A Humanist Advent Calendar

Posted on 23rd November 2018 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment,science holidays
Boys with Advent Calendars

Boys with Advent Calendars

My mother took my siblings and I through a Christmas Advent calendar one year. A new-ager raised Christian, she held a positive view of the Bible. I can’t recall any of the biblical stories from those sessions preceding the chocolates each night, but I do have a fond nostalgic memories of the familial fellowship.

So last year, I thought I would try my own advent countdown to the holidays in the spirit of tradition. Except, we would focus on appreciating the empirical world around us as it informs our Humanist worldview. After all, Christmas coincides with a northern-hemisphere earthfull of other celebrations right around this exact same time.

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Science Yearbook 2011

Posted on 31st December 2011 by Ryan Somma in science holidays

I used to provide a daily list of links on this blog of science stories I found interesting. I gave that up and took down the link-posts to focus on my personal writing, but I still share links through social media. Here’s my favorite science stories of 2011.


So Long Space Shuttle
So Long Space Shuttle
Credit: Trey Ratcliff

NASA finalized the retirement of the Space Shuttle program with the announcement of their final resting places, with Washington DC, Los Angeles and Orlando getting real shuttles for their museums and New York getting the wooden training vessel (Nyah! Nyah! Nyah!). NASA also unveiled the Space Launch System (SLS) next generation of manned space explorations vehicles that will (hopefully) be taking us to Mars. Along the same goal, the Mars500 completed its 17 month simulated mission, complete with isolation and delayed communications as a partial proof of concept that humans can survive the trip to the red planet.

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Powers of Eleven Day

Posted on 11th November 2011 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment,science holidays
Pascal's Triangle, Odd Numbers Highlighted
Pascal’s Triangle, Odd Numbers Highlighted

One of the great joys of being human is our incredible powers of pattern recognition. Our brain’s ability to manifest meaningful associations out of the complex morass of sensory stimuli perpetually assaulting us is a cognitive expertise into which computers are only just starting to venture successfully. It’s what allows us to recognize faces, raed wrdos wtih smrelcabd ltretes, identify with our fellow humans, and compartmentalize the sounds, tastes, and sights around us.

The number 11 has always been my favorite whole number. Ever since I was a kid, I appreciated the way the first nine multiples of 11 are numbers that mirror the tens and ones places (in a base-10 numbers system): {11, 22, 33, 44 … 77, 88, 99}.

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Celebrating the UN’s “International Day of Peace” with Dr. Jane Goodall

Posted on 19th September 2011 by Ryan Somma in science holidays
Jane Goodall
Jane Goodall

Vicky and I had the great honor of seeing Jane Goodall at American University in Washington DC this last weekend. The event was a sort of town hall meeting held outdoors in the cool fall air titled Conversation on Peace just a few days before the United Nations’ International Day of Peace.

Dr. Goodall opened the conversation with a small Dove Parade and her signature greeting in “chimpanzee.” She then explained how a “sense of urgency” keeps her going, motivated by the need to preserve our vanishing natural resources. The 77-year-old humanitarian, who founded the Jane Goodall Institute in 1977 and was appointed by the seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan as one of the institutions venerable Messengers of Peace, has spent a lifetime dedicated to conservation, not just to preserve wildlife, but also to improve the quality of life for human beings all across the globe.

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Yuri’s Night Space Party and the 50th Anniversary of Manned Space Flight

Posted on 11th April 2011 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment,science holidays

Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship I marveled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty — not destroy it!” ~ Yuri Gagarin

Yuri's Night 2011
Yuri’s Night 2011

50 years ago, on April 12th, 1961 cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin piloted the Vostok 1 into space, entering the history books as the first human to achieve space flight. It follows the 50th anniversary of the first artificial satellite in orbit, Sputnik, the first living passenger to make it into space, Laika, and America throwing our hat into the space race. It will be eight long years until we can celebrate the next big semicentennial event, the Apollo Moon landing.

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Happy Super-Duper-Mega-Maxi-Utra-Omni-Uber Awesome Powers of Ten Day!!!

Posted on 10th October 2010 by Ryan Somma in Ionian Enchantment,science holidays

Happy Super-Duper-Mega-Maxi-Utra-Omni-Uber Awesome Powers of Ten Day!!!

Ten Ten Ten

10/10/10 is not only an entire power of ten more awesome than the other 99 years’ worth of 10/10 days in this century, 101010 is also the meaning of life in binary! Take a moment of silent reflection at 1010 AM, for yet even two more powers of awesomeness (within your timezone)!

