Question of the Day

Why is Pennsylvania called the Keystone State?

A keystone is a wedge-shaped piece at the crown of an arch that locks the other pieces in place; it is a stone on which the associated stones depend for support. Geographically, Pennsylvania's central location along the arch of the 13 original states calls to mind a keystone. Politically, Pennsylvania played a vital role in holding together the states of the newly formed Union.

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Last 7 Days

Why is there such a time lag between the shortest day of the year and the lowest average daily temperature of the year?

From our point of view in the Northern Hemisphere, this is a timely question for today, the winter solstice for 2001. This is the shortest day of the year -- the time when the Sun reaches its southernmost point in the sky. Although this part of Earth is cooling, its great thermal mass still retains some heat from the summer and fall. As the gradual cooling process continues over the next two months, temperatures will continue to fall, and the coldest temperatures will be recorded. The same pattern holds true for the summer solstice in June, as the year's highest temperatures are recorded later, in July and August.

Who said "Sorry doesn't pay the bulldog"?

I've never heard of this expression, and couldn't find any reference to it. It might, however, refer to the early morning editions of newspapers, called "bulldogs" in the first part of the 20th century. In their rush to get a story to print, reporters would sometimes make mistakes that would have to be corrected in the late afternoon edition, often with an apology from the editor.

What do the Hebrew letters on the four sides of a dreidel stand for?

The letters nun, gimel, heh, and shin represent the saying, "Nes Gadol Haya Sham," meaning "a great miracle happened there." In Israel, a letter is replaced to change the phrase to "a great miracle happened here."

What is the origin of the saying "Time and tide wait for no man"?

This saying may be derived from two historical quotes. One is "Nae man can tether time or tide," written by Robert Burns (1759-1796) in "Tam o' Shanter." Another is "Hoist up saile while gale doth last, Tide and wind stay no man's pleasure," written by Robert Southwell in "St. Peter's Complaint" (1595).

How did the custom of giving Christmas presents originate?

The ancient Romans gave each other gifts on the calends (first day) of January, and the practice spread throughout the Roman Empire. Eventually, Christians moved the custom to December 25, although many Christians still give gifts on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the manifestation of Jesus' divine nature to the Magi.

I remember reading in the Almanac years ago about a phenomenon involving clouds -- that they sometimes appear to have wispy threads hanging down, suggesting rain, but there is no rain. The threads don't extend all the way down, and they appear to converge as they descend. I noticed it tonight in dozens of clouds just at sunset. What causes this, and what is it called?

The phenomenon is known as virga, a mysterious rain that never reaches the ground. (A feature on the subject appeared in The 1989 Old Farmer's Almanac.) Specifically, water or ice particles fall from a cloud, usually in wisps or streaks, but evaporate before reaching the ground. This occurs because the raindrops are too small to sustain themselves all the way down. They are moved back up into the cloud by the air around them, and the process begins again. Scientists estimate that a raindrop with a diameter of 0.004 inch or less will not make it to the ground. Even if the raindrop is larger, the air beneath a precipitation-bearing cloud is often warmer and drier than the cloud, causing the moisture to evaporate on its way through. The drier the air beneath the mother cloud, the more likely the chances for virga. The name comes from the Latin, meaning a branch, twig, or stick -- descriptive of virga's appearance.

Which came first, the nautical mile or the standard mile, and why do they both exist?

The nautical mile is the distance used in navigation and based on the length of one minute of arc taken along a great circle. This is also sometimes referred to as the International Nautical Mile or an International Air Mile. The nautical mile is frequently confused with the geographical mile, which is equal to 1 minute of arc on the Earth's equator (6087.15 feet). On the ocean, distances are calculated slightly differently than on land, hence nautical miles are used, as opposed to land or statute miles.

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