp by the time you’ve descended from the cliff face, emerged from the depths of the ocean, or extricated yourself from the barrel that just went over the falls. But that’s all beside the point. The point is to have the experience—to inject some action and danger into an otherwise dull activity.

Pressing Your Case

Phil Shaw, whose nickname in the extreme ironing community is “Steam,” invented the sport in his hometown of Leicester, England in 1997. Since then, he’s written a book on it and appeared on several TV shows. He’s also traveled around the world promoting extreme ironing, which has caught on in a frightening number of countries.

Not surprisingly, extreme ironing has prompted the creation of other goofy “extreme” sports, such as extreme accounting and even extreme sandwiching. No kidding. As for me, I’m all in favor of silly activities, but dangerously silly activities…not so much. I could get into some extreme meditation, though, or maybe some extreme napping. I’d better get back to my training.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on March 12, 2005.

Image credit: Theredrocket at English Wikipedia [CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

STEM sign

In education, S.T.E.M stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math; S.T.E.A.M. adds art to the mix (think: Disney imagineers). I have a special fondness for S.T.E.M. and S.T.E.A.M., partly because one of my kids attends a S.T.E.A.M. school, and partly because all those component disciplines are extremely cool and important. And why is November 8 the day to celebrate S.T.E.M. and S.T.E.A.M.? Well, according to this press release from MGA Entertainment, it comes from a Netflix show for kids called Project Mc2, about four smart girls in a secret spy organization called NOV8 (pronounced “innovate”).

Image credit: By Gabriel Ocaña Rebollo [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons

Source: Interesting Thing of the Day