Fly a Kite Day

June 15

June 15 is Fly a Kite Day (or Go Fly a Kite Day), ostensibly honoring the anniversary of Benjamin Franklin’s famous electricity experiment in 1752.

Ben Flies a Kite

However, Franklin never specified the date of the experiment. Written records reveal that he only narrowed down the timeframe to a month (June 1752) a full fourteen years after the fact. Strange circumstances like these have led some historians to cast doubts as to the veracity of the entire experiment.

In Bolt of Fate: Benjamin Franklin and His Electric Kite Hoax, Tom Tucker points out that the main evidence we have of the experiment, besides Franklin’s recollection 14 years later, is a single article he wrote about it for the Pennsylvania Gazette in October 1752 (and later published in Philosophical Transactions). The article leaves out several pertinent details, such as dates, witnesses, and oh yes, whether or not Franklin performed the experiment at all.

The article is written as sort of a “how-to” description. It contains details of how to construct a kite out of silk instead of paper, attach the key, and so on. But it never actually goes so far as to say the author actually carried out this task to its full extent. But the article does encourage the reader to go out and try an experiment that is more than likely to kill him. Whether Franklin realized this and this was just part of his conniving sense of humor is unknown.

Tucker argues that Franklin later chose June as the month of the experiment had occurred because French scientists had been conducting similar experiments on electricity across the Atlantic in May of 1752. It would have taken 6 weeks for such news to reach Franklin. Thus, in June his experiment would have still been an inspiration from God, as Franklin’s biographers insisted. Whereas in July it would have just been a copy.

Not all historians agree with Tucker’s hypothesis. Franklin is generally credited with proving that lightning is a form of electricity through a kite experiment so simple that it swept the rug out from more advanced scientists on the other side of the Atlantic.

Either way, don’t try it at home!

Pi Day & Albert Einstein

“I am ashamed to tell you to how many places of figures I carried these computations, having no other business at the time”.

— Isaac Newton, original ‘computer’ nerd, getting high on ∏

Pi Pie at Delft University
Pi Pie at Delft University

I have to admit I’m a Pi holiday snob. I don’t celebrate Pi Day on March 14; I prefer its more accurate European equivalent, Pi Approximation Day, celebrated on July 22 (22/7).

It’s been said the only real Pi Day was March 14, 1592. (3.14 1592) and of course even that was only accurate to 7 digits. At that time, Pi wasn’t known as Pi but as “that funny circumference-over-the-diameter number that goes on forever and ever and ever, and I’ll stop calculating it as soon as I find the pattern.” Fortunately, Welsh mathematician William Jones shortened it to just ∏ in 1705. Pi was the first letter of the Greek words for periphery and perimeter.

March 14 is not only easy to remember, it has the added bonus of being the birthday of Albert Einstein, born in 1879 in Ulm, Germany.

Albert Einstein

At age 26, the clerk at a Swiss patent office unleashed three scientific papers on the world, the least of which would have assured his place in history. The greatest of which changed history. That was the Theory of Special Relativity, or the “Strangers on a Train Traveling Close to the Speed of Light” Theory. Either way, Einstein didn’t like the word “relativity” at all. He preferred “invariance theory,” referring to the consistent nature of light regardless of the motion and positions of its observers.

Einstein next turned his attention to gravity. He spent much of the following decade aligning his theory of relativity with Newtonian physics. In 1915, he knocked it out of the park again, with his special relativity follow-up: the Theory of General Relativity.

If ever a sequel was better than the original, this was it.

Had Einstein not developed the Theory of Special Relativity in 1905, someone else would have. In a few years, maybe even a few months.

But it’s been said that had there been no Einstein, had he not conceived of the Theory of General Relativity in 1915, the world would have waited generations to unlock it.

General Relativity explained the inexplicable by affirming the impossible. That among other things, both light and time could (and must) bend in relation to mass.

Albert Einstein, age 14
Albert Einstein, age 14

Einstein had comparatively little astronomical data to go on back in 1915. But this was a guy who managed to deduce Nobel-prize winning theories by observing pollen grains in water.

