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The Commoner Who Salvaged a King’s Ransom

Smithsonian Magazine

George Fabian Lawrence, better known as “Stoney Jack,” parlayed his friendships with London navvies into a stunning series of archaeological discoveries between 1895 and 1939.

It was only a small shop in an unfashionable part of London, but it had a most peculiar clientele. From Mondays to Fridays the place stayed locked, and its only visitors were schoolboys who came to gaze through the windows at the marvels crammed inside. But on Saturday afternoons the shop was opened by its owner—a “genial frog” of a man, as one acquaintance called him, small, pouched, wheezy, permanently smiling and with the habit of puffing out his cheeks when he talked. Settling himself behind the counter, the shopkeeper would light a cheap cigar and then wait patiently for laborers to bring him treasure. He waited at the counter many years—from roughly 1895 until his death in 1939—and in that time accumulated such a hoard of valuables that he supplied the museums of London with more than 15,000 ancient artifacts and still had plenty left to stock his premises at 7 West Hill, Wandsworth.

“It is,” the journalist H.V. Morton assured his readers in 1928,

perhaps the strangest shop in London. The shop sign over the door is a weather-worn Ka-figure from an Egyptian tomb, now split and worn by the winds of nearly forty winters. The windows are full of an astonishing jumble of objects. Every historic period rubs shoulders in them. Ancient Egyptian bowls lie next to Japanese sword guards and Elizabethan pots contain Saxon brooches, flint arrowheads or Roman coins…

There are lengths of mummy cloth, blue mummy beads, a perfectly preserved Roman leather sandal found twenty feet beneath a London pavement, and a shrunken black object like a bird’s claw that is a mummified hand… all the objects are genuine and priced at a few shillings each.

H.V. Morton, one of the best-known British journalists of the 1920s and 1930s, often visited Lawrence’s shop as a young man, and wrote a revealing and influential pen-portrait of him.

This higgledy-piggledy collection was the property of George Fabian Lawrence, an antiquary born in the Barbican area of London in 1861—though to say that Lawrence owned it is to stretch a point, for much of his stock was acquired by shadowy means, and on more than one occasion an embarrassed museum had to surrender an item it had bought from him.

For the better part of half a century, however, august institutions from the British Museum down winked at his hazy provenances and his suspect business methods, for the shop on West Hill supplied items that could not be found elsewhere. Among the major museum pieces that Lawrence obtained and sold were the head of an ancient ocean god, which remains a cornerstone of the Roman collection at the Museum of London; a spectacular curse tablet in the British Museum, and the magnificent Cheapside Hoard: a priceless 500-piece collection of gemstones, broaches and rings excavated from a cellar shortly before the First World War. It was the chief triumph of Lawrence’s career that he could salvage the Hoard, which still comprises the greatest trove of Elizabethan and Stuart-era jewelery ever unearthed.

Lawrence’s operating method was simple but ingenious. For several decades, he would haunt London’s building sites each weekday lunch hour, sidling up to the laborers who worked there, buying them drinks and letting them know that he was more than happy to purchase any curios—from ancient coins to fragments of pottery—that they and their mates uncovered in the course of their excavations. According to Morton, who first visited the West Hill shop as a wide-eyed young man around 1912, and soon began to spend most of his Saturday afternoons there, Lawrence was so well known to London’s navvies that he was universally referred to as “Stoney Jack.” A number, Morton added, had been offered “rudimentary archaeological training,” by the antiquary, so they knew what to look for.

Lawrence made many of his purchases on the spot; he kept his pockets full of half-crowns (each worth two shillings and sixpence, or around $18.50 today) with which to reward contacts, and he could often be spotted making furtive deals behind sidewalk billboards and in barrooms. His greatest finds, though were the ones that wended their way to Wandsworth on the weekends, brought there wrapped in handkerchiefs or sacks by navvies spruced up in their Sunday best, for it was only then that laborers could spirit their larger discoveries away from the construction sites and out from under the noses of their foremen and any landlords’ representatives. They took such risks because they liked and trusted Lawrence—and also, as JoAnn Spears explains it, because he “understood networking long before it became a buzzword, and leveraged connections like a latter-day Fagin.”

London navvies–laborers who excavated foundations, built railways and dug tunnels, all by hand–uncovered thousands of valuable artefacts in the British capital each year.

Two more touches of genius ensured that Stoney Jack remained the navvies’ favorite. The first was that he was renowned for his honesty. If ever a find sold for more than he had estimated it was worth, he would track down the discoverer and make certain he received a share of the profits. The second was that Lawrence never turned a visitor away empty-handed. He rewarded even the most worthless discoveries with the price of half a pint of beer, and the workmen’s attitude toward his chief rival—a representative of the City of London’s Guildhall Museum who earned the contemptuous nickname “Old Sixpenny”—is a testament to his generosity.

Lawrence lived at just about the time that archaeology was emerging as a professional discipline, but although he was extremely knowledgeable, and enjoyed a long career as a salaried official—briefly at the Guildhall and for many years as Inspector of Excavations at the newer Museum of London—he was at heart an antiquarian. He had grown up as the son of a pawnbroker and left school at an early age; for all his knowledge and enthusiasm, he was more or less self-taught. He  valued objects for themselves and for what they could tell him about some aspect of the past, never, apparently, seeing his discoveries as tiny fragments of some greater whole.

To Lawrence, Morton wrote,

the past appeared to be more real, and infinitely more amusing, than the present. He had an almost clairvoyant attitude to it. He would hold a Roman sandal—for leather is marvelously preserved in the London clay—and, half closing his eyes, with his head on one side, his cheroot obstructing his diction, would speak about the cobbler who had made it ages ago, the shop in which it had been sold, the kind of Roman who had probably brought it and the streets of the long-vanished London it had known.

The whole picture took life and colour as he spoke. I have never met anyone with a more affectionate attitude to the past.

Like Morton, who nursed a love of ancient Egypt, Stoney Jack acquired his interest in ancient history during his boyhood. “For practical purposes,” he told another interviewer, “let us say 1885, when as a youth of 18 I found my first stone implement…. It chanced that one morning I read in the paper of the finding of some stone implements in my neighborhood. I wondered if there were any more to be found. I proceeded to look for them in the afternoon, and was rewarded.”

A Roman “curse tablet”, recovered by Lawrence from an excavation in Telegraph Street, London, is now part of the collection of the British Museum.

Controversial though Lawrence’s motives and his methods may have been, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that he was the right man in the right place to save a good deal of London’s heritage. Between 1890 and 1930 the city underwent redevelopment at a pace unheard of since the Great Fire of 1666; old buildings were demolished and replaced with newer, taller ones that required deeper foundations. In the days before the advent of widespread mechanization in the building trade, much of the necessary digging was done by navvies, who hacked their way down through Georgian, Elizabethan, medieval and finally Saxon and Roman strata that had not been exposed for centuries.

It was a golden age for excavation. The relatively small scale of the work—which was mostly done with picks and shovels—made it possible to spot and salvage minor objects in a way no longer practicable today. Even so, no formal system existed for identifying or protecting artifacts, and without Lawrence’s intervention most if not all of the 12,000 objects he supplied to the Museum of London, and the 300 and more catalogued under his name at the British Museum, would have been tipped into skips and shot into Thames barges to vanish into landfill on the Erith marshes. This was very nearly the fate of the treasure with which Stoney Jack will always be associated: the ancient bucket packed to the brim with a king’s ransom worth of gems and jewelery that was dug out of a cellar in the City of London during the summer of 1912.

It is impossible to say for certain who uncovered what would become known as the Cheapside Hoard, exactly where they found it, or when it came into the antiquary’s possession. According to Francis Sheppard, the date was June 18, 1912, and the spot an excavation on the corner of Friday Street and Cheapside in a district that had long been associated with the jewelery trade. That may or may not be accurate; one of Lawrence’s favorite tricks was to obscure the precise source of his most valued stock so as to prevent suspicious landowners from lodging legal claims.

This dramatic pocket watch, dated to c.1610 and set in a case carved from a single large Colombian emerald, was one of the most valuable of the finds making up the Cheapside Hoard–and led historian Kris Lane to put forward a new theory explaining the Hoard’s origins. Photo: Museum of London.

Whatever the truth, the discovery was a spectacular one whose value was recognized by everyone who saw it—everyone, that is, but the navvies who uncovered the Hoard in the first place. According to Morton, who claimed to have been present as a boy when the find was brought to West Hill by its discoverers one Saturday evening, the workmen who had uncovered it believed that they had “struck a toyshop.” Tipping open a sack, the men disgorged an enormous lump of clay resembling “an iron football, the journalist recalled, “and they said there was a lot more of it. When they had gone, we went up to the bathroom and turned the water on to the clay. Out fell pearl earrings and pendants and all kinds of crumpled jewellery.”

