Happy birthday, Abe and Charles!

February 12, 2018

From Smithsonian Magazine's 2009 article,

From Smithsonian Magazine’s 2009 article, “How Lincoln and Darwin Shaped the World.” Illustration by Joe Ciardiello.

On this day in 1809, just a few hours apart, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were born.

What are the odds of historic coincidences like that?

Lincoln’s birthday is still listed in law as a date to fly the U.S. flag, though we’ve changed the celebration to the following week and the generic President’s Day, closer to George Washington’s real birthday, February 22. President’s Day is celebrated on the third Monday in February.

So, you may certainly fly your flag today. (You may fly your flag any day, but you get the idea.)

News will feature more celebrations of Darwin than Lincoln, today, I predict — Darwin Day is a worldwide celebration by science nerds.

Both Lincoln and Darwin worked to end slavery. Darwin probably had more of an idea that racial discrimination had no science basis. Lincoln had more political sway. After Lincoln and Darwin, science and human rights advanced greatly, because of their work.

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December 27, Great Beginnings Day 2017: Darwin, Apollo, and more

December 27, 2017

December 27 is one of those days — many of us are off work, but it’s after Boxing Day, and it’s not yet on to New Year’s Eve or Day. We should have celebrated, maybe.

It’s the end of the year, and yet it is also a day of great beginnings.

We should celebrate December 27 as a day of portent: A good embarkation, and a good, safe end to a nation-encouraging trip to almost touch the Moon.

HMS Beagle, Darwin's ship

HMS Beagle, on a voyage of discovery; painting of the Beagle in the Galapagos by John Chancellor

On December 27, 1831, Charles Darwin and H.M.S. Beagle set sail on an around-the-world voyage of discovery that would change all of science, and especially biology, forever.

December 27 1831
After a few delays, H.M.S. Beagle headed out from Plymouth with a crew of 73 under clear skies and a good wind. Darwin became sea-sick almost immediately.

Darwin never fully overcame his seasickness, but he fought it well enough to become the single greatest collector of specimens in history for the British Museum and British science, a distinction that won him election to science societies even before his return from the trip — and cemented his life in science, instead of in the church.

Darwin’s discoveries would have revolutionized biology in any case. But, in analyzing what he had found, a few years later and with the aid of experts at the British Museum, Darwin realized he had disproved much of William Paley’s hypotheses about life and its diversity, and that another, more basic explanation was possible. This led to his discovery of evolution by natural and sexual selection.

Mini-sheet from the Royal Mail honoring Darwin's discoveries in the Galapagos Islands

Mini-sheet from the Royal Mail in 2009 honoring Darwin’s discoveries in the Galapagos Islands

On December 27, 1968, Apollo 8 splashed down after a successful and heartening trip to orbit the Moon. The three crewmen, Commander Frank Borman, James A. Lovell, Jr., and William A. Anders, had orbited the Moon, a very important milestone in the methodological race to put humans on the Moon (which would be accomplished seven months later).

1968 was a terrible year for the U.S., with the North Korean capture of the U.S.S. Pueblo, assassinations of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Sen. Robert F. Kennedy during the presidential campaign, riots in dozens of American cities, nasty political conventions with riots at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, a contentious and bitter election making sore the nation’s divide over Vietnam policy, and other problems. On Christmas Eve, Borman, Lovell and Anders broadcast from orbit around the Moon, a triumphant and touching moment for the Apollo Program and Americans around the world. Their safe return on December 27 raised hopes for a better year in 1969.

Motherboard.tv has a great write up from Alex Pasternack, especially concerning the famous photo taken a few days prior to splashdown:

In 1968, NASA engineers were scrambling to meet President Kennedy’s challenge to land a man on the moon by decade’s end. Because delays with the lunar module were threatening to slow the Apollo program, NASA chose to change mission plans and send the crew of Apollo 8 all the way to the moon without a lunar module.

Exactly 43 [49] years ago, the three astronauts of Apollo 8 became the first humans to orbit another celestial object. As they came around the dark side of the Moon for the third time, Frank Borman, the commander, finally turned their capsule around. And then they saw the Earth.