One of Einstein’s clues was that the orbit of Mercury didn’t behave as Newton’s theory had predicted it would. Other physicists chalked this up to the possible existence of yet unobserved planetary bodies in our solar system. What Einstein proposed was the astrophysical equivalent of tearing down a house and rebuilding it because the door didn’t fit. He said that the way scientists since Newton had assumed the universe worked was fundamentally unsound.

Even with his past successes, the theory was so out of conformity with the day’s scientific knowledge that Einstein could have been laughed off the world stage.

But on May 29, 1919 the scientific community had an unprecedented opportunity to put an abstract theory as big as the universe to a visible, practical test.

The Newton vs. Einstein Showdown – May 29, 1919

Astronomers predicted that on May 29, 1919, parts of South America and sub-Saharan Africa would experience an incredibly long 6-minute total solar eclipse, during which time the sun would be right in way of Earth’s view of the constellation Hyades.

Scientist-adventurers led expeditions to remote areas of the southern continents to make precise astronomical records during the darkness of the eclipse. If Einstein was correct, the stars of the cluster Hyades would appear to shift from their normal positions because of gravity’s effect on the starlight as it passed by the Sun.

The expeditions confirmed Einstein’s theory, and in the darkness of a 6-minute eclipse, the Newtonian world gave way to an Einsteinian one.

For his contributions to science, Einstein deserves his own holiday for sure, even though he would be the first to forget it (He wasn’t good with birthdays) and the last to acknowledge any beneficial value in it.

Because Pi Day coincides with Einstein’s birthday, many treat March 14 as a celebration of science and mathematics in general. I’ve noticed a dearth of these festivals. Religious and political holidays fill each day of the calendar several times over while mathematicians and scientists find themselves forced to rally around a handful of dates like “Square Root Day” (3/3/09…) and “Mole Day” (June 2 at 10:23). Not to mention our beloved Pi Day. []

Darwin’s birthday, February 12, is shared with and often dominated by that of his contemporary Abraham Lincoln. Both men were born on February 12, 1809.

And Isaac Newton’s birthday…well, it’s overshadowed just a teensy bit by a religious luminary named Jesus. Yep, Newton was born on Christmas Day, 1642 (OS).

Still, many geeks celebrate Newton’s birthday as “Grav-Mass” by singing popular carols such as “The Ten Days of Newton.” (props to Olivia Judson)

On the tenth day of Newton,
My true love gave to me,
Ten drops of genius,
Nine silver co-oins,
Eight circling planets,
Seven shades of li-ight,
Six counterfeiters,
Four telescopes,
Three Laws of Motion,
Two awful feuds,
And the discovery of gravity!

It’s fitting that we celebrate the two great pinnacles of physics on March 14 and December 25.

In ancient Roman times, March 14 was the eve of the Ides of the March. The Roman political and agrarian calendar began on or around March 15 — when farmers planted crops and elected officials took office. And ended with the December festival known as Saturnalia, from December 17 to December 25.

Newton’s birthday falls in the season of Christmas, Yalda, and Yule, which bid farewell to the old year and hello to longer days. And though they didn’t know it, our ancestors were really paying homage to gravity — the Sun’s pull on the Earth. Einstein’s birthday meanwhile comes amid spring festivals like Holi, Nowruz, Purim, and Easter, which celebrate rebirth and the circle of life, as well as the life-giving power of sunlight.

We live in a world where the more we learn, the less we know. And where the darkest eclipse sheds the most brilliant light. As one quote popularized by Einstein* explains…

“The wider the diameter of light,
the larger the circumference of darkness.”


What can we say? The guy knew his ∏.

Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world. — Albert Einstein

The Eclipse That Changed the Universe

* Einstein didn’t invent the quote:

“It has been well said, that the more we enlarge the diameter or sphere of light, the more, too, do we enlarge the circumambient darkness — so that with a wider field of light on which to expatiate, we shall have a more extended border of unexplored territory than ever.”

