FYI February 25, 2017






On this day:

1866 – Miners in Calaveras County, California, discover what is now called the Calaveras Skull – human remains that supposedly indicated that man, mastodons, and elephants had co-existed.
The Calaveras Skull was a human skull found by miners in Calaveras County, California, which was purported to prove that humans, mastodons, and elephants had coexisted in California. It was later revealed to be a hoax. Coincidentally, “calaveras” is the Spanish word for “skulls”.

On February 25, 1866, miners claimed to have found a human skull in a mine, beneath a layer of lava, 130 feet (40 m) below the surface of the earth, which made it into the hands of Josiah Whitney, then the State Geologist of California as well as a Professor of Geology at Harvard University. A year before the skull came to his attention, Whitney published the belief that humans, mastodons, and elephants coexisted;[1] the skull served as proof of his convictions. After careful study, he officially announced its discovery at a meeting of the California Academy of Sciences on July 16, 1866, declaring it evidence of the existence of Pliocene age man in North America, which would make it the oldest known record of humans on the continent.[2]

Its authenticity was immediately challenged. In 1869 a San Francisco newspaper reported that a miner had told a minister that the skull was planted as a practical joke.[3] Thomas Wilson of Harvard ran a fluorine analysis on it in 1879 (the first ever usage of such on human bone), with the results indicating it was of recent origin.[4] It was so widely believed to be a hoax that Bret Harte famously wrote a satirical poem called “To the Pliocene Skull” in 1899.[5]

Whitney did not waver in his belief that it was genuine. His successor at Harvard, F. W. Putnam, also believed it to be real. By 1901 Putnam was determined to discover the truth and he headed to California. While there, he heard a story that in 1865 one of a number of Indian skulls had been dug up from a nearby burial site and planted in the mine specifically for miners to find. Putnam still declined to declare the skull a fake, instead conceding, “It may be impossible ever to determine to the satisfaction of the archaeologist the place where the skull was actually found.”[2] Others, such as adherents of Theosophy, also were unwavering in their belief in the authenticity of the skull.[3]

To further complicate the issue, careful comparison of the skull with descriptions of it at the time of its discovery revealed that the skull Whitney had in his possession was not the one originally found.[2]

Anthropologist William Henry Holmes of the Smithsonian Institution investigated around the turn of the century. He determined that the plant and animal fossils that had been discovered near the skull were indeed genuine, but the skull was too modern, and concluded that “to suppose that man could have remained unchanged… for a million years, roughly speaking… is to suppose a miracle.”[3] Likewise, J. M. Boutwell, investigating in 1911, was told by one of the participants in the discovery that the whole thing was indeed a hoax.[6] The miners of the Sierra Nevada apparently did not greatly like Whitney (“being an Easterner of very reserved demeanor”) and were “delighted” to have played such a joke on him.[2] Furthermore, John C. Scribner, a local shopkeeper, claimed to have planted it, and the story was revealed by his sister after his death.[7] Radiocarbon dating in 1992 established the age of the skull at about 1,000 years, placing it in the late Holocene age.[8]

Despite evidence to the contrary, the Calaveras Skull continues to be cited by creationists as proof that paleontologists ignore evidence that does not fit their theories,[9][10] although others have acknowledged that the Calaveras Skull is a hoax.[11]



1870 – Hiram Rhodes Revels, a Republican from Mississippi, is sworn into the United States Senate, becoming the first African American ever to sit in the U.S. Congress.
Hiram Rhodes Revels (September 27, 1827[note 1] – January 16, 1901) was a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), a Republican politician, and college administrator. Born free in North Carolina, he later lived and worked in Ohio, where he voted before the Civil War. He became the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress when he was elected to the United States Senate to represent Mississippi in 1870 and 1871 during the Reconstruction era.

During the American Civil War, Revels had helped organize two regiments of the United States Colored Troops and served as a chaplain. After serving in the Senate, Revels was appointed as the first president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University), 1871–1873 and 1876 to 1882. Later he served again as a minister.

