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Changing Cultures and Environment in the Arctic: Prehistory to Modern Times

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Description: How have peoples in the past dealt with changing climate and environment? Is the Arctic a 'bell-weather' for climate impacts on the wider world? In this webinar, anthropologist William Fitzhugh leads an exploration of the impact of climate change on northern peoples, both ancient and modern. Using case studies of groups like the Vikings, the ancient Mongolians, Eskimos, and modern residents of arctic regions, he discusses a range of human interactions with the environment.

America's Fancy Pet Food Addiction Is a Big Problem for the Environment

Smithsonian Magazine

The environmental impact of our diet on the planet is well known, but new research shows that the impact of our faithful furry friends and their stomachs is substantial.

Studying the recent trends in pet food, Gregory Okin, a geographer at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that the roughly 163 million pet cats and dogs in the United States eat about a quarter of the meat produced in the country, reports Karin Brulliard for The Washington Post. And all this food comes at a cost. Okin estimates it's responsible for greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to 64 million tons of carbon dioxide. That's about the same as driving 13.6 million cars around for a year, according to a press release.

“I’m not a vegetarian, but eating meat does come at a cost,” Okin says in a statement. “Those of us in favor of eating or serving meat need to be able to have an informed conversation about our choices, and that includes the choices we make for our pets.”

Getting at this estimate required a slew of calculations, reports Alessandra Potenza of The Verge. After estimating the number of pets in America, a metric not tracked by most cities and states in the country, Okin then calculated the average weight of these pets to estimate how much they eat in a year. He then turned to the ingredient labels of the country's most popular pet food brands to tabulate how much meat our furry friends are consuming annually. Okin published the results of this investigation last week in the journal PLOS One.

Importantly, Okin presents his results as CO2 equivalents, which takes into account the differing impacts of various greenhouse gasses. This latest study focuses on methane and nitrous oxide, which are potent greenhouse gasses, contributing to the depletion the ozone layer much more strongly than carbon dioxide.

One driving factor behind the meaty diets of America's pets is the growing investment of pet owners in their beloved companions, reports Brulliard. Sales of pet food have more than doubled since 2000, and a large chunk of that revenue has come from owners going for "premium" food for their animals. This food often uses higher-quality meat that is suitable for human consumption, Okin notes.

As for a solution, Okin stresses that he isn't suggesting making our pets vegetarians. Carnivorous cats, for example, require meat in their diet to stay healthy. But our pets don't need to be eating human-grade meat. And they're often not super picky about where that meat comes from or what it looks like. 

Americans, however, often are quite picky, Cailin Heinze, a veterinary nutritionist at Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine who was not involved in the study, tells Brulliard​. "Dogs and cats happily eat organ meat," says Heinz. “Americans do not.”

If more people used pet food with meat from non-prime cuts, that would free up more of the premium bits for people, and require the raising of fewer food animals—along with reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Moreover, unlike cats, dogs are omnivorous, Okin tells Amina Khan of the Los Angeles Times, so dog owners can and should consider mixing more plant-based products into Fido's food.

"We should consider all the impacts that pets have so we can have an honest conversation about them," Okin said in a statement. "Pets have many benefits, but also a huge environmental impact."

If the shoe fits, run it. / Fartleks1

Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
Profile of a sport shoe decorated with a cartoonish landscape. In white upper left: If the shoe fits, / run it. Blocks of white text describing an event that will take place. Upper right Fartlek logo (Fartlek is a type of solo running; in Swedish = "speed play").

The Way of Water in the World

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Lesson plan looking at global issues of water shortage and contamination. Students conduct Internet research and work in small groups to find solutions to these problems.

The Giant Squid: Dragon of the Deep

Smithsonian Magazine

There are few monsters left in the world. As our species has explored and settled the planet, the far-flung areas marked “Here Be Dragons” have been charted, and toothy terrors once thought to populate the globe have turned out to be imaginary or merely unfamiliar animals. Yet some elusive creatures have retained their monstrous reputation. Foremost among them is Architeuthis dux—the giant squid.

The creature—likely the inspiration for the legendary kraken—has been said to have terrorized sailors since antiquity, but its existence has been widely accepted for only about 150 years. Before that, giant squid were identified as sea monsters or viewed as a fanciful part of maritime lore, as in the case of a strange encounter shortly before scientists realized just what was swimming through the ocean deep.

At about 5:00 in the afternoon on August 6, 1848, Capt. Peter M’Quhae was guiding the HMS Daedalus through the waters between the Cape of Good Hope and the island of St. Helena off the African coast when the crew spotted what they described as a gigantic sea serpent. The beast was unlike anything the sailors had seen before. News of the encounter hit the British newspaper The Times two months later, telling of the ship’s brush with a nearly 100-foot monster that possessed a maw “full of large jagged teeth … sufficiently capacious to admit of a tall man standing upright between them.”

M’Quhae, who was asked by the Admiralty to confirm or deny this sensational rumor, replied that the stories were true, and his account was printed a few days later in the same newspaper. Dark on top with a light underbelly, the sinuous, 60-foot creature had slipped by within 100 yards of the boat, and M’Quhae proffered a sketch of the animal made shortly after the sighting.

Precisely what the sailors had actually seen, though, was up for debate. It seemed that almost everyone had an opinion. A letter to The Times signed “F.G.S.” proposed that the animal was a dead ringer for an extinct, long-necked marine reptile called a plesiosaur, fossils of which had been discovered in England just a few decades before by fossil hunter Mary Anning. Other writers to the newspapers suggested the animal might be a full-grown gulper eel or even an adult boa constrictor snake that had taken to the sea.

The notoriously cantankerous anatomist Richard Owen said he knew his answer would “be anything but acceptable to those who prefer the excitement of the imagination to the satisfaction of judgment.” He believed that the sailors had seen nothing more than a very large seal and conferred his doubts that anything worthy of the title “great sea serpent” actually existed. It was more likely “that men should have been deceived by a cursory view of a partly submerged and rapidly moving animal, which might only be strange to themselves.”

M’Quhae objected to Owen’s condescending reply. “I deny the existence of excitement, or the possibility of optical illusion,” he shot back, affirming that the creature was not a seal or any other readily recognizable animal.

As was the case for other sea monster sightings and descriptions going back to Homer’s characterization of the many-tentacled monster Scylla in The Odyssey, attaching M’Quhae’s description to a real animal was an impossible task. Yet a series of subsequent events would raise the possibility that M’Quhae and others had truly been visited by overly large calamari.

The naturalist credited with giving the giant squid its scientific start was Japetus Steenstrup, a Danish zoologist at the University of Copenhagen. By the mid-19th century, people were familiar with various sorts of small squid, such as species of the small and widespread genus Loligo that are often eaten as seafood, and the basics of squid anatomy were well known. Like octopus, squid have eight arms, but they are also equipped with two long feeding tentacles that can be shot out to grasp prey. The head portion of the squid pokes out of a conical, rubbery structure called the mantle, which encloses the internal organs. Inside this squishy anatomy, the squid has two hard parts: a tough internal “pen” that acts as a site for muscle attachment, and a stiff beak that is set in the middle of the squid’s ring of sucker-tipped arms and used to slice prey. Since naturalists were only just beginning to study life in the deep sea, relatively few of the approximately 300 squid species now known had been discovered.

In 1857, Steenstrup combined 17th century reports of sea monsters, tales of many-tentacled giant creatures washed up on European beaches, and one very large squid beak to establish the reality of the giant squid. He called the animal Architeuthis dux. His only physical evidence was the beak, collected from the remains of a stranded specimen that had recently washed ashore. Steenstrup concluded: “From all evidences the stranded animal must thus belong not only to the large, but to the really gigantic cephalopods, whose existence has on the whole been doubted.”