For the most accurate version of what happened next, it is necessary to turn to the records of the Museum of London, which reveal that the discovery caused so much excitement that a meeting of the museum’s trustees was convened at the House of Commons the next evening, and the whole treasure was assembled for inspection a week later. “By that time,” Sheppard notes, “Lawrence had somehow or other got hold of a few more jewels, and on June 26 sent him a cheque for £90…. Whether this was the full amount paid by the trustees for the hoard is not clear. In August 1913 he was paid £47 for unspecified purchases for the museum.”

Morton—who was 19 at the time of the discovery—offered a more romantic account many years later: “I believe that Lawrence declared this as treasure trove and was awarded a large sum of money, I think a thousand pounds. I well remember that he gave each of the astounded navvies something like a hundred pounds each, and I was told that these men disappeared, and were not seen again for months!”

Whatever the truth, the contents of the navvies’ bucket were certainly astonishing. The hoard consisted of several hundred  pieces—some of them gems, but most worked pieces of jewelery in a wide variety of styles. They came from all over the world; among the most spectacular pieces were a number of cameos featuring Roman gods, several fantastical jewels from Mughal India, a quantity of superb 17th-century enamelware, and a large hinged watch case carved from a huge emerald.

A finely-worked salamander brooch, typical of the intricate Stuart-era jewelry that made up the Cheapside Hoard. Photo: Museum of London.

The collection was tentatively dated to around 1600-1650, and was rendered particularly valuable by the ostentatious fashions of the time; many of the pieces had bold, complex designs that featured a multiplicity of large gems. It was widely assumed, then and now, that the Cheapside Hoard was the stock-in-trade of some Stuart-era jeweler that had been buried for safekeeping some time during the Civil War that shattered England, Ireland and Scotland between 1642 and 1651, eventually resulting in the execution of Charles I and the establishment of Oliver Cromwell’s short-lived puritan republic.

It is easy to imagine some hapless jeweler, impressed into the Parliamentarian army, concealing his valuables in his cellar before marching off to his death on a distant battlefield. More recently, however, an alternative theory has been advanced by Kris Lane, an historian at Tulane whose book The Color of Paradise: The Emerald in the Age of Gunpowder Empires suggests that the Cheapside Hoard probably had its origins in the great emerald markets of India, and may once have belonged to a Dutch gem merchant named Gerard Polman.

The story that Lane spins goes like this: Testimonies recorded in London in 1641 show that, a decade earlier, Polman had  booked passage home from Persia after a lifetime’s trading in the east. He had offered £100 or £200 to the master of an East India Company ship Discovery in Gombroon, Persia, to bring him home to Europe, but got no further than the Comoros Islands before dying–possibly poisoned by the ship’s crew for his valuables. Soon afterwards, the carpenter’s mate of the Discovery, one Christopher Adams, appropriated a large black box, stuffed with jewels and silk, that had once belonged to Polman. This treasure, the testimonies state, was astonishingly valuable; according to Adams’s wife, the gems it contained were “so shiny that they thought the cabin was afire” when the box had first been opened in the Indian Ocean. “Other deponents who had seen the jewels on board ship,” adds Lane, “said they could read by their brilliance.”

Cheapside–for many years center of London’s financial district district, but in Stuart times known for its jewelry stores–photographed in c.1900.

It is scarcely surprising, then, that when the Discovery finally hove to off Gravesend, at the mouth of the Thames, at the end of her long voyage, Adams jumped ship and went ashore in a small boat, taking his loot with him. We know from the Parliamentary archive that he made several journeys to London to fence the jewels, selling some to a man named Nicholas Pope who kept a shop off Fleet Street.

Soon, however, word of his treachery reached the directors of the East India Company, and Adams was promptly taken into custody. He spent the next three years in jail. It is the testimony that he gave from prison that may tie Polman’s gems to the Cheapside Hoard.

The booty, Adams admitted, had included “a greene rough stone or emerald three inches long and three inches in compass”—a close match for the jewel carved into a  hinged watch case that Stoney Jack recovered in 1912. This jewel, he confessed, “was afterward pawned at Cheapside, but to whom he knoweth not”, and Lane considers it a “likely scenario” that the emerald found its way into the bucket buried in a Cheapside cellar; “many of the other stones and rings,” he adds, “appear tantalizingly similar to those mentioned in the Polman depositions.” If Lane is right, the Cheapside Hoard may have been buried in the 1630s, to avoid the agents of the East India Company, rather than lost during the chaos of the Civil War.

Whether or not Lane’s scholarly detective work has revealed the origins of the Cheapside Hoard, it seems reasonable to ask whether the good that Stoney Jack Lawrence did was enough to outweigh the less creditable aspects of his long career. His business was, of course, barely legitimate, and, in theory, his navvies’ finds belonged to the owner of the land that they were working on—or, if exceptionally valuable, to the Crown. That they had to be smuggled off the building sites, and that Lawrence, when he catalogued and sold them, chose to be vague about exactly where they had been found, is evidence enough of his duplicity.

A selection of the 500 pieces making up the Cheapside Hoard that were recovered from a ball of congealed mud and crushed metalwork resembling an “iron football” uncovered in the summer of 1912. Photo: Museum of London.

Equally disturbing, to the modern scholar, is Lawrence’s willingness to compromise his integrity as a salaried official of several museums by acting as both buyer and seller in hundreds of transactions, not only setting his own price, but also authenticating artifacts that he himself supplied. Yet there is remarkably little evidence that any institution Lawrence worked for paid over the odds for his discoveries, and when Stoney Jack died, at age 79, he left an estate totaling little more than £1,000 (about $87,000 now). By encouraging laborers to hack treasures from the ground and smuggle them out to him, the old antiquary also turned his back on the possibility of setting up regulated digs that would almost certainly have turned up additional finds and evidence to set his greatest discoveries in context. On the other hand, there were few regulated digs in those days, and had Lawarence never troubled to make friends with London navvies, most of his finds would have been lost for ever.

For H.V. Morton, it was Stoney Jack’s generosity that mattered. “He loved nothing better than a schoolboy who was interested in the past,” Morton wrote. “Many a time I have seen a lad in his shop longingly fingering some trifle that he could not afford to buy. ‘Put it in your pocket,’ Lawrence would cry. ‘I want you to have it, my boy, and–give me threepence!‘”

But perhaps the last word can be left to Sir Mortimer Wheeler, something of a swashbuckler himself, but by the time he became keeper of the Museum of London in the 1930s–after Stoney Jack had been forced into retirement for making one illicit purchase too many outside a guarded building site–a pillar of the British archaeological establishment.

“But for Mr Lawrence,” Wheeler conceded,

not a tithe of the objects found during building or dredging operations in the neighborhood of London during the last forty years would have been saved to knowledge. If on occasion a remote landowner may, in the process, theoretically have lost some trifle that was his just due, a higher justice may reasonably recognize that… the representative and, indeed, important prehistoric, Roman, Saxon and medieval collections of the Museum are largely founded upon this work of skillful salvage.

Sources

Anon. “Saved Tudor relics.” St Joseph News-Press (St Joseph, MO), August 3, 1928; Anon. “Stoney Jack’s work for museum.” Straits Times (Singapore), August 1, 1928; Michael Bartholomew. In Search of HV Morton. London: Methuen, 2010; Joanna Bird, Hugh Chapman & John Clark. Collectanea Loniniensia: Studies in London Archaeology and History Presented to Ralph Merrifield. London: London & Middlesex Archaeological Society, 1978; Derby Daily Telegraph, November 20, 1930; Exeter & Plymouth Gazette, March 17, 1939; Gloucester Citizen, July 3, 1928; Kris E. Lane. The Colour of Paradise: the Emerald in the Age of Gunpowder Empires. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010;  J. MacDonald. “Stony Jack’s Roman London.” In J. Bird, M. Hassall and Harvey Sheldon, Interpreting Roman London. Oxbow Monograph 58 (1996); Ivor Noël Hume. A Passion for the Past: the Odyssey of a Transatlantic Archaeologist. Charlottesville : University of Virginia Press, 2010; Arthur MacGregor. Summary Catalogue of the Continental Archaeological Collections. Oxford: Ashmolean Museum, 1997; Francis Sheppard. Treasury of London’s Past. London: Stationery Office, 1991;  HV Morton. In Search of London. Boston: Da Capo Press, 2002; Derek Sherborn. An Inspector Recalls. London: Book Guild, 2003; JoAnn Spears. “The Cheapside Hoard.” On the Tudor Trail, February 23, 2012. Accessed June 4, 2013; Peter Watts. “Stoney Jack and the Cheapside Hoard.” The Great Wen, November 18, 2010. Accessed June 4, 2013.