The History of Exploring Powers of 10

Begin with the 1957 book Cosmic View, The Universe in 40 Jumps by Dutch educator Kees Boeke, which used illustrations and text to zoom out from a girl holding a cat, inexplicably sitting next to a blue whale. The linked website has all the illustrations and text for exploration.

Cosmic View
Cosmic View

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2009 Year in Science

Posted on 2nd January 2010 by Ryan Somma in science holidays
ideonexus 2009 Science Links Tag Cloud

ideonexus 2009 Science Links Tag Cloud

The National Ignition Facility went online, focusing the power of numerous high-powered lasers on a single point to produce the environment inside a star… but then we didn’t hear anything else about it. Space Shuttle Discovery took a bat to space clinging to the external fuel tank. Scarlet Knight became the first robot to traverse the Atlantic ocean autonomously. A 7.3 billion-year-long race between photons ended with a photo-finish. Everquest 2’s 60 terabytes of log files provided a wealth of data to behaviorists. An octopus in a California disassembled a valve at the top of her tank to flood the aquarium with 200 gallons of seawater. Mysteries solved this year include the 1908 Tunguska explosion being caused by a comet and DNA evidence proving the death of the Czar’s daughter Anastasia. The LHC smashed the world power record and had its first particle collisions. Best of all, They Might Be Giants released their awesome album Here Comes Science.

Steven Colbert Rocks

NASA's COLBERT, Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill

Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill

Credit: NASA

It was a great year for science-supporter and genius satirists Steven Colbert. After a write-in campaign caused his name to win naming-rights to a new room on the ISS, NASA responded by asserting their right to name the module themselves and considered naming the toilet after Colbert, but eventually deciding to name the treadmill “Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill” (C.O.L.B.E.R.T.). The satirist also got a diving beetle, Agaporomorphus colberti, named after him.

The Flu Pandemic

H1N1 Glass Sculpture

H1N1 Glass Sculpture

Credit: Luke Jerram

The H1N1 virus (aka. Hamthrax) turned the whole world into a laboratory and revived interest in Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. A vaccine was out less than a month after strains were provided to clinics. It became a full-scale pandemic in June, has claimed 11,500 lives as of December 25th, and the strain will define future flu bugs for years to come.

Diet, Exercise, and Intelligence

2009 added to the already strong body of evidence linking diet and exercise to cognitive function. With research on rats appearing to show that active rats grow neurons capable of handling stress, a study finding that it’s exercise, not fitness, that improves body self-image, fatty foods affecting exercise performance and them triggering long-term memory formation. A nutrition program in China boosted student performance and students who ate fish twice a week achieved higher intelligence scores. Exercise is linked to better cognitive function in older women, improving kids’ academics, and aerobic activity keeping the brain young.

President Obama

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama

Without a doubt, the most positive development in science for the year has been the election of President Barack Obama. After a stellar first week, it seems as though the American Government is treasuring science more than it has in years. With the Solar Decathlon on the Washington Mall, a Middle East Science Envoy, establishment of National Lab Day and Computer Science Week, and most recently the Educate to Innovate STEM initiative, there’s good news on the science front in politics every month. One of my favorites has been the appointment of America’s CIO Vivek Kundra, who is ushering in a new era of government transparency with data.gov and the Policy Forum on Public Access to Federally Funded Research. The stimulus bill included a great deal of funding for scientific research and education which may be tracked at recovery.gov and the science-specific spending at Science Works for US, and although the money funding science won’t be spent quickly, it will have the effect of strengthening America’s position as an innovator years down the road.

The Future

We know that having fat friends increases our chances of being fat too, suggesting a social-pressure factor in obesity. So maybe it isn’t such a surprise that emerging research indicates that mental illnesses spread through social networking sites and that open-source communities foster groupthink.

While newspapers struggle to find a way to survive in the digital age, are universities next to die as people are able to self-educate online? A rift in an Ethiopian desert will eventually become a new ocean. Children born today have good chances of living to see the year 2100, when they may get to see the fantastic glory of full-grown hybrid Chestnut trees being reintroduced to America today.

