Hi ho! The Fourth and Final Voyage of Kermit the Frog

Christopher Columbus, famed explorer who kind of resembles Fozzie Bear. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

On September 18, 1502, on his fourth and final voyage to the New World (which he still stubbornly insisted was Asia, because by then he was becoming a little floopy) Christopher Columbus arrived in what would come to be known as Costa Rica. I say “arrived” because “discovered” is certainly the wrong word, as he was warmly greeted by canoes full of Carib Indians, representing one of four indigenous tribes living in the area at the time.

In fact, archaeologists have uncovered evidence of human occupation in Costa Rica dating back at least 10,000 years. A large variety of tools, weapons, metal work, and even remnants of an ancient city complete with aqueducts indicate that many cultures may have come, gone, and coexisted through the area.

By Tim Ross (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

This tree frog from Costa Rica resembles Kermit the Frog when the pollen count is really high. By Tim Ross (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

But its rich history of human diversity isn’t all that makes the country so fascinating, because representing just one third of one percent of Earth’s landmass, Costa Rica contains approximately four percent of the species that exist on the entire planet. It boasts the highest density of biodiversity of any country in the world, with hundreds of species that, outside of captivity, can only be found there.

And Costa Rica is home to somewhere in the neighborhood of 175 species of amphibians. Eighty-five percent of those are frogs. It’s got the poison dart frogs, the famous red-eyed tree frog, the giant toad, and the rainforest rocket frog, which at a length of about half and inch is not the smallest frog in the world, but it does have the coolest name.

And now there’s one more frog in Costa Rica, because recently researcher Brian Kubicki found a previously undiscovered glass frog he named Hyalinobatrachium dianae. Like in so much of the world, Costa Rican species are being stressed by rapid environmental change and the country has already lost many frog species to extinction. So to discover a new one is pretty exciting.

photo credit: Kermit the Frog - Smithsonian Museum of Natural History - 2012-05-15 via photopin (license)

Hyalinobatrachium dianae, a newly identified species of glass frog. Oh, wait, no that’s a Muppet. photo credit: Kermit the Frog – Smithsonian Museum of Natural History – 2012-05-15 via photopin (license)

Especially when the Internet decides that new species looks like Kermit the Frog. And it does, kind of, at least in the same way that if you put a domestic pig in a blonde wig and taught it karate, it would totally resemble Miss Piggy.

The new frog does have similar coloring to Kermit, except on its belly where its skin is nearly transparent so you can see all of its internal organs. It also has big white eyes that bug out of its head, and like its Muppet counterpart, H. dianae plays the banjo and harbors a not-so-secret wish to make it big in showbiz.

So the only real question remaining is what is Kermit the Frog doing in Costa Rica? Because as everyone who has seen the straight-to-video classic Kermit’s Swamp Years knows (and judging by the reviews that could be as many as a dozen people or more), Kermit is originally from the swamps of the Deep South, not Costa Rica.

The answer to the question may lie in the years he spent as a hard-hitting investigative journalist at Sesame Street News. As something of a hard-hitting investigative journalist myself, I have uncovered footage from Kermit’s past that may explain the link between the famous Muppet and this new little glass frog now taking the Internet by storm, a link drawn straight through the famous explorer Christopher Columbus who accidentally stumbled onto Costa Rica so many years ago. Enjoy!

The Certainty of Death and Taxes

As of yesterday, another income tax season has come to a close here in the US. CPA’s who haven’t been home in months can finally return to the family dinner table. And at long last city sidewalks are free from the invasion of creepy sign-spinning Statues of Liberty beckoning to us from the side of the road.

The Statue of LIbertry wearing a fur-lined hood is creepy enough. In my town where it's been warm the last few days, one Mr. Liberty has been wearing shorts under his robe. I hope.  photo credit: Income tax of liberty via photopin (license)

Actually it might not be a bad idea to tax Statue of Liberty hats. photopin (license)photo credit: Income tax of liberty via photopin (license)

No matter how we feel about the way our taxes are collected and spent and whether some of us should be paying more or some of us less, I’m guessing none of us particularly enjoys the income tax process. The laws are complicated, and growing more so all the time. The effort expended in calculating it all expands from year to year at an unbelievably stupid rate.