T - Minus 10

National Air and Space Museum
T-minus 10, Sept 18/64. Horizontal rows of people are sketched against a barely suggested landscape. An elevated booth with three people in it is on the left, and the booth is labeled "Eastern Test Range Site No 2." In the center two men fidget with a camera while the others look out toward the horizon.

In March 1962, James Webb, Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, suggested that artists be enlisted to document the historic effort to send the first human beings to the moon. John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art, was among those who applauded the idea, urging that artists be encouraged "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race."

Working together, James Dean, a young artist employed by the NASA Public Affairs office, and Dr. H. Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art, created a program that dispatched artists to NASA facilities with an invitation to paint whatever interested them. The result was an extraordinary collection of works of art proving, as one observer noted, "that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company." Transferred to the National Air and Space Museum in 1975, the NASA art collection remains one of the most important elements of what has become perhaps the world's finest collection of aerospace themed art.

The spring of 1962 was a busy time for the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On February 20, John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. For the first time since the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the U.S. was positioned to match and exceed Soviet achievements in space. NASA was an agency with a mission -- to meet President John F. Kennedy's challenge of sending human beings to the moon and returning them safely to earth by the end of the decade. Within a year, three more Mercury astronauts would fly into orbit. Plans were falling into place for a follow-on series of two-man Gemini missions that would set the stage for the Apollo voyages to the moon.

In early March 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought his large portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, to NASA headquarters.(1) James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA, assumed that the artist was interested in painting a similar portrait of all seven of the Mercury astronauts. Instead, Webb voiced his preference for a group portrait that would emphasize "…the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation." More important, the episode convinced the administrator that "…we should consider in a deliberate way just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate the …historic events" of the American space program.(2)

In addition to portraits, Webb wanted to encourage artists to capture the excitement and deeper meaning of space flight. He imagined "a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching," as well as paintings that portrayed activities in space. "The important thing," he concluded, "is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…." The first step, he suggested, was to consult with experts in the field, including the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the members of the Fine Arts Commission, the arbiters of architectural and artistic taste who passed judgment on the appearance of official buildings and monuments in the nation's capital.

Webb's memo of March 16, 1962 was the birth certificate of the NASA art program. Shelby Thompson, the director of the agency's Office of Educational Programs and Services, assigned James Dean, a young artist working as a special assistant in his office, to the project. On June 19, 1962 Thompson met with the Fine Arts Commission, requesting advice as to how "…NASA should develop a basis for use of paintings and sculptures to depict significant historical events and other activities in our program."(3)

David E. Finley, the chairman and former director of the National Gallery of Art, applauded the idea, and suggested that the agency should study the experience of the U.S. Air Force, which had amassed some 800 paintings since establishing an art program in 1954. He also introduced Thompson to Hereward Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

An imposing bear of a man standing over six feet tall, Lester Cooke was a graduate of Yale and Oxford, with a Princeton PhD. The son of a physics professor and a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was both fascinated by science and felt a personal connection to flight. On a professional level, Cooke had directed American participation in international art competitions and produced articles and illustrations for the National Geographic Magazine. He jumped at the chance to advise NASA on its art program.

While initially cautious with regard to the time the project might require of one of his chief curators, John Walker, director of the National Gallery, quickly became one of the most vocal supporters of the NASA art initiative. Certain that "the present space exploration effort by the United States will probably rank among the more important events in the history of mankind," Walker believed that "every possible method of documentation …be used." Artists should be expected "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race." He urged quick action so that "the full flavor of the achievement …not be lost," and hoped that "the past held captive" in any paintings resulting from the effort "will prove to future generations that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company."(4)

Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut to fly, was scheduled to ride an Atlas rocket into orbit on May 15, 1963. That event would provide the ideal occasion for a test run of the plan Cooke and Dean evolved to launch the art program. In mid-February, Cooke provided Thompson with a list of the artists who should be invited to travel to Cape Canaveral to record their impressions of the event. Andrew Wyeth, whom the curator identified as "the top artist in the U.S. today," headed the list. When the time came, however, Andrew Wyeth did not go to the Cape for the Cooper launch, but his son Jamie would participate in the program during the Gemini and Apollo years.

The list of invited artists also included Peter Hurd, Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law, who had served as a wartime artist with the Army Air Force; George Weymouth, whom Wyeth regarded as "the best of his pupils"; and John McCoy, another Wyeth associate. Cooke regarded the next man on the list, Robert McCall, who had been running the Air Force art program, as "America's top aero-space illustrator. Paul Calle and Robert Shore had both painted for the Air Force program. Mitchell Jamieson, who had run a unit of the Navy art program during WW II, rounded out the program. Alfred Blaustein was the only artist to turn down the invitation.

The procedures that would remain in place for more than a decade were given a trial run in the spring of 1963. The artists received an $800 commission, which had to cover any expenses incurred while visiting a NASA facility where they could paint whatever interested them. In return, they would present their finished pieces, and all of their sketches, to the space agency. The experiment was a success, and what might have been a one-time effort to dispatch artists to witness and record the Gordon Cooper flight provided the basis for an on-going, if small-scale, program. By the end of 1970, Jim Dean and Lester Cooke had dispatched 38 artists to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and to other NASA facilities.

The art program became everything that Jim Webb had hoped it would be. NASA artists produced stunning works of art that documented the agency's step-by-step progress on the way to the moon. The early fruits of the program were presented in a lavishly illustrated book, Eyewitness to Space (New York: Abrams, 1971). Works from the collection illustrated NASA publications and were the basis for educational film strips aimed at school children. In 1965 and again in 1969 the National Gallery of Art mounted two major exhibitions of work from the NASA collection. The USIA sent a selection of NASA paintings overseas, while the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service created two exhibitions of NASA art that toured the nation.

"Since we …began," Dean noted in a reflection on the tenth anniversary of the program, the art initiative had resulted in a long string of positive "press interviews and reports, congressional inquiries, columns in the Congressional Record, [and] White House reports." The NASA effort, he continued, had directly inspired other government art programs. "The Department of the Interior (at least two programs), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Army and even the Veterans Administration have, or are starting, art programs." While he could not take all of the credit, Dean insisted that "our success has encouraged other agencies to get involved and they have succeeded, too."(5)

For all of that, he noted, it was still necessary to "defend" the role of art in the space agency. Dean, with the assistance of Lester Cooke, had been a one-man show, handling the complex logistics of the program, receiving and cataloguing works of art, hanging them himself in museums or on office walls, and struggling to find adequate storage space. In January 1976, a NASA supervisor went so far as to comment that: "Mr. Dean is far too valuable in other areas to spend his time on the relatively menial …jobs he is often burdened with in connection with the art program."(6) Dean placed a much higher value on the art collection, and immediately recommended that NASA officials either devote additional resources to the program, or get out of the art business and turn the existing collection over the National Air and Space Museum, "where it can be properly cared for."(7)

In January 1974 a new building for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) was taking shape right across the street from NASA headquarters. Discussions regarding areas of cooperation were already underway between NASA officials and museum director Michael Collins, who had flown to the moon as a member of the Apollo 11 crew. Before the end of the year, the space agency had transferred its art collection to the NASM. Mike Collins succeeded in luring Jim Dean to the museum, as well.

The museum already maintained a small art collection, including portraits of aerospace heroes, an assortment of 18th and 19th century prints illustrating the early history of the balloon, an eclectic assortment of works portraying aspects of the history of aviation and a few recent prizes, including several Norman Rockwell paintings of NASA activity. With the acquisition of the NASA art, the museum was in possession of one of the world's great collections of art exploring aerospace themes. Jim Dean would continue to build the NASM collection as the museum's first curator of art. Following his retirement in 1980, other curators would follow in his footsteps, continuing to strengthen the role of art at the NASM. Over three decades after its arrival, however, the NASA art accession of 2,091 works still constitutes almost half of the NASM art collection.

(1) Stevenson's portrait is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum (1981-627)

(2) James E. Webb to Hiden Cox, March 16, 1962, memorandum in the NASA art historical collection, Aeronautics Division, National air and Space Museum. Webb's preference for a group portrait of the astronauts was apparently not heeded. In the end, Stevenson painted an individual portrait of John Glenn, which is also in the NASM collection (1963-398).