Image by Associated Press. Scientists from the National Science Museum of Japan recorded a live giant squid that had been hauled up to the surface next to a boat. (original image)

Image by The Granger Collection, New York. Architeuthis dux, better known as the giant squid, is likely the inspiration for the legendary kraken. (original image)

Image by Mary Evans Picture Library / Alamy. A dead giant squid washed ashore in Fortune Bay, Newfoundland in 1871. (original image)

Subsequent run-ins would leave no doubt as to the giant squid’s reality. In November 1861, the French warship Alecton was sailing in the vicinity of the Canary Islands in the eastern Atlantic when the crew came upon a dying giant squid floating at the surface. Eager to acquire the strange animal, but nervous about what it might do if they came too close, the sailors repeatedly fired at the squid until they were sure it was dead. They then tried to haul it aboard, unintentionally separating the tentacled head from the rubbery tail sheath. They wound up with only the back half of the squid, but it was still large enough to know that this animal was far larger than the familiar little Loligo. The ensuing report to the French Academy of Sciences showed that the poulpe could grow to enormous size.

Encounters in North American waters added to the body of evidence. A dead giant squid was discovered off the Grand Banks by sailors aboard the B.D. Haskins in 1871, and another squid washed up in Fortune Bay, Newfoundland.

The naturalist Henry Lee suggested in his 1883 book Sea Monsters Unmasked that many sea monsters —including the one seen by the crew of the Daedalus—were actually giant squid. (Accounts of M’Quhae’s monster are consistent with a giant squid floating at the surface with its eyes and tentacles obscured underneath the water.) The numerous misidentifications were simply attributable to the fact that no one actually knew such creatures existed!

Instead of being tamed through scientific description, though, the giant squid seemed more formidable than ever. It was cast as the villain in Jules Verne’s 1869 novel 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and in 1873 news spread of a giant squid that had allegedly attacked fishermen in Conception Bay, Newfoundland. The details are a little murky due to some creative retelling over the years, but the basic story is that two or three fishermen came upon an unidentified mass in the water. When they tried to gaff it, they discovered that the thing was a giant squid—which then tried to sink their boat. Some quick hatchet work sent the monster jetting away in a cloud of dark ink, and the proof of their encounter was a 19-foot-long tentacle. The fishermen gave it to the Rev. Moses Harvey, who was given the body of another giant squid by a different group of Newfoundland fishermen soon afterward. He photographed the latter specimen before sending it on to naturalists in New Haven, Connecticut, for study. The fame and reputation of the “devil fish” was at its acme—so much so that the showman P.T. Barnum wrote to Harvey requesting a pair of giant squid of his own. His order was never filled.

The giant squid was transformed into a real monster, and one whose unknown nature continues to frighten us. Not long after giving sharks a bad rap with Jaws, Peter Benchley made a particularly voracious giant squid the villain of his 1991 novel Beast. The second Pirates of the Caribbean film in 2006 transformed the squid into the gargantuan, ship-crunching kraken.

The enormous cephalopod still seems mysterious. Architeuthis inhabit the dark recesses of the ocean, and scientists are not even sure how many species are in the giant squid genus. Most of what we know comes from the unfortunate squid that have been stranded at the surface or hauled up in fishing nets, or from collections of beaks found in the stomachs of their primary predator, the sperm whale.

Slowly, though, squid experts are piecing together the natural history of Architeuthis. The long-lived apex predators prey mainly on deep-sea fish. Like other ocean hunters, they accumulate high concentrations of toxins in their tissues, especially those squid that live in more polluted areas. Marine biologists say that giant squid therefore can act as an indicator of deep-sea pollution. Giant squid strandings off Newfoundland are tied to sharp rises in temperature in the deep sea, so giant squid may similarly act as indicators of how human-driven climate change is altering ocean environments. There are two giant squid, measuring 36- and 20-feet long, on display in the National Museum of Natural History’s Sant Ocean Hall. As NMNH squid expert Clyde Roper points out, they are “the largest invertebrate ever to have lived on the face of the earth.”

In 2005, marine biologists Tsunemi Kubodera and Kyoichi Mori presented the first underwater photographs of a live giant squid in its natural habitat. For a time it was thought that squid might catch their prey through trickery—by hovering in the water column with tentacles extended until some unwary fish or smaller squid stumbled into their trap. But the images show the large squid aggressively attacking a baited line. The idea that Architeuthis is a laid-back, deep-sea drifter began to give way to an image of a quick and agile predator. The first video footage came in December of the following year, when scientists from the National Science Museum of Japan recorded a live giant squid that had been hauled up to the surface next to the boat. Video footage of giant squid in their natural, deep-sea environment is still being sought, but the photos and video already obtained give tantalizing glimpses of an enigmatic animal that has inspired myths and legends for centuries. The squid are not man-eating ship sinkers, but capable predators in an utterly alien world devoid of sunlight. No new images have surfaced since 2006, which seems typical of this mysterious cephalopod. Just when we catch a brief glimpse, the giant squid retreats back into the dark recesses of its home, keeping its mysteries well guarded.

Further reading:

Ellis, R. 1994. Monsters of the Sea. Connecticut: The Lyons Press.

Ellis, R. 1998. The Search for the Giant Squid. New York: Penguin.

Guerraa, Á; Gonzáleza, Á.; Pascuala, S.; Daweb, E. (2011). The giant squid Architeuthis: An emblematic invertebrate that can represent concern for the conservation of marine biodiversity Biological Conservation, 144 (7), 1989-1998

Kubodera, T., and Mori, K. 2005. First-ever observations of a live giant squid in the wild. Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 22 (272). pp. 2583-2586

Lee, H. 1883. Sea Monsters Unmasked. London: William Clowes and Sons, Limited

The ethics of lethal methods

Smithsonian Libraries

Cranking Up the Heat in the “Wetland of the Future”

Smithsonian Environmental Research Center
by Joe Dawson, SERC research aide Last fall, while volunteering in a plant lab at George Washington University in D.C., I heard about an experiment that was starting up at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC). The project, a global warming simulation in the wetlands surrounding the Chesapeake Bay, was helmed by SERC research ecologist Roy […]

The History of the Town Hall Debate

Smithsonian Magazine

Here’s one question you didn’t hear Barack Obama or Mitt Romney answer during the 2012 presidential election. “Do you prefer pepperoni or sausage on your pizza?”

The question was the brainchild of Pizza Hut, which promised free pizza for life to any patriot willing to ask the question at the audience-driven presidential town hall debate that year.

The marketing ploy, offered a week before the debate, quickly turned into a PR disaster as people panned the offer. A Gawker headline articulates the general reaction to the pitch: "Want Free Pizza Hut Pizza for Life? Just Make a Mockery of the American Democratic System on Live TV."

At first blush, the corporate stunt might seem entirely inappropriate for a tradition that dates all the way back to 17th-century New England meeting houses. But in a certain way it’s fitting: The modern town hall presidential debate, like its predecessor, was built on informal, populist discourse that invites everyone to the table, even those who perhaps shouldn’t be given the mic.  

The very first town hall in the United States was established in Dorchester, Massachusetts, in 1633. Per the town’s court records, every Monday at the sound of an 8 a.m. bell, townspeople held a meeting to settle and establish “such orders as may tend to the generall good as aforesayd.” The decisions made at these meetings were honored as law and “every man to be bound thereby, without gaynesaying or resistance.”

The practice soon spread throughout New England as an effective means for citizens to decide on important issues of the day. Town hall meetings gave locals a way to have their say in local affairs. The informal, majority-rules forum became a foundation of early American democracy and they are still used throughout the country today. The longest continuously functioning one, held in Pelham, Massachusetts, has been run out of a two-story wooden structure since 1743.

Early presidential hopefuls didn’t participate in town halls. They didn’t even openly campaign for votes. Rather, in the spirit of George Washington, elected officials were supposed to simply present themselves as civil servants. On-the-sly politicking and newspaper editorials were expected to do the campaign work for them—no debates needed.

Over time, this sentiment changed. When Abraham Lincoln made a run for Stephen Douglas’ senate seat, he persuaded the senator to agree to a series of debates in 1858—the first electoral debate of note in the country. Decades later, the advent of new technologies like radio and television offered even more ways for candidates to use the debate format to make an impression on would-be voters.