But as Benjamin Franklin famously said, “…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except for death and taxes.” It’s something we have to deal with. Failure to file will net us fines and legal battles. So any readers out there who are law-abiding US taxpayers, I want to offer a hearty congratulations for successfully slugging through another year and getting it done. You may be tired. A few of you may have even been up past your bedtime so you could sneak in just before the deadline. If so, rub your blurry eyes, grab a cup of coffee, draw a deep breath, and realize it could be worse.

Because in 1798, for Englishman John Collins, it was much worse. Collins was busy at work with a printing plate, producing linen hat labels for anxious customers when he learned just how serious the business of taxation could be. The plate was readied, the linen damp and awaiting its impression, and Collins’s hand was covered in ink. That’s when he was arrested for forgery.

What he had been trying to pull off was a sneak around England’s tax on men’s hats. Introduced by Parliament in 1784, it was designed to be a kind of income tax because in theory, the wealthy would own several expensive hats, while the poor may own one cheap hat, if any at all.

Ladies' hats were tax exempt. Even those made of fruit. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Ladies’ hats were tax exempt. Even those made of fruit. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

To sell hats required a license that cost two pounds in London (or five shillings in the countryside) and gave the seller the right to post a sign reading: “Dealer in Hats by Retail.” A hat costing up to four shillings carried a tax bill of three pence and as the cost of the hat increased, so did the tax, with hats greater than twelve shillings demanding a hefty 2-shilling tax. Penalties for hats without a tax labels affixed to the linings fell both to the seller and the wearer.

No hat is worth that. photo credit: The End of the Line via photopin (license)

The hat tax was perhaps better than the window tax, the disastrous effects of which can still be seen in the large number of bricked-up windows gracing English buildings, but it turns out Englishmen were almost as fond of the hat tax as the citizens of the former British colonies in America had been of the English tea tax just a few years earlier. Removal and reuse of stamps was common and punishable. In the early days of the law, retailers attempted to change the language they used to refer to their wares, causing revisions that broadened the definition of a hat. Still the unpopular hat tax was widely ignored, hard to enforce, and was finally repealed in 1811.

Unfortunately that came after John Collins was caught forging tax labels. He got more than a fine or a legal battle. To forge a hat tax label in England in 1798 was a capital crime. Poor John Collins learned that there were certainties he couldn’t escape when he evaded taxes and met with death.

Your Favorite Dinosaur and the Lie Your Science Teachers May Not Have Told You After All.

In 1870, renowned paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope published a description of a newly discovered giant plesiosaur (an extinct aquatic reptile that a reader less informed than you might mistakenly refer to as a dinosaur). Unfortunately, he’d failed to place the head on the right part of the body, sticking the skull to the end of the creature’s long tail.

oc marsh

Othniel Charles Marsh, respected paleontologist, winner of the bone war, and maybe kind of behaved like a squabbling child. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Surely after a while, Cope would have figured out his mistake, but he didn’t manage to do so before renowned paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh (the judgment of whose parents I have to question because they named their kid “Othniel”) gleefully pointed out the mistake for the world to see. The two men weren’t on great terms to begin with, as rumors circulated that Marsh had once paid Cope’s field crew to send anything they found to Marsh instead.

Once insult was added to injury, the great Bone Wars began, with two of the most prominent paleontologists in North America behaving like squabbling children. The rivalry raged for twenty years resulting in great advances in the field, which before this period had discovered only eighteen dinosaur species on the continent. Between the two men, they described and named over 130 new species of dinosaur.

But as beneficial as it may have been, this feverish pace of scientific discovery had some drawbacks, too. The paleontologists’ dig teams were known to spy on each other, steal fossils from one another, vandalize one another’s dig sites, or even dynamite their own to keep anyone else from digging there. And then there were the mistakes of the men themselves that occasionally found their way into work that was rushed to publication.