(3) Shelby Thompson, memorandum for the record, July 6, 1962, NASA art historical collection, NASA, Aeronautics Division.

(4) John Walker draft of a talk, March 5, 1965, copy in NASA Art historical collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(5) James Dean, memorandum for the record, August 6, 1973, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(6) Director of Planning and Media Development to Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(7) James Dean to the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, copy in NASA Art history Collection, Aeronautics Division, NASM.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

July 26, 2007

T-Minus 20 and Holding

National Air and Space Museum
T-Minus 20 and Holding, Sept 18. A diagonal row of people, both sitting and standing, extends from the lower left toward a manned booth on the right. Three men in the back stand while the others sit. More people are inside the booth and some power lines stretch out from the booth to the left. A sign on the booth reads: "Eastern Test Range Site No." Writing in the lower right corner reads: "T-Minus-20 and Holding E.T.R. Cape Kennedy Sept 18 SA-7."

In March 1962, James Webb, Administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, suggested that artists be enlisted to document the historic effort to send the first human beings to the moon. John Walker, director of the National Gallery of Art, was among those who applauded the idea, urging that artists be encouraged "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race."

Working together, James Dean, a young artist employed by the NASA Public Affairs office, and Dr. H. Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art, created a program that dispatched artists to NASA facilities with an invitation to paint whatever interested them. The result was an extraordinary collection of works of art proving, as one observer noted, "that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company." Transferred to the National Air and Space Museum in 1975, the NASA art collection remains one of the most important elements of what has become perhaps the world's finest collection of aerospace themed art.

The spring of 1962 was a busy time for the men and women of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. On February 20, John H. Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth. For the first time since the launch of Sputnik 1 on October 4, 1957, the U.S. was positioned to match and exceed Soviet achievements in space. NASA was an agency with a mission -- to meet President John F. Kennedy's challenge of sending human beings to the moon and returning them safely to earth by the end of the decade. Within a year, three more Mercury astronauts would fly into orbit. Plans were falling into place for a follow-on series of two-man Gemini missions that would set the stage for the Apollo voyages to the moon.

In early March 1962, artist Bruce Stevenson brought his large portrait of Alan Shepard, the first American to fly in space, to NASA headquarters.(1) James E. Webb, the administrator of NASA, assumed that the artist was interested in painting a similar portrait of all seven of the Mercury astronauts. Instead, Webb voiced his preference for a group portrait that would emphasize "…the team effort and the togetherness that has characterized the first group of astronauts to be trained by this nation." More important, the episode convinced the administrator that "…we should consider in a deliberate way just what NASA should do in the field of fine arts to commemorate the …historic events" of the American space program.(2)

In addition to portraits, Webb wanted to encourage artists to capture the excitement and deeper meaning of space flight. He imagined "a nighttime scene showing the great amount of activity involved in the preparation of and countdown for launching," as well as paintings that portrayed activities in space. "The important thing," he concluded, "is to develop a policy on how we intend to treat this matter now and in the next several years and then to get down to the specifics of how we intend to implement this policy…." The first step, he suggested, was to consult with experts in the field, including the director of the National Gallery of Art, and the members of the Fine Arts Commission, the arbiters of architectural and artistic taste who passed judgment on the appearance of official buildings and monuments in the nation's capital.

Webb's memo of March 16, 1962 was the birth certificate of the NASA art program. Shelby Thompson, the director of the agency's Office of Educational Programs and Services, assigned James Dean, a young artist working as a special assistant in his office, to the project. On June 19, 1962 Thompson met with the Fine Arts Commission, requesting advice as to how "…NASA should develop a basis for use of paintings and sculptures to depict significant historical events and other activities in our program."(3)

David E. Finley, the chairman and former director of the National Gallery of Art, applauded the idea, and suggested that the agency should study the experience of the U.S. Air Force, which had amassed some 800 paintings since establishing an art program in 1954. He also introduced Thompson to Hereward Lester Cooke, curator of paintings at the National Gallery of Art.

An imposing bear of a man standing over six feet tall, Lester Cooke was a graduate of Yale and Oxford, with a Princeton PhD. The son of a physics professor and a veteran of the U.S. Army Air Forces, he was both fascinated by science and felt a personal connection to flight. On a professional level, Cooke had directed American participation in international art competitions and produced articles and illustrations for the National Geographic Magazine. He jumped at the chance to advise NASA on its art program.

While initially cautious with regard to the time the project might require of one of his chief curators, John Walker, director of the National Gallery, quickly became one of the most vocal supporters of the NASA art initiative. Certain that "the present space exploration effort by the United States will probably rank among the more important events in the history of mankind," Walker believed that "every possible method of documentation …be used." Artists should be expected "…not only to record the physical appearance of the strange new world which space technology is creating, but to edit, select and probe for the inner meaning and emotional impact of events which may change the destiny of our race." He urged quick action so that "the full flavor of the achievement …not be lost," and hoped that "the past held captive" in any paintings resulting from the effort "will prove to future generations that America produced not only scientists and engineers capable of shaping the destiny of our age, but also artists worthy to keep them company."(4)

Gordon Cooper, the last Mercury astronaut to fly, was scheduled to ride an Atlas rocket into orbit on May 15, 1963. That event would provide the ideal occasion for a test run of the plan Cooke and Dean evolved to launch the art program. In mid-February, Cooke provided Thompson with a list of the artists who should be invited to travel to Cape Canaveral to record their impressions of the event. Andrew Wyeth, whom the curator identified as "the top artist in the U.S. today," headed the list. When the time came, however, Andrew Wyeth did not go to the Cape for the Cooper launch, but his son Jamie would participate in the program during the Gemini and Apollo years.

The list of invited artists also included Peter Hurd, Andrew Wyeth's brother-in-law, who had served as a wartime artist with the Army Air Force; George Weymouth, whom Wyeth regarded as "the best of his pupils"; and John McCoy, another Wyeth associate. Cooke regarded the next man on the list, Robert McCall, who had been running the Air Force art program, as "America's top aero-space illustrator. Paul Calle and Robert Shore had both painted for the Air Force program. Mitchell Jamieson, who had run a unit of the Navy art program during WW II, rounded out the program. Alfred Blaustein was the only artist to turn down the invitation.

The procedures that would remain in place for more than a decade were given a trial run in the spring of 1963. The artists received an $800 commission, which had to cover any expenses incurred while visiting a NASA facility where they could paint whatever interested them. In return, they would present their finished pieces, and all of their sketches, to the space agency. The experiment was a success, and what might have been a one-time effort to dispatch artists to witness and record the Gordon Cooper flight provided the basis for an on-going, if small-scale, program. By the end of 1970, Jim Dean and Lester Cooke had dispatched 38 artists to Mercury, Gemini and Apollo launches and to other NASA facilities.

The art program became everything that Jim Webb had hoped it would be. NASA artists produced stunning works of art that documented the agency's step-by-step progress on the way to the moon. The early fruits of the program were presented in a lavishly illustrated book, Eyewitness to Space (New York: Abrams, 1971). Works from the collection illustrated NASA publications and were the basis for educational film strips aimed at school children. In 1965 and again in 1969 the National Gallery of Art mounted two major exhibitions of work from the NASA collection. The USIA sent a selection of NASA paintings overseas, while the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service created two exhibitions of NASA art that toured the nation.

"Since we …began," Dean noted in a reflection on the tenth anniversary of the program, the art initiative had resulted in a long string of positive "press interviews and reports, congressional inquiries, columns in the Congressional Record, [and] White House reports." The NASA effort, he continued, had directly inspired other government art programs. "The Department of the Interior (at least two programs), the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of the Army and even the Veterans Administration have, or are starting, art programs." While he could not take all of the credit, Dean insisted that "our success has encouraged other agencies to get involved and they have succeeded, too."(5)

For all of that, he noted, it was still necessary to "defend" the role of art in the space agency. Dean, with the assistance of Lester Cooke, had been a one-man show, handling the complex logistics of the program, receiving and cataloguing works of art, hanging them himself in museums or on office walls, and struggling to find adequate storage space. In January 1976, a NASA supervisor went so far as to comment that: "Mr. Dean is far too valuable in other areas to spend his time on the relatively menial …jobs he is often burdened with in connection with the art program."(6) Dean placed a much higher value on the art collection, and immediately recommended that NASA officials either devote additional resources to the program, or get out of the art business and turn the existing collection over the National Air and Space Museum, "where it can be properly cared for."(7)

In January 1974 a new building for the National Air and Space Museum (NASM) was taking shape right across the street from NASA headquarters. Discussions regarding areas of cooperation were already underway between NASA officials and museum director Michael Collins, who had flown to the moon as a member of the Apollo 11 crew. Before the end of the year, the space agency had transferred its art collection to the NASM. Mike Collins succeeded in luring Jim Dean to the museum, as well.