However, these debates were more stylistically formal and were moderated only by established journalists from established news outlets. But with each change came new risk and new reward—as with the famous first televised general election debate in 1960, in which John F. Kennedy’s camera-ready looks helped the Democratic senator score a win against Vice President Richard Nixon, a coup that eventually pushed him all the way to the Oval Office.

Since the 1920s, all presidential debates had been moderated by the League of Women Voters, but in the years after Nixon-Kennedy, campaigns have sought to exert more control, ideally to present their candidates in a more favorable light. From that emerged a secret, backdoor memo in the 1980s crafted by Republican and Democrats to give their candidates more leverage. Among their suggestions were to ban follow-up questions from moderators and an ability to seed the audience with supporters.

When the League caught wind that the parties were trying to strong-arm the debate format, it issued a searing statement from its president, Nancy M. Neuman.

"On the threshold of a new millennium, this country remains the brightest hope for all who cherish free speech and open debate," Neuman wrote. "Americans deserve to see and hear the men who would be president face each other in a debate on the hard and complex issues critical to our progress into the next century."

She challenged the candidates, Vice President George H.W. Bush and Governor Michael Dukakis, to "rise above your handlers and agree to join us in presenting the fair and full discussion the American public expects of a League of Women Voters debate."

The League ultimately withdrew its sponsorship. In its place, the nonpartisan Commission on Presidential Debates was established. It proved more open to changes in the once-honored debate format.

That next presidential season, Arkansas governor Bill Clinton would put the new committee to the test. A skilled public speaker who prided himself on his ability to engage with crowds, Clinton had successfully used town hall forums, where he spoke one-on-one with voters, to his advantage in the primaries. Seeing a town hall debate as an easy way to shine in the general election, his campaign reached out to see if President Bush would be open to a change.

“Boy, I really wanted that, because I'd done a lot of town meetings,” Clinton later told PBSNewshour anchor Jim Lehrer.

The incumbent president initially seemed against the idea. As the president told Bernard Shaw on CNN, "I thought when you and others asked tough questions at the 1988 debates, it livened things up. I saw nothing wrong with the former format.”

But his campaign agreed to it during a phone call with Clinton. As Northeastern University journalism professor Alan Schroeder points out in his book on the perils of the presidential campaign trail, the Bush team believed that since the debate was being held in conservative Richmond, Virginia, undecided voters would be impressed enough by a chance to speak to the president that they wouldn’t ask him hard questions. Bush himself had fared well in small groups in the past, even hosting a successful “Ask George Bush” forum during his own campaign, which was analogous to Clinton’s own forums. The new Commission on Presidential Debates put the forum in motion and the town hall format for presidential debates was born.

Despite the country’s historic embrace of  town halls, allowing everyday voters to question the candidates on a national stage revamped the original model and gave it a turn-of-the-21th-century twist. PARADE magazine called it “one more populist touch in a campaign marked by bus tours, talk shows and MTV—and capped by huge voter turnout.”

The new format meant that candidates couldn’t easily stick to their talking points and instead had to react to questions culled from the crowd. It also created a way for the public to see how candidates performed in a more informal environment. Clinton, for one, was ready: His practiced Southern charm played to his advantage, helping him regain an edge from independent candidate H. Ross Perot, who was considered the winner of the first, more formal, debate.

“Since the town hall format was a novelty it received far more attention than the other more conventional debates,” wrote University of Maryland professor Kathleen E. Kendall in her book on presidential candidates and the media. “Clinton was able to generate substantial political capital because he could showcase his relational style in the most highly publicized and popular of the debates.”

That October, 209 undecided voters were selected by the Gallup Organization to serve as the studio audience for the 90-minute debate. Carole Simpson of ABC News served as moderator. When she came on stage, she commented first on the novelty of the night: “Tonight's program is unlike any other presidential debate in history—we're making history now and it's pretty exciting.”

Though Bush got some barbs in, like saying the Arkansas governor’s flip-flopping would turn the “White House into the Waffle House,” he was criticized for looking too formal, staying behind his lectern for the debate, and looking at his watch. Visuals meant everything, as Clinton knew.

As one paper published in the Journal of Communication in 2007 argues, “While the Bush team simply practiced verbal arguments and rebuttals leading up to the town hall debate, Bill Clinton’s staff also laid out a grid, complete with fake cameras and doubles for his opponents and the audience, to train their candidate to utilize space effectively.”

That meant whenever the camera was on him, Clinton was ready and posed accordingly. The future president also knew how to keep Bush and Perot in the camera’s view so that they might be caught with “bad facial expressions."

Bush would later express his frustration with how the town hall had gone to Lehrer: “You look at your watch and they say that he shouldn't had any business running for president. He's bored. He's out of this thing, he's not with it and we need change. It took a little incident like that to show that I was you know out of it. They made a huge thing out of that. Now, was I glad when the damn thing was over. Yeah. And maybe that's why I was looking at it, only 10 more minutes of this crap, I mean."

But Bush took arguably more heat for being unable to field a question from one of the voters in the audience. When Marisa Hall Summers asked how the candidates had been personally affected by America's economic downturn, Bush was perceived as being out of touch, saying, “it has a lot to do with interest rates.”

According to a Times Mirror Center poll conducted at the end of October 1992, the debate was a success. Forty-six percent of the public preferred that candidates be questioned by voters compared to 28 percent who preferred to stick with a single-moderator format. Simpson chalked up the town hall’s success to its popular appeal. “I think voters who are used to the overabundance of talk shows want to see those people reacting with others like them,” she said. “I think they want that connectedness.”

Since 1992, the town hall format has continued to evolve. In 2008, it included several questions submitted online for the first time. The “pepperoni or cheese” question was actually introduced there first, but because it wasn't asked, Pizza Hut ended up making its bold promise the following election cycle.  

This Sunday, for the first time ever, a town hall debate will be considering the top 30 questions submitted and selected by viewers at Currently leading with more than 42,000 votes is a question asked by Richard M. from California: “Would you support requiring criminal background checks for all gun sales?

The town hall debate is now seen as part of the American political tradition. And in a way, it is—a modern innovation cribbed from a much older way to include everyday people in the political process.

“It’s the democratic process in its most amiable state: earnest Americans asking serious questions about the issues,” a New York Times opinion piece wrote in 2004.

Perhaps the questions aren’t always so earnest. But they likely weren’t back in 1633 either—unless colonists needed to decide which kind of pizza to order. 

Asco's Stations of the Cross

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Stations of the Cross was a walking "ritual of resistance" against what the performance group Asco considered the "useless deaths" taking place in Vietnam. The male members of the group (which originally comprised Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, Willie Herrón III, and Patssi Valdez) paraded down Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, with Herrón as a Christ/death figure bearing a large cardboard cross. The quasi-Passion Play ended with the trioblocking a U.S. Marines recruiting office with the cross, symbolically halting military recruitment from their

Mexican American neighborhood. One year earlier, Whittier Boulevard had been the site of the National Chicano Moratorium March--the largest war protest organized by a minority group, and one that called out the disproportionate burden borne by Americans of color on the front lines.

Asco's Stations of the Cross

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Stations of the Cross was a walking "ritual of resistance" against what the performance group Asco considered the "useless deaths" taking place in Vietnam. The male members of the group (which originally comprised Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, Willie Herrón III, and Patssi Valdez) paraded down Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, with Herrón as a Christ/death figure bearing a large cardboard cross. The quasi-Passion Play ended with the trioblocking a U.S. Marines recruiting office with the cross, symbolically halting military recruitment from their

Mexican American neighborhood. One year earlier, Whittier Boulevard had been the site of the National Chicano Moratorium March--the largest war protest organized by a minority group, and one that called out the disproportionate burden borne by Americans of color on the front lines.

Asco's Stations of the Cross

Smithsonian American Art Museum
Stations of the Cross was a walking "ritual of resistance" against what the performance group Asco considered the "useless deaths" taking place in Vietnam. The male members of the group (which originally comprised Harry Gamboa Jr., Gronk, Willie Herrón III, and Patssi Valdez) paraded down Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, with Herrón as a Christ/death figure bearing a large cardboard cross. The quasi-Passion Play ended with the trioblocking a U.S. Marines recruiting office with the cross, symbolically halting military recruitment from their

Mexican American neighborhood. One year earlier, Whittier Boulevard had been the site of the National Chicano Moratorium March--the largest war protest organized by a minority group, and one that called out the disproportionate burden borne by Americans of color on the front lines.