Revels was born free in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to free people of color, parents of African and European ancestry. He was tutored by a black woman for his early education. In 1838 he went to live with his older brother, Elias B. Revels, in Lincolnton, North Carolina, and was apprenticed as a barber in his brother’s shop. After Elias Revels died in 1841, his widow Mary transferred the shop to Hiram before she remarried.[citation needed] Revels attended the Union County Quaker Seminary in Indiana, and Darke County Seminary in Ohio.[1] He was a second cousin to Lewis Sheridan Leary, one of the men who was killed taking part in John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry and to North Carolina lawyer and politician John S. Leary.[2]

In 1845 Revels was ordained as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME); he served as a preacher and religious teacher throughout the Midwest: in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri, and Kansas.[1] “At times, I met with a great deal of opposition,” he later recalled. “I was imprisoned in Missouri in 1854 for preaching the gospel to Negroes, though I was never subjected to violence.”[3] During these years, he voted in Ohio.

He studied religion from 1855 to 1857 at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He became a minister in a Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland, where he also served as a principal for a black high school.[4]

As a chaplain in the United States Army, Revels helped recruit and organize two black Union regiments during the Civil War in Maryland and Missouri. He took part at the battle of Vicksburg in Mississippi.[5]

In 1865, Revels left the AME Church and joined the Methodist Episcopal Church. He was assigned briefly to churches in Leavenworth, Kansas, and New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1866, he was called as a permanent pastor at a church in Natchez, Mississippi, where he settled with his wife and five daughters. He became an elder in the Mississippi District of the Methodist Church,[4] continued his ministerial work, and founded schools for black children.

During Reconstruction, Revels was elected alderman in Natchez in 1868. In 1869 he was elected to represent Adams County in the Mississippi State Senate. As the Congressman John R. Lynch later wrote of him in his book on Reconstruction:

Revels was comparatively a new man in the community. He had recently been stationed at Natchez as pastor in charge of the A.M.E. Church, and so far as known he had never voted, had never attended a political meeting, and of course, had never made a political speech. But he was a colored man, and presumed to be a Republican, and believed to be a man of ability and considerably above the average in point of intelligence; just the man, it was thought, the Rev. Noah Buchanan would be willing to vote for.[6]

In January 1870, Revels presented the opening prayer in the state legislature. Lynch wrote,

“That prayer—one of the most impressive and eloquent prayers that had ever been delivered in the [Mississippi] Senate Chamber—made Revels a United States Senator. He made a profound impression upon all who heard him. It impressed those who heard it that Revels was not only a man of great natural ability but that he was also a man of superior attainments.”[6]

At the time, as in most states, the state legislature elected U.S. senators from the state. In 1870 Revels was elected by a vote of 81 to 15 in the Mississippi State Senate to finish the term of one of the state’s two seats in the US Senate, which had been left vacant since the Civil War. Previously, it had been held by Albert G. Brown, who withdrew from the US Senate in 1861 when Mississippi seceded.[7]

When Revels arrived in Washington, D.C., southern Democrats opposed seating him in the Senate. For the two days of debate, the Senate galleries were packed with spectators at this historic event.[8] The Democrats based their opposition on the 1857 Dred Scott Decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that people of African ancestry were not and could not be citizens. They argued that no black man was a citizen before the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, and thus Revels could not satisfy the requirement of the Senate for nine years’ prior citizenship.[9]

Supporters of Revels made a number of arguments, from the relatively narrow and technical to fundamental arguments about the meaning of the Civil War. Among the narrower arguments was that Revels was of primarily European ancestry (an “octoroon”) and that the Dred Scott Decision ought to be read to apply only to those blacks who were of totally African ancestry. Supporters argued that Revels had long been a citizen (and had voted in Ohio) and that he had met the nine-year requirement before the Dred Scott decision changed the rules and held that blacks could not be citizens.[10]

The more fundamental arguments by Revels supporters boiled down to this idea: that the Civil War, and the Reconstruction Amendments, had overturned Dred Scott. The meaning of the war, and also of the Amendments, was that the subordination of the black race was no longer part of the American constitutional regime, and that therefore, it would be unconstitutional to bar Revels on the basis of the pre-Civil War Constitution’s racist citizenship rules.[10] One Republican Senator supporting Revels mocked opponents as still fighting the “last battle-field” of that War.[10]

Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner said, “The time has passed for argument. Nothing more need be said. For a long time it has been clear that colored persons must be senators.”[9] On February 25, 1870, Revels, on a party-line vote of 48 to 8, with only Republicans voting in favor and only Democrats voting against, became the first African American to be seated in the United States Senate.[9] Everyone in the galleries stood to see him sworn in.[8]