The museum already maintained a small art collection, including portraits of aerospace heroes, an assortment of 18th and 19th century prints illustrating the early history of the balloon, an eclectic assortment of works portraying aspects of the history of aviation and a few recent prizes, including several Norman Rockwell paintings of NASA activity. With the acquisition of the NASA art, the museum was in possession of one of the world's great collections of art exploring aerospace themes. Jim Dean would continue to build the NASM collection as the museum's first curator of art. Following his retirement in 1980, other curators would follow in his footsteps, continuing to strengthen the role of art at the NASM. Over three decades after its arrival, however, the NASA art accession of 2,091 works still constitutes almost half of the NASM art collection.

(1) Stevenson's portrait is now in the collection of the National Air and Space Museum (1981-627)

(2) James E. Webb to Hiden Cox, March 16, 1962, memorandum in the NASA art historical collection, Aeronautics Division, National air and Space Museum. Webb's preference for a group portrait of the astronauts was apparently not heeded. In the end, Stevenson painted an individual portrait of John Glenn, which is also in the NASM collection (1963-398).

(3) Shelby Thompson, memorandum for the record, July 6, 1962, NASA art historical collection, NASA, Aeronautics Division.

(4) John Walker draft of a talk, March 5, 1965, copy in NASA Art historical collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(5) James Dean, memorandum for the record, August 6, 1973, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(6) Director of Planning and Media Development to Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, NASA art history collection, NASM Aeronautics Division.

(7) James Dean to the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs, January 24, 1974, copy in NASA Art history Collection, Aeronautics Division, NASM.

Tom D. Crouch

Senior Curator, Aeronautics

National Air and Space Museum

Smithsonian Institution

July 26, 2007

Are Tablets the Way Out of Child Illiteracy?

Smithsonian Magazine

Most of the businesses on Main Street in Roanoke, Alabama, are shuttered. Through the windows of Phillips Brothers Hardware and Steve’s Downtown Barber Shop you can see upturned chairs and faded Crimson Tide posters. The Martin Theatre remains a brick shell from the fire that gutted it in 1980, before a run of Friday the 13th. There’s a newer commercial strip on the highway that bypasses this town of 6,000, but also a sense that Roanoke has never fully revived since the Handley textile mill closed four decades ago.

Of the 1,500 students enrolled in Roanoke’s public schools, nearly 70 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Many of their parents did not progress beyond high school. David Crouse, the technology director of Roanoke City Schools, says some of his students enter kindergarten understanding about 5,000 fewer words than typical Americans their age. “It’s staggering,” he told me not long ago. “Father, mother—we have children that have no concept of that kind of vocabulary.”

One morning, Crouse took me to a kindergarten class at Knight Enloe, Roanoke’s elementary school, where students were receiving tablet computers for the first time. Their teacher, Melissa Hill, did not explain how the devices worked. She simply placed them on miniature wooden tables in front of groups ranging from two to four.

Immediately, the children began inspecting the tablets from all sides, as if they were gift-wrapped. They poked and swiped at the darkened screens. Before long, some found the power button and voiced delight as the machines sprang to life.

“How do you turn it on?” a four-year-old asked. A classmate leaned across the table to show her.

At one table, four children seemed to be hardly getting anywhere. Eight hands played tug-of-war with their shared tablet until one girl laid down the law: “All right, everybody takes a turn. Let’s take turns.”

Ms. Hill sat quietly at her desk. When students asked questions, she deflected them, saying, “You guys figure it out.”

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Even as Roanoke struggles to leave the 20th century behind, the tablet project has brought the town to the leading edge of education. It’s an experiment, conceived by researchers at MIT and Tufts and Georgia State Universities, to determine the extent to which technology, left in the hands of children, can support reading development and literacy instruction in students with limited resources.

The Roanoke project was born out of a project launched in Africa two years ago by Tufts and Georgia State in conjunction with the One Laptop per Child organization, founded in 2007 by Nicholas Negroponte of the MIT Media Lab. One Laptop per Child, or OLPC, sought to empower students in resource-poor environments by distributing 2.4 million Internet-connected laptops in 42 developing countries. The results of the project, which ceased operations last year, are still being assessed and debated—for example, a study by the Inter-American Development Bank found no effect on test scores but some increase in cognitive skills. But in some places, it became clear that children couldn’t use some of the software because they couldn’t read, and they had no access to schools or teachers.

The research team wanted to investigate whether such children could learn to read on their own, aided only by digital devices. They delivered 40 tablets to children in two villages in Ethiopia, without instructions—a scene that must have conjured the 1980 South African comedy The Gods Must Be Crazy, in which a Kalahari bushman has his first encounter with technology, in the form of a Coke bottle fallen from the sky.

It took four minutes for the first child to power on an Android tablet. "I got mine on! I'm the lion!" he declared. After about a month, most children had learned to recite the alphabet song in English and teach themselves to write letters. This got Robin Morris, a neuropsychology researcher at Georgia State, thinking about his own backyard. “I was saying, I know whole rural environments where 30 percent of the parents don’t have any kid books at home,” Morris recalled recently. “They want their kids to learn, but they don’t have the resources to help them. Ethiopia opened our eyes to the idea that this kind of technology, if it’s done smartly, can actually, maybe have a chance of helping some of these kids who otherwise don’t have opportunities.”

In Roanoke, meanwhile, David Crouse was seeking ways to bring technology into his school district, and his inquiries led him to Morris. In contrast to Ethiopia, Roanoke had schools, and its students were familiar with technology: What would their learning curve be with the tablets? “We want self-directed learners,” Crouse says—students who can work things out alone and together.

Last September, each of Knight Enloe’s seven kindergarten classrooms received five tablets. The students would use the devices in class for around 40 minutes each day, and every child would take a tablet home one weekday afternoon.

Researchers at MIT, Tufts and Georgia State are trying to determine the extent to which technology, left in the handsof children, can support reading development and literacy instruction in students with limited resources. (Andy Isaacson)

In Ms. Hill’s class, I watched as the students, by trial and error, quickly found their way around the screen. Each tablet contained about 160 specially designed educational apps. On the home screen, they appeared simply as untitled colored squares. The students jabbed them at random, which led them down a warren of more menus of colored squares and eventually to various games, cartoons and videos. Two blond-haired boys giggled along to a piano song, snapping their fingers and swaying. A couple of students settled for a little while on an animated driving game; as they navigated a car down a road, they collected letters. The letters formed words, the words formed sentences and the sentences formed stories.

The room became a din of pings, dings and chimes as the students matched shapes, painted train cars and listened to ducks talk back to them. Perhaps more important, they did all of this socially, exploring the tablets in groups and sharing what they’d learned about the devices with others. Ms. Hill sat at her desk, organizing papers.

****

Sugata Mitra, a professor of educational technology at Newcastle University, has become an evangelist for the concept of “minimally invasive education,” based on a series of experiments he made beginning in the late 1990s. In the first trial, he carved a hole into a wall dividing his research center in Delhi from an adjacent slum and put a computer in it for children to use; the children soon taught themselves basic computer skills and a smattering of English. The “hole in the wall” experiment, as it became known, and succeeding efforts convinced Mitra that children learn best with computers, broadband and a teacher who stands out of the way. “I found that if you left them alone, working in groups, they could learn almost anything once they’ve gotten used to the fact that you can research on the Internet,” he has said. “You ask the right kind of question, then you stand back and let the learning happen.”

This regimen is intended to help the students avoid what Maryanne Wolf, director of the Center for Reading and Language Research at Tufts, calls the “black hole of American education”—the fourth grade.

American students are taught how to read in kindergarten and first grade—they learn that letters refer to sounds, sounds compose words and words express concepts. From there, students decipher the nuanced laws of the English language: They discover, for instance, that ea can be pronounced as in bread or in hearth or in at least ten other ways. They learn that muscle contains a c, even though it looks weird, and that the words muscle and muscular and musculature are related. “By the end of third grade, the working assumption of every teacher until recently was that the kids are ready to move on,” Wolf told me. “But if the kids are not fluent—if they don’t have that repertoire of what the English language demands, or the vocabulary to correspond to what they read—they are going to miss the whole boat of the educational system.”