Institutes of Theology from the Post-humous Works of Rev. Thomas Chalmers (1849) by Chalmers and his son-in-law biographer William Hanna.

A half-century later, Alexander Whyte retells how Chalmers explained the concept to students in Skirling, Scotland.

When Dr. Chalmers was out at Skirling on one occasion he went to the village school and gave the children an elementary lesson in optical science. Taking the blackboard and a piece of chalk he drew a long diameter on the board, and then he ran a large circumference around the diameter. And then turning to the wondering children he said to them in his own imaginative and eloquent way, ‘You must all see that the longer the diameter of light the larger is the surrounding circumference of darkness.”

Thirteen Appreciations, by Alexander Whyte (1900)

Cross Atlantic Communication Day

July 27

Morse telegraph

Today’s a good day to reach out and call (or Skype) that friend across the Pond. It’s Cross Atlantic Communication Day, marking the anniversary of the first sustained working telegraph cable between Europe and the Americas.

Before 1866, it took ten days for a message to cross the Atlantic by ship. An early form of the telegraph had been used in Germany as early as 1809, but it wasn’t until the 1830’s that related crucial innovations made the invention commercially viable.

Charles Wheatstone and William Cooke patented the first commercial telegraph in the UK in 1837. That same year inventor Samuel Morse developed a telegraph system in the US, using the language that would come to dominate the wires: Morse Code. In 1844 the U.S. installed a telegraph wire from Washington DC to Baltimore, whereupon Morse relayed its first now-famous message: “What hath God wrought?”

The idea of trans-Atlantic cable connecting Europe and the Americas appealed to several luminaries, but it’s generally seen as the brain-child of entrepreneur Cyrus Field, who raised the cash and made the first attempt in 1857. The 1,700m miles of cable was too big for any one ship to carry, so two were employed, the USS Niagara and the HMS Agamemnon. The two ships met up in the middle of the Atlantic, their two wires were spliced together, and they headed out in opposite directions, laying cable as they went. The cables broke multiple times, and the mission was eventually abandoned. The following summer, after several trials of errors, they set out again, and this time completed the mission, connecting a spliced cable from Newfoundland to Ireland.

On August 16, 1858, the first trans-Atlantic telegraph message was sent: “Glory to God in the highest; on earth, peace and good will toward men.” Followed by messages of goodwill and congratulations by Queen Victoria and President Buchanan.

“May the Atlantic telegraph, under the blessing of heaven, prove to be a bond of perpetual peace and friendship between the kindred nations, and an instrument destined by Divine Providence to diffuse religion, civilization, liberty, and law throughout the world.” — President James Buchanan

The two countries celebrated, but over the next few weeks the connection deteriorated, and finally gave out.

No one tried again for several years, and a Civil War engulfed the States. But in 1865, Cyrus Field tried again. Now there had been built one ship large enough to carry the whole cable: the Great Eastern, which was four times larger than any other ship in existence. Captain by Sir James Anderson, the Great Eastern traveled from Ireland to Newfoundland laying cable as it went. After over 1,000 miles the cable snapped, and the mission was abandoned.

The Great Eastern arriving in Newfoundland, July 1866

The mission finally succeeded the following year when the Great Eastern lay another, more durable cable between the two coasts. The first sustained trans-Atlantic telegraph cable was completed on this day, July 27, 1866.

“It is a great work, a glory to our age and nation, and the men who have achieved it deserve to be honoured among the benefactors of their race.” — The Times, July 28, 1866

[The predecessor of the electric telegraph dated back to 1746, and it wasn’t used to send messages. French monk and scientist Jean-Antoine Nollet had 200 of his brethren stand around in a mile-round circle holding an iron wire and proceeded to shock them all, observing that the monks felt the shock at roughly the same time.]