Edward Drinker Cope, respected paleontologist, second-place in the bone war, and also maybe a little bit of a squabbling child. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Edward Drinker Cope, respected paleontologist, second-place in the bone war, and also maybe behaved like a little bit of a squabbling child. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Marsh “won” the bone wars, discovering about eighty North American dinosaurs to Cope’s fifty between the years of 1870 and 1890, but had the two men lived so long, Cope might have gotten the last laugh. In 1877, Marsh described a long-necked herbivorous dinosaur he called Apatosaurus. Just two years later, he unearthed another long-necked dino he called Brontosaurus. Trouble is that in 1903, paleontologist Elmer Riggs determined Apatosaurus and Brontosaurus were really the same species. I imagine Cope was laughing in Heaven.

Because life isn’t fair, and sometimes parents decide to name their son Othniel, the earlier name had precedent. And so, since the year 1903, there has been no such thing as a brontosaurus. No friendly leaf-eating, lumbering, earth-shaking, and, let’s face it, small-brained brontosaurs. And despite what you may have learned from the Flintstones, no brontosaurus burgers or brontosaurus ribs either.

Brontosaurus (but later Apatosaurus, and now brontosaurus again) skeleton displayed with the wrong head at the Carnegie Natural Museum of Natural History. By Dinosaurs, by William Diller Matthew [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Brontosaurus (but later Apatosaurus, and now brontosaurus again) skeleton displayed with the wrong head.
By Dinosaurs, by William Diller Matthew [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How can this be? I know, I know, because when I attended elementary school in the 1980’s, Brontosaurus featured prominently in my science books. And the name was featured in museums up until the 1970’s, when paleontologists discovered the head Marsh had placed on his original “Brontosaurus” actually belonged to yet another species. And again, Cope was laughing in Heaven.

Even the US postal service got itself into a heap of trouble when as recently as 1989 it issued a series of stamps featuring popular dinosaurs, including Tyrannosaurus, Stegosaurus, Pteranodon, and Brontosaurus. To be fair, though, the USPS was probably using an elementary school science textbook as a reference.

So why did the name persist for so long? Well, according to Matt Lamanna, paleontologist and curator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Brontosaurus is just a really cool name. It means “thunder lizard,” evoking the ominous thumping and quaking at the creature’s approach. In contrast, Apatosaur means “deceptive lizard,” which I guess evokes the desire for the creature to pose as a different species so it can go by a cooler name.

Personally, I miss the brontosaurus. Or at least I did. Because earlier this week a team of researchers from the Nova University of Lisbon in Portugal revealed that a comprehensive comparative analysis of dino bones has led them to the undeniable conclusion that Brontosaurus was a separate species after all.

Real or not, the "thunder lizard" has captured our imaginations and our hearts. photo credit: brontosaurus in party hat via photopin (license)

Real or not, the “thunder lizard” has captured our imaginations and our hearts. photo credit: brontosaurus in party hat via photopin (license)

So break out the old text books, reissue the dino stamps, and grill up some stoneage burgers, because the Thunder Lizard is back. I guess Cope didn’t get the last laugh after all. Smiling in Heaven now, the indisputable victor of the bone wars is O.C. Marsh, which is how he’s most often referred to in the literature, because it’s a much cooler name than Othniel.

Playing Well: Pretty Much the Coolest Job in the World

In 1934, Danish master carpenter and builder Ole Kirk Kristiansen held a contest to find a new name for his burgeoning toy company. Since1916 Kristiansen had been operating his carpentry business in the town of Billund, Denmark,constructing mainly houses and household furniture.

With the start of the Great Depression in the 1930’s, construction became a difficult way to make a living and so Kristiansen turned his attention to toys. With the shift came the need for a new name and while Kristiansen had a couple of good ideas, he also had a homemade bottle of wine, which he offered up to the employee who could come up with the best idea.

The best idea was a clever contraction of two Danish words, leg godt, which translate as “play well.” The company, of course, became LEGO, a worldwide building brick phenomenon that pumps out more than 5 million little plastic blocks per hour, which is coincidentally about the same number that are currently scattered on the floors of my house.

