November 24 - Another Day, Another President!

Posted on November 24, 2017

Happy birthday, President Zachary Taylor!

Yesterday was the 14th U.S. president's birthday; today is the 12th's.

Yesterday was the birthday of one of the bottommost-ranked presidents; today is the birthday of "more a forgettable president than a failed one." 

Why is Taylor so forgettable?

Zachary Taylor quite suddenly - shockingly - died of a stomach ailment just 16 months into his term. His administration hadn't accomplished much at that point - and it's not as if Taylor had busted into the presidency with loads of good ideas and plenty of governing experience. Apparently he is the first president to have had no elected post before the presidency - he was a military hero in the Mexican-American War - and he had only vague ideas about what he could or should do while in office.

Taylor didn't even want to be president. His party - the Whigs - had to convince him to accept the nomination. I guess they thought that, although Taylor had no interest in politics, he could win votes because he was such a national hero.

Here's a conundrum: 

I wrote yesterday about Franklin Pierce being a Northerner who was bummed at abolitionists and who took actions that made it seem as if he wanted to expand slavery.... 

Well, Zachary Taylor was a Southerner - he was from Louisiana and a slaveowner! - but his efforts regarding slavery were in the opposite direction. He could have tried to expand slavery into the regions recently acquired by the Mexican Cession (the U.S. won the Mexican-American War, and was rewarded most of what is now considered the U.S. "Southwest"). Instead, he thought slavery should not be expanded to the Western territories. He helped California to become a free state and worked on the rest of the West being able to choose whether to be free or slave.

Taylor definitely wasn't an abolitionist hero, or anything, but his efforts to save the Union were generally Southern-president-joins-forces-with-the-North, while Pierce's efforts to save the Union were Northern-president-joins-forces-with-the-South. It just goes to show that slavery was dividing the nation, and no amount of compromise was going to heal that divide. 

Slavery - the ownership of humans - is of
course a terrible business. And there's
no way the United States could have
continued to be half-free and half-slave. 
Taylor was so against secession (against the South breaking away to become its own separate nation), he took a very military stance towards those threatening to break away. He let them know that he considered that rebellion, and that he would gladly hang rebels. 

His stance was so anti-South in some ways (again, even though he himself was a Southerner), some people assumed that his death was really an assassination - that he was killed by a pro-slavery Southerner!

(Apparently there is no evidence that this was the case.)

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November 23 - President Pierce's Birthday

Posted on November 23, 2017

Some people think he was one of the best looking of the U.S. presidents. He was also popular and outgoing.

But being a president is not like being a movie star - it doesn't matter all that much what you look like, and popularity and friendliness only go so far. It's much more important to be hard working, to be honest, to be knowledgeable, to have a good character, to have good ideas. Most important is to have those leadership skills that are hard to describe. I'll take a stab at describing leadership: the ability to inspire others to do what's right and to make people feel more unified, more hopeful, more confident.

Franklin Pierce didn't have too much of any of that.

Why so low?

Franklin Pierce was president before the Civil War, and many historians say that his actions, and even his inactions, are partly to blame for causing the Civil War. Although he was from the North - mostly New Hampshire - he was more upset by the anti-slavery movement than by slavery itself. He was afraid that the abolition movement threatened the unity of the nation, and his idea of how to make sure that there was no Civil War was to compromise rather than lead, and even to break previous compromises by giving more to the South in an effort to keep Southern states in the Union.

Because of Pierce's actions, violence broke out in Kansas, violence erupted over the spread of slavery westward, and northerners became angry over his enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act. Pierce's popularity plummeted. 

Pierce was a Democratic president (at that time, the two parties were the Democrats and the Whigs - no Republican Party as yet). He expected to run as a Democrat for a second term, but his party said no, thanks; the Democratic Party nominated and successfully elected James Buchanan.

(Obviously, Buchanan was also not able to head off the Civil War. As a matter of fact, historians generally rank Buchanan even lower than Pierce!)

When the Civil War came, and Abraham Lincoln served as president, Pierce criticized Lincoln's every move. Because of this, Pierce's popularity sank even more.

November 22 - Celebrating Saint Cecilia in Saint Lucia!

Posted on November 22, 2017

The patron saint of music, Saint Cecilia, has a feast day today...So, to celebrate, let there be music!

Typically musical performances are held all over the island on November 22, to honor Saint Cecilia. 