Pi Day, Approximately

July 22

July 22, or as it’s affectionately called across the Atlantic, 22/7, is Pi Approximation Day. But don’t let the name fool you. Unlike the more widely celebrated Pi Day (observed on March 14), 22 divided by 7 is actually a slightly closer approximation of Pi than 3.14.

Pi Pie at Delft University

The tradition dates back at least to 1995, when students at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, celebrated July 22 by

“eating waffles and consuming Swedish Punch in various highly unlikely ways. There was also agitated discussion about how circles would look, if the ratio of their circumference to their diameter would equal 3.”

It just doesn’t get wilder than that. Later observances included the creation and digestion of the obligatory “Pi Pies”.

More historical documentation of these early Pi Approximation Day events can be found at:

Radio Day – Russia

May 7

radio (adj.): (1) of, relating to, or operated by radiant energy; (2) of or relating to electric currents or phenomena (as electromagnetic radiation) of frequencies between about 3000 hertz and 300 gigahertz. — Webster’s Dictionary

I turn the switch and check the number
I leave it on when in bed I slumber
I hear the rhythms of the music
I buy the product and never use it
I hear the talking of the DJ
Can’t understand just what does he say?

— Wall of Voodoo, “Mexican Radio

Alexander Popov (1859-1906)

In the 1940s and ’50s, the Soviet Union established May 7 as Radio, Television, and Communication Workers Day. Today the Russians know it as Radio Day, a commemoration of an event that occurred on May 7, 1895…

“It was on this date that [Alexander] Popov read a paper in the Physics Department of the Russian Physical and Chemical Society entitled, On the Relation of Metal Powders to Electric Oscillations.

“Alexander Popov: Inventor of Radio”, by M. Radovsky

Don’t you wish you could’ve been a fly on that wall?

Apparently, this was like being at opening night of Star Wars. Or maybe more akin to catching an Offspring concert back when they were playing coffee houses.

Either way, Popov’s demonstration of the practical application of electromagnetic signals at the Physics Department’s monthly meeting rocked the house, as evidenced by the official meeting minutes:

“A.S. Popov reported On the Relationship of Metal Powders to Electric Oscilliations… Utilizing the high sensitivity of metal powders to extremely weak electric oscillations, the speaker constructed an instrument designed to indicate rapid oscillations of atmospheric electricity.” — May 7, 1895

Say what you will, the Physics Department of the Russian Physical and Chemical Society knew how to party.

Russian family listens to early radio

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In Russia, it is a well established fact that Popov invented the radio. That ‘fact’ is, shall we say, less established in the West, where inventors like Guglielmo Marconi and Nikola Tesla got the credit, and more importantly, the patents.

Ultimately, the creation and application of radio technology was made possible by the combined efforts of several scientists who each added vital pieces to the puzzle that would soon change the face of civilization. In 1898, Tesla showed off a radio-controlled boat in Madison Square Garden. In 1899, Marconi sent a wireless signal across the English Channel. Sir Oliver Lodge and Heinrich Hertz also made significant contributions. And in 1906 Reginald Fessenden conducted the first music/entertainment broadcast.

And, as they say, the rest was hysteria.

Just 16 years later, the New Republic predicted…

“There will be only one orchestra left on earth, giving nightly worldwide concerts; when all universities will be combined into one super-institution, conducting courses by radio for students in Zanzibar, Kamchatka and Oskaloose; when, instead of newspapers, trained orators will dictate the news of the world day and night, and the bedtime story will be told every evening from Paris to the sleepy children of a weary world; when every person will be instantly accessible day or night to all the bores he knows, and will know them all: when the last vestiges of privacy, solitude and contemplation will have vanished into limbo.”

— “The Ether Will Now Oblige” Bruce Bliven, The New Republic, Feb. 1922

Within a few decades of Popov’s first demonstration, parents were already complaining about kids’ brains rotting away from listening to too much radio.

