The Star Spangled Banner

The Star Spangled Banner -- A flag of 15 stars and 15 stripes adopted in 1794

The Star Spangled Banner -- A flag of 15 stars and 15 stripes adopted in 1794

A brief excerpt from Roy & Lesley Adkins’ superb The War for All the Oceans: From Nelson at the Nile to Napoleon at Waterloo, concluding their discussion of the British attack upon Washington and Baltimore in the War of 1812:

“Francis Scott Key became famous for having observed the bombardment [of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry]. He was a lawyer who worked in Georgetown, a small settlement adjacent to Washington. At the time of the attack on the capital he was a volunteer in the light artillery, and he found out that his friend Dr. William Beane had been taken prisoner by the British. Beane was a physician at Upper Marlborough and had himself been involved in capturing marauding British stragglers from the army. Because it was feared that Beane might be hanged, President Madison gave his approval for Key to go to Baltimore on board a vessel (the Minden) that was used as a flag of truce. He was accompanied by John Skinner, the American agent for prisoner exchanges, and the pair had caught up with the British fleet at the mouth of the Potomac, preparing for the expedition against Baltimore.

“Because of the kindness shown to the wounded British prisoners, it was agreed that Beane could be released, but for the time being they all had to stay on board a frigate in case they leaked news of the plan of attack. Once the fleet neared Baltimore they were allowed to return to the Minden, with a guard of marines, from where they witnessed the bombardment. The previous year two new flags had been commissioned for Fort McHenry, including one that measured 30 by 40 feet with fifteen stars and eight red and seven white stripes (the official United states flag authorised in the Flag Act of 1794). As the three Americans watched they had no idea whether or not the town had surrendered, but in the morning the smaller flag was still flying over the fort, and as the British left, it was replaced by the huge one that so impressed Barrett. It survives today in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington.

“During the assault Key began to jot down a poem, which he finished when back at Baltimore. The red glare of the rockets and the bombs bursting in the air of the first verse refer to the bombardment. Copies were printed in the Baltimore Patriot newspaper on 20 September, with an editorial comment that the song ‘is destined long to outlast the occasion and outlive the impulse which produced it.’ It was sung to the tune of ‘To Anachreon in Heaven’, a British drinking song, and was adopted as the national anthem in 1931.”

(For more information on the flag itself, see “The Star Spangled Banner, the 15 Star Flag” at

Published in: on July 31, 2009 at 4:13 pm  Leave a Comment  

Overconfidence Impairs Reading Skills


It would seem axiomatic that “those who can accurately gauge their strengths and weaknesses are usually in a better position to identify realistic goals and achieve them.” The notion is at least as old as Socrates’ dictum “Know thyself.” But we appear always to be condemned to learn such lessons over and over again.

Now research conducted at the University of Buffalo strongly indicates that there is a “clear connection between overconfident students and low reading comprehension.”

The study of nearly 160,000 teenage students in 34 countries (including 4,000 students in the US) led to the conclusion that too much self-esteem can be deleterious to reading skills, or, as the report in Science Daily summarized it “Overconfidence Among Teenage Students Can Stunt Crucial Reading Skills”.

Published in: on July 30, 2009 at 10:08 am  Leave a Comment  

Solar Lantern

Two Kansas State University electrical engineering students, senior Tai-Wen Ko and freshman Justin Curry, are designing a cheap and efficient solar lantern for Sub-Saharan Africa .

Published in: on July 30, 2009 at 9:15 am  Leave a Comment  

Road Construction

Don’t be concerned by all the road construction activity on South Hays — the new library is up and running. While the north end of the street is being laid, you’ll just need to use the far south entrance. (The north parking lot is closed.)

Paving should be complete by about the end of August. We’re sorry for the inconvenience — but you’ll like the results.





Published in: on July 29, 2009 at 4:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

US Energy Use Dropped in 2008

US Energy Usage 2008

US energy usage dropped marginally in 2008 compared with 2007, according to estimates consolidated by Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. While Americans used more solar, nuclear, biomass and wind energy, they used less coal and petroleum. Natural gas consumption increased very slightly, while geothermal energy usage remained static.