The Legacy of the Apollo 1 Disaster

Smithsonian Magazine

“We’ve got a fire in the cockpit.”

It was the afternoon of January 27, 1967, a few weeks before the launch of the fledgling Apollo program’s first manned lunar mission. Minutes before, three of America’s first astronauts crawled into the AS-204 Command/Service Module for what was considered a safe simulation of their upcoming flight to the moon. Pressure-suited, strapped into their seats, and hooked up to the vehicle’s oxygen and communication systems, the men—veteran aviators Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Edward H. White II and Roger B. Chaffee—were making another run through their lift-off checklist when the capsule burst into flames.

The blaze quickly spread through the cabin, lasting only 25-and-a-half seconds and reaching more than 1,000 degrees in some places before devouring the module’s pure oxygen atmosphere. All three astronauts died from asphyxiation.

Jay Honeycutt, then 29, had joined the Apollo program as a flight operations engineer at Houston’s Johnson Space Center the year before. He had just gotten home from his shift at mission control when the news broke. “The test was pretty routine,” says Honeycutt, who served as director of NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in the mid-1990s and is now retired. “The people in the control center [in Houston] were monitoring the test and talking with the crew and the folks down here [in Florida] were supporting the test as they always did. And all of a sudden, it happened and there wasn’t time to do much of anything.”

NASA quickly appointed a review board to determine the cause. The investigation revealed multiple problems with design, engineering and quality control, and determined that the fire was most likely sparked by an electrical arc near the floor. The heightened internal pressure of the cabin sealed the plug door hatch, blocking the astronauts’ escape and thwarting the efforts of launch pad workers who struggled for five minutes to open it.

The findings struck a blow to NASA and the race to put a man on the moon. A U.S. Senate report released a year later cited “a false sense of confidence and therefore complacency in this operation.…It appears that everyone associated with the design and test of the spacecraft simply failed to understand fully the danger and the cooperative effect of an ignition source, the combustible materials, and the pure oxygen atmosphere in the sealed spacecraft cabin.” 

The tragedy led NASA engineers to redesign the spacecraft used for future Apollo missions. They removed combustible materials, and installed quick-opening hatches, a fire extinguishing system, and an emergency oxygen supply system in case the astronauts became separated from their suits. The agency instituted improved training for emergency personnel. During the 20-month suspension of the Apollo program, Honeycutt, his colleagues and the Apollo 7 crew (Apollo 2 and 3 were scrubbed and 4-6 were unmanned missions) ran simulations in a safer, redesigned craft. The AS-204 mission was renamed Apollo 1. On October 7, 1968, the race to the Moon began anew, as Apollo 7 orbited the Earth, testing the revamped craft, the first of four missions that would lay the groundwork for the Apollo 11’s historic moon landing in July 1969.

“We lost some amount of momentum, but we were able to make it up and still get to the moon and back in a decade,” says Honeycutt in reference to President Kennedy’s famous moonshot speech. “In my opinion, the fire got us refocused and it gave us information that we needed that corrected our design. Without the fire, we probably would have had some other thing that would have caused some kind of trouble downstream. If it hadn’t been then, it would have probably been later.”

Fifty years have passed, but the impact on the astronauts’ families lingers.

Apollo 1 was supposed to be Roger Chaffee’s first spaceflight. The 31-year-old naval aviator and test pilot had replaced Donn Eisele as pilot after Eisele dislocated his shoulder during weightlessness training. Sheryl Chaffee was only eight years old when her father died. She remembers him as “very energetic,” a bit cocky, and fun. “I don’t think I knew what a big deal [my dad’s work] was,” says Chaffee, who recently retired from a 33-year administrative career with NASA. “Our neighbors were astronauts, and so I would listen in when they would go up into space. He was, to me, just like any other dad. He was just gone a lot because he was always in training.”

Unlike Chaffee, senior pilot Edward White, 36, had flown once before, for Gemini 4 in 1965, and become the first American to spacewalk. Considered by NASA to be the most physically fit astronaut in the flight corps, White began each day with a run and bicycled the three miles from his house to the Manned Space Center in Houston.

The third Apollo 1 astronaut, 40-year-old command pilot Gus Grissom was a veteran of the Mercury and Gemini missions and the second American to fly in space. His flight on Gemini III earned him the distinction as the first man to fly in space twice. Lowell Grissom, now 82, distinctly remembers his big brother Gus telling the family “there were a lot of things wrong with that spacecraft. He knew that the quality was just not there, that there was so much wiring in the thing. There was like 30 miles of wiring in it. The communication system was bad. He had said at one point that afternoon, ‘How do you expect to hear me from the moon when you can’t hear me from three buildings away?’”

Grissom, for one, welcomes the new exhibit dedicated to the fallen Apollo 1 crew debuting this week at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Center Complex, joining a tribute to the astronauts who perished in the Challenger and Columbia explosions. “It’s about damn time,” said Grissom when he heard the news.

The display will include a mix of personal and NASA memorabilia, including photographs, recorded interviews with the Apollo 1 astronauts, and graphics showing their accomplishments. But one artifact will be absent. At the insistence of some family members, the burned command module will remain in storage in a climate-controlled facility at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia

“I wanted to be just like them,” says Col. Eileen Collins of the Apollo 1 astronauts. Collins served as the first female commander of a U.S. spacecraft, STS-93 aboard Columbia, in 1999. She’s also the chair of the Astronaut Memorial Foundation, which was involved with the exhibit.  “That’s part of our goal with this memorial: to bring that feeling to more people.”

(Disclaimer: Kennedy Space Center is an advertiser on and is co-sponsoring an editorial section on American travel. KSC has no input or involvement on editorial content on the site.)

Nancy Henderson has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications. Her most recent book, Sewing Hope, profiles a Ugandan nun who harbors the former abductees of terrorist Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army.

The Call of the Panama Bats

Smithsonian Magazine

I’m sitting in a boat, anchored in a secluded cove of the Panama Canal, waiting for the sun to set. Occasionally, the mild aftershock of a freighter passing through the center of the canal rocks the boat. But for the most part, the muddy water is calm.

My hosts, bat expert Elisabeth Kalko and Ben Feit, a graduate student studying under her tutelage, are setting up their sound equipment in the last remaining light. “The transition between day and night happens so fast,” says Kalko. She waxes poetic—on the cutout-like quality of the silhouetted trees and the rattling cicada orchestra. Her fine-tuned ear isolates the croaks of frogs and the croons of other creatures, and she mimics them for my untrained ear. Hear that? I imagine she can almost tell time by the rhythm of the forest’s pulsing soundtrack, she knows it so well.

Since 2000, Kalko, who is jointly appointed as the head of the experimental ecology department at the University of Ulm in Germany and a staff scientist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI), has been making two trips a year, usually for a month each time, to Panama’s Barro Colorado Island (BCI). The six-square-mile island, where STRI has a field station, is about a 40-minute ferry ride from Gamboa, a small canal town north of Panama City. A hot bed for biodiversity, close to half of Panama’s 220 mammal species live and reproduce on the island.

The bats are what draw Kalko. Around 120 bat species—a tenth of the species found worldwide—live in Panama, and of those, 74 can be found on BCI. Kalko has worked closely with a quarter of them and estimates she has observed about 60 in an effort to better understand the various behaviors that have allowed so many species to coexist.

She has taken me to “Bat Cove,” just a five-minute boat ride from BCI’s docks, to get a glimpse of her work. Just inside the forest, I’m told, is a 65-foot-tall hollowed tree with a rotting pile of guano, scales and fish bones at its base—the roost of Noctilio leporinus. The greater bulldog bat, as it’s more commonly known, is the only bat on the island with fish as its primary diet. Using echolocation to locate swimming fish making ripples in the water’s surface, it swoops down over the water, drags its long talons and snatches its prey. In flight, it curls its head down to grab the fish, then chews it and fills its cheek pouches like a hamster.

