The February Almanac



February 1: As of today the century-long use of Morse code by ships in trouble effectively comes to an end. The International Maritime Organization, an agency of the United Nations, has mandated that all passenger and cargo ships weighing 300 or more gross tons must instead use the Global Maritime Distress and Safety System, which transfers calls, in the form of digital information or audio recordings, by satellite or radio. Morse code was used, with mixed results, during the sinking of the Titanic, in 1912. A wireless operator on the nearby Californian had issued a warning about icebergs, but the Titanic's operator replied, "Shut up! I am busy!" The Californian's operator went to sleep and so missed the Titanic's distress calls. One was finally received by the Carpathia, which managed to rescue some passengers, although it was farther than the Californian from the sinking ship. Subsequent to the disaster ocean liners were required to have round-the-clock radio coverage and to adopt SOS as the universal distress signal, because it is easily tapped out and recognized.

Arts & Letters

February 2: The only extant version of the nineteenth-century moving panorama Pilgrim's Progress begins a national tour today. Like other moving panoramas, an art form that was a precursor to the movies, Pilgrim's Progress consisted of an enormous painted canvas wound onto giant wooden spools, to be unfurled scene by scene and accompanied by narration and music. It became something of a blockbuster in its day, traveling to various theaters, churches, and meetinghouses. The work, which will first be exhibited at the Montclair Art Museum, in New Jersey, was presumed lost for more than 100 years; it was rediscovered in 1995 at the York Institute Museum, in Saco, Maine, which had long assumed that it was simply an old piece of stage scenery. The panorama will be displayed in two 200-foot restored sections.



February is the last full month of the hunting season for snow geese. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hopes that by season's end this year a new policy will have begun to address a long-standing problem: an overabundance of snow geese, which has a negative impact on other bird species and, because the nesting grounds of snow geese are fragile, could eventually lead to a population crash among the geese themselves. The agency has eliminated its season-long possession limit for snow geese (typically 40 birds per hunter); this season hunters had to observe only a daily limit of 20 geese. Because the season is 107 days long in most areas, a single hunter could conceivably end this season having killed as many as 2,140 snow geese. There are more than 3 million snow geese in North America; the Fish and Wildlife Service would like to halve this number over the next four years. Other tactics under consideration include allowing the use of electronic calls, making national wildlife refuges less attractive to snow geese, and harassing the geese during nesting season.

Health & Safety

According to a rule issued last year by the Food and Drug Administration, beginning this month any company that sponsors a new drug or medical device submitted for FDA approval must report any financial ties to the researchers who have tested the product. A 1998 article in The New England Journal of Medicine surveyed the literature concerning the safety of certain drugs used to treat hypertension, and found that authors who endorsed the drugs were much more likely than authors who were critical or neutral to have financial relationships with the manufacturers. According to the new rule, if the FDA finds a conflict of interest or is concerned about the integrity of study data, it may audit the data or ask for additional information. The agency may propose similar rules for new foods, animal foods, and animal drugs submitted for FDA approval.


Fruit farmer

February 11: Today is the deadline for public comment on a proposal by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to lift its long-standing ban on importing oranges, grapefruits, and lemons from Argentina. The fruit has been banned in order to protect domestic trees from diseases known to infect Argentinian citrus. USDA inspectors recently agreed that four Argentinian states have been "citrus-canker free" since 1992 and recommended that citrus from those states be allowed into the country, as long as certain protective procedures -- for example, surrounding each exporting grove with a buffer zone -- were followed. U.S. growers worry that the safeguards are inadequate and that the market will be flooded with cheap imported fruit.

The Skies


February 1 : The Moon lies below the bright star Regulus in the eastern sky just after sunset. 18: The crescent Moon makes a striking threesome with Jupiter and Venus in the west, again just after sunset. 23: Jupiter and Venus pass within a quarter degree of each other, in the closest conjunction of them that has been visible from North America for several decades. Because February is slightly shorter than the 29 1/2-day cycle of the Moon and there was a Full Moon on January 31, there will be no Full Moon this month.

75 Years Ago

L. P. Jacks, writing in the February, 1924, issue of The Atlantic Monthly: "Facts are too often spoken of as if they were poor naked things, which exist for the purpose of being exploited by our lordly intellects, while explanations are a kind of aristocracy whose function is to order the facts about and live by sweating them. Or again, facts are conceived as a voting democracy, or a vulgar multitude, which determines by a majority of votes the laws that are to 'govern' it. I suggest that all this is wrong. Facts are the true aristocrats of the spiritual world. We need to recover that reverence for fact which Carlyle extolled so highly, and deplored so bitterly, as the lost virtue of the modern world. Eagerness to find the facts must not be confused with reverence for them when found. Of such eagerness we have plenty; of such reverence we have not enough."

Illustrations by Terry Colon

The Atlantic Monthly; February 1999; The February Almanac; Volume 283, No. 2; page 12.