Total US energy use in 2008 was estimated at 99.2 quadrillion BTUs (British Thermal Units) compared to 101.5 quadrillion BTUs in 2007.

For complete details on the composition of the estimates, see the lab’s annotated energy flow chart.

Published in: on July 29, 2009 at 11:52 am  Leave a Comment  

Cosmos & Culture

Sir William Herschel's Telescope, with which he discovered Uranus in 1781

Sir William Herschel's Telescope, with which he discovered Uranus in 1781

The BBC News offers a brief but interesting seven-image slideshow Cosmos and Culture: How Astronomy Shaped Our World, featuring exhibits from the Science Museum of London celebrating the 400th anniversary of Thomas Harriot’s usage of the telescope.

Published in: on July 29, 2009 at 11:24 am  Leave a Comment  

Citizen Science: What’s New At the Galaxy Zoo?

Whirlpool Galaxy M51 & Companion (Deep Field)

Whirlpool Galaxy M51 & Companion (Deep Field)

“No one person could have done this on their own. Even if we had managed to look through 10,000 of these images, we could have come across only a few . . . and wouldn’t have recognized them as a unique class of galaxies.”
— Caroline Cardamone, Galaxy Zoo

Prior to the last century, scientific advancement was frequently, if not primarily, the work of “gifted amateurs” – most often “gentleman of independent means” (Darwin, Newton, Lavoisier) with the time and inclination to pursue revolutionary ideas that changed irrevocably our perception of the world in which we live. It is only within the past hundred or perhaps hundred fifty years that science became a matter of institutions – of universities, governments and enterprises. And it is only with the revolutionary potential of the internet that truly popular citizen science has come to the fore as a uniquely new and powerful force for extending the realm of human understanding.

One of the most stellar examples of this new force is amply demonstrated by the remarkable successes of Galaxy Zoo. Today, Galaxy Zoo links more than 230,000 volunteer astronomers via the internet to ongoing research into the nature of the universe.

What do these volunteers do? Here’s how Galaxy Zoo describes it: “The Galaxy Zoo files contain almost a quarter of a million galaxies which have been imaged with a camera attached to a robotic telescope (the Sloan Digital Sky Survey, no less). [You can find out more about the Sloan Digital Sky Survey here.] In order to understand how these galaxies — and our own — formed, we need your help to classify them according to their shapes — a task at which your brain is better than even the fastest computer.”

One of the most important and exciting aspects of the internet is its participatory nature. And Galaxy Zoo allows anyone who has the desire to participate in making important new astronomical discoveries.

Just last year, Galaxy Zoo volunteer Hanny van Arkel, a Dutch schoolteacher, discovered a baffling new astronomical phenomenon, Hanny’s Voorwerp, which is still quite imperfectly understood (see ”The Mystery of the Voorwerp Deepens” at Galaxy Zoo). Ms. van Arkel’s reaction was that “It’s amazing to think that this object has been sitting in the archives for decades and that amateur volunteers can help by spotting things like this online. It was a fantastic present to find out on my 25th birthday that we will get observational time on the Hubble Space Telescope to follow-up this discovery.”

Hanny's Voorwerp as viewed by the Herschel telescope

Hanny's Voorwerp as viewed by the Herschel telescope

Now, another important discovery attends the efforts of Galaxy Zoo’s intrepid volunteers: a number of “compact galaxies forming stars at an incredibly high rate” dubbed ’Green Pea’ Galaxies.

If you’d like to read the full text of this discovery see Galaxy Zoo Green Peas: Discovery of a Class of Compact Extremely Star-Forming Galaxies. If you’d prefer rather a more abbreviated abstract, here it is.

To view the images of a few of these very distant “green pea” galaxies, check out the galaxy zoo blog here.