Borman: Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty.
Anders: Hey, don’t take that, it’s not scheduled.
Borman: (laughing) You got a color film, Jim?
Anders: Hand me that roll of color quick, will you…

One of the resulting photos taken by Anders on a Hasselblad camera became one of the world’s most iconic images.

As Bill Anders recalls it:

I just happened to have one with color film in it and a long lens. All I did was to keep snapping… It’s not a very good photo as photos go, but it’s a special one. It was the first statement of our planet Earth and it was particularly impressive because it’s contrasted against this startling horizon . . . After all the training and studying we’d done as pilots and engineers to get to the moon safely and get back, [and] as human beings to explore moon orbit, what we really discovered was the planet Earth.

Plan to raise a glass today, December 27, 2012, to Great Beginnings Day for the human race. December 27 is a day we should remember, for these achievements. (But if you’re raising a glass, consider Carrie Nation, too!)

Also on December 27:

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This is an encore post.

Yes, this is an encore post. Defeating ignorance takes patience and perseverance.


Remembering Darwin’s death, April 19, 1882, and his legacy in 2016

April 19, 2016

This is an encore post.

We shouldn’t pass April 19 — a day marked by significant historic events through the past couple hundred years — without remembering that it is also the anniversary of the death of Darwin.

Charles Darwin in 1881, by John Collier

Charles Darwin in 1881, portrait by John Collier; after a Collier painting hanging in the Royal Society

Immortality?  Regardless Darwin’s religious beliefs (I’ll argue he remained Christian, thank you, if you wish to argue), he achieved immortality solely on the strength of his brilliant work in science. Of course he’s best known for being the first to figure out that natural and sexual selection worked as tools to sculpt species over time, a theory whose announcement he shared with Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently arrived at almost exactly the same theory but without the deep evidentiary backup Darwin had amassed.

But had evolution turned out to be a bum theory, Darwin’s other works would have qualified him as one of the greatest scientists of all time, including:

Darwin's theory set out a sequence of coral re...

Darwin’s theory set out a sequence of coral reef formation around an extinct volcanic island, becoming an atoll as the island and ocean floor subsided. Courtesy of the U.S. Geological Survey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

US Geological Survey graphic demonstrating how coral atolls form on the sinking remains of old volcanic sea mounts, as Darwin described. Wikimedia commons image

  • World’s greatest collector of biological samples:  During his five years’ voyage on HMS Beagle, Darwin collected the largest collection of diverse plant and animal life ever by one person (I believe the record still stands); solely on the strength of his providing actual examples to the British Museum of so much life in so many different ecosystems worldwide, before he was 30 Darwin won election to the Royal Society.  (His election was engineered partly by friends who wanted to make sure he stayed in science, and didn’t follow through on his earlier plan to become a preacher.)
  • Geology puzzle solver:  Coral atolls remained a great geological mystery.  Sampling showed coral foundations well below 50 feet deep, a usual limit for coral growth.  In some cased old, dead coral were hundreds of feet deep.  In the South Pacific, Darwin looked at a number of coral atolls, marvelous “islands” that form almost perfectly circular lagoons.  Inspired partly by Lyell’s new encyclopedic review of  world geology, Darwin realized that the atolls he saw were the peaks of volcanic mounts.  Darwin hypothesized that the volcanoes grew from the ocean floor to the surface, and then the islands were colonized by corals.  The round shape of the volcano gave the atoll its shape.  Then the volcanic mounts eroded back, or sank down, and corals continued to grow on the old foundations.  It was a perfectly workable, natural explanation for a long-standing geologic puzzle.  (See Darwin’s monograph, Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs.)
  • Patient watcher of flowers:  Another great mystery, this time in biology, concerned how vines twined themselves onto other plants, rocks and structures.  Darwin’s genius in designing experiments shone here:  He put a vine in his study, and watched it.  Over several hours, he observed vine tendrils flailing around, until they latched on to something, and then the circular flailing motion wrapped the tendril around a stick or twig. Simple observation, but no one had ever attempted it before.  (See On the Movements and Habits of Climbing Plants.)
  • Champion of earthworms, and leaf mould:  Darwin suspected the high fertilizer value of “leaf mould” might be related to the action of earthworms.  Again, through well-designed experiments and simple observation, Darwin demonstrated that worms moved and aerated soil, and converted organic matter into even richer fertilizer. (See The Formation of Vegetable Moulds Through the Action of Worms.)
  • Creation of methodological science:  In all of this work, Darwin explained his processes for designing experiments, and controls, and made almost as many notes on how to observe things, as the observations themselves.  Probably more than any other single man, Darwin invented and demonstrated the use of a series of processes we now call “the scientific method.”  He invented modern science.