Kalko holds a bat detector above her head. The device picks up the high frequency echolocation calls of nearby bats and runs them through a buffer to make them audible. Slowed down, the calls sound like the chirps of birds. Feit watches as sonograms of the sounds appear on his laptop. Kalko has compiled a library of these calls and, from their frequencies and patterns, can identify the species of the caller. As we are sitting, listening, she differentiates between aerial insectivores above the canopy, fruit-eating bats in the forests and fishing bats over the water. She can even determine their stage of foraging, meaning if they are searching or plunging in for a kill, from the cadence of the calls. Her deep passion for bats is contagious, and it puts me at ease, given the situation. When the chirps come in loud on the detector, her assistant casts his headlamp across the surface of the water. Greater bulldog bats often have a reddish color fur and can have a wingspan measuring over two feet, but their fluttering wings are the only things visible as they are fishing. “Wah,” Kalko exclaims each time a bat flits by the boat.

Image by Christian Ziegler. Out in “Bat Cove,” Elisabeth Kalko uses a bat detector to make the high frequency echolocation calls of nearby bats audible. She watches as sonograms of the sounds appear on her laptop. (original image)

Image by Christian Ziegler. After dark, greater bulldog bats leave their roosts to forage for fish. Kalko can determine the stage of a bat’s foraging, meaning if it is searching or plunging in for a kill, from the cadence of its call. (original image)

Image by Christian Ziegler. Noctilio leporinus, or the greater bulldog bat, is the only bat on Barro Colorado Island with fish as its primary diet. Most bats eat insects or fruit. (original image)

Image by Christian Ziegler. Fishing bats use echolocation to detect ripples in the water’s surface, then swoop down and snatch up their prey. (original image)

Image by Christian Ziegler. Noctilio leporinus sweeps its long talons across the water’s surface to collect its prey. (original image)

Image by Christian Ziegler. Greater bulldog bats can often be spotted by their reddish-orange fur and enormous wingspan. From wingtip to wingtip, they can measure over two feet. (original image)

Image by Christian Ziegler. In flight, Noctilio leporinus curls its head down to bite into the fish. (original image)

Image by Christian Ziegler. A greater bulldog bat might eat a dozen fish in a single night. (original image)

Image by Christian Ziegler. Once Noctilio leporinus catches a fish, the bat chews it and fills its cheek pouches like a hamster. (original image)

Image by Christian Ziegler. Bat expert Elisabeth Kalko catches bats in mist nets. She is then able to observe the bats’ behavior more closely in a flight cage, back at Barro Colorado Island’s field station. (original image)

Image by Christian Ziegler. Several Lophostoma silvicolum huddle inside a termite nest. Kalko suspects that the bats release some chemical that acts as a termite repellant. (original image)

Image by Christian Ziegler. A hot bed for biodiversity, close to half of Panama’s 220 mammal species live and reproduce on Barro Colorado Island, a six-square-mile research island in the middle of the Panama Canal. (original image)

Her shrieks are in awe, not fear. Kalko attributes bats’ historically bad reputation to people’s tendency to misinterpret encounters with them as attacks. She calls to mind popular images of a panicky bat accidentally trapped indoors and the cartoonish scene of a bat landing in a woman’s hair. Imaginations really run wild with the carnivorous, blood-sucking vampire bat, as well. But it is her hope that people come to see the beneficial roles bats play, first and foremost as pollinators and mosquito eaters. “Research pays off,” says Kalko. Scientists, for example, are finding that a chemical in vampire bat saliva that acts as an anticoagulant could potentially dissolve blood clots in humans with less side effects than other medications.

Kalko’s greatest discoveries are often made when she catches bats in mist nets, or volleyball-like nets that safely trap an animal in flight, and studies them in a controlled environment. She sets up experiments in flight cages at BCI’s field station and captures their movements with an infrared camera. One of her latest endeavors has been to team up with engineers from around the world on the ChiRoPing project, which aims to use what is known about sonar in bats to engineer robotic systems that can be used where vision isn’t feasible.

In her research, Kalko has found bats that live in termite nests; fishing bats off the coast of Baja, Mexico, that forage miles into the ocean; and bats that, unlike most, use echolocation to find stationary prey, like dragonflies perched on leaves. And her mind is always spinning, asking new questions and imagining how her findings can be applied in some constructive way to everyday life. If bats and ants can coexist with termites, do they produce something that is termite repellant? And if so, can humans use it to stop termites from destroying their houses and decks? Fruit-eating bats essentially soak their teeth in sugar all the time and yet they don’t have cavities. Could an enzyme in their saliva be used to fight plaque in humans?

Early in the night, several bats circle the area. Kalko recalls a feeding frenzy of small insectivores called molossus bats she once witnessed in Venezuela, when she was “surrounded by wings.” This is far from that, mainly because it is just a day or two after the full moon, when bats and insects are considerably less active. As the night wears on, we see less and less. Kalko emphasizes the need for patience in this type of fieldwork, and jokes that when she is in Panama, she gets a moon burn.

“So many billions of people in the world are doing the same thing, day in and day out,” she says, perched on the bow of the boat, as we motor back to the field station. “But we three are the only people out here, looking for fishing bats.”

The Accidental Invention of the Slinky

Smithsonian Magazine

As its jingle once cheered: “A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing! Everyone knows it’s Slinky.” The coiled toy certainly is a marvelous, if simplistic, thing. In 1943, mechanical engineer Richard James was designing a device that the Navy could use to secure equipment and shipments on ships while they rocked at sea. As the story goes, he dropped the coiled wires he was tinkering with on the ground and watched them tumble end-over-end across the floor.

After dropping the coil, he could have gotten up, frustrated, and chased after it without a second thought. But he—as inventors often do—had a second thought: perhaps this would make a good toy. A lot of inventors talk about keeping an open mind and maintaining playful habits, explains Monica Smith, the head of exhibitions at Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

“The Slinky was something that he saw happen and he thought it was cool. It wasn’t an obvious idea for a toy,” she says. “It wasn’t something he was setting out for—it’s more serendipitous than that. He kept an open mind and found a different use for it.”

As Jonathon Schifman reported for Popular Mechanics, Richard James went home and told his wife, Betty James, about his idea. In 1944, she scoured the dictionary for a fitting name, landing on “slinky,” which means “sleek and sinuous in movement or outline.” Together, with a $500 loan, they co-founded James Industries in 1945, the year the Slinky hit store shelves.

At first, folks didn’t know what to make of it. How could a bundle of wire be a toy? The Jameses managed to convince a Gimbel’s department store in Philadelphia to let them do a demonstration during the Christmas shopping season in 1945. There were 400 Slinkys stocked that day, and they were gone in less than two hours—selling for $1 a pop, or about $14 in today’s value.

This Friday, on National Slinky Day, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission will be installing a historical marker to commemorate the invention of the toy in Clifton Heights, the Philadelphia suburb where it was first manufactured.

Richard James' "Toy and Process of Use," patented January 28, 1947 (U.S. Patent 2,415,012)

Seventy-two years ago, Richard James received a patent for the Slinky, describing “a helical spring toy which will walk on an amusement platform such as an inclined plane or set of steps from a starting point to successive lower landing points without application of external force beyond the starting force and the action of gravity.” He had worked out the ideal dimensions for the spring, 80-feet of wire into a two-inch spiral. (You can find an exact mathematical equation for the slinky in his patent materials.) It was Betty that masterminded the toy’s success. In 1960, Richard left his family behind and joined a religious cult. He died in 1974. Betty, a new single mother with six kids, took a big risk on the toy and waged the mortgage of their home to go to a toy show in New York in 1963, as Valerie Nelson reported for the Los Angeles Times in 2008. It was there that the toy caught a second wind, again selling out. The classic toy’s catchy jingle aired on television for the first time that year. After that, the toy sort of took on a life of its own.