LEGO

Creation Nation. There was a large outline of the US on the floor with attendees invited to build a small sculpture to help fill it in. Some were just silly and fun. Others modeled famous landmarks. Still others were inspired by McDonald’s. Because what’s more American than that?

My kiddos are LEGO fanatics. And so are yours most likely because on average every person on earth owns 86 LEGO bricks. Granted, my dog probably ingested more than that number yesterday alone, but there’s still a good chance you have a few lying around. If you want to find them, just take off your shoes and walk around for a bit. Always works at my house.

So it’s probably no surprise that when the traveling LEGO Kids Fest visited St. Louis this past weekend, my family jumped at the chance to go. I’m glad we did, because it was a seriously cool event. For two days, the Edward Jones Dome at America’s Center, normally the football stadium for the St. Louis Rams, was put to a much better use. It became home to a maze of huge LEGO sculptures and interactive building activities.

Kids and their families participated in build challenges and group art projects, teaming up to design and race cars or construct strength-tested bridges. Attendees could enjoy numerous free-play areas set up with tubs full of individual colors so that if they had a hankering to make a replica of the Taj Mahal using only purple bricks, they totally could.

Or it was the perfect place to fulfill the lifelong dream of climbing on top of a big pile of bricks and making a LEGO angel (because who hasn’t dreamt of doing that?) before sitting down to construct a giant multicolored fish taco.

My favorite experience, though, was when we took a break and went to a presentation given by one of the LEGO Master Builders, of which there are only eight in the entire world, all based out of Enfield, Connecticut.

This elite group is responsible for all of the giant LEGO sculptures you might see at the LEGO Kids Fest, or the Mall of America, or Disney World, or anywhere else you might find a giant LEGO sculpture.

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Yep, even Emmett has been Kra gl ed.

We had the opportunity to meet Master Builder Chris Steininger during a presentation on interlocking build design in which he encouraged all the little Master Buidlers in Training to try different structures, and then strength test them with heavy metal wrecking balls. My sons learned their lessons well, intentionally designing weak structures to achieve more spectacular destruction.

Chris talked a little bit about the design and build process and he patiently answered about a hundred questions from the kids in the audience, most of which were some variation of “Do you have the best job in the world or what?”

LEGO R2D2

Coolest. Job. Ever.

Not surprisingly he answered, “Yes,” explaining that even though sometimes there are frustrating design issues to work out and building a new model, layer by layer, gluing each in place along the way (yes, for all you LEGO Movie fans out there, I’m sorry to tell you master builders do use “Kra gl e”) can be tedious, basically what he does for a living is play well. And what could be better than that?

Which is what Ole Kristiansen decided, too. It would be a few years before the emergence of the patented stud-and-tube interlocking brick system that is still inspiring little builders today, but in 1934, Ole knew what he wanted his company to be about. And deep down, he also knew what he wanted to call it. He decided to stick with his own idea and called the company LEGO. There’s no record of whether or not he shared the bottle of wine.

A Writer’s Tour on Wyatt Earp’s Birthday

Mr. Earp will just have to wait for his feature post. Maybe next birthday.

Mr. Earp will just have to wait for his feature post. Maybe next birthday. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wyatt_Earp.jpg#/media/File:Wyatt_Earp.jpg

On March 19th, 1848 in the little town of Monmouth, Illinois, the gunslinger who would one day become the central figure in the famous shootout at the OK Corral, Wyatt Earp came screaming into the world.

But I’m not going to write about Earp this week. In fact, I’m not going to write about any historical figure at all, because a while back, a fellow blogger was kind enough to extend an invitation for me to participate in a writer’s tour.

So, first, I want to thank Camille Gatza of Wine and History Visited for including me on the tour. I have been enjoying Camille’s blog almost since I started out blogging myself.  Her posts often detail her travels through the US including wonderful background on historic sites and national and state parks. Along the way she always seems to discover unique restaurants and wineries and over the years, she has taught me pretty much everything I pretend to know about wine.

So here are the questions put forward on the tour:

What are you currently working on?