Want to participate? Or just find out exactly how it works for the volunteer participant? It’s easy. Here’s how. And here’s a basic description of the science behind the project, along with a quick one-page description of what has been accomplished to date.

Published in: on July 28, 2009 at 4:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

Iraqi Marshlands Update

Drinking Water is at a Premium for Marsh Arabs (UNEP)

Drinking Water is at a Premium for Marsh Arabs (UNEP)

In our Earth day focus earlier this year, we looked at the effort to revivify the desiccated Iraqi marshlands where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers flow into the Persian Gulf.

Today, New Scientist offers an appraisal which declares the marshlands doomed, reporting that the Fertile Crescent ‘Will Disappear This Century’.

Published in: on July 28, 2009 at 2:58 pm  Leave a Comment  

Is Earth a Planet?

Pluto Compared With Earth

Pluto Compared With Earth

Three years ago, with less than 4 percent of the membership voting near the end of a long meeting in Prague, after many attendees had already departed, a plurality of the remaining International Astronomical Union’s membership voted to declare that Pluto should no longer be considered a planet, but instead a “dwarf planet” or a “plutoid.” This was, at best, a less-than-overwhelmingly-popular decision, and conspicuously ill-timed. (See this item at, for instance.)

This next week the IAU’s general assembly will meet again for the first time since that vote. Will the question of Pluto’s status be revisited? See Is Pluto a Planet After All? in New Scientist.

(For our earlier brief comment on this topic see our post of March 18th on the 79th anniversary of Pluto’s discovery by Kansas native astronomer Clyde Tombaugh.)

For more information, particularly on the first NASA interplanetary(?!) probe to visit Pluto, the New Horizons spacecraft, see the New Horizons website.

Trans-Neptunian Objects

Published in: on July 27, 2009 at 3:40 pm  Comments (3)  

On Books, #9

God forbid that any book should be banned. The practice is as indefensible as infanticide.

— Dame Rebecca West

Published in: on July 24, 2009 at 3:09 pm  Leave a Comment  

Discounting Calories

Antiquated and inaccurate methods for calculating the caloric content of foods leads to erroneous consumer decisions, according to a recent New Scientist article on ”The Calorie Delusion: Why Food Labels Are Wrong”. Specifically, “according to a small band of researchers, using the information on food labels to estimate calorie intake could be a very bad idea. They argue that calorie estimates on food labels are based on flawed and outdated science, and provide misleading information on how much energy your body will actually get from a food. Some food labels may over or underestimate this figure by as much as 25 per cent, enough to foil any diet . . .”

Caloric estimates worldwide are grounded upon 19th century testing methods which “calculated the energy content of various foods by burning small samples in controlled conditions and measuring the amount of energy released in the form of heat,” then subtracted waste products from estimated caloric content. But, of course, “nutritionists are well aware that our bodies don’t incinerate food, they digest it. And digestion — from chewing food to moving it through the gut and chemically breaking it down along the way – takes a different amount of energy for different foods. According to Geoffrey Livesay, an independent nutritionist based in Norfolk, UK, this can lower the number of calories your body extracts from a meal by anywhere between 5 and 25 per cent depending on the food eaten. ‘These energy costs are quite significant,’ he says, yet are not reflected on any food label.”

For many useful examples and illustrations of considerable relevance, see the article. But note also that in this and in a subsequent article, “The Burning Truth About Calories”, New Scientist observes that, despite their known inaccuracy, the UN Food and Agricultural Organization opposes revising the methods for calculating calories, and opposes relabeling foods. New Scientist and the majority of nutritionists seem to agree with the FAO, for reasons which I personally find unpersuasive at best. See what you think.

Published in: on July 24, 2009 at 2:36 pm  Leave a Comment  

Paws for Effect

Gingerbread, a female, is almost certainly right-pawed -- though she appears utterly unimpressed by the question.

Gingerbread, a female, is almost certainly right-pawed -- though she appears utterly unimpressed by the question.

Cats display “handedness,” too.

Published in: on July 24, 2009 at 12:43 pm  Leave a Comment