Any of those accomplishments would have been a career-capping work for a scientist.  Darwin’s mountains of work still form foundations of geology and biology, and are touchstones for genetics.

Born within a few hours of Abraham Lincoln on February 12, 1809, Darwin survived 17 years longer — 17 extremely productive years.  Ill through much of his life with mystery ailments, perhaps Chaga’s Disease, or perhaps some other odd parasite or virus he picked up on his world travels, Darwin succumbed to heart disease on April 19, 1882.

More:

 


Darwin and Lincoln and February 12: Cool coincidence or divine intervention?

February 12, 2016

Is it an unprecedented coincidence?  207 years ago today, just minutes (probably hours) apart according to unconfirmed accounts, Abraham Lincoln was born in a rude log cabin on Nolin Creek, in Kentucky, and Charles Darwin was born into a wealthy family at his family’s home  in Shrewsbury, England.

Gutzon Borglums 1908 bust of Abraham Lincoln in the Crypt of the U.S. Capitol - AOC photo

Gutzon Borglum’s 1908 bust of Abraham Lincoln in the Crypt of the U.S. Capitol – Architect of the Capitol photo

Lincoln would become one of our most endeared presidents, though endearment would come after his assassination.  Lincoln’s bust rides the crest of Mt. Rushmore (next to two slaveholders), with George Washington, the Father of His Country, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and Theodore Roosevelt, the man who made the modern presidency, and the only man ever to have won both a Congressional Medal of Honor and a Nobel Prize, the only president to have won the Medal of Honor. 

In his effort to keep the Union together, Lincoln freed the slaves of the states in rebellion during the civil war, becoming an icon to freedom and human rights for all history.  Upon his death the entire nation mourned; his funeral procession from Washington, D.C., to his tomb in Springfield, Illinois, stopped twelve times along the way for full funeral services.  Lying in state in the Illinois House of Representatives, beneath a two-times lifesize portrait of George Washington, a banner proclaimed, “Washington the Father, Lincoln the Savior.”

Charles Darwin statue, Natural History Museum, London - NHM photo

Charles Darwin statue, Natural History Museum, London – NHM photo

Darwin would become one of the greatest scientists of all time.  He would be credited with discovering the theory of evolution by natural and sexual selection.  His meticulous footnoting and careful observations formed the data for ground-breaking papers in geology (the creation of coral atolls), zoology (barnacles, and the expression of emotions in animals and man), botany (climbing vines and insectivorous plants), ecology (worms and leaf mould), and travel (the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle).  At his death he was honored with a state funeral, attended by the great scientists and statesmen of London in his day.  Hymns were specially written for the occasion.  Darwin is interred in Westminster Abbey near Sir Isaac Newton, England’s other great scientist, who knocked God out of the heavens.

Lincoln would be known as the man who saved the Union of the United States and set the standard for civil and human rights, vindicating the religious beliefs of many and challenging the beliefs of many more.  Darwin’s theory would become one of the greatest ideas of western civilization, changing forever all the sciences, and especially agriculture, animal husbandry, and the rest of biology, while also provoking crises in religious sects.

Lincoln, the politician known for freeing the slaves, also was the first U.S. president to formally consult with scientists, calling on the National Science Foundation (whose creation he oversaw) to advise his administration.  Darwin, the scientist, advocated that his family put the weight of its fortune behind the effort to abolish slavery in the British Empire.  Each held an interest in the other’s disciplines.

Both men were catapulted to fame in 1858. Lincoln’s notoriety came from a series of debates on the nation’s dealing with slavery, in his losing campaign against Stephen A. Douglas to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate.  On the fame of that campaign, he won the nomination to the presidency of the fledgling Republican Party in 1860.  Darwin was spurred to publicly reveal his ideas about the power of natural and sexual selection as the force behind evolution, in a paper co-authored by Alfred Russel Wallace, presented to the Linnean Society in London on July 1, 1858.   On the strength of that paper, barely noticed at the time, Darwin published his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, in November 1859.

