Archive for the ‘calendar’ Category

Happy birthday, Charles Robert Darwin

Charles Darwin, shortly after his return from the voyage of the Beagle. If he were still alive, he'd be 200 years old today

Charles Darwin, about age 30, shortly after his return from the voyage of the Beagle. If he were still alive, he'd be 200 years old today.

Today is the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin (and of Abraham Lincoln too; they were born within hours of each other).  Darwin, who I have previously blogged about here, ranks with Newton and Einstein as one of the most important scientists of all time.  So take a bit of time today to learn more about this extraordinary individual.

To humanize him and add some context and framework for his accomplishments, here is a brief time line of some notable events in Darwin’s life, which may contain some facts that you don’t yet know about the great naturalist:

12 February 1809: Charles Robert Darwin was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England, the fifth of six children to physician Robert Darwin and Susannah (née Wedgwood) Darwin, the daughter of industrialist Josiah Wedgwood (1730- 1795).

1825–1828: Studies medicine at the University of Edinburgh. He joins the Plinian Society, a group for students interested in natural history. He gives up medicine because he can’t stand the sight of blood and 19th century surgery.

1828–1831: At his father’s urging, he begins preparing for a career in the clergy; he studies theology at Christ’s College, University of Cambridge, in preparation for a career as a parish priest. He collects beetles and enrolls in a course run by Rev. John Stevens Henslow, professor of botany.

HMS Beagle surveying the coast of South America

HMS Beagle surveying the coast of South America

1831–1836: At the suggestion of Rev. Henslow, he accompanies Captain Robert FitzRoy (1805–1865), future admiral and Governor of New Zealand, on the second survey expedition of HMS Beagle as an unpaid naturalist. Originally planned to take two years, the five-year voyage takes him across the Atlantic to the southern part of South America, returning via Tahiti and Australia; the Falkland Islands, Argentina, Chile, Peru, Australia, New Zealand, Mauritius and South Africa featuring on his extensive itinerary. He observed the behavior of different plant and animal species, and analyzed his large collection of specimens for three months on his return.

1838: Moves to London and, once compiled, he begins publishing his findings in various papers and volumes.

1839: Journal and Remarks (later known as The Voyage of the Beagle) appears in print and he is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society on 24 January. Five days later he marries his cousin Emma Wedgwood (1808–1896), the youngest of seven children to potter Josiah Wedgwood II (1769–1843), and his wife Bessy. They would have 10 children, two sadly dying in infancy. George, Francis and Horace became, respectively, an astronomer, botanist and civil engineer of repute. Charles and Emma were avid backgammon players; he faithfully records the results of their nightly games for many years.

1842: The Darwins move to Downe House in the village of Downe, Kent.  He does his theorizing in his home study, in part so he can be close to his children.  He publishes his first book on a specific subject, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs.

1853: He is awarded the Royal Society’s Gold Medal for his four volumes on barnacles.

1856: Darwin becomes aware of Alfred Russell Wallace’s theories on evolution and is persuaded to finally publish his work to establish priority.

1858: The outlines of his natural selection theories are jointly published alongside the similar theory proposed by Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) in the Journal of the Proceedings of the Linnean Society. His grandfather, scientist Erasmus Darwin (1731-1802), was one of those who had already argued in favour of evolutionary ideas.

1859: His epic On the Origin of Species, a collection of evidence collected from the study of fossils, comparisons of anatomy and embryology, appears after more than 20 years in the making. It presents a theory in which living beings are related by common genealogical descent; discourses that life on earth adapts according to its environment; and offers views on such concepts as natural selection, adaptation and survival of the fittest.

1871: The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex is published; it links, in Part I, some of the ideas detailed in On the Origin of Species to the concept of human evolution, a topic already being discussed in detail by peers, and looks at the relationship between human sexes and races, responding to the thoughts and works of other writers in the process. In Part II and Part III, the book focuses on what he calls “sexual selection.”

1872: The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals is published; it looks at how humans and animals communicate their emotions.

1877: He is awarded an honorary degree from the University of Cambridge.

19 April 1882: He dies in Downe and is subsequently buried near Isaac Newton in Westminster Abbey following one of only five state funerals given to a non-royal in the 19th century.

Darwin continued his research throughout his life and his work was not merely confined to the biological sciences.