During the Vietnam War, soldiers would sometimes use a Slinky as a portable, extendable antenna for their radios, fastening one end to themselves and tossing the other end over a tree branch to get a clear signal, according to Popular Mechanics. This bit of Slinky history was highlighted in “Invention at Play,” an exhibition that opened in 2002 at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History before going on tour.

“That’s a very inventive story. This toy, made of metal wire, could be used in a very flexible way to solve a problem. You could throw it, carry it, stretch it,” says Smith. “Most people don’t think of that as invention, they just think that’s clever. But it’s definitely an inventive activity to look at a device near you and find another use for it.”

The Slinky has even gone to space. Astronaut Margaret Rhea Seddon demonstrated the Slinky’s behavior in zero gravity during a telecast from the Discovery Space Shuttle in 1985. ''It won't slink at all,'' Seddon said in the telecast. ''It sort of droops.''

The Slinky took many forms too, most famously the Slinky dog, which was had been popular in mid-century homes before its cameo in the 1995 movie Toy Story. Before Toy Story, annual sales were only in the hundreds, reports Popular Mechanics. The movie boosted the sales of the toy, which James Industries patented in 1997, once again. The company manufactured 12,000 a year in February 1996 and numbers rose to 33,000 by April and 40,000 in July, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

The Slinky dog had been popular in mid-century homes before its cameo in the 1995 movie Toy Story. (Aykut67/iStock)

When the Slinky was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2000, more than 250 million had been sold to date. Smith emphasizes that the story of the Slinky should serve as inspiration for the next generation of inventors, noting that many get their start by creating toys. (That's true of the Lemelson Center for Invention and Innovation’s namesake Jerome Lemelson, who invented several toys before amassing 500 patents, including those for the VCR and Walkman.)

“If you want to inspire another generation, you want it to be accessible,” Smith explains. “Seeing people start with toys shows you don’t have to be Edison or Steve Jobs to be an inventor. It doesn’t have to be an iPhone. It can be something as simple as a Slinky.”

The Plight of the Right Whale

Smithsonian Magazine

From 800 feet above the Gulf of Saint Lawrence off the coast of Quebec’s Gaspé Peninsula, I peer out of the window of a Twin Otter airplane. The sun glares back from the blue expanse below. In the cabin, a Fisheries and Oceans Canada survey team records sightings of seals, porpoises, dolphins and even basking sharks. Soon we see whales—minkes, fins, humpbacks. The crew is nonchalant. But when a pod of North Atlantic right whales comes into view, the buzz of excitement fills the plane.

The pilot banks to circle, and the crew gathers to one side for a better view. The right whales appear prehistoric, with giant heads covered in callosities—patches of roughened skin unique to each animal. To scoop up copepods, the tiny zooplankton that make up their diet, right whales have gaping mouths and plates of baleen that can reach eight feet long. Their bodies defy all expectations, comically rotund yet strangely elegant as they glide through the sea. Rapt, we watch the huge mammals lunge and dive with a playful innocence that belies the gravity of their situation.

With an estimated 450 individuals remaining, right whales could be functionally extinct in 20 years. Swimming with open mouths, they easily become entangled in the ropes that connect crab and lobster traps to buoys at the surface. As they thrash to free themselves, they often make the entanglement worse. Right whales can drag fishing gear for months before slowly drowning, and collisions with ships also thin their numbers. While reliable data on ship strikes isn’t readily available, necropsies show blunt force trauma as a frequent cause of death.

Image by Nick Hawkins. ‘Callosities’ are patches of roughened skin unique to each whale. Researchers use the patterns to identify individual right whales. (original image)

Image by Nick Hawkins. Aerial view of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis</I>) engaged in a surface active group., with female out front being pursued by males. Known as a "SAG" to researchers, it has a fairly broad definition: two or more whales within a body length interacting at the surface. Typically, the SAG is comprised of one female and a number of males competing with each other to mate with her. Some SAGs are extremely active, with a lot of rolling and white water, whereas others are more sedate. The number of animals in a SAG can range from two or three to more than 40. (original image)

Image by Nick Hawkins. A North Atlantic right whale breaches in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada. With an estimated 450 individuals remaining, the species is among the rarest and most endangered of large whales. (original image)

Image by Nick Hawkins. A right whale named "Lemur" has a significant injury on its tail from the propeller of a large boat. Researchers have also twice observed Lemur entangled in fishing gear. (original image)

It’s not the first time the species has faced an anthropogenic demise. Because they’re slow-moving and float when killed, they were named the ‘right’ whales to hunt. After three centuries of relentless whaling, right whales were reduced to an estimated 60 reproductive individuals by the early 20th century. With protections, their numbers gradually increased, and at the turn of the 21st century, there were just over 500 North Atlantic right whales—nothing near historical abundance, but a recuperating population nonetheless.

More recently, however, things have again taken a turn for the worse. Right whale calving grounds are off the coast of Georgia and Florida. Their annual summer migration takes them up to the Gulf of Maine and Bay of Fundy, where copepods were formerly abundant for the whales to feed on. But climate change is shifting copepod distributions, and right whales have been following their food farther north, up to the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. In this totally new marine environment, the large animals come into conflict with industries unaccustomed to their presence, and the whales are dying at an alarming rate.

Scientists are scrambling to understand these new migration patterns to better protect the whales. The good news is that recent management strategies—like fishing closures and shipping lane changes—show promise of keeping harm out of the whales’ way. While 17 right whales died in 2017, only two have been lost so far this year, neither of them in waters protected by the new measures.

Right whales breaching in the North Atlantic as seen from an aircraft. (Nick Hawkins)

Back in the air, the crew on the Twin Otter immediately radios in their sighting. Their colleagues on the management side need up-to-the-minute information on the locations of the whales. Aerial surveys provide that data, but daily flights are resource intensive, so scientists are developing a new generation of acoustic technologies that can lend a hand. Most intriguing is an autonomous ocean ‘glider’ adapted to monitor whales.

The instrument measures five feet and looks more like a miniature space rocket than a marine vehicle. To cover great swaths of the ocean using little energy, it harnesses some basic science. The glider changes its own density to descend, slowly. Because it has wings, it ‘glides’ forward as it sinks. At a specified depth, it automatically adjusts for positive buoyancy and ascends, still advancing forward. On a single battery, the glider can cruise along at 0.6 mph for up to four months.

The gliders are equipped with hydrophones that use clever software to compare the sounds they hear with an onboard library of whale calls. The computer makes accurate identifications, transmitting real-time whale locations directly to researchers. The hydrophones are also being tested on buoys to listen for passing whales, and because these devices can be deployed for long periods of time, they provide a wealth of data. Persistent and cost-effective, acoustic monitoring technologies will never fully replace aircraft surveys, but they’re an important part of the picture.

Image by Nick Hawkins. Powerless, researchers looked on as whale #3960 tried to wrestle free of crabbing gear, its skin rubbed raw by the ropes. Although the whale eventually freed itself, it will forever bear the marks of its entanglement. (original image)

Image by Nick Hawkins. The unique v-shaped blow of a North Atlantic right whale (Eubalaena glacialis) created by the two nostrils being set at angles to each other. Right whales are the only whale species to exhibit this. (original image)

Image by Nick Hawkins. Right whales congregate in a unique type of behavior called ‘surface active groups.’ Here, a male peers out of the water while trying to slide into position to mate with a female. (original image)

Image by Nick Hawkins. The Ocean Tracking Network (OTN) deploys an autonomous glider off Halifax, Nova Scotia. The gliders provide oceanographic data and record the presence of right whales by listening for their vocalizations. This information helps researchers to understands changing oceanic conditions and whale behaviors. (original image)

Image by Nick Hawkins. Whale watchers observe a group of North Atlantic right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick, Canada. (original image)

Closing fishing zones, rerouting ships and imposing speed limits can mitigate risks to right whales, but they don’t eliminate them. And fishing closures in particular have rippling economic effects on communities that rely on crab and lobster.

“Once we saw the presence of whales, we knew that for our fishery to survive, these whales had to thrive,” says Robert Haché of the Acadian Crabbers Association.

