Welcome to October of the Year...13,700,002,011?

As the monarchs of Maine (Maine-archs?) finish fueling up for their long migration, check out this 37-second close-up (filmed this week by Pamelia) of one slurping nectar from our wild asters. Look at how deft the butterfly is with its proboscis:

Crazy (And Not So Crazy) Numbers
Those of you who read the blog regularly may recall that, according to an old folk tradition, the first words you speak on the first day of any month should be, "Rabbits, rabbits, rabbits." That supposedly brings good luck. As an alternative to the lopping off of their feet, it's certainly luckier for the rabbits. In any case, on the first day of October, a sharp-minded, non-superstitious person might instead utter these words: "Why did someone use octo, a Latin word for eight, to name the 10th month of the year?

The answer, of course, is that October was the eighth month of a 10-month calendar in ancient Roman times, before Julius Caesar introduced the 12-month Julian calendar. That was a predecessor of today's Gregorian calendar, which came into use in the 1500s. Humans have created more calendars than octopi have tentacles. This week Rosh Hashana marked the start of the year 5772 on the Jewish calendar, and we're currently in the year 4709 on the Chinese calendar, the year 1432 on the Islamic calendar and 2011 on the Christian calendar. And that's just to name a few.

As someone who shares an October birthday with such strange birthfellows as Groucho Marx and Mahatma Gandhi, I suppose it makes sense that I'm always trying to reconcile vastly different concepts and quantities, characters and calendars. I'm drawn to the really large and the really small—numbers so gigantic and objects so microscopic that our minds can scarcely grasp them. For example, I've read estimates that there are more than 700 quadrillion grains of sand on the Earth. That's a 7 with 20 zeroes after it, an astoundingly huge number...until you discover that the number of atoms in the human body is estimated to be a million times greater than that.

A new book we're selling that puts scale in perspective.

A new book we're selling that puts scale in perspective.

Over the course of history astronomers helped Julius Caesar and others devise their calendars based on lunar and solar cycles, but today few people other than astronomers can fathom (or even are aware of) the scale of outer space. We now know that the observable universe (which is not necessarily the entire universe) is at least 93 billion light years across, an expanse that includes billions of galaxies, each of which contains billions of stars and planets. I've made comparisons like this before, but if you flew at the speed of a jet airliner 24 hours a day, you could reach the Moon in about three weeks, Jupiter in about 89 years, Pluto in about 7,000 years and Proxima Centauri, the closest star other than our Sun, in roughly 1.4 million years. (It's no faster on Amtrak.)

The universe is not only big, it's also much older than than the average person realizes—approximately 13.7 billion years old, scientists have determined. So let's try something that seems crazy but really isn't. Let's take our modern understanding of the universe and combine it with our old friend the calendar. How would we view the world and our lives if our calendar were based on the age of the universe?

Sure, we'd need a lot more space for writing the date on our checks. History books would have to be revised, and perhaps expanded to include the 13 billion, six hundred ninety-nine million, nine hundred ninety-five thousand years that are omitted from most such books—and even from our current definition of "history" (hence the reference to anything that predates the invention of human writing as "prehistoric").

But I, for one, would find it fascinating to see how people's perspectives might change if they accepted that today's date wasn't really Oct. 1, 2011, but more like Oct. 1 of the year 13,700,002,011. We humans might feel a bit less self-important, knowing that for 99.9999% of the history of the universe our species didn't even exist.

Just something to think about the next time you write a check, celebrate a birthday, say happy new year or stand outside on a clear night looking up at the stars.
***** Flashback
I couldn't talk about calendars and hard-to-imagine time spans without thinking of the bleak 1969 pop hit that combined science fiction, human evolution, religion and dire warnings about how technology might destroy mankind...all from a Lincoln, Nebraska, duo, Zager and Evans, that at one point was touted by Billboard magazine as the next Beatles. 

Notebook Hours
Yes, we are still open seven days a week, 10 to 5, and will be through at least Oct. 16. If you come this week you might get to meet artist Rocco Alberico, the creative genius behind the multi-media constructions in our Acadia and Observatory rooms. He'll have his 3-D camera with him.

Migrant birds have been passing through this part of coastal Maine. We've seen flocks of warblers—different types that have included the yellow-rumped variety and others we've struggled to identify (warblers aren't always easy). This looked to us like a young bird making his (or her) first migration. Any idea what type?

Another of the migrants that stopped by our house. This one looked like a yellow-rumped warbler...please correct me, ornithologists. And a reminder: Fill your feeders to help the birds make it safely through the hundreds or thousands of miles ahead of them.

Final 2011 Natural League Standings
Nine major league baseball teams have nicknames drawn from nature. We at the Notebook call those teams the Natural League. We track their records all season and keep the standings on our wall. This week the regular season ended and we crowned a new champ: the Detroit Tigers, who overtook the Arizona Diamondbacks in the final month. As you can see from the standings below, the Natural League had tight races at both the top and the bottom (sorry, Orioles):

1) Detroit Tigers 95-67
2) Arizona Diamondbacks 94-68
3) Tampa Bay Rays 91-71
4) St. Louis Cardinals 90-72
5) Toronto Blue Jays 81-81
6) Colorado Rockies 73-89
7) Florida Marlins 72-90
8) Chicago Cubs 71-91 (note: I did not put the smiley face there. I am not mocking the Cubs!)
9) Baltimore Orioles 69-93

The standings before the Tigers' final-month surge.

Kids continue to do chalk drawings in the Cave Room at the Notebook—a case of art imitating life. There was news this week that archaeologists have found evidence of 13,000-year-old cave paintings of mammoths, horses and other animals done in France by children estimated to be between 3 and 7 years old. The telltale evidence is the size of the fingers used to create the art, some of which was described as cartoon-like.

Strings in Space
We were invited to a friend’s home in Seal Harbor last week to hear a visiting Chinese musician perform on this ancient seven-stringed instrument, the guqin (pronounced goo-CHIN). Revered in historical Chinese culture but ignored by most of the younger generation, the guqin produces soft, resonant tones, usually played slowly so that the listener can contemplate and savor each note. At this moment, guqin music is flying through deep space (along with other recorded music and sounds chosen to represent the range of Earth’s life and culture for any aliens who might hear them) on gold-plated audio-visual disks aboard the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecraft. The Voyager 1, launched in 1977, has traveled farther from Earth than any other probe. It is now about 11 billion miles away and nearing the edge of our solar system.

The guqin on which our Chinese friend performed.

Our friend Dave, who works on archaeological digs, came over at 5 a.m. one day this week to walk out into the super-low tide and view what we believe is a Native American relic. It is a square stone construction that emerges in extreme low tides, as it did this week. We know that Native Americans inhabited this area for thousands of years, at least in the summertime (catching and preserving fish, clams, mussels and other seafood), but we're not sure how this stone setup was used. Sea levels were much lower during the most recent Ice Age, so this part of the bay floor may have been dry land at the time when the Native Americans built the stone structure.

Another shot of the stone configuration.

The roads have been filled of late with caterpillars, snakes, frogs and other creatures trying to cross to the other side. Alas, this geometrically elegant garter snake, only a few inches long, didn't make it.

Answer to the Last Puzzler
It is TRUE that on the planet Venus a day lasts longer than a year. Venus completes one revolution of the Sun (i.e., one Venus year) every 225 Earth days and completes one spin around its axis (i.e., one Venus day) every 243 Earth days. Talk about discombobulating: On Venus a week lasts seven-and-a-half years and the Sun rises in the west, not the east. The only other planet in our solar system of which the latter is true is Uranus.

Today's Puzzler
How long is a day on Uranus? That is, how long does it take that gigantic planet (four times the diameter of Earth) to spin once around its axis?

a)17.9 Earth hours
b) 17.9 Earth days
c) 17.9 Earth years