The first evolutionary tree ever drawn, with the words "I think" written above it, from one of Darwin's notebooks

One of the first evolutionary trees ever drawn, with the words "I think" written above it, from one of Darwin's notebooks.*

His first specific-subject book, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, published in 1842, set out his theory—controversial for decades but later proven correct—of how atolls form, overturning the prevailing theories of his day.  His last work, published the year before he died, The Formation of Vegetable Mould, Through the Actions of Worms, With Observations on Their Habits, analyzed the role that worms play in soil creation.  His conclusions, once again, would be proven correct with time.

Darwin was a skilled writer and very effective at conveying his thoughts and ideas—and not just scientific ideas; his other works include interesting travelogues and an autobiography. Almost all of his writings, including some of the most speculative, have aged very well.

I cannot help including an example, and if it is a long one it is, I hope, a good one.  Consider the concluding paragraph to his best-known work, On the Origin of Species, which sums up with some degree of poetry the whole work:

It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.

If you want to learn more about Charles Darwin’s early life and family life, along with the discoveries that led to his formation of the theory of evolution, I highly recommend the following hour-long video of a 2005 lecture by Sean Carroll, titled (not coincidentally) “Endless forms most beautiful.”

Carroll is a great lecturer and the video includes many slides and videos that I think will hold your attention if you have even the smallest bit of interest in the subject.

darwinbadgeFor more on the Charles Darwin, see the excellent series of articles that Wikipedia has covering his whole life.  For more on the theory of evolution, which is one of the most important and central in all of science, see their introduction to evolution and the somewhat more technical article on the theory itself.  Berkeley has a nice page with explanations of evolution, the importance of the theory, and the many forms of evidence on which it is based.


* This post originally identified Darwin’s sketch as “the first evolutionary tree ever drawn.”  However, as commenter Zen Faulkes points out (see comments below), Jean Baptiste Lamarck had previously drawn a similar sketch. This blog regrets the error.

Happy birthday, Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, about two weeks before giving the Gettysburg Address

Abraham Lincoln, about two weeks before giving the Gettysburg Address

Today is the 200th birthday of Abraham Lincoln (and of Charles Darwin too; they were born within hours of each other).  Given the bicentennial, it might be fitting and proper to explore some of Lincoln’s writings.

This blog has already shared the Gettysburg Address on another occasion; it is surely one of the greatest speeches ever given in the English language, and has few peers in any language.  His Second Inaugural Address (Wikipedia article, with text) is another excellent and short piece of oratory, and is highly recommended.  The peroration is a classic, and is probably familiar to many, even if they can’t place it:

With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.

But many of Lincoln’s lesser-known speeches are likewise excellent.  To select just one, I highly recommend an address that he delivered in Milwaukee to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society on 30 September 1859.  The speech as a whole is most excellent, and the full text is available here, among other places.  The topic of the speech is progress, primarily technological, which in Lincoln’s day meant better plows, new fencing technology, railroads, canals, and the like.  Again, the peroration is excellent, and alone was worth any admission price:

It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: “And this, too, shall pass away.” How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride!—how consoling in the depths of affliction! “And this, too, shall pass away.” And yet let us hope it is not quite true. Let us hope, rather, that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social, and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.

The above is a sentiment that I try to keep in mind.  I also try to remember what Lincoln wrote circa 1854 about the nature and purpose of government:

The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves—in their separate and individual capacities.  In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, the government ought not to interfere.

A pre-beard Abraham Lincoln in 1846 or 1847

A pre-beard Abraham Lincoln in 1846 or 1847

Only John Stuart Mill has come close to so excellently summing up the raison d’être of government, and we’d be much better off if more shared the sentiment.  In that same fragment, Lincoln concludes “it appears that if all men were just, there would be some, though not so much need of government.” (Cf. “If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”—Federalist No. 51)  It is only with great regret that I omit the remainder of that item for purposes of space.

Another interesting short item contains Lincoln’s musing on slavery, again circa 1854, which seems to echo Kant’s categorical imperative, involving reasoning that can—and should—apply to far more than simply the peculiar institution:

If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B.—why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?—

You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own.

You do not mean color exactly?—You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own.

But, say you, it is a question of interest; and, if you can make it your interest, you have the right to enslave another. Very well. And if he can make it his interest, he has the right to enslave you.