Sumner’s Massachusetts colleague, Henry Wilson, defended Revels’s election,[11] and presented as evidence of its validity signatures from the clerks of the Mississippi House of Representatives and Mississippi State Senate, as well as that of Adelbert Ames, the military Governor of Mississippi.[12] Wilson argued that Revels’s skin color was not a bar to Senate service, and connected the role of the Senate to Christianity’s Golden Rule of doing to others as one would have done to oneself.[12]




Born on this day:

1670 – Maria Margarethe Kirch, German astronomer and mathematician (d. 1720)
Maria Margarethe Kirch (née Winckelmann; 25 February 1670 – 29 December 1720) was a German astronomer, and one of the first famous astronomers of her period due to her writings on the conjunction of the sun with Saturn, Venus, and Jupiter in 1709 and 1712 respectively.[1]

Maria was educated from an early age by her father, a Lutheran minister, who believed that she deserved an education equivalent to that given to young boys of the time. After her father’s death, her education was continued by her uncle. As Maria, had an interest in astronomy from an early age, she took the opportunity of studying with Christoph Arnold, a self-taught astronomer who worked as a farmer in Sommerfeld, near Leipzig. She became Arnold’s unofficial apprentice and later his assistant, living with him and his family.[2]

Through Arnold, Maria met astronomer and mathematician Gottfried Kirch, one of the most famous German astronomers of the time. Despite Kirch being 30 years her senior, they married in 1692, later having four children, all of whom followed in their parents’ footsteps by studying astronomy.[3]

Gottfried Kirch gave Maria further instruction in astronomy, as he had his sister and many other students. While at the time women were not allowed to attend universities, much work was conducted outside universities and Gottfried himself had never attended a university.

Maria and Gottfried worked together as a team, though Maria was mainly seen as Gottfried’s assistant rather than equal. Together they made observations and performed calculations to produce calendars and ephemerides. From 1697, the couple also began recording weather information.

The data collected by the Kirches was used to produce calendars and almanacs and was also very useful in navigation. The Royal Academy of Sciences in Berlin handled sales of their calendars, which included information on the phases of the moon, the setting of the sun, eclipses, and the position of the sun and other planets.[2]

On 21 April 1702, while making her regular nighttime observations, Maria discovered a previously unknown comet, the so-called “Comet of 1702” (C/1702 H1), becoming the first woman to make such a discovery (actually two observers in Rome had found this comet about two hours before her).

In the words of her husband:
“     Early in the morning the sky was clear and starry. Some nights before I had observed a variable star, and my wife wanted to find and see it for herself. In so doing she found a comet in the sky. At which time she woke me and I found that it was indeed a comet… was surprised that I had not seen it the night before.     ”

However, the comet was not named after her as was the case with most newly discovered comets, Gottfried instead taking credit for its discovery, something he may have done from fear of possible ridicule if the truth were widely known. It is likely, though, that Maria could not have made a claim in her own name because she published solely in German while the preferred language in the German scientific circles of the time was Latin, a fact which prevented her publishing her works in Germany’s only scientific journal of the period, Acta Eruditorum. Gottfried later admitted the truth regarding the discovery in 1710 but the comet was never named after her.

Maria continued to pursue important work in astronomy, publishing in German under her own name, and with the proper recognition. Her publications, which included her observations on the Aurora Borealis (1707), the pamphlet Von der Conjunction der Sonne des Saturni und der Venus on the conjunction of the sun with Saturn and Venus (1709), and the approaching conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in 1712 became her lasting contributions to astronomy. The latter contained both astrological and astronomical observations and some have claimed that it leaned towards the former.[3] However, Alphonse des Vignoles, president of the Berlin Academy, said in her eulogy: “Madame Kirch prepared horoscopes at the request of her friends, but always against her will and in order not to be unkind to her patrons.”[2]
As widow

After Gottfried died in Berlin on 25 July 1710, Maria attempted to assume her husband’s place as astronomer and calendar maker at the Royal Academy of Sciences, saying that she had been carrying out most of this work during the illness from which he died, as at that time it was not unusual for widows to take over their husband’s business. However, the Royal Academy’s council refused to let her do this and in fact did not even consider the possibility before she petitioned them, as they were reluctant to set a precedent.

The only person who supported Maria was the then president of the Academy, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who had long encouraged her and had arranged for her to be presented to the royal court of Prussia in 1709 where she made a good impression as she discussed sunspots. Even Leibniz’s support was insufficient to change the Academy’s mind even though Maria had been left without any income.