St. Lucia is a speck of land in the Caribbean that changed hands so much, between France and Britain, that some call the island the "Helen of the West Indies."

Helen is a reference to Helen of Troy, a figure in Greek mythology who was supposed to be so beautiful, she was wooed by many men - and fought over, and even kidnapped! 

So, why was there so much competition over St. Lucia, the island? Is it, too, beautiful?

You be the judge:

The most common views of St. Lucia feature these two mountains, the Pitons, which are volcanic plugs or spires:

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November 21 - How Fast Is Light? REALLY Fast!

Posted on November 21, 2017

Scientists don't tend to be satisfied with a description like "really fast." Scientists look for a way of measuring exactly how fast something moves. Even something that moves really, really, really fast, like light.

On this date in 1676, the Danish astronomer Ole Rømer presented his data and method for calculating the speed of light.

The story of Ole Rømer's work in this field is pretty complicated. But two important points come out of this story:

1. The story of science is almost always a story of collaboration - of working together. A scientist may explore a question raised by another scientist. She or he may use a method or even an idea about a method thought up by another scientist. He or she may use the data gathered by another scientist and put a fresh analysis on it, or extend the findings by gathering more data.

2. Communication is very important. Someone may have great data - but lose it in a fire. Someone may have an important idea - but if he or she only presents it orally, and depends on others to record he idea in writing, the reporters may get it wrong. Someone may have a clear understanding of a slice of the universe but may not express it clearly to other scientists and to the general public.

Here are a few bits from the story of Ole Rømer's measurement of the speed of light - you will notice how collaborative his work was, and you will see how important records and communication are:

It was very important to people to be able to measure longitude - making accurate maps and finding the way across featureless oceans depended on it. In the early 1600s, Galileo had proposed a way to use observations of the eclipses of the moons of Jupiter as a way of creating a kind of precise clock. In other words, an astronomer looking at Jupiter's moon Io can note the precise time that Jupiter's shadow falls on Io and the precise time that Io emerges from Jupiter's shadow.

In the late 1600s, astronomers Jean Picard, Giovanni Cassini, and Rømer all used Galileo's idea; they observed 140 eclipses of Jupiter's moon Io from Copenhagen, Denmark, and Paris, France. Comparing the times of the eclipses, they were able to figure out the difference in longitude between the two cities.

Cassini noticed discrepancies in his measurements over time, and he theorized that light took time to travel to Earth. Ole Rømer took up Cassini's suggestion, and he set about to prove the idea that light traveled at a finite speed. He took all the data about eclipses, from all three scientists, and then gathered more. 

Rømer figured that there are times when Earth's orbit and Jupiter's orbit line up so that Earth is moving toward Jupiter, and there are other times when Earth is moving away from Jupiter. In the diagram below, as Earth moves around the Sun from Point F to Point G, it is approaching Jupiter and Io. As in continues to orbit the Sun, going from Point L to Point K, it is moving away from Jupiter and Io. Rømer knew that he could measure the delay in the eclipse sightings and compute light's speed from that delay.

Unfortunately, Rømer didn't write all of that up himself. Instead, he presented his work to the French Academy of Sciences, orally. The record we have of that presentation was written by a reporter. And....the reporter didn't understand Rømer's presentation, and he wrote about it with deliberately vague and wordy sentences so that his lack of understanding wouldn't be too obvious!

Another bummer is that Rømer's data and observations were all destroyed a couple of decades after he died in a huge fire. We can be very glad that one of his assistants, who later became an astronomer, described and wrote about Rømer's observations. 

Rømer himself did not calculate the exact speed of light, but other astronomers were able to take his data and make the calculation. 

Still, many scientists still thought that light traveled instantaneously. It took some time and checking and rechecking - and by 1727, science as a whole fully accepted the fact that light has a finite speed. Later astronomers were able to use Rømer's data combined with more recent data - and, as timepieces got better, scientists were able to make more and more precise observations - to calculate the speed of light. By the early 1800s, it had been calculated as just a bit more than 300,000 km/second. Now we are even more precise, with the speed of light measured as 299,792.458 km/second.

According to science fiction, we will be able to be-bop
all over the universe, traveling instantly from
one spot to another, perhaps trillions of miles away.

According to science, that may never be possible.
If you want to read an article about "faster than the speed
of light," Fact/Myth website has a good one.

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