Finally, consider what is possibly the most extraordinary missive ever sent from a head of government to one of his generals in the field.  In a letter dated 26 January 1863, shortly after General Joseph Hooker was given the most important command in the army at a pivotal point in the Civil War, Lincoln addressed him as follows:

I have placed you at the head of the Army of the Potomac.  Of course I have done this upon what appear to me to be sufficient reasons.  And yet I think it best for you to know that there are some things in regard to which I am not quite satisfied with you. I believe you to be a brave and skillful soldier, which, of course, I like. I also believe you do not mix politics with your profession, in which you are right. You have confidence in yourself, which is valuable, if not an indispensable quality. You are ambitious, which, within reasonable bounds, does good rather than harm. … I hear, in such a way as to believe it, of your recently saying that both the Army and the Government needed a Dictator. Of course it was not for this, but in spite of it, that I have given you the command. Only those generals who gain success, can set up dictators. What I now ask of you is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship. … Beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories.  Yours very truly

History shows that Hooker did not become dictator; despite being a good general, he didn’t live up to his potential as commander of the Army of the Potomac and was replaced by Gen. George Meade shortly before the Battle of Gettysburg.

In any event, I hope you will spend some time today to consider Abraham Lincoln’s accomplishments and what we each can do to achieve and cherish a just and lasting society, among ourselves, and with all nations.

Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day; it commemorates his birth on 15 January 1929.

A great man, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

A great man, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Instead of reading some inane comments by me about Dr. King, why don’t you read something from Dr. King instead?

Once you’ve done that, you may want to watch this video of King’s last speech, which was rather prophetic, given that he was assassinated just a few hours later.  It was just a few minutes long; here is the peroration:

To learn more about Martin Luther King, Jr., see his Wikipedia page and/or check out MLK Online.

Happy Birthday, Isaac Asimov

Dr. Isaac Asimov at the age of 36

Dr. Isaac Asimov at the age of 36

If he were still alive, Isaac Asimov would be celebrating his 88th birthday today.  However, that is not quite the same as saying he definitely would be 88 today.  When he was born, circa 2 January 1920, in the village of Petrovichi in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic (Tsarist Russia was gone, the Soviet Union was still 2 years in the future) the record keeping wasn’t very good. It’s actually possible that he was born as early as 4 October 1919, but the 2nd of January was the date he celebrated his whole life.

Asimov died on 6 April 1992 from AIDS that he’d contracted from a blood transfusion during a 1983 heart bypass operation, though his illness and cause of death weren’t made known until 10 years after his passing.  When considering his legacy Asimov said the following:

What I will be remembered for are the Foundation Trilogy and the Three Laws of Robotics. What I want to be remembered for is no one book, or no dozen books. Any single thing I have written can be paralleled or even surpassed by something someone else has done. However, my total corpus for quantity, quality and variety can be duplicated by no one else. That is what I want to be remembered for.

The Asimovian corpus is vast.  It is sometimes said the he is “the only author with a book in every category of the Dewey Decimal System,” but that is incorrect; he only hit nine of the 10 categories, the exception being the 100s: philosophy and psychology.  The Asimov FAQ suggests that “a more accurate statement is that Isaac Asimov is the only author who has so many well written books in so many different categories of library classification.” For instance, check out Asimov’s Guide to the Bible, which covers the Old Testament, New Testament, and the Apocrypha.

If you want something shorter to read to commemorate his birthday, check out one of his short stories.  His own favorites were (in order) “The Last Question,” “The Bicentennial Man,” and “The Ugly Little Boy.”  The first is, without question, his best short story—and utterly brilliant—and “The Bicentennial Man” is also great; but I’m not a fan of “The Ugly Little Boy.”  Others that I’d highly recommend are “Nightfall” and “Profession.”

For more on the fascinating life and work of Isaac Asimov, see his Wikipedia page and the Asimov FAQ.  And, of course, happy birthday, Isaac.

Gettysburg Address is 145 years old today

The only known picture of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg

The only known picture of Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, taken about three hours before he spoke

Seven score and five years ago today, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the greatest speeches ever given by anyone in any language.  Ironically, it includes the line “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” which has been proven quite untrue.

Wikipedia has an excellent article on the Address, with many facts that you’re probably not aware of.  Or if you’re in the mood to celebrate the Gettysburg Address with some fun, Sporcle has a fun game where you can see if you know all the words to the famous speech!  Or you can just read them here:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The words to the Address are carved into the south wall of the Lincoln Memorial’s interior; the north wall bears extracts from his Second Inaugural Address, a speech which exceeds almost any other given by an American President—except for the Gettysburg Address.

Veterans/Armistice/Remembrance Day

Joseph Ambrose, an 86-year-old World War I veteran, attends the dedication day parade for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  He is holding the flag that covered the casket of his son, who was killed in the Korean War.

Joseph Ambrose, an 86-year-old World War I veteran, at the 1982 dedication day parade for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. He is holding the flag that covered the casket of his son, who was killed in the Korean War.