Maria was of the opinion that her petitions were denied due to her gender. This is somewhat supported by the fact that Johann Heinrich Hoffmann, who had little experience, was appointed to her husband’s place instead of her. Hoffmann soon fell behind with his work and failed to make required observations and it was even suggested that Maria become his assistant.[2] Maria wrote: Now I go through a severe desert, and because… water is scarce… the taste is bitter. However, she was admitted by the Berlin Academy of Sciences.[2]

In 1711, she published Die Vorbereitung zug grossen Opposition, a well-received pamphlet in which she predicted a new comet, followed by a pamphlet concerning Jupiter and Saturn which was again a blend of astronomical calculations and astrological material.

In 1712, Maria accepted the patronage of a family friend, Bernhard Friedrich Baron von Krosigk, who was an enthusiastic amateur astronomer, and began work in his observatory. She trained her son and daughters to act as her assistants and continued the family’s astronomical work, continuing the production of calendars and almanacs as well as making observations.

After Baron von Krosigk died in 1714 Maria moved to Danzig to assist a professor of mathematics for a short time before returning. In 1716, she received an offer to work for Russian czar, Peter the Great, but preferred to remain in Berlin where she continued to calculate calendars for locales such as Nuremberg, Dresden, Breslau, and Hungary.

Also in 1716, Maria’s son Christfried became the director of Berlin Observatory of the Royal Academy of Sciences following Hoffmann’s death and Maria and her daughter, Christine, became his assistants. Academy members complained that she took too prominent a role during visits to the observatory and demanded that she behave like an assistant and stay in the background. Maria refused to do this and was forced to retire, being obliged to relinquish her home, which was sited on the observatory’s grounds.

Maria continued working in private but conditions eventually forced her to abandon all astronomical work and she died in Berlin on 29 December 1720. Her three daughters continued much of her work after her death, assisting their brother in his position as master astronomer.


1869 – Phoebus Levene, Russian-American biochemist and physician (d. 1940)
Phoebus Aaron Theodore Levene, M.D. (25 February 1863 – 6 September 1940) was an American biochemist who studied the structure and function of nucleic acids. He characterized the different forms of nucleic acid, DNA from RNA, and found that DNA contained adenine, guanine, thymine, cytosine, deoxyribose, and a phosphate group.[citation needed]

He was born into a Litvak (Lithuanian Jewish) family as Fishel Rostropovich Levin in the town of Žagarė in Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire, but grew up in St. Petersburg. There he studied medicine at the Imperial Military Medical Academy (M.D., 1891) and developed an interest in biochemistry. In 1893, because of anti-Semitic pogroms, he and his family emigrated to the United States and he practiced medicine in New York City.

Levene enrolled at Columbia University and in his spare time conducted biochemical research, publishing papers on the chemical structure of sugars. In 1896 he was appointed as an Associate in the Pathological Institute of the New York State Hospitals, but he had to take time off to recuperate from tuberculosis. During this period, he worked with several chemists, including Albrecht Kossel and Emil Fischer, who were the experts in proteins.

In 1905, Levene was appointed as head of the biochemical laboratory at the Rockefeller Institute of Medical Research. He spent the rest of his career at this institute, and it was there that he identified the components of DNA. (He had discovered ribose in 1909[citation needed] and deoxyribose in 1929[citation needed].) Not only did Levene identify the components of DNA, he also showed that the components were linked together in the order phosphate-sugar-base to form units. He called each of these units a nucleotide, and stated that the DNA molecule consisted of a string of nucleotide units linked together through the phosphate groups, which are the ‘backbone’ of the molecule. His ideas about the structure of DNA were wrong; he thought there were only four nucleotides per molecule. He even declared that it could not store the genetic code because it was chemically far too simple. However, his work was a key basis for the later work that determined the structure of DNA. Levene published over 700 original papers and articles on biochemical structures. Levene died in 1940, before the true significance of DNA became clear.

Levene is known for his “tetranucleotide hypothesis” (formulated around 1910) which first proposed that DNA was made up of equal amounts of adenine, guanine, cytosine, and thymine. Before the later work of Erwin Chargaff, it was widely thought that DNA was organized into repeating “tetranucleotides” in a way that could not carry genetic information. Instead, the protein component of chromosomes was thought to be the basis of heredity; most research on the physical nature of the gene focused on proteins, and particularly enzymes and viruses, before the 1940s.[1]






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