Darwin and Lincoln might have got along well, but they never met.

What unusual coincidences.

Go celebrate human rights, good science, and the stories about these men.

A school kid could do much worse than to study the history of these two great men.  We study them far too little, it seems to me.

Resources:

Charles Darwin:

Abraham Lincoln:

More:

Anybody know what hour of the day either of these men was born?

Yes, you may fly your flag today for Lincoln’s birthday, according to the Flag Code; the official holiday, Washington’s Birthday, is next Monday, February 15th — and yes, it’s usually called “Presidents Day” by merchants and calendar makers. You want to fly your flag for Charles Darwin? Darwin never set foot in North America, remained a loyal subject of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, to the end of his days. But go ahead. Who would know?

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.


Recent photos of peppered moths

August 5, 2015

Peppered moth, from Lepi-Photos: Geometridae : Enomminae; Peppered Moth; BISTON betularia (Linnaeus,1758)

Creationists deny such photos can exist, a peppered moth actually resting on a living plant. Peppered moth, from Lepi-Photos: Geometridae : Enomminae; Peppered Moth; BISTON betularia (Linnaeus,1758)

Look, Mother Creationist: No glue!

Collection of recent photos of peppered moths found on Twitter:

It appears moth trapping is a favorite nature-observing activity in parts of Britain. One may find naturalists showing off their captures on Twitter during the non-winter months, now. Dozens of photos, made by digital cameras Thomas Kettlewell could only dream of in some science-fiction fantasy; moths captured in-situ, bearing witness against creationism, and for natural selection.

More:


Malaria fight, February 2015

February 20, 2015

Timely infographic from Agence France Presse.

Some background:  The newly-formed World Health Organization (WHO) estimated worldwide malaria deaths at more than 5 million per year, when it kicked off the ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful malaria eradication program in 1955.  Eradication hopes hung on the use of DDT, sprayed on the walls of homes in affected areas (Indoor Residual Spraying, or IRS), to temporarily knock down mosquito populations so that humans infected with malaria could be cured.  After early successes in temperate zones, malaria fighters took the fight to tropical Africa in 1963.  There they discovered that overuse and abuse of DDT had already bred mosquitoes resistant to the pesticide.  With no substitute for DDT available, WHO wound down the campaign on the ground by 1965, and officially abandoned it in 1969.

Nations who had pledged money for the fight early, cut back when DDT failed.  In 1963, about 4 million people died from malaria, worldwide.

Despite the lack of an international, worldwide fight against malaria, malaria fighters soldiered on.  Better housing and better medicines made gains.  By the time the U.S. banned DDT use on crops in 1972, pledging all U.S. production of DDT to fight disease elsewhere, annual malaria deaths had fallen to just over 2 million per year. By 1990, the annual death toll was cut to about a million per year.  Through the 1980s, malaria parasites themselves developed resistance to the main pharmaceuticals used to cure humans.

By the end of the 1990s, international agencies and especially NGOs like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation brought new funding and new urgency to the fight against malaria.  Expansion of production of artemisinin-based pharmaceuticals provided a new tool for health workers.  Funding from the U.S., through the President’s Malaria Initiative, helped a lot.  In 2000, about a million people died from malaria.  By 2014, malaria deaths fell to under 600,000.

Parasite resistance to the new pharmaceuticals poses a new threat to continued progress.  Funding is still far short of what experts estimate to be needed, and short of pledges from developed nations.  Mosquitoes that carry malaria parasites from human to human (after a step of the life cycle in infected mosquitoes) quickly evolve resistance to pesticides; malaria parasites develop resistance to pharmaceuticals used to treat humans.  Funding to rotate pesticides and drugs falls short, causing improper use of both, and quicker evolution of resistance in mosquitoes, and parasites.

Infgraphic from Agence France Presse, on the fight against malaria, February 2015.

Infgraphic from Agence France Presse, on the fight against malaria, February 2015.


