May 26 is Sally Ride Day

sally ride day

Ride monitors control panels from pilot’s chair on the flight deck.

Today is Sally Ride Day. It celebrates the achievements of the astronaut, astrophysicist, engineer, philanthropist and author best known as the first American woman to travel to space. Today’s date honors her birthday on May 26, 1951.

Women weren’t considered for America’s space program until 1978. Ride was selected from the first group to apply after NASA announced it had changed its policy. Her training included learning to parachute jump, fly a jet plane, survive a water landing and handle extreme G-forces and weightlessness.

She was picked as a member of the space shuttle Challenger’s STS-7 crew, scheduled for liftoff on June 18, 1983. Commander Robert Crippen chose her in part because the mission required the use of a robotic arm that Ride had helped to develop.

At pre-flight news conferences, she was asked if spaceflight would affect her reproductive organs, if she planned to have children, how she would handle menstruation in space, if she would wear a bra and apply makeup. Asked if she cried on the job when under stress, Ride laughed and said, “Why don’t people ask (pilot) Rick (Hauck) these questions?”

Diane Sawyer of CBS News asked Ride to demonstrate how she would utilize the shuttle toilet’s new privacy curtain. On The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson joked that the flight would be delayed while she found a purse to match her shoes. At one NASA news conference, Ride said, “It’s too bad this is such a big deal. It’s too bad our society isn’t further along.”

On launch day, she focused on the task ahead. In an interview on the 25th anniversary of the flight, Ride recalled, “I didn’t really think about it that much at the time, but I came to appreciate what an honor it was to be selected to be the first (American woman) to go into space.”

After its successful mission to deploy two communications satellites, Challenger landed at Edwards Air Force Base, CA, on June 24, 1983. At the time, Ride told reporters, “The thing that I’ll remember most about the flight is that it was fun. In fact, I’m sure it was the most fun I’ll ever have in my life.”

She returned to space on October 5, 1984. (Kathy Sullivan, a fellow member of the STS-41G crew, became the first American woman to walk in space.) Ride’s third flight was canceled after the Challenger exploded shortly after takeoff on January 28, 1986. She served on the Presidential Commission that investigated the accident and returned in 2003 after the loss of the STS-107 crew to serve on NASA’a Columbia Accident Investigation Board.

Ride left NASA in 1987 to become a science fellow at the Center for International Security and Arms Control at Stanford University. Two years later, she became a physics professor and director of the University of California’s California Space Institute.

In 2001, she founded Sally Ride Science, which provides programs, materials and teacher training to schools in order to motivate students—especially girls and minorities—to study STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). She wrote six science books for children. Intensely private about her personal life, she requested that NASA keep her health issues out of the press. She died of pancreatic cancer on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61.

“As the first American woman to travel into space, Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model,” President Barack Obama said in a statement released shortly after her death.  “She inspired generations of young girls to reach for the stars and later fought tirelessly to help them get there by advocating for a greater focus on science and math in our schools.”

Ride was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the U.S., which was presented to her life partner Tam O’Shaughnessy at a ceremony at the White House on November 20, 2013.

“Sally’s life showed us that there are no limits to what we can achieve,” said Obama, “and I have no doubt that her legacy will endure for years to come.”

American Woman Who Shattered Space Ceiling, New York Times
Sally Ride Remembered as an Inspiration to Others, NASA

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays

April 25 is DNA Day

DNA DayToday is DNA Day. On April 25, 1953, the journal Nature published three papers submitted by James Watson, Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin, Raymond Gosling, Maurice Wilkins, Alexander Stokes and Herbert Wilson about the structure of DNA.

Swiss biochemist Frederich Miescher observed DNA in 1869, but its importance didn’t emerge until 84 years later. Watson and Crick are the scientists most often associated with the discovery of DNA. They used data from X-ray diffraction research done by Rosalind Franklin to unravel the molecule and learn its essential role in creating life as we know it.

In 2003, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives declared April Human Genome Month and April 25th DNA Day. Serendipitously, on April 14, 2003, the Human Genome Project, a publicly funded program begun in 1990, announced it had achieved its goal of sequencing nearly all of the euchromatic genome.

But the U.S. proclamation covered a one-time-only celebration, not an annual holiday. Since 2003, the National Human Genome Research Institute (NHGRI) has organized DNA Day festivities every year. Countries including Lithuania and Nepal have designated April 25th as International DNA Day.

Happy DNA Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays


April 19 is Bicycle Day

Today is Bicycle Day, a holiday originated in 1985 by Northern Illinois University professor Thomas Roberts to commemorate the first LSD trip, taken on April 19, 1943.

bicycle day

Albert Hofmann

Chemist Albert Hofmann synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) on November 16, 1938, at the Sandoz laboratory in Basel, Switzerland, while experimenting with ergot fungus to find medicinal treatments for circulatory and respiratory depression.

When animal testing showed no effects other than restlessness, research was discontinued and the substance destroyed. Hofmann still believed it was an important discovery. Almost five years later, he decided to take another look. While synthesizing it, he began to experience strange sensations.

Later, Hofmann reported the incident to his supervisor:

Last Friday, April 16, 1943, I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.

Hofmann believed the LSD had caused the experience after he had accidentally absorbed a small amount through his fingers. To test his theory, he waited until the next working day, Monday, April 19, 1943, and purposely swallowed 250 micrograms, the amount he incorrectly estimated as the minimum dose required to have any effect. (It’s actually 20 micrograms.)

Here are his lab notes from April 19th:

4/19/43 16:20: 0.5 cc of Vi promil aqueous solution of diethylamide tartrate orally = 0.25 mg tartrate. Taken diluted with about 10 cc water. Tasteless.

