Category Archives: Technology


Last Time the Planets were Aligned?

If you mean all in a row like the picture at the top of this post, the answer is never. The last time the view of them from the Earth had them within 30 degrees of each other was 561 B.C. In April 2002, a few of them – Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, Venus and Mercury – appeared to line up over the Western horizon. This same pattern of these five planets will repeat again on September 8, 2040.

The next full line-up, like the 561 B.C. one,  will be May 6, 2492.

When an astronomer speaks of the planets being in alignment, it means that, when looking at them from the Earth, you can see them in the same general area in the sky.

Solar System Live – set the date and time to find the location of planets.

Pictures and news from NASA’s Solar and Heliospheric Observatory

And just as an extra bonus, here’s David Bowie singing “Life on Mars?”.

Maybe some microbial life, definitely one little explorer bot.  I know the Mars Rover isn’t alive, but on its birthday, it sings (hums? chimes?) to itself. Teaching a robot to do something that would be done out of loneliness if a human did it is a pretty clear sign that it will eventually develop sentience. I know this because I’ve seen a lot of scifi movies and TV shows. It Always Happens!

August 5 will be the anniversary of the Mars lander arriving on the planet.


When Was the Last Death from Smallpox?

Smallpox had been plaguing mankind for thousands of years, killing about a third of its victims. In the 1700s it was the single deadliest disease, killing about a third of the people who got it. Those who survived the disease were left pockmarked and sometimes blinded.

In 1796 a man named Edward Jenner noticed that dairymaids who worked with cows and came down with cowpox never came down with smallpox. He developed a vaccination using the cowpox virus. (The word vaccination comes from the Latin word for cow – vacca.)

By the early 1900s smallpox had been mostly eliminated in the US and much of Europe – the last case of smallpox in the US was in 1949 and the last European cases were in Yugoslavia in 1972. By the mid-1970s smallpox remained only in the Horn of Africa.

The last victim anywhere of naturally occurring smallpox was Ali Maow Maalin who was diagnosed in Somalia on October 26, 1977. He survived and spent his life fighting to stop another deadly disease – polio. He died of malaria in 2013.

The disease seemed to have been conquered, but in 1978 a woman in the UK named Janet Parker fell ill with smallpox. She had worked at the University of Birmingham Medical University on a floor two stories above a laboratory that was doing research on live smallpox virus.

Parker had been vaccinated when she was younger but booster vaccines are needed to keep immunization up-to-date and it had been 12 years since her last shot. She died on September 11, 1978.


In 1980 the World Health Organization issued a resolution declaring the successful eradication of smallpox. In 1986 they recommended that the last samples of the virus be destroyed and set the destruction date for December 30, 1993. The date was postponed to June 30, 1995 but has still not been done. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, GA and State Research Center of Virology and Biotechnology VECTOR in Koltsovo, Russia still have stocks of the virus.

You can learn more from these two free Yale University lectures “Smallpox: The Speckled Monster” and “Smallpox: Jenner, Vaccination, and Eradication“.

1878 phone

First Telephone Book?

The first publication of telephone numbers – it was hardly a book, it only contained 50 names and was a single cardboard page – was printed on February 21, 1878 in New Haven, Connecticut by the New Haven District Telephone Company. The page did not include telephone numbers, it was really just a list of who could be contacted by phone. This was just two years after Alexander Graham Bell was granted a patent for the telephone

Here’s the list of early technology adopters.


Although there were earlier lists that showed phone companies’ business subscribers, this is considered the first phone book because it also lists individuals who had phone service.

Later that year, the New Haven Connecticut phone company published another phone book. This time it was 20 pages and listed 391 telephone subscribers. It also provided information about how to make and receive calls. All calls were limited to 3 minutes were not private. There were still no phone numbers listed, all calls had to be connected through the operator.
There is one known copy of this second phone book It was put up for  auction at Christie’s in 2008. They had anticipated a selling price of $30,000 to $40,000. It sold for $170,500.