In Roanoke, the researchers see the tablet more as an educational aid. Wolf, one of the project’s designers, claims it marks the first time anyone has tried to deploy apps curated or created expressly to stimulate the young reading brain. If this approach works, thousands of disadvantaged children in the United States—and perhaps millions more around the globe—could escape illiteracy. “That would be revolutionary,” says Wolf, whose publications include the book Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. “It’s not just about autonomous use of a tablet, but where we can, we want to emphasize how important it is to have children working on this together, playing with this together, discovering.”

Human beings are not wired to read, says Wolf. The young brain must forge a whole new circuit for the task, drawing on the neuronal networks it inherits genetically for language, hearing, cognition and vision. The apps in the tablets distributed to Roanoke’s kindergarteners were loosely designed with that process in mind: There are apps for recognizing letters and learning the sounds associated with letters, as well as apps that address many aspects of vocabulary and language development.

One of the most engaging apps is called TinkRbook. It opens with the image of an egg. The child, intuitively, taps the egg, hatching a baby duck. A playful story of the duckling’s first day unfolds—it swims in a lake, it eats bugs—as the child acts as its caregiver. Each scene engages different literacy concepts while allowing the child to tinker with the story. He or she can combine blue and red shampoo to bathe the duck and turn the duck purple, for instance; meanwhile, the child sees the colors, sees and hears the names of the colors, and then learns how to mix colors to create new ones.

“The whole premise of the TinkRbook was, in some sense, could you make learning to read more like the way children learn about physics by playing with blocks and sand?” says Cynthia Breazeal, who directs MIT’s personal robots group, which built the app. (Wolf chose the words and sentence structure for early readers and supplied the voice.) The tablet’s interactivity allows for the learning that occurs when children play socially—the “What if you tried that?” sort of dialogue. “Try something out and see what happens,” Breazeal says, “and through the contrast of trying different things and seeing different outcomes, you start to understand the key principle or key concept underneath it. That’s directly mapped to how children learn.”

One other purpose of the TinkRbook project was to create an app that would engage parents who aren’t highly literate. “It was really about, how do you foster richer parent-child dialogues?” Breazeal says. “We know that’s absolutely critical to develop early literacy: When a mother reads her child a static book, it’s not about reading the literal words on the page. It’s all in the conversation that’s prompted by that story.”

During my morning with Roanoke’s kindergarteners, I noticed that one of them, Gregory Blackman, appeared to tune out while the two boys he sat with delighted in catchy songs and dancing animals. But when I visited his family’s one-story rental house a few miles outside downtown Roanoke, Gregory was sitting on the family’s brown living-room carpet, eyes glued to the tablet. And for the next hour, he matched shapes, recited the alphabet and giggled at cartoons. His mother, Shelley, and his two older sisters hovered nearby, offering help. A darkened TV sat in the corner.

What students do when they’re left on their own with a tablet is a bit of a mystery—for now. MIT’s software records how the children in Roanoke use their tablets: which apps they open, for how long, and in what order. (Or at least it did until some students learned how to bypass the start screen midway through the year.) So far, the data show that the students use them for an average of two hours a night. Initially, they blaze through the whole tablet, exploring dozens of apps. Eventually, they settle on a handful of favorites. The Roanoke students seem to gravitate toward academic content—sounds, letters, puzzles—especially when it is framed as a game. (The piano and coloring apps are also popular.)

Ty Wilburn explores the MIT-Tufts-Georgia State tablet at the home of his grandmother, Betty Shears. (Andy Isaacson)

Of course, the increasing role of technology in children’s lives—especially young children’s lives—has triggered a series of anxieties over their physical, intellectual, emotional and social well-being, and you don’t have to be a Luddite to be unnerved by the specter of kindergarteners left, somewhat literally, to their own devices. But current research on screen-based technologies suggests that their influence on children depends on how old the children are, what they’re doing onscreen, for how long and in what context. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting screen time for children over 2 to less than two hours a day. The National Association for the Education of Young Children and the Fred Rogers Center for Early Learning recognize the need for limits, but also say that if technology is properly deployed in early-childhood programs, “educators are positioned to improve program quality by intentionally leveraging the potential of technology and media for the benefit of every child.”

“[Students] want to be competent, and they want to learn new things—old stuff doesn’t excite them very much. And they like a challenge,” Morris says. “The good thing about the digital technology is that, based on their performance, you can increase the difficulty level and complexity of it. But it’s that child-directed learning that we’re really interested in tapping into. We want to know what attributes on which apps are going to make that happen.”

On the TinkRbook’s back end, for example, the team can track how often a student or group has “tinkered” with certain words and concepts. “A lot of the commercial [educational] apps are not at the level where we can capture that kind of data,” Morris told me. David Nunez, a MIT graduate student, has developed a “mentoring system” that keeps tabs on what a child is using across the tablet, in order to nudge him or her toward apps that address concepts that child needs exposure to—just as Amazon.com might suggest products to you based on your prior purchases. The teacher, Morris said, “will able to say, ‘Okay, Johnny’s really got his capital letters down. We need to move him into small letters, lowercase letters, and the sounds related to those letters.’ ”

Roanoke also tested the mentoring system with preschool children, having secured state money for a full-day pre-kindergarten class consisting of 18 students, a teacher and an aide. Those 18 students were a control group; they all received tablets, which they used for 20 minutes a day in class and once a week at home. Meanwhile, 16 students in a half-day class used the tablets several times a day and took them home every night. And 22 children in a third group used the tablets entirely at home.

Roanoke kindergartener Gracie Williams, at home with her sister and father, Carl, tinkers with an experimental tablet computer containing specially designed educational apps. (Andy Isaacson)

So what did the students learn? The researchers are still analyzing the data, but preliminary results showed that among the kindergarteners, for whom data was compiled on a class-by-class basis, there was a high correlation between the time the students spent with a tablet and their speed in learning to name letters, an indicator of early-childhood literacy. What’s more, the correlation was even higher in classes whose students used the tablets more at home. Among the preschoolers, there was improvement among all three groups, but it is still unclear how much of it can be attributed to the tablet. Children who used the tablets entirely at home had fewer gains, but they didn’t spend as much time on the devices as the students in classes, and they didn’t have a teacher—or fellow students—to learn from.

“Clearly, we’d think that more engagement with a technology-supportive teacher would produce better outcomes, but how the teacher uses the tablet, and how it helps the teacher, are important questions we need to understand,” Morris said. “But how do we maximize tablet use, and how much learning can the students get who are not even coming to a traditional class? That’s the more important challenge for us, because those are frequently the more at-risk children we need to reach more effectively.”

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Last year, Sugata Mitra won a $1 million grant from TED, the global ideas conference, for a three-year project to explore the concept of “schools in the cloud.” In these “self-organized learning environments”—five in India and two in the United Kingdom—students of various ages will be left in a room with computers and no teachers, with volunteer tutors providing help only when asked. “It is not about making learning happen, it is about letting learning happen,” Mitra says.

Maryanne Wolf is more cautious. “By no means do we know fully whether or not [tablets] are the best medium for children’s learning at all,” she says. “But we’re in a digital age, and what is imperative is that we learn what works best for different children, in what amounts, at what ages.” Students need to develop what are called “deep reading” skills—inference, analogical and deductive thinking—and that requires time and focus. She worries that a medium that insists on rapid-fire processing and partial attention may not be ideal. At the same time, she believes that well-designed learning apps can bridge that gap. “I think our 21st-century brain is going to need both kinds of cognitive processes: a biliterate brain with faster processing, but that knows when to think and read and focus deeply,” she says.

 “We are not in any way, shape or form opposed to teaching,” Wolf insists. “In fact, for children who have any kind of struggle with reading, the teacher is essential to helping ‘scaffold’ them”—to piggyback off what the technology teaches them.” Computers, she says, may be heavily involved, lightly involved or not involved: “I will be the first to say we don’t know all of that yet.”

1908

Smithsonian Magazine

"Anything, everything, is possible." —Thomas Edison, 1908

The year 1908 began at midnight when a 700-pound "electric ball" fell from the flagpole atop the New York Times building—the first-ever ball-drop in Times Square. It ended 366 days later (1908 was a leap year) with a nearly two-and-a-half-hour flight by Wilbur Wright, the longest ever made in an airplane. In the days between, the U.S. Navy's Great White Fleet sailed around the world, Adm. Robert Peary began his conquest of the North Pole, Dr. Frederick Cook reached the North Pole (or claimed to), six automobiles set out on a 20,000-mile race from New York City to Paris, and the Model T went into production at Henry Ford's plant in Detroit, Michigan.