17:00: Beginning dizziness, feeling of anxiety, visual distortions, symptoms of paralysis, desire to laugh.

At that point, Hofmann lost his ability to write. In his autobiography, LSD: My Problem Child, he described the struggle to speak intelligibly when asking his assistant to escort him home. Due to wartime restrictions on the use of motor vehicles, they had to make the journey on a bicycle. He wrote of the ride:

On the way home, my condition began to assume threatening forms. Everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror. I also had the sensation of being unable to move from the spot. Nevertheless, my assistant later told me that we had travelled very rapidly.

At home, Hofmann’s condition rapidly worsened as he experienced anxiety, feared he was going mad and became convinced the LSD had poisoned him. He had moments of clarity, telling his assistant to call a doctor and ask a neighbor for milk, which he believed might work as an antidote.

When his neighbor arrived, he barely recognized her, seeing instead a malevolent witch wearing a lurid mask. He drank two liters of the milk she brought. By the time the doctor showed up, Hofmann felt the worst had passed but was still unable to speak. His heart rate and blood pressure were normal. He had no physical symptoms other than extremely dilated pupils.

Reassured that he wasn’t dying, Hofmann’s fear gradually gave way to a sense of wellbeing.

Now, little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux.

After six hours of brutal highs and lows, the effects subsided. Hofmann awoke the next morning feeling physically tired but mentally refreshed and happy, experiencing heightened senses of taste and sight that lasted throughout the day.

His experiment showed that LSD could evoke profound psychoactive effects at very low doses. Sandoz named the new drug Delysid and began sending samples to psychiatric researchers.  Due to the intensity of focus and introspection it caused, Hofmann couldn’t imagine that anyone would use it recreationally. (Much to his chagrin, proponents like Timothy Leary proved him wrong about that.)

In 1953, The CIA began to investigate its possible use in mind control through its now notorious Project MKUltra. The program’s charter was to find drugs that could induce confessions or wipe an enemy’s mind clean so it could be reprogrammed.

LSD was administered to mental patients, prisoners, drug addicts and prostitutes. Other experiments involved employees, college students and military personnel, many of whom were provided with little to no information about the nature of the tests.

The CIA conducted 149 separate mind-control experiments; up to 25 of those used unwitting subjects. This violated the Nuremberg Code, enacted after World War II to punish Nazi doctors who experimented on concentration camp prisoners.

In 1973, the CIA shuttered MKUltra and ordered all records destroyed. First-hand testimony, court transcripts and the few surviving government documents show that at least one test subject died. (Frank Olson, an army scientist, committed suicide one week after his drink was mistakenly spiked with the drug.) Many others suffered psychological damage or insanity as a result of the project.

By the end of the 1970s, Sandoz discontinued manufacture of the drug that had once shown such promise. Hofmann’s ride was largely forgotten until Professor Roberts resurrected it in 1985 as “Bicycle Day.” Since 1985, it has been celebrated on April 19th, the anniversary of the first intentional LSD trip.

Have a safe and happy Bicycle Day!

P.S.: If you truly want to have your mind blown, scroll to Chapter 7, page 319 of Advisory Committee on Human Radiation Experiments: Final Report – October 1995 to read about “Non-therapeutic research on children,” which entailed feeding radioactive substances to disabled kids.

The craziest thing we encountered while researching this holiday was Human Drug Testing by the CIA, 1977: Hearing before U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Health and Scientific Research of the Committee on Human Resources. The entire text is fascinating but skip to page 183 to read Dr. Sidney Gottlieb try to evade Senator Ted Kennedy’s questions about Operation Midnight Climax, in which agents hired prostitutes to work in rooms they outfitted with full surveillance. They could then dose the johns and/or prostitutes and observe their behavior.

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays


March 23 is Near Miss Day

near miss day

Today is Near Miss Day. On March 23, 1989, an asteroid passed uncomfortably close to Earth.

Asteroids fly by Earth fairly often, with no deleterious effects. If NASA notified us of every space rock in our general vicinity, we’d spend all our time:

  • watching Discovery channel disaster porn about the killer rock that’s probably on its way right now to snuff us like the dinosaurs,
  • sharing dash cam footage of the 2013 meteor explosion over Russia, or
  • searching Armageddon for clues about how to survive.
    (Bruce Willis + Ben Affleck x Aerosmith = a fate worse than death)

The asteroid known as 4581 Asclepius passed us at a distance of 684,000 km (425,000 mi) and briefly occupied the exact spot where Earth had been only six hours earlier. It might have caused concern if anyone had noticed it at the time. Amateur astronomer Dr. Henry Holt discovered it a week later.

After the fact, NASA breathlessly reported a made-for-Hollywood doomsday scenario, stating that the asteroid was at least half a mile (over 800 meters) in diameter. But studies of its brightness, likely composition and other factors have created scientific consensus that 4581 Asclepius is most likely 300 meters in diameter.

Why is this important? An asteroid would have to be at least 1 kilometer in diameter to precipitate an extinction-level event. But a comparatively small asteroid, while not a planet killer, would still devastate a large area, whether it hit the ocean, cratered on land or exploded in the atmosphere.

The best spin we can put on it is this: If you’re reading this, nothing has happened yet. The scientists watching the skies can’t stop an asteroid strike, but they will be able to let us know we’re doomed so we can make our last moments count. (Hint: Delete Deep Impact from your Netlix queue.) Until then, have a happy Near Miss Day!

Copyright © 2017 Worldwide Weird Holidays