A 1930’s New York Times article describes the general sentiment of an Atlantic City Teachers Association meeting…

“The task of teaching young radio listeners to discriminate and interpret is one of the new responsibilities thrust on the school room by radio’s increasing popularity among children, according to I. Keith Tyler…

“‘Boys and girls are now listening to the radio more than two hours a day,’ he said. ‘Their attitudes are being affected, their tastes altered and their understanding of life developed by this experience with the radio. We must develop their abilities to discriminate and interpret. Our loudspeakers pour out a withering barrage of political, economic, and social propoganda; a flood of verbose sales talk and great quatities of mediocre clap-trap.'” — New York Times, November 1938

So kids, the next time your parents complain about you wasting all your waking hours addicted to mindless drivel spewed by wireless devices, tell them their folks were doing it too! And bonus points for using the phrase “great qualities of mediocre clap-trap“.

As for the next wave of the future, a radio with moving pictures that premiered at the 1939 World’s Fair, the Times didn’t have high hopes for it:

“The problem with television is that people must sit and keep their eyes glued to the screen; the average American family hasn’t time for it. Therefore the showmen are convinced that for this reason, if no other, television will never be a serious competitor of broadcasting.” — New York Times editorial, 1939 [Futuring: the Exploration of the Future]

Spanish family listens to radio


The scientific breakthrough was originally known as “wireless telegraphy” and “wireless telephony”. Then “radio-telegraphy” and “radio-telephony”, referring to radiating energy (see definition above) like the prefix in radioactivity, and by 1906 the Telegraph Age reported:

“…the British post office…has adopted the word ‘radio’ as the designation for a wireless telegram.” — Telegraph Age, April 1906 (

Indistinguishable From Magic –

History of Radio — Who Invented the Radio?

Cosmonaut’s Day – Yuri’s Night

April 12

The Motherland hears, the Motherland knows
Where her son flies in the sky

—Russian song whistled by Yuri Gagarin during the first manned space flight

Yuri Gagarin

For thousands of years, humans stared at the skies wondering about the composition of the stars, lights that shined through pinpoints in the banner of heaven. It took millennia for our knowledge of the skies to coalesce. And it wasn’t until 1903 that Wilber and Orville Wright appeared to have conquered gravity, albeit briefly.

Yet only six decades after that first flight, a human being transcended into outer space. That man was Yuri Gagarin. The day was April 12, 1961—now celebrated as Cosmonaut’s Day.

The 27 year-old Russian pilot stood only 5’2″, an advantage for the world’s first cosmonaut, crammed into the tiny cockpit of the spacecraft Vostok 3KA. The Vostok launched from Baykonur, Kazakhstan, at 9:07 am Moscow Time. The flight lasted only 108 minutes, but in that time Yuri Gagarin circled the globe, a feat that had taken Magellan’s crew three years.

As late as early April there had been six contenders for the first cosmonaut. Gagarin wasn’t finalized as the pilot of the craft until just two days before the flight. And if some officials had their way, we would be celebrating “Herman’s Night” today instead of “Yuri’s Night.” Herman Titov was Yuri’s backup.

According to Gagarin, the flight went mostly smoothly. He didn’t report an emergency during the mission, but:

“As soon as TDU (breaking engine) shot down, there was a sharp jolt. The spacecraft started spinning about its axis with a very high speed…Everything was spinning. One moment I see Africa — it happened over Africa — another the horizon, another the sky. I barely had time to shade myself from the sun, so the light did not blind my eyes.”

The 20th century Icarus faired better than his Greek predecessor. Gagarin ejected from the crafted at 10:44 am and landed safely.

His post-flight report wasn’t published until decades after the flight.

By beating the first American into space (Alan Shepard) by one month, Gagarin helped the Soviet Union emerge as the apparent leader in aeronautic technology, and the space race was on. Yuri went from complete obscurity to a national hero—perhaps THE national hero for two generations of Russians.

Gagarin legacy far outlasted his life. He died in 1968 in a training flight crash. He was only 34 years old.

Cosmonautics Day was established by the Soviet Union in 1962. Today April 12 is also known as Yuri’s Night, celebrated around the world in honor of the 5’2″ giant who first touched the heavens.