I’m always researching for both my blog and my fiction projects. The blog jumps through time and space from week to week, through the stories that I find interesting at any given time, with really very little rhyme or reason. I find that kind of research, which is admittedly not always very thorough, to be kind of a refreshing break from the research I do for my fiction projects. That is thorough and time consuming and while interesting, doesn’t always yield the kind of lighter stories I like to share in this space.

Okay, okay. Next week. I promise.   photo credit: 79109 Colby City Showdown via photopin (license)

Okay, okay. Next week. I promise. photo credit: 79109 Colby City Showdown via photopin (license)

Currently as a blogger, I am looking into the story behind LEGOS because this weekend my family and I will be attending the traveling LEGO Festival as it visits St. Louis. In my other “writerly” role, I am working through a first full draft of a novel that will hopefully serve as a companion to my first that was recently accepted for publication (!). As part of that process I am reading everything I can get my hands on about the Pennsylvania canal system in 1833, which, while interesting, and will supply wonderful historical details for the novel, is not exactly good material for this particular blog.

How does your work differ from others in your genre?

A lot of history blogs I read (and I do read a lot of them) are very information dense. Often they cite references and speak with a good deal of authority within a fairly narrow scope. I love that. And those kinds of blogs are exactly what history blogs should be.

But this isn’t that kind of blog. In fact I hesitate sometimes to even call it a history blog, because in some ways that’s not what it is. I do share stories from history, and I do spend a good amount of time (or at least some) researching my chosen topic in an attempt to provide readers with tidbits worthy of sharing at cocktail parties. But there’s also a lot of me on the pages of this blog. There’s a lot about my life and the things I find funny, or interesting, or just worthwhile. I try not to claim a great deal of authority in this space, because, frankly, I have none to claim.

But I do hope the posts are fun to read. I have a great time writing them.

Why do you write what you do?

When I was younger, history always seemed either dull or tragic to me. I’ve never been very good at memorizing dates and it seemed all I ever learned about in history class was how one group of people exploited another group of people to become the dominant people. And, really, human history can be boiled down to that if you let it be. But as I grew older and studied more literature, I began to see history through a different lens. When fleshed out with the little details that make up the experiences of individuals, suddenly each moment in history becomes many moments with many perspectives and far-reaching implications. In other words, it becomes a story. And a story, our story, is worth telling.

That realization led me to writing historical fiction, a genre that I fell in love with very quickly as a reader as well as a writer. And this blog is an extension of that. As this wonderful article in The Onion so eloquently points out, there are more stories within the history of human experience than I can possibly tell, or that any of us can possibly tell or ever know. But with this blog, each week, I get to take a stab at illuminating a little bit more.

How does your writing process work?

photo credit: Tapping a Pencil via photopin (license)

Some weeks are just like that. photo credit: Tapping a Pencil via photopin (license)

For the most part, I write what’s on my mind. If I have experienced or will be experiencing a particular event, I may use that as a jump-off for some historical research, and often the structure of the post itself will reveal that. Some weeks, something I come across in the news sends me down a trail I think might be worth sharing. And, of course, like anyone else, I have weeks when I struggle to find something to say.

Typically I start out with a very general idea of what I want to write and just start typing because I never know exactly what I’m going to want to write until I’ve already written it. After that I polish it up, trim the word count, insert what I hope are a few clever lines, throw in a few pictures, and post. Then I just sit back and wait for millions of thoughtful comments to come rolling in.

Well, okay, so that last part doesn’t really happen, but I realize that this blog is a little hard to categorize and it is sure to appeal to a fairly specific kind of reader. I am delighted that so many of you quirky, creative, thoughtful people have found it. Thank you!

And now on with the tour!

For the next stops on the tour, I’ve chosen two writers whose blogs I appreciate very much. They also both happen to be writers of historical fiction, but they each approach blogging differently than I do. I doubt they’ll be writing about Wyatt Earp this week either (although you never know). Still, I hope you’ll visit their sites, and maybe read their books as well, because it will be well worth the effort.

sam

Samuel Hall grew up in the American Heartland.
He lives with his wife near Salem, Oregon. Their three adult children continue to teach him about family relationships and authenticity, core subjects of his novel.

Visit his website at www.samhallwriter.com.