Fisheries can reduce their impact by using ropes with reduced breaking strength—sturdy enough to rein in traps but not a struggling whale. However, one innovation promises to revolutionize the industry: ropeless traps. Designs vary, but all allow fishers to deploy and retrieve their traps without leaving ropes in the water column. In one model, a trap is furnished with a spool of rope attached to a buoy on the end. Using an acoustic signal, the fisher triggers a mechanism to release the buoy, which shoots to the surface pulling rope from the spool so the trap can be recovered and checked for crustaceans.

But such designs have yet to achieve widespread use. On a research cruise this summer, Amy Knowlton and her team from the New England Aquarium and Dalhousie University came across whale #3960 trapped in struggle to survive. With ropes wrapped around his head, through his mouth and even between his baleen, the whale flailed in anguish. He struggled to breath, the gear covering his blowhole. “My heart sank,” says Knowlton, who has been studying North Atlantic right whales for 35 years. She thought #3960’s fate was sealed.

Crab gear wreaks havoc on a right whale’s sensitive baleen. Researchers watched helplessly as whale #3960 struggled for hours, finally freeing itself. (Nick Hawkins)

For hours, the crew looked on, helpless, while the whale dove repeatedly in a desperate attempt to free itself of the snare. Then, all of a sudden, it surfaced without the entangling fishing gear and took off at considerable speed. For people on the front lines, it’s the small victories that sustain the fight.

The future of North Atlantic right whales depends on our ability to reduce the impacts of fishing and shipping, Knowlton says. We can save them, she tells me with confidence. Our own innovations have pushed them nearly to extinction, but perhaps new technologies, like acoustic monitoring and ropeless fishing, could help bring these ocean giants back from the brink.

The History of the Veggie Burger

Smithsonian Magazine

As of 2013, 7.3 million Americans are vegetarian. Even Burger King, a company that was built on burgers (obviously), offers a no-meat patty in the United States and other countries. And this year, the commercially sold veggie burger turns 32, and its inventor, Gregory Sams, remembers when he first came up with the idea. The London-based natural food restaurant owner called it the “VegeBurger” when it first hit the market. Though recipes for a “vegetable burger” without meat have been cited in print as early as 1969, when Sams released his product in 1982, the word “Vege” or what Americans now know as “veggie,” was a relatively new thing—in fact, it didn’t enter the lexicon until the late ’70s. The term “veggie burgers” was cited in the Camden (AR) News in 1976, but it meant a hamburger with vegetables on top.

But before Sams sold the product commercially, he and his brother Craig were paving the road in the United Kingdom for a vegetarian diet. Though vegetarianism has a history that dates back to ancient Egypt, in the late ’60s a no-meat diet was less common in the UK than today—it was reserved for the hippies. Growing up, Sams was the only vegetarian in his class. In the United States, vegetarianism wasn't trendy until 1971 when Frances Moore Lappé's bestseller Diet for a Small Planet hit shelves.

By the late ’60s, at age 19, Sams opened SEED, a macrobiotic restaurant in a basement in the Paddington neighborhood of London. Its menu included rice, veggies, seaweed, unleavened bread, miso and some seed ingredients like sunflower or sesame. Sams would switch up the specials to surprise regulars like John Lennon and Yoko Ono. Though this holistic approach to food originated in Japan, macrobiotic restaurants like SEED didn't become popular in Europe until the latter half of the '70s. (Lennon and Ono, of course, contributed to the fad’s rise.)

SEED is where Sams first made a meatless patty for his customers. He’d make seitan by kneading flour under a running tap for a half hour, flavoring it with tamari, mixing it with aduki beans and oat flakes, and forming a patty out of it.

Fun Fact: At the height of SEED’s success, Lennon and Ono enjoyed the food so much that when Ono was hospitalized, Sams hand delivered the special of the day to her bedside. (Sams recalls Lennon once saying that the "carrot nituke" was the tastiest carrot dish he had ever eaten).


Gregory Sams poses in SEED restaurant for an an article in Fiesta magazine in 1971. (Courtesy of Gregory Sams)

The brothers had also been exploring other ventures—Craig started a whole meal bread bakery and Gregory went into wholesale natural food distribution. Both businesses were eventually united under the Harmony Foods brand. After some time, the brothers ran into financial troubles and they needed a plan.

“I ended up creating the ‘VegeBurger’ to save the company,” Sams says. “Every time you saw meat alternative products coming out, they were more expensive [than the meat options]. I thought ‘That’s not how it should be.’”

He spent six months mixing different quantities of four main ingredients—wheat gluten, sesame, soy and oats—into the right texture. Then he’d add dried herbs, tomato and onion. His idea wasn’t like the frozen patties you find at the grocery store today, like Morningstar or Boca. The first product would be sold in dried food packets. You’d rehydrate the mix, form it into a patty, and cook it up. The goal was to reach a larger market by creating the perfect dried version of the oat patties he’d make at SEED.

The hardest part for Sams? He had never eaten a real burger before. He had been a vegetarian since the age of 10 when his father gave up meat as a New Year’s resolution. There weren’t too many people eating that way in his class. He even lost a girlfriend because of it (her dad ran a restaurant whose most popular dish was called “Joe’s Chile Con Carne”).  

“I was creating the VegeBurger with this image of what a burger should be like. There was a lot of trial and error,” he says. “It was a big moment for me when my long-suffering wife asked for a second bite.”

Once he nailed down the recipe, Sams sold all of his shares of Harmony Foods, to his brother and launched the Realeat Company from his spare bedroom. He wanted out of the restaurant biz and the VegeBurger was his ticket into the commercial food world.


A VegeBurger recipe leaflet (Courtesy of Gregory Sams)

In a pre-launch test cited by the local newspaper The Observer, a Carrefour hypermarket near Southampton sold 2,000 packets (of four burgers) in the first three weeks.

With the initial success from the pre-launch, Sams expanded to other grocers including Sainsbury and Safeway. Each packet of dry mix with four patties sold for about 56 pence comparable to other popular meat burgers that went for 75 to 85 pence each on average.

Between the original dry mix and the frozen VegeBurger that made its debut in 1984 through a licensing agreement, approximately seven million are eaten every year. That’s one every four seconds, 24 hours a day. By the time Sams sold Realeat in 1988, the total went up to 13 million.

An article from the Meat Trades Journal dated April 12, 1984 depicts Gregory Sams eating a VegeBurger. (Courtesy of Gregory Sams)

The VegeBurger was the first of many meatless patties entering the market at the time. It's probable that versions of Sams's VegeBurger were already appearing in restaurants predating his business, but the VegeBurger was the first to reach the commercial, natural foods market. Most restaurants offered a “vegetarian option,” but it was often something along the lines of an omelette or a cheese salad. A popular alternative to a classic British roast dinner was something called a “nut loaf.”

But by 1985 (the VegeBurger was flying off the shelves at this point), Portland, Oregon, restaurant owner Paul Wenner founded Gardenburger, Inc. and released its first vegetable-based burger commercially by 1992. The following year, Boca Burger Inc. was founded. By 2002 Boca, which was acquired by Kraft Foods, was bringing in more than 70 million dollars annually.

But if you’re into the idea of making a fresh meatless patty, Mother Jones has a great list of homemade alternatives to the frozen, soy-based burgers you’re used to seeing at the store. Even though Sams advocates for his original dried recipe, nothing beats the handmade patties he made at SEED for John and Yoko, he says.

Flora of the Hawaiian Islands

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Catalogue of flora from the Hawaiian Islands. Image gallery and specimen search searchable by family, genus, species, and common name. Includes bibliography,, additional links, and more.

Ned Kahn: The Limits of the Knowable

Smithsonian Magazine

Last June, sculptor Ned Kahn’s 17-year-old son approached him with a box.

“I got you a traditional Father’s Day gift,” Ben Kahn warned his Dad. “But it’s not a traditional Father’s Day gift.“

Inside was a tie—made of polished, perforated aluminum. The gift was especially significant because Ben had fashioned it in the workshop of San Francisco’s Exploratorium: the legendary hands-on science museum where Ned had served as artist-in-residence for 14 years.