God blessed February 12, 1809, with Darwin and Lincoln

February 12, 2015

Is it an unprecedented coincidence?  206 years ago today, just minutes (probably hours) apart according to unconfirmed accounts, Abraham Lincoln was born in a rude log cabin on Nolin Creek, in Kentucky, and Charles Darwin was born into a wealthy family at the family home  in Shrewsbury, England.

Gutzon Borglums 1908 bust of Abraham Lincoln in the Crypt of the U.S. Capitol - AOC photo

Gutzon Borglum’s 1908 bust of Abraham Lincoln in the Crypt of the U.S. Capitol – Architect of the Capitol photo

Lincoln would become one of our most endeared presidents, though endearment would come after his assassination.  Lincoln’s bust rides the crest of Mt. Rushmore (next to two slaveholders), with George Washington, the Father of His Country, Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, and Theodore Roosevelt, the man who made the modern presidency, and the only man ever to have won both a Congressional Medal of Honor and a Nobel Prize, the only president to have won the Medal of Honor.  In his effort to keep the Union together, Lincoln freed the slaves of the states in rebellion during the civil war, becoming an icon to freedom and human rights for all history.  Upon his death the entire nation mourned; his funeral procession from Washington, D.C., to his tomb in Springfield, Illinois, stopped twelve times along the way for full funeral services.  Lying in state in the Illinois House of Representatives, beneath a two-times lifesize portrait of George Washington, a banner proclaimed, “Washington the Father, Lincoln the Savior.”

Charles Darwin statue, Natural History Museum, London - NHM photo

Charles Darwin statue, Natural History Museum, London – NHM photo

Darwin would become one of the greatest scientists of all time.  He would be credited with discovering the theory of evolution by natural and sexual selection.  His meticulous footnoting and careful observations formed the data for ground-breaking papers in geology (the creation of coral atolls), zoology (barnacles, and the expression of emotions in animals and man), botany (climbing vines and insectivorous plants), ecology (worms and leaf mould), and travel (the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle).  At his death he was honored with a state funeral, attended by the great scientists and statesmen of London in his day.  Hymns were specially written for the occasion.  Darwin is interred in Westminster Abbey near Sir Isaac Newton, England’s other great scientist, who knocked God out of the heavens.

Lincoln would be known as the man who saved the Union of the United States and set the standard for civil and human rights, vindicating the religious beliefs of many and challenging the beliefs of many more.  Darwin’s theory would become one of the greatest ideas of western civilization, changing forever all the sciences, and especially agriculture, animal husbandry, and the rest of biology, while also provoking crises in religious sects.

Lincoln, the politician known for freeing the slaves, also was the first U.S. president to formally consult with scientists, calling on the National Science Foundation (whose creation he oversaw) to advise his administration.  Darwin, the scientist, advocated that his family put the weight of its fortune behind the effort to abolish slavery in the British Empire.  Each held an interest in the other’s disciplines.

Both men were catapulted to fame in 1858. Lincoln’s notoriety came from a series of debates on the nation’s dealing with slavery, in his losing campaign against Stephen A. Douglas to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate.  On the fame of that campaign, he won the nomination to the presidency of the fledgling Republican Party in 1860.  Darwin was spurred to publicly reveal his ideas about the power of natural and sexual selection as the force behind evolution, in a paper co-authored by Alfred Russel Wallace, presented to the Linnean Society in London on July 1, 1858.   On the strength of that paper, barely noticed at the time, Darwin published his most famous work, On the Origin of Species, in November 1859.

The two men might have got along well, but they never met.

What unusual coincidences.

Go celebrate human rights, good science, and the stories about these men.

A school kid could do much worse than to study the history of these two great men.  We study them far too little, it seems to me.

Resources:

Charles Darwin:

Abraham Lincoln:

More:

Anybody know what hour of the day either of these men was born?

Yes, you may fly your flag today for Lincoln’s birthday, according to the Flag Code; the official holiday, Washington’s Birthday, is next Monday, February 16th — and yes, it’s usually called “President’s Day” by merchants and calendar makers. You want to fly your flag for Charles Darwin? Darwin never set foot in North America, remained a loyal subject of Her Majesty, Queen Victoria, to the end of his days. But go ahead. Who would know?

Yes, this is mostly an encore post.  Fighting ignorance requires patience.

Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience.


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