Sign up for the newsletter at www.ashberrylane.com to hear the latest about Sam’s book, Daughter of the Cimarron.

blogtourphotoAdrienne Morris lives in the country, milks goats, chases chickens and sometimes keeps the dogs off the table while writing books about the Weldon and Crenshaw families of Gilded Age Englewood, New Jersey. Her first novel, The House on Tenafly Road was selected as an Editors’ Choice Book and Notable Indie of the Year by The Historical Novel Society.

 

Ancient Gatorade Tastes Like Ash

Around the year 78 AD, Roman naturalist Gaius Plinius Secundas, or Pliny the Elder, published his only surviving work, Naturalis Historia (Natural History). It was kind of like an encyclopedia, meant by its author to address pretty much everything a first-century Roman might need to know about “the natural world, or life.”

If you ask me, that’s a pretty bold claim, but the work is divided into ten volumes, consisting in total of thirty-seven books, and it does cover an impressive array of topics, including, among others: astronomy, mathematics, zoology, horticulture, sculpture, and Gatorade.

Pliny the Elder   [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Pliny the Elder
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

That last one, as my youngest son would tell you, is the most important. He’s seven and a pretty coordinated kid who I know would enjoy athletics if he weren’t so reluctant to try new things. When I occasionally push him, as I did with basketball this winter, I use an incentive. If he works hard in practice, or a game, he gets a celebratory red Gatorade, because the original yellow tastes like watered-down sweat.

It’s worked really well this basketball season. He’s made friends, had fun, and on the court he’s gone from completely clueless to a little less awkward, even scoring two baskets in his most recent game. All it took was some determination and the right recovery drink.

And if we can take Pliny the Elder at his word, that’s what it took for Rome’s gladiators as well. In Book 36 of Natural History he writes: “Your hearth should be your medicine chest. Drink lye made from its ashes, and you will be cured. One can see how gladiators are helped by drinking this.”

He was quoting the recommendations of another contemporary writer, implying that this magical curative given to the gladiators was fairly common knowledge, but still it’s kind of a quick reference inside a work that covers the entire scope of “the natural world” and so serves as nothing more than anecdotal evidence.

Original Gatorade: Looks like urine; tastes like sweat. For some reason, that add campaign never took off. By Jeff Taylor (Flickr: GatoradeOriginalGlassBottle) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Original Gatorade: Looks like urine; tastes like sweat. For some reason, that ad campaign never took off.
By Jeff Taylor (Flickr: GatoradeOriginalGlassBottle) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately, we don’t just have to take the author’s word for it. In 1993, a team of archaeologists working near the ancient city of Ephesus in modern day Turkey, found the remains of sixty-eight people who died between the second and third centuries, all young men, between the ages of twenty and thirty, and all showing evidence of having been pretty beaten up. With the remains were several grave markers depicting scenes of battle.

The discovery turned out to be the only known gladiator graveyard ever found, and the bones told researchers an interesting story. First, they confirmed that gladiators ate a mostly grain diet, similar to that of the general public at the time. Second, the gladiator bones contained significantly more strontium than did non-gladiator bone samples.

That doesn’t mean much to me, but what it means to people who know a thing or two about bones, is that gladiators must have ingested some sort of supplement designed to aid in recovery and healing. And thanks to Pliny the Elder, we know it was probably a drink made from water, vinegar, and plant ash.

Scientists claim that if made with a “good vinegar,” the gladiator recovery drink might not have tasted all that bad. I’m not so convinced. If I want my son to keep up on the basketball court, I’ll probably stick with the more modern version. With a whole lot of sugar (which is why this is only an occasional incentive at our house) and plenty of red dye 40, at least Gatorade doesn’t taste like ash.

The 2nd Grade Butterfly Effect

First published in Collier’s magazine in June of 1952, Ray Bradbury’s “A Sound of Thunder” went on to become one of the most frequently re-published short science fiction stories of all time, but the concept at its heart was far from new.

