October 13, 2014
Most of us know the story of Christopher Columbus and his fleet of ships that brought the dawn of European exploration and colonization to the Americas. Many of us also know that Columbus is not an altogether wholesome character, but one who traded in slaves and used cheating and treachery to advance his own cause.
But you might not know about the time Columbus had to rely on the intersection between trickery and astronomy to save his own life and the lives of his crew.
On Columbus’s fourth journey to the New World, his ships suffered from both hurricanes and termites, and Columbus and his crew had to seek shelter ashore the island of Jamaica. The Arawak Indians were friendly at first and supplied the white men with food, but as days turned into weeks and weeks turned into six months, they got tired of supporting the interlopers in exchange for worthless trinkets. Columbus found himself faced with angry natives and a crew near mutiny. He had to find a way to make people do what he wanted them to do.
Luckily, Columbus had a copy of an almanac written by Johannes Muller von Konigsber, also known as Regiomontanus. Regiomontanus was a German mathematician, astronomer, and astrologer who recorded detailed information about the sun, moon, and planets, as well as stars and constellations, which enabled sailors to navigate areas of the planet that had never been explored by Europeans before.
Through Regiomontanus’s almanac, Columbus knew that a lunar eclipse would happen on the evening of Thursday, February 29, 1504. Three days before this, he warned the Arawaks that they had angered God by refusing to feed Columbus and his men. God, Columbus declared, would provide a sign of his anger by making the moon disappear.
The Arawaks had certainly witness eclipses, but had no idea what caused them. They had no written history of the sky above their heads, no instruments to measure the heavens, and no way to predict what happened on the celestial canvas.
So when Columbus said something like, “Behold, God is angry and will take away the moon,” the natives might’ve listened pretty closely. And three days later, when the moon did in fact turn the blood red of a lunar eclipse, the natives might have felt pretty willing to do anything that the person who predicted this turn of events asked, as long as he put the moon right again.
And so, Columbus got to buy another six months of survival by capitalizing on the fear of his native hosts.
Nearly 400 years later, Mark Twain took inspiration from Columbus’s trick in his novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Accidental time traveler, Hank Morgan, saves his proverbial neck by predicting a solar eclipse, convincing the king that executing him is a bad idea. Just like Columbus, Morgan bought himself enough time to make it out of his dangerous situation alive.
This Columbus Day, no matter your feelings about the true history of Columbus, celebrate the use of scientific knowledge as a way of making friends—or at least a way of keeping your enemies from killing you.
Thursday, November 6, 2014, 9:00 am
Gaylord Opryland Resort & Convention Center, 2800 Opryland Dr, Nashville, TN 37214, United States
Come visit Nomad Press at the 2014 AMLE annual conference, see why Nomad titles are the perfect resource for the Middle School classroom. Don’t forget to ask about our show specials.
Show runs November 6 -7, 2014.
October 7, 2014
This time of year often invites a clash of clothing. It can be chilly in the morning, but by mid-afternoon we’re all running the air conditioners and peeling off layers. It can be tough to predict what the weather will be just a few hours from breakfast, never mind what it will be three months from now. But we try!
photo by Catherine Boeckmann
Whether you’re a diehard fan of the Farmer’s Almanac or an astute observer of woolly bear caterpillars, chances are good you play the prediction game. It’s human nature to want to know what’s coming up, so we can prepare by buying a new pair of heavy-duty boots or by booking our February vacations to Florida.
But how accurate can we really be? The tale goes that by observing the brown bands on woolly bear caterpillars, also known as the larva state of the Tiger moth, we can know whether it’s going to be a brutal winter or a mild one. If the bands are thin, stack the firewood high. If the bands are thick, don’t worry, it’s going to be an easy season.
Dr. Howard Curran, former curator of insects at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, studied this phenomenon back in the 1950s. For several years, he and his wife spent their autumns gathering as many woolly bears as they could and measuring the brown bands. They didn’t claim to be doing a scientific study; they would’ve needed to track a much larger population over a greater amount of time to get results that could be considered conclusive. Instead, they were simply interested in casually observing the woolly bear population.
They found that about 80 percent of the time, the woolly bears accurately predicted the severity of the winter.
Before we put meteorologists out of business, consider the fact that most entomologists consider the woolly bear method of weather prediction to be a fun bit of folklore.
It’s been hypothesized that the bands on woolly bears might have more to say about the previous winter than the future winter. The earlier in the spring the caterpillars emerge from their eggs, the more time they have to grow wider bands before heading into hibernation in the fall. During milder years, eggs get laid earlier, and caterpillars have a longer period of growth before turning into moths.
The Farmer’s Almanac, which bases its predictions on historical data, says this winter will be a tough one across most of the country. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which uses state-of-the-art instruments to track and model weather patterns, says not so fast. Woolly bears seem to be sporting average bands this year. The only way we can know for sure what the winter will be like this year? Wait a few months.
October 1, 2014
Monarch butterflies have the right idea.
Instead of sleeping, shivering, or hiding their way through a snowy winter, monarch butterflies take to the skies every fall for their annual migration to warmer climates.
From as far north as the northeastern United States and Canada, where monarch caterpillars feed on milkweed plants, these insects travel hundreds of miles to mountainous spots in Mexico and southern California where they spend the winter hibernating.
Reports of hibernating butterflies in southern California date back to the 1860s, but scientists believe the butterflies were in the habit of migrating long before humans noticed. Even after we realized monarch butterflies were leaving home come fall, nobody figured out where else they went until 1975, when scientists tracked them down in the mountains of central Mexico.
These butterflies require a very specific winter habitat that only a few areas offer. The Oyamel fir forests take up a very small area of the mountaintops of central Mexico. The roosting sites are about 2 miles above sea level and the fog and clouds that surround them provide essential moisture for the butterflies, who cluster together on protective trees.
How do they know where to go? Nobody knows for sure. Only about every fifth generation makes the migration, so they don’t learn from their parents. Monarch butterflies probably use the sun combined with their own circadian rhythm to establish which direction they need to fly. They might also use an internal magnetic compass. The earth is one giant magnet, and birds and insects can sense the magnetic field and follow it south. Neither of these hypotheses explain how they manage to find the same small area year after year. Scientists are still studying.
As our instruments become more advanced, we’re better able to study migrating butterflies. This fall, satellites over St. Louis, Missouri, captured a picture of a large, butterfly-shaped cloud heading south.
After some confusion, scientists realized they were seeing a swarm of migrating butterflies. This was an especially welcome sight, since butterfly populations have been decreasing in recent years, due to changing weather patterns. The site of thousands of flying butterflies is a hopeful sign!