The events and innovations that occurred within that 12-month frame a century ago marked, in many ways, America's entry into the modern world. In some cases, they quite literally put modern America in motion. Whether practically significant or, like the automobile race around the world, essentially frivolous—a "splendid folly," one contestant called it—all reflected, and expanded, Americans' sense of what was possible. Buoyed by achievements, the country was more confident in its genius and resourcefulness—not to mention its military might—and more comfortable playing a dominant role in global affairs.

Nineteen hundred eight was an election year, and the parallels between it and 2008 are interesting. Americans of 1908 were coming off two terms of a Republican president who had abruptly set their country on a new course. He was a wealthy Ivy League-educated Easterner who had gone west as a young man and made himself into a cowboy. Like George Walker Bush, Theodore Roosevelt had entered the White House without winning the popular vote (an assassination put TR into office), then conducted himself with unapologetic force. And it was clear then, as it is now, that the country was heading into a new world defined by as yet unwritten rules, and that the man about to exit office bore not a little responsibility for this.

Americans of 1908 knew they lived in unusual times. And lest they forget, the newspapers reminded them almost daily. According to the press, everything that happened that year was bigger, better, faster and stranger than anything that had happened before. In part, this was typical newspaper hyperbole; in part, it was simply true.

An essay in the New York World on New Year's Day of 1908 articulated the wonderment shared by many. The article, titled "1808-1908-2008," noted how far the country had progressed over the previous century. In 1808, five years after the Louisiana Purchase and two years after Lewis and Clark returned from their transcontinental journey, the population had been a mere seven million souls. The federal government had been underfunded and ineffectual. Technology—transportation, communication, medicine, agriculture, manufacturing—had been barely more advanced than during the Middle Ages of Europe. Now, in 1908, with the U.S. population at almost 90 million, the federal revenue was 40 times greater than it had been a century earlier, and America was on a par with Britain and Germany as a global power. U.S. citizens enjoyed the highest per capita income in the world and were blessed with railroads and automobiles, telegraph and telephone, electricity and gas. Men shaved their whiskers with disposable razor blades and women tidied their homes with remarkable new devices called vacuum cleaners. Couples danced to the Victrola in their living rooms and snuggled in dark theaters to watch the flickering images of the Vitagraph. Invisible words volleyed across the oceans between the giant antennas of Marconi's wireless telegraph, while American engineers cut a 50-mile canal through the Isthmus of Panama.

From the glories of the present the World turned to the question of the future: "What will the year 2008 bring us? What marvels of development await the youth of tomorrow?" The U.S. population of 2008, the newspaper predicted, would be 472 million (it's 300 million). "We may have gyroscopic trains as broad as houses swinging at 200 miles an hour up steep grades and around dizzying curves. We may have aeroplanes winging the once inconquerable air. The tides that ebb and flow to waste may take the place of our spent coal and flash their strength by wire to every point of need. Who can say?"

Not a day passed without new discoveries achieved or promised. That same New Year's Day, Dr. Simon Flexner of the Rockefeller Institute declared in a medical paper that human organ transplants would soon be common. Meanwhile, the very air seemed charged with the possibilities of the infant wireless technology. "When the expectations of wireless experts are realized everyone will have his own pocket telephone and may be called wherever he happens to be," Hampton's Magazine daringly predicted in 1908. "The citizen of the wireless age will walk abroad with a receiving apparatus compactly arranged in his hat and tuned to that one of myriad vibrations by which he has chosen to be called....When that invention is perfected, we shall have a new series of daily miracles."

A few weeks before the year began, on the bright windless morning of December 16, 1907, thousands of spectators went to Hampton Roads, Virginia, to hail the departure of the Great White Fleet on its 43,000-mile voyage around the world. Roosevelt steamed in from the Chesapeake Bay aboard the presidential yacht, the Mayflower, to give a few last-minute instructions to fleet commanders and to add his considerable heft to the pomp and circumstance. As sailors in dress uniform stood at the rails and brass bands played on the vessels, the president watched. "Did you ever see such a fleet and such a day?" he shouted to his guests aboard the Mayflower. "Isn't it magnificent? Oughtn't we all to feel proud?" It was, he concluded, "perfectly bully."

For sheer majesty, the armada was impressive. "The greatest fleet of war vessels ever assembled under one flag," the New York Times reported. The 16 battleships were worth $100 million and comprised nearly 250,000 tons of armament. The Mayflower led the ships to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, and as the ships' bands played "The Girl I Left Behind Me," Roosevelt gave a last wave of his top hat.

Loaded to the gunwales and painted bright white, the ships steamed away, stretching out into a three-mile column. Not everyone understood exactly why Roosevelt sent those battleships around the world. Even now, it's difficult to give a simple answer. At the time, some Americans worried that the voyage was extravagant, rash and likely to provoke a war, most likely with Japan. Indeed, Roosevelt harbored real concerns that Japan, newly emboldened by a recent naval victory over Russia and angered by the mistreatment of Japanese immigrants in America, might pose a threat to the Philippines and other U.S. interests. "I had been doing my best to be polite to the Japanese and had finally become uncomfortably conscious of a very, very slight undertone of veiled truculence," he would write a few years later of his decision to send out the fleet. "[I]t was time for a showdown."

But Roosevelt also filled those 16 ships with friendly greetings and U.S. dollars. Among his instructions to commanders were firm words on preserving decorum among the ships' 13,000 sailors. Throughout 1908, as the battleships steamed port to port, from Rio de Janeiro to Sydney, they were greeted with adulation and American flags. When the fleet finally reached Japan in October of 1908, tens of thousands of schoolchildren greeted it by singing "The Star-Spangled Banner." Tensions between the two countries evaporated, and the voyage, once belittled by many as a dangerous stunt, was now applauded as a stunning success. Seldom has a president combined so deftly a message of power with offerings of peace.

To Americans, who were treated to endless stories about the 14-month voyage in newspapers and magazines, the Great White Fleet was a show of strength. The U.S. Navy was now on a par with Germany's navy and second only to Great Britain's. And America, with its capacity to produce more steel than Britain and Germany combined, could build ships faster than any country on earth.

The sky was full of miracles. In New York City, stupendous new buildings pointed upward to where the future seemed to beckon. The Singer Building, headquarters of the Singer Sewing Machine Company, was completed in the spring of 1908. At 612 feet, the "Singerhorn" (as wits soon began to call it, after the Matterhorn) was the highest inhabited building in the world. A few months later, the steel frame of the Metropolitan Life Building leapt over the Singer to 700 feet.

Illustrators imagined a future city of golden towers connected by slender suspension bridges and great masonry arches. Moses King, in a 1908 illustration, imagined dirigibles and other flying craft floating over vaulting towers and bridges in New York City, bound for destinations such as the Panama Canal and the North Pole. A caption referred to "possibilities of aerial and interterrestrial construction, when the wonders of 1908...will be far outdone."

No aerial wonder topped the Wright brothers' feats that year. Absent from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, since their first brief flights there in 1903—and not having flown a lick since 1905—they returned to nearby Kill Devil Hills in April to dig out their old shed and dust off their piloting skills. The Wrights' ability to fly had advanced beyond their first thrilling seconds in the air—but their competitors had also advanced, and the Wrights felt the pressure. A coterie of bright and ambitious young men had joined Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, to form the Aerial Experiment Association (AEA). On March 12, 1908, in Hammondsport, New York, Casey Baldwin, an AEA member, had flown above an icy lake for a distance of almost 320 feet. Four months later, on the Fourth of July, Glenn Hammond Curtiss flew an AEA craft nearly a mile over Hammondsport.

For the previous three years, as the Wrights had dallied with possible buyers of their aircraft, critics and competitors increasingly construed their reticence to fly as evidence of failure or, worse, of fraud. Now, in the spring of 1908, they had two offers of purchase—from the U.S. Army and a private French syndicate. Both offers depended on public demonstrations of the aircraft. After a few weeks of practice in Kitty Hawk, Wilbur sailed to France to demonstrate the Wright Flyer. Orville undertook his own flight trial at Fort Myer, near Washington, D.C. The time had come to put up or shut up.