Today, 11 November 2008, is the 90th anniversary of the conclusion of World War I.  The conflict, sometimes called “the Great War”, resulted in the deaths of over 20 million people—about 9.7 million of them military personnel and about 10 million of them civilians.  An additional 21 million people were wounded. 

November 11th is now commemorated as  Veterans Day in the United States, Remembrance Day in Canada, and Armistice Day in much of the rest of the world. Initially, the day honored only those who served in WWI; after WWII (unfortunately, the First World War was not, in fact, “the war to end all wars”) it was expanded to cover all veterans.  Today there are approximately 25 million veterans in the United States.  In their honor, I would like to observe a Canadian tradition; each year they mark Remembrance Day with readings of John McCrae’s poem, “In Flanders Fields.”

Lt. Colonel John McCrae was a Canadian physician who served in World War I and wrote the following poem on 3 May 1915, after he witnessed the gruesome death of his friend, Lieutenant Alexis Helmer, the day before. First published on December 7 of that year in Punch magazine, the poem is extremely well known in Canada; in addition to being read there each year on Remembrance Day the first of it’s three stanzas is on the Canadian $10 bill.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

McCrae died on 28 January 1918 of pneumonia and meningitis that he contracted while commanding the No. 3 Canadian General Hospital at Boulogne.  He was buried with full honors at the Wimereaux Cemetery, located a few miles from his last post.

War is hell, as one veteran very truly put it.  If you know a veteran, or if you just encounter one today, thank him or her; and remember that this need not only be done on November 11th.  And if you are a veteran reading this: thanks.

Dag Hammarskjöld

“Never measure the height of a mountain, until you have reached the top.  Then you will see how low it was.”  Thus wrote Dag Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat who died on this date, September 18th, 47 years ago (Wikipedia bio). He served as the second Secretary-General of the United Nations, heavily shaping the office and according to many, including Kofi Annan, he is the greatest person to have held the post; John F. Kennedy praised him as “the greatest statesman of our century” and he remains the only person to win the Nobel Peace Prize posthumously, having been nominated prior to his death.

U.N. Secretary-General and Christian mystic Dag Hammarskjöld at his desk

U.N. Secretary-General and Christian mystic Dag Hammarskjöld at his desk

Hammarskjöld died in 1961 while on a mission to negotiate a cease-fire between warring factions in the Congo and his plane crashed. Unfortunately, conspiracy theories have grown up surrounding this event, but it appears likely to have been nothing more than an unfortunate accident.

A Christian mystic in the tradition of Thomas à Kempis, Hammarskjöld is remembered now not just for his diplomatic accomplishments but for a thin volume of writings that he contributed to throughout his life which was published posthumously under the title Markings.  I find the book remarkable, and would describe it as a cross between the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and Thoreau’s Walden.  Like the former, it was not intended for publication but merely to collect his thoughts for his own purposes.  Here are a few excerpts.

From 1955:

Sun and stillness. Looking down through the jade-green water, you see the monsters of the deep playing on the reef.  Is this a reason to be afraid?  Do you feel safer when scudding waves hide what lies beneath the surface?

On Christmas Eve, 1956:

Your own efforts “did not bring it to pass,” only God–but rejoice if God found a use for your efforts in His work.  Rejoice if you feel that whast you did was “necessary,” but remember, even so, that you were simply the instrument by means of which He added one tiny grain to the Universe He has created for His own purposes.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has placed Hammarskjöld on their calendar of saints, recognizing him annually on this date as a “renewer of society,” a designation he shares with Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, and Florence Nightingale, among others.  He is in very good company.

As a young man he penned the following poem:

Tomorrow we shall meet,
Death and I–
And he shall thrust his sword
Into one who is wide awake.

But in the meantime how grievous the memory
Of hours frittered away.

Hammarskjöld’s tomorrow did not come for decades after that, but ours may come at any time.  May Death not find us frittering away the hours.

Happy Constitution Day!

Today, September 17th, is Constitution Day in the United States. On this date in 1787 the Constitutional Convention–or, at least, 39 of the 55 delegates–signed the United States Constitution. It was ratified in June of the following year.

I’m often surprised at how much “we the people” seem to not know about our own constitution. Considering the importance that it has in the span of human history, this seems inexcusable to me. So, here’s a link to the document. If you’re an American it’s your Constitution; go and read it.

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Wikipedia also has a nice series of articles on the document.  Check them out here.  Go and learn more about what our Constitution says, what it is, how it works, and how it has evolved over time.  It’s important.