The story, set in 2055, centers on a wealthy man who pays to travel back in time in order to hunt a Tyrannosaurus rex. The hunt has been well planned. The dinosaur is already destined to die naturally mere moments after the fatal shot, and the safari company has provided platforms designed to elevate the hunt participants off the natural landscape so their actions in the past may affect as little future change as possible. But despite stern warnings of the dangers of altering the past, the wealthy man loses his cool when faced with T. rex and in his panic, he leaves the path.

The group returns to the future to discover things aren’t quite the same. Words are spelled differently, election outcomes have changed, and humanity’s collective outlook is strangely altered. The man then notices in the mud on his boot, a crushed butterfly that apparently died before its time.

20150304_094146

One flap of those wings, and who knows what might happen.

Though the concept of tiny alterations in initial conditions affecting significant differences in outcomes (known as chaos theory) was first described by Henri Poincaré in 1890, it was mathematician and meteorologist Edward Lorenz who first applied the term “butterfly effect.” He noted that even a very slight change in his data entry (like rounding off a few decimal places) led to drastically different weather model outcomes. It was as if a butterfly flapping its wings caused a miniscule shift in the atmosphere that may eventually lead to the formation of a tornado.

I admit, it sounds a little crazy, and I’m certainly no expert on chaos theory, but I did have the opportunity earlier this week to help chaperone my son’s second grade class fieldtrip to the Missouri Botanical Garden’s Butterfly House.

Upon arrival I was handed a clipboard with a checklist of butterfly behaviors we might observe and the names of five second-graders for whom I would be responsible. And that should have been fine. The kids seemed like a good bunch: my son, two other little boys who appeared relatively cooperative, and two sweet little girls who were all smiles. I was feeling pretty confident about the whole thing.

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Not a bad day to spend inside a steamy tropical butterfly habitat. Even with second-graders.

But then, just as the outer atrium door shut behind us and twenty-five second-graders along with their teacher, several chaperones, and one butterfly expert loudly sharing important rules (like don’t squish the butterflies because it might alter the space-time continuum) were wedged into a tiny butterfly escape-proof airlock, I felt a small hand squeeze my arm.

It was one of the little boys in my group. I’ll call him Sam, because that’s not his name. Sam’s eyes were as wide as saucers, his skin pale. “I don’t like butterflies,” he whispered.

My chaperone training (which consisted of being handed a clipboard) had not prepared me for such a situation. All I could think to do was whisper back, “We’ll get through this. I promise.”

Right away I could see that Sam didn’t believe me, but the butterfly expert had already opened the inner door and the class filed into the steamy atrium. Sam, shaking slightly, fell in line.

He settled into a slow pace, his eyes darting wildly as delicate wings rushed around him. I found myself worrying that as he paced he would inadvertently squish a butterfly and disrupt the space-time continuum.

While I was busy worrying, an argument broke out between the two girls over who would hold the clipboard. Of course I told them I would hold onto it, but it was too late. It turns out second-grade girls do not forgive easily.

Scary. Apparently.

Scary. Apparently.

As I attempted to play referee between them, the second little boy (who evidently had trouble hearing his name above the rush of hundreds of fluttering wings) began to wander aimlessly through the atrium. Determined that the space-time continuum would not be altered on my watch, I did the only thing I could. I carefully ushered the remaining four kids in the direction of the wayward boy.

And that’s when my son fell apart. Because the only thing he wanted to do was stand completely still in one place in hopes that a butterfly would choose to land on him, which, sadly, it never did.

And so I juggled, and chaperoned to the best of my ability for what felt like three hours (though it was really probably about 25 minutes) before we finally escaped the atrium and headed to a classroom where the butterfly experts mercifully took over.

I’m delighted to report that I walked out of the atrium with all five of my assigned students, and that even though one of them may be scarred for life by the experience, to the best of my knowledge no butterflies were squished on my watch.

I learned a couple of important things from the experience. First is that second-grade teachers are terribly under-appreciated. And second is that Poincaré, Lorenz, and Bradbury may have been onto something because when a butterfly flaps its wings, whether the space-time continuum is drastically altered or not, one thing is for certain: second grade classes descend into chaos.

In these wings lies the fate of the world.

In these wings lies the fate of the world. And the field trip.