It was 6:30 on the evening of August 8 when Wilbur climbed into the seat of his Wright Flyer at a horse track near Le Mans. He wore his usual gray suit, starched white collar and green cap, turned backward so it would not blow off in flight. The evening was calm, and so, outwardly, was he. This would be the first public demonstration of a Wright plane. Much, possibly everything, was riding on it. The last time he had flown—a private practice flight at Kitty Hawk in May—he had crashed and destroyed the plane. If he did so now, the French trials would be over before they had begun, and the name Veelbur Reet, as they pronounced it in Le Mans, would be the punch-line of a French joke.

Spectators watched from the grandstand as the twin propellers behind Wilbur started to spin. All at once, the plane shot forward on its track. Four seconds later, it was airborne, rising quickly to 30 feet, higher than most of the French aviators had flown but low enough to give the audience a view of Wilbur as he made a slight adjustment to the control levers. The plane instantly responded, one wing dipping, the other lifting, and banked to the left in a tight, smooth half circle. Coming out of the turn, the plane made a straight run down the length of the track, about 875 yards, then banked and turned into another half circle. Wilbur Wright looped the field once more, then brought the plane down almost exactly where he had taken off less than two minutes earlier.

The flight had been brief, but those 100 or so seconds were arguably the most important Wilbur had spent in the air since 1903. Spectators ran across the field to shake his hand, including the same French aviators who had only recently dismissed him as a charlatan. LŽon Delagrange was beside himself. "Magnificent! Magnificent!" he cried out. "We're beaten! We don't exist!" Overnight, Wilbur was transformed from le bluffeur, as the French press had tagged him, to the "Bird Man," the most celebrated American in France since Benjamin Franklin. "You never saw anything like the complete reversal of position that took place," he wrote to Orville. "The French have simply become wild."

Yet a few weeks later, Delagrange momentarily overshadowed Wilbur's achievement by flying for 31 minutes and thereby setting a new record in the air. Now, it was Orville's turn. On September 9, he took off from Fort Myer, Virginia. He'd already made a few brief desultory hops, but now he flew for family honor and national pride. The plane shot up and began soaring around the parade ground. After 11 minutes, it was clear Orville intended to beat Delagrange's record. The spectators watched him circle the field, taking about a minute per circuit, the engine of the plane crescendoing, fading, then crescendoing again. He had flown about 30 circuits when somebody called out, "By Jings, he's broken Delagrange's record!" According to the New York Herald reporter C. H. Claudy, everybody grabbed one another's hands, each man aware, according to Claudy, that he "had actually been present while aerial history was being reeled hot from the spinning wheel which made that awkward, delicate, sturdy and perfect wonder above their heads go round and round the field."

Orville had no idea he'd broken Delagrange's record. He was lost in flying. He canted into sharp corners and dipped low, skimming over the parade ground, then suddenly rose to 150 feet, higher than anything visible but the needle of the Washington Monument and the dome of the U.S. Capitol rising to the east, backlit by morning sun. "I wanted several times today to fly right across the fields and over the river to Washington," Orville later confessed, "but my better judgment held me back." After 58 circuits of the parade ground, he landed. He had flown 57 minutes and 31 seconds, nearly double Delagrange's record.

The Wrights held the attention of the world, and over the next week or so, as Wilbur flew above adoring crowds in France, Orville set ever longer endurance records at Fort Myer. On September 10, he flew more than 65 minutes; on the 11th, more than 70; on the 12th, almost 75. That same day he set a new endurance record with a passenger— 9 minutes—and an altitude record, 250 feet.

Then, tragedy: on September 17, while flying over Fort Myer with an Army lieutenant named Thomas Selfridge, Orville crashed. He was badly injured. Selfridge was killed.

It appeared as if the crash might end the Wrights' career and set American aeronautics back years. Wilbur ceased flying in France, as Orville lay recuperating in the hospital, attended by his sister. But on September 21, Wilbur lifted off from Le Mans and began circling the artillery ground at Camp d'Auvours above his largest crowd ever, 10,000 spectators.When Wilbur surpassed Orville's flight of nearly 75 minutes, "a yell went up which defies description," according to the Herald. Still, he flew. The drone of the motor came and went, and the sky grew darker and the air cooler. At last, the plane descended and settled on the ground. Wilbur had flown for 91 minutes and 31 seconds, covering 61 miles—a new record. He had banished any conjecture that the Wrights were finished. "I thought of Orville all the time," he told reporters.

Wilbur saved his greatest triumph for the last day of the year. On December 31, 1908, he flew 2 hours and 20 minutes over Le Mans, winning the Coupe de Michelin and affirming the Wrights' place in history. "In tracing the development of aeronautics, the historian of the future will point to the year 1908 as that in which the problem of mechanical flight was first mastered," Scientific American stated, "and it must always be a matter of patriotic pride to know that it was two typical American inventors who gave to the world its first practical flying machine."

In October, during the climax of one of the most thrilling seasons in baseball history (the Chicago Cubs would snatch the National League pennant from the New York Giants, then defeat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series—which they haven't won since.), Henry Ford introduced his oddly shaped new automobile, the Model T. At 45, Henry Ford had been in the automobile business a dozen years, since building his first horseless carriage in a brick shed behind his Detroit home in 1896. Still, everything he had done was a warm-up to what he hoped to accomplish—"a motor car for the great multitude," he said.

Since most automobiles of the day cost between $2,000 and $4,000, only the well-off could afford them, and the machines were still largely for sport. An advertisement of the time, printed in Harper's Weekly, shows an automobile soaring over a hill as a gleeful mŽnage frolics inside. One passenger reaches into a basket. "There is no more exhilarating sport or recreation than automobiling," the ad says. "The pleasure of a spin over country roads or through city parks is greatly enhanced if the basket is well stocked with Dewar's Scotch 'White Label.' "

The fact that automobiles brought out the worst excesses of the rich, confirming what many Americans already believed about them—they were callous, selfish and ridiculous—added to the resentment of those who could not afford the machines. "Nothing has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than the use of the automobile, a picture of the arrogance of wealth," Princeton University president Woodrow Wilson had said in 1906. Yet by the time he became president of the United States six years later, even socialists would be driving Model T's.

The automobile that rolled out of Ford's Piquette Avenue plant that fall did not look like a machine of destiny. It was boxy and top-heavy. The automobile writer Floyd Clymer would later call it "unquestionably ugly, funereally drab." The hard-sprung, church-pew seats made no concession to elegance or comfort. Rather, every aspect of the car was considered with an eye to lightness, economy, strength and simplicity. The simpler a piece of machinery, Ford understood, the lower the cost, and the easier it would be to maintain. Equipped with a manual and a few basic tools, a Model T owner could carry out most repairs himself. The new car's transmission would be smoother and longer lasting than any that had ever been designed. The small magnetized generator that provided a steady flash of voltage to ignite the automobile's fuel would be more dependable. The Model T was designed to ride high off the ground to give it plenty of clearance over America's infamously bumpy roadways, while the car's suspension system allowed it to handle the roads without tossing out occupants. Ford had also foreseen a day when the ditch at the side of the road would be less of a concern to motorists than oncoming traffic: he had moved the steering wheel to the left side, to improve the driver's perspective of approaching vehicles.

Ford Motor Company launched a national advertising campaign, with ads appearing in the Saturday Evening Post, Harper's Weekly and other magazines. For an "unheard of" price of $850, the ads promised "a 4-cylinder, 20 h.p., five passenger family car—powerful, speedy and enduring." An extra $100 would buy such amenities as a windshield, speedometer and headlights.

Ford manufactured just 309 Model T's in 1908. But his new automobile was destined to be one of the most successful ever made. In 1913, Ford would institute the assembly line at his Highland Park, Michigan, plant. In its first year, the company more than doubled its output of Model T's, to 189,000, or about half the automobiles manufactured in America that year. By 1916, Ford would be making almost 600,000 cars a year and could lower the price of the Model T to $360, which produced more demand, to which Ford responded with more supply.

Henry Ford was superb at anticipating the future, but not even he could have predicted the popularity of the Model T and the effects it would have for years to come on how Americans lived and worked, on the landscape surrounding them and the air they breathed—on nearly every aspect of American life. The United States would become, in large part thanks to the Model T, an automobile nation.

It would be wrong to leave the impression that life was a frolic for most Americans. Vast numbers lived in poverty or near poverty. The working class, including some two million children who joined adults in steel mills and coal mines, labored long hours at occupations that were grueling and often dangerous. Tens of thousands of Americans died on the job in 1908.

In the fall of that year, the term "melting pot" entered the American lexicon, coined by playwright Israel Zangwill to denote the nation's capacity to absorb and assimilate different ethnicities and cultures. To our ears, the words may sound warm and delicious, like a pot of stew, but to Zