DECEMBER
2008

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

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12-23-08

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Many People Bugged by Events of 2008

Once upon a time, humans--animals with big brains and the ability to think--found it necessary to organize their lives into units. Astronomical cycles were good starting points. The rotation of the earth on its axis provided visible intervals of light and dark. Such a cycle became a unit called a day. The cycle of the moon was termed a month. The time it took the earth to rotate around the sun became a year.

The next step was to somehow tie those days, months and years together into what we know today as a calendar. This, as it turns out, is not an easy task because the astronomical cycles were not evenly divisible by each other. So throughout history, many calendars have been developed. By some estimates at least 40 different calendars are in use today. Most are in some way associated with religions.

The international standard for civil use is what is known as the Gregorian calendar. This calendar is named after Pope Gregory VIII who decreed its adoption in 1582. The Gregorian calendar is based on a cycle of 400 years or 146,097 days. Dividing those days by years shows that a year is made up of 365.2425 days. In other words, there is a little over one-fourth day per year unaccounted for in a calendar of 365 days. So to keep things somewhat in synchrony with the cycles of the earth, moon and sun, the creators of the Gregorian calendar stuck an extra day into February every fourth year. Those are called leap years.

But even with that correction, the Gregorian calendar is still leaving a few seconds unaccounted for each year. In 2500 years our calendar will have fallen behind by entire day. Most of us don't worry about losing a few milliseconds over a 12-month period. We do, however, seem to enjoy rejoicing over the completion of a year on our calendar. We call it a New Year's celebration. As part of this annual ritual we traditionally look back and reminisce about the past 365.2425 days.

Barak Obama was elected to become the 44th U.S. president and faces the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. The last president to face such a daunting task was Herbert Hoover. Hoover was a mining engineer and while a student at Stanford University he studied insects in an entomology course taught by Vernon Kellogg. So from this historical perspective, it appears that neither being an engineer nor having had an entomology course proved helpful to a U.S. president who was attempting to lead the country out of dire financial straits. Hopefully, Obama can get the bugs out of the financial system without being an entomologist!

Also in the 2008 presidential election, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin made headlines as the first woman vice-presidential candidate on the Republican ticket. During the campaign, Governor Palin was fond of mentioning that it was possible to see Russia from portions of Alaska and that the state was home to great herds of caribou. However, she failed to mention that Alaska is also known for massive swarms of mosquitoes and black flies, fearsome bloodsucking insects that can make outdoor life miserable for both humans and beasts during the short summer months in the 49th state.

The bail out of the Wall Street banking industry by main street taxpayers through our elected officials in Washington was a major event in 2008. One is tempted to equate the situation to that in Aesop's fable about a grasshopper and an ant. In this fable the grasshopper had failed to plan ahead while living the high life. So when things turned sour for the grasshopper, at the onset of winter he was forced to beg for a handout from the hardworking ant. The situations are similar, but the outcome is vastly different. In Aesop's fable, the grasshopper didn't have a golden parachute and didn't get bailed out by taxpayers!

Record gasoline prices during 2008 reminded all of us how important petroleum is for modern, industrialized societies. Petro-chemical energy is a non-renewable resource because it is derived from decomposed prehistoric living material, such as algae that flourished ages ago during a geologic period featuring dinosaurs and dragonflies with 2-foot wingspans. When it comes to petroleum, "They aren't making any more of it!"

The financial woes of the big three U.S. automakers also made headlines in 2008. The problems of the U.S. auto industry, coupled with the high price of gasoline, suggest that vehicles the size of the Volkswagen beetle might still be a good idea!

I don't know about you, but the events of 2008 kinda bugged me. Let's hope for a better year in 2009!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Olivia Maddox