Even so, the tie seemed incongruous; a more appropriate gift might have been a silk-lined hard hat. Though Kahn appears pensive and soft-spoken, this large-scale environmental artist has won international acclaim by building tornadoes, orchestrating the wind and channeling ocean tides into explosive blowholes.

Kahn, a youthful 51, has a narrow face and dark eyes that often focus in the distance. He majored in botany and environmental science at the University of Connecticut, then worked at the Exploratorium from 1982 until 1996. Physicist Frank Oppenheimer, the museum’s brilliant and eccentric founder (and the younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer), became his mentor.

“Finally, I had someone I could ask all the questions that had been puzzling me for years. Like, ‘What’s actually flowing through a wire when you turn on the light?’ Frank loved questions like that,” recalls Kahn. “He would lead me through all the electricity exhibits in the museum, explaining them in detail. Then he’d end this long explanation by saying, ‘Basically, we don’t know what flows through a wire!’

“It was an awakening. It made me realize that what we do know of the world is based on our view through very small windows. The whole idea of limits—the limits of what’s really knowable—has been woven through everything I’ve done.”

Kahn’s interactive Tornado—an eight-foot-high fog twister that visitors can literally walk through without being carried away to Oz—is still one of the Exploratorium’s signature attractions. It’s a good example of what Kahn means when he refers to his pieces as “turbulent landscapes.” For nearly 30 years, he has been fascinated by the dynamic interplay of natural forces that operate, often invisibly, around us.

“I spent a year trying to make that first tornado sculpture work,” Kahn confesses with barely concealed amusement. “Sometimes I’d be there late at night. I’d aim the fans and the fog machine, and get it all fine-tuned. The thing would be working perfectly! Then I’d come back the next morning, and it wouldn’t work at all. I was going crazy.

“After months of this, I realized that it was all about the air currents in that old, drafty Exploratorium building. Which doors were open, or where the sun was heating the roof, affected everything. It slowly dawned on me, how intertwined the sculpture was with the building’s entire air system.

“This made me think: Where does an environmental sculpture begin, and where does it end? If my tornado was being affected by the air currents in the building, which were being affected by the wind outside the building, there never was a real border between the sculpture and the whole atmosphere of the Earth.”

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Image by Courtesy of Ned Kahn. Ned Kahn's Avalanche is a moveable wheel filled with a mixture of irregular garnet sand and tiny, spherical glass beads. Pictured here is the much larger version of Avalanche at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. A 8-foot-wide version is installed at the Children's Museum in Pittsburgh. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Ned Kahn. Kahn's Rain Oculus is a 70-foot-wide whirlpool at the Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore. The huge whirlpool can circulate 6,000 gallons of water per minute and funtions as a kinetic sculpture, skylight and waterfall. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of Ned Kahn. Kahn has won international acclaim by building tornadoes, orchestrating the wind and channeling ocean tides into explosive blowholes. Shown here is his Wind Facade. (original image)

Image by © 2011 by Jeff Greenwald. Kahn, 51, lives and works in Graton, California. In 2003, his art was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded him a "genius" grant. (original image)

Ned Kahn lives and works in Graton, a small town about 50 miles north of San Francisco. His studio is filled with motors, pipes, metalworking machinery and prototypes for kinetic sculptures. It looks like a salvage yard for spaceship parts.

His early works modeled on a Lilliputian scale the gigantic, always interactive forces of nature. Air columns filled with microscopic beads created patterns of ever-changing sand dunes; spinning glass orbs filled with a clever mix of colored liquid soaps appeared to contain the atmospheric storms seething across Neptune or Jupiter.

As he received more public art commissions, his works grew larger. New “tornadoes,” commissioned by science museums in the United States and Europe, added several stories in height. Whirlpools and blowholes were installed near city piers; the bare walls of buildings were surfaced with thousands of tiny hinged aluminum panels, animated by the ever-shifting patterns of the wind. In 2003 Kahn’s environmental art was recognized by the MacArthur Foundation, which awarded him a “genius” grant. Far from making him feel self-important, the honor has given him a droll perspective on the art world.

“It’s much easier to generate ideas than come up with something that really works,” Kahn observes, spinning a fluid-filled sphere called Turbulent Orb. “One of the dangerous things about becoming a MacArthur Fellow is that people start to take even your half-baked ideas seriously. It makes me nervous … because a lot of my ideas are bad!”

But a large percentage of his ideas are brilliant. Recently unveiled projects include the 20-foot diameter Avalanche at Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry, and the astounding Rain Oculus: a 70-foot-wide whirlpool at the Marina Bay Sands complex in Singapore (designed with architect Moshe Safdie). The huge whirlpool—which can circulate 6,000 gallons of water per minute—functions as a kinetic sculpture, a skylight (and waterfall) for the shopping arcade below, and part of the building’s rain-collecting system.

“I love working with Ned,” says Safdie. “His installations not only harness the forces of nature, but—more relevantly—teach us about them. Since my architecture is about working in harmony with nature, this is a perfect fit. I think we both come out feeling enriched, and that our own work is profoundly complemented by the other’s.”

Avalanche, meanwhile, is a movable wheel filled with a mixture of irregular garnet sand and tiny, spherical glass beads. Flowing together, they evoke the dynamics of moving soil, sand and snow. For this project Kahn consulted with University of Chicago physicist Sidney Nagel, who studies the behavior of water droplets, granular matter and other “disordered systems.”

“The enormous wheel is mesmerizing, as small avalanches build up and interact with one another,” Nagel observes. “Ned has the intuition and insight to see how something that starts out small and simple can take on layers of texture when it is enlarged. He captures the playfulness of the scientist in the lab—on our best days!—and translates the excitement of discovery so that it can be enjoyed by all.”

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Watch this video in the original article

Kahn often works on dozens of projects simultaneously. At this writing they include everything from a Cloud Arbor (a mist sculpture for the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum) to an installation on the side of a giant parking garage in Brisbane, Australia. But he finds himself drawn increasingly to works that go beyond the purely aesthetic.

“I’ve been getting more excited about projects where what I’m doing is useful; where the artwork actually has some benefit to the building,”

Solar panels, he believes, can be made far more attractive. “And wind turbines are a great interest of mine,” Kahn says. “There’s a lot of backlash against wind power; people think it’s ugly and noisy and kills birds. I think there’s a potential for me to help change people’s attitudes, and show that you can do it in beautiful ways.”

A current commission, for the new PUC building in San Francisco (in collaboration with KMD Architects), takes a revolutionary approach to wind power. When completed, a wide channel running up the side of the 12-story building will hold a tower of sculptural wind turbines, feeding electricity directly into the building’s power grid.

“How much? No one’s certain. Because what we’re doing—using the architecture as a wind funnel—is uncharted territory. Even the people who make the turbines are excited to see what they can do!”

Laced with thousands of tiny yellow-green lights, the facade of the building will flicker at night like a grid of fireflies, revealing otherwise invisible wind currents.

As the scale of his projects increase, his ideas become ever wilder. He’s currently researching how water droplets generate electrical charges, a process that produces famously dramatic results. “I’ve been working on designs for a fountain that will store and create electrical discharges,” he grins. “A sculpture that would produce real lightning.”

For an artist preparing to throw thunderbolts around, Ned Kahn remains remarkably unpretentious. This arises in part from his 30-plus years of morning vipassana (mindfulness) meditation, as well as the fact that he’s usually channeling forces much larger than himself.

“Most sculptures are a celebration of the skill of the artist,” he admits. “But in the things that I make—even though I’ve created the structure—it’s really not me that’s doing the sculpting. I’ve assembled the symphony, and the musicians, but something besides me is actually composing and recomposing the piece.”

To date, Ned Kahn has collaborated with more than 25 architecture and design companies around the world. With so much time scheduled on hard-hat construction sites, I can’t help but wonder when he’ll next put on that tie.

“Hopefully, never,” Kahn laughs. “I’m just not a tie guy. But it is a good conversation starter.”

Watch this video in the original article

Base fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Tubular fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Tubular fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Crossbow fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Crossbow fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

Chariot fitting

Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery
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