On this day…

Last week my #histsci soul sisterTM Rebekah “Becky” Higgitt started a thread on Twitter with the following:

Robert Boyle and Robert Burns born #otd – although presumably one on old style calendar, one on the new

Dan Flett responded:

Yeah I’m always wondering how we go about calling something “on this day” when there are different calendars involved.


I guess that it’s pretty arbitrary anyway, so doesn’t matter much, but interests me that anniversaries have appeal

Now the problem of different calendars and especially the old style/new style confusion is one that I have dealt with more than once on this blog; in fact Becky drew my attention to the thread by linking to two of my old posts. This recent one from the last winter solstice and an earlier one about just such an apparent coincidence, which wasn’t, that started the thread. I threw in my post on Newton’s date of death for good measure.

Of course the whole problem gets much more complicated the further one moves back in time and the further one moves away from the European sphere of influence. How can you be sure that birth, death or even date given for someone in ancient Greece has been correctly converted to the current Georgian calendar from whichever local Greek lunar calendar it was originally recorded on? The same applies to dates from Islamic, Indian Chinese and a multitude of other pre-modern histories.

However there is another aspect to this debate that is reflected by Becky’s comment, “but interests me that anniversaries have appeal”. That they do have is amply illustrated on both Twitter and Facebook by the number of individuals and organisations that regularly and consistently post ‘on this day’ (#otd) posts. This includes important scientific institutions such as the Royal Society, Chemical Heritage Foundation, Linda Hall Library and ESA as well as many websites dedicated to producing all year round on this day calendars such as On This Day in Science History, SciHi, or On This Day in Math. Many individual bloggers such as Paige Madison (Fossil History), David Bressan and of course I do the same. Becky’s comment implicitly questions this habit by explicitly questioning the appeal of such postings. Irish physicist and historian of physics, Cormac O Rafferty, reader and occasional commentator on this blog, says quite openly that he doesn’t understand why people do it. I can’t of course speak for anybody else but I can at least try to explain why I do it.

Although I tend to concentrate on Europe in the Early Modern Period my interest in all things mathematical and scientific range from the Neolithic to the twentieth century and all around the globe. For my blogging there are no plans, concepts, schedules or whatever, I try to blog once a week on average and then I mostly just write spontaneously about something that has caught my attention during the preceding seven days. Very often it is some sort of anniversary, a date of birth or death, a publication date, a date of discovery or invention that does just that, catch my attention. Then I tend to post on or near that anniversary. It really is as simple as that; the anniversary is really just a hook to hang a subject that interests me on. Given that I have now been blogging for well over eight years and have thereby accumulated quite an archive of potential blog posts and I seem to attract new readers here and followers on Twitter and Facebook, I see it as a service to the more recent newbies to draw their attention to one or other old post. The easiest way to do this is once again the ‘on this day’ trick. When a #histSTM anniversary comes up about which I have written in the past then I promote the old post on Twitter and Facebook.

Of course I also write posts from time to time that are not attached to a particular date but they tend like this one to be more general, methodological or even philosophical; these also get promoted on social media when the topic comes up in Internet discussions.

In reality, at least as far as I am concerned, the ‘on this day’ tag is just a lazy way of picking out a subject to write a post about from the vast ocean of potential topics that history has to offer. One danger of this approach is however that others take the lazy way out and perpetuate false facts and myths under the ‘on this day’ tag, something that I would naturally never do.




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8 responses to “On this day…

  1. Yes, the last paragraph isn’t far from my way of thinking. It’s not that I actively dislike the meme ‘On This day’, it’s more I don’t really understand it as a meaningful historical hook. The calendar problem is significant, but my own reservation is slightly different:
    Since there are only 365 days in the year, it follows every day is a multiple anniversary, if one is not restricted to 50-year or 100-year anniversaries etc. Literally thousands of notable people were born, or died, or did interesting things over the centuries on any given day of the year. So how does one select who to celebrate? And why celebrate it this particular year?
    Thony mentions the Royal Society, but I notice that most of their OTD articles celebrate 100- 200- or 300 year anniversaries (and 50s) . So while I accept that OTD can be useful for writers as a hook (in a ‘why not’ sense), I would suggest that OTD writers consider two points that many readers will ponder:
    (i) Why this person, and not the many hundreds of other notable people who were born, or died, or did interesting things, on this day of the year
    (ii) Are we going to mark this person every year? if not, why this year?

    • Nice comment Cormac. I agree with both of your final points and in particular to point (i) I have endeavoured over the years here at RM to feature the less well known but oft equally important figures from #histSTM

      • Actually that’s the first good reason I’ve come across!
        It makes sense to me to use the OTD meme, whether weak or not, to highlight lesser-known figures in history. Not only does this help do justice to those so often overlooked, it also helps portray the true narrative of science (and get away from the Great Man stuff)

  2. P.S. Bet ya didn’t know the famous Coleman-Mandula Theorem of particle physics (an important result in unified field theory) is actually a generalization of an earlier result known as the O’Raifeartaigh No-Go Theorem. I’m told it should be the O’Raifeartaigh-Dyson-Coleman-Mandula Theorem, but that doesn’t fit the Great Man narrative….

  3. Rebekah Higgitt

    It is definitely the easiest way to force a news-ish (newsoid?) hook into any historian’s particular interests but still surprises me that the arbitrary fact that someone (who did something long after) was born on a date some with similar numbers to today’s date should convince others to go with it. Yet ‘On this day’ clearly does give *something* that prompts us to pause and look. I’m interested to think about what else can work this way – objects that belonged to/were made by X obviously, also ‘In this place’ (hence plaques). What else?

  4. Thank for this thought-provoking blog and the comments. As a ‘private’ #OTD tweeter, I used (in my former life) to use the dates to hook to books I was trying to publicise. In my post-retirement existence, I do it simply because I find it interesting … and have resigned myself to ignoring ‘first-day-of-year’ and ‘post-eleven-days’ cruxes. However, it’s actually quite rarely that I write a blog prompted by an #OTD happening. As to ‘What else’, burial places …?

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