American Chesnut

American Chestnut

My Favorite Articles from 2009:

  • The alien plant life on Socotra Island
  • EO Wilson recounts the antics of dabbing a live ant with the scent of death.
  • Darwin accidentally eats the rare bird specimen he was searching for.
  • A photographer’s fascinating interactions with a leopard seal trying to feed him penguins.
  • Primo Levi’s Carbon from the Periodic Table.
  • Roger Ebert opens a can of intellectual whoop-ass on Ben Stein and eventually closes the comments after the debate rages into the tens of thousands of posts.
  • Paul Krugman deconstructs how economists got it all wrong with their faith in the idea of a rational economic system.
  • The poetry of being buried in a shallow grave so your body can spawn swarms of insects and other life.
  • Despite passing the tests, NASA wouldn’t let women be astronauts in early space exploration.
  • Public intellectuals discuss the Age of the Informavore.
  • With football players showing concussion damage, Malcom Gladwell wonders if professional football is that much different from dog fighting.
  • The space arms race from the Soviet Union’s perspective.
  • The Telltale Wombs Of Lewiston, Maine
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    The Death of David Hume

    Posted on 25th August 2009 by Ryan Somma in science holidays

    I did not mind not existing before I was born, why should I mind not existing after I die? – David Hume

    David Hume
    David Hume (1711 – 1776)
    Credit: Scottish National Portrait Gallery

    On this day, 233 years ago, the philosopher David Hume, author of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, which rejected intelligent design in nature, died in what was a milestone for atheism. The religious population watched Hume’s last days closely, incapable of believing that an individual could die rejecting the idea of god and fully expecting him to recant in his final days. Instead of recanting, David Hume played cards up until his last moment of life (Schmidt, 2006).


    Schmidt, James (2006). Making Man in Reason’s Image: The Enlightenment and the Birth of Modern Humanity, Recorded Books, LLC.

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    ALD09post Ada Lovelace Day: Esther Dyson

    Posted on 24th March 2009 by Ryan Somma in science holidays

    Happy Ada Lovelace Day! In celebration of Ada Lovelace, only child to Lord Byron and author of the world’s first computer program in 1843 for Charles Babbage’s Analytical Engine, bloggers everywhere are running posts about one of their favorite women in tech.

    So this year I’d like to introduce everyone to Esther Dyson:

    Esther Dyson

    Esther Dyson
    Credit: Esther

    Dyson attended Harvard at the age of 16, was reporting for Forbes at 25, and was analyzing technology stocks for Wall Street by the age of 30. She co-established the publication Release 1.0, which continues today as Release 2.0 and sells for $130 a single issue. She has backed some of the best start-ups online, including Flickr, del.icio.us, and many others.

    She was chairwoman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation and boardmember of the Long Now Foundation, blogger for the Huffington Post, and columnist for the New York Times. At the time of my writing this, Esther Dyson is living just outside of Moscow, training to be a cosmonaut.

    While TV talking heads ramble on their mostly-wrong predictions, Esther Dyson is a futurist who has put her money where her mouth is. Her article for Wired Intellectual Value, where she talks about companies needing to post content online for free and have to rely on other methods to make money off it, is so much common sense today, but she made the prediction in 1995. Esther Dyson may not be a name the average person will recognize, and that’s because instead of focusing on being famous like so many modern pundits, she has focused on being right.

    Esther Dyson Patch

    Esther Dyson Patch
    Always Make New Mistakes
    Credit: Gisela Giardino

  • Other Ada Lovelace Day Posts and events.
  • More Women in Computer Science
  • This incredible propensity for Esther Dyson’s over-achievement appears to run in the family, as her father is physicist Freeman Dyson, mother is mathematician Verena Huber-Dyson, and brother is digital technology historian George Dyson.
  • Happy Birthday Isaac Asimov, Supporter of English Spelling Reform

    Posted on 2nd January 2009 by Ryan Somma in Enlightenment Warrior,science holidays

    The Science Fiction author, author of over 500 SF and general science books, Vice President of Mensa, and President of the American Humanist Society would be 88 today.

    Isaac Asimovr

    Isaac Asimov
    Credit: Rowena Morrill

    An interesting fact about Asimov and other great minds like Richard Feynman, was that they were supporters of reforming the spelling of English words. Asimov argued that the inconsistent and non-phonetic way we spell words in English contributes to illiteracy in American children.

    Why don’t “comb,” “tomb,” and “bomb” rhyme/rime? Why do “they,” “say,” and “weigh” rhyme/rime? Our children don’t have difficulty learning to read and write because they are lacking in intelligence or proper study-habits, they have difficulty because they are learning a spelling system maintained by idiots.

    Here’s a fantastic video illustrating the preposterousness of English spelling (ht oranchak).

    The Spelling Society works to raise awareness of the problems caused by the irregularity of English spelling and improve literacy through spelling reform.