Archive for December, 2007

Flowers and the end of the year


Around 125 million years ago – December 29 on the Cosmic Calendar – the oldest flowering plant fossils currently dated were alive and blooming. Perhaps you can celebrate by giving a flowering plant to a loved one. This is not difficult, as only a few of the commonly-known plants are non-flowering.

Flowering plants include not only flowers themselves; they also include most trees, and even virtually microscopic plants.

Heck, you could even whip up a nice winter broth from nothing but flowering plants and water (seasoned with other flowering plants). Remember, we all depend on flowering plants for our survival (they constitute most of the photosynthetic base of the planetary food cycle).


I will be occupied for a few days now, and am unlikely to blog until several days into 2008. So here’s a summary of the major events in the Cosmic Calendar over the next few days.

I apologize for the lack of links to my source material. I’m a little ill, and not up to hunting them all down. New Year’s Resolution #1: Be more organized with the Cosmic Calendar announcements next year.

  • 30 December (tomorrow): A moment of silence at 10:00 might be an appropriate way to mark the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
  • 31 December, 10:30 pm (2.5 million years ago): Ancestors of humans appeared. This is the genus Homo, not Homo sapiens yet. Start working on your posture.
  • 31 December, 11:46 pm (420 thousand years ago): Domestication of fire. Light a thin candle (420 thousand years passes quickly in the Cosmic Calendar).
  • 31 December, 11:52 pm (250 thousand years ago): Birth of Homo sapiens. Find some other humans and welcome them to the planet.
  • 31 December, 11:59:40 pm (10 thousand years ago): Earliest farming. Phone a farmer and give thanks for the food you eat.
  • 31 December, 11:59:50 pm (4500 years ago): Pyramids built. That’s right, you have less than ten seconds to embarrass your friends with your “Walk like and Egyptian” tribute to these great symbols of superstition and slavery.
  • 31 December, 11:59:59 pm (500 years ago): Astronomer Nick Copernicus and others mark the dawn of science, a new stage on our path to understanding our real place in the universe, which will eventually culminate in the global adoption of the Cosmic Calendar as an annual cycle of reality-based festivities.
  • 31 December, 11:59:59.9998 pm: Last year’s New Year’s Eve, at which you were woefully unaware of the Cosmic Calendar. Spend the last 2 milliseconds of the year thanking your good fortune for finding it in time for this year’s festivities.
  • 1 January: The Big Bang! We get to start all over again, some 15 billion years ago.

See you all next year.


Cambrian Explosion


For those of you following the Cosmic Calendar, yesterday was the Cambrian Explosion!

Sometime around half a billion years ago, a great deal of diversity in animal body plans appeared in a relatively short period of time. This was a major event in the development of the rich and complex biosphere we now enjoy.

Yesterday is also an ideal start for a Cosmic Advent Calendar. After the Cambrian Explosion, there is some sort of significant evolutionary event at least every day (every 41 million years) until the present moment (midnight on December 31st). In my Google Calendar version, I have found examples for every day except December 25th and 27th. Perhaps you can help fill them in?

I would love to announce an event every day on this blog through the advent period, but I will be away for a week visiting family. So I’ll cover my lapse by inviting you to do this the freethinking way.

First, check out the Google Calendar. Feel free to check my accuracy – I’m no evolutionary biologist.

Second, think of two or three of your favorite animals. Think of (or research) a significant evolutionary event for each. Put that event on your own personal Cosmic Calendar.

Third, meditate on how life might have been like in the deep past. Today, the first vertebrates appear: fish. Can you imagine a world without fish? With only one species of fish? What did it look like? The land is still effectively barren – no plants, no animals (not even insects).

Finally, do something that is relevant to the day’s Cosmic event. My impulse is to make it food-related – eat fish and chips, or fish-shaped crackers.

Enjoy, and have an exciting Cosmic Countdown!

Humanist calendars


I’ve already written about the idea of humanist holidays. Well, I’ve been a a little active on that, in between being a dad and working on my PhD.

The latest products of my inspiration are two public Google Calendars.

The first is a Cosmic Calendar:

The second is a list of Humanist Holidays:

Many humanists are interested in holidays that they can celebrate without compromising their beliefs – Thanksgiving seems safe; some form of a winter festival can be more iffy, but I don’t see the problem (even the 25th of December has suitable humanist significance if you look). And there are other dates too with the potential to become new, secular days of celebration.

So tell me: What have I missed? What have I misplaced? What changes would you make? (Astrophysicists, can we fill in the early months of the Cosmic Calendar any more?)

I’ve made the calendars public not to persuade everyone to adopt my version of Humanist celebrations, but to invite everyone to comment, participate, modify.

So sign up for Google Calendars. Add one or both of these to your set of calendars (events for each one show up in a different colour). You can even import individual events into your personal calendar and modify them as you like.

Let me know what you think.

[Postscript: I notice others have taken parallel tracks in this pursuit. Pastafarians also have a Google Calendar resource to keep track of their seasonal observances (just search the public calendars for Flying Spaghetti Monster.)]

Celebrate today!


Thank goodness I check my favorite blogs with obsessive regularity – or else I might have missed the fact that today is Human Rights Day. It’s the 59th anniversary of the ratification of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations General Assembly.

Thanks to This Humanist for letting me know in time. As many of you have noticed, I am eager to discover and celebrate days of significance to the Humanist community. Now I have something to put on December 10th.

Mooning over creationists


I don’t usually like their way of deciding the answers, but creationists sometimes ask very thought-provoking questions.

I was checking the website of our very own Edinburgh Creation Group, and found a link to a site asking How did the Moon get into orbit? It’s a fun little simulation. Try it out.

I love games based on orbital motion.

Now, the fact is that the Moon did get into orbit. But it’s still worth asking why.

The simulation on the site is quite simple, and seems to involve some fairly straightforward orbital mechanics. And it seems to be impossible to get the moon into orbit unless it’s already in orbit.

So tell me, what is the answer? Wikipedia’s article on the Moon confirms that “Computer simulations modelling this impact are consistent with measurements of the angular momentum of the Earth–Moon system, as well as the small size of the lunar core.” So what (if anything) is wrong with the simulation the creationists point to?

I confess, I’d rather accept a scientist’s assertions over a creationist’s any day. But better than simply accepting, and what separates thoughtful from dogmatic Humanists (or thoughtful from dogmatic people in general), is to simply accept nothing – to actually ask for the proof, and think about it.

Academic sense of humour


In case any of you are wondering why I don’t include more humour in this blog, it’s because I’m a linguist.

That means I find things like this funny (thanks to the blog of Cath, a recent commenter). See also the comment thread in Cath’s blog post.

If you want more of this sort of thing, you’ll have to ask for it. Otherwise, I’ll keep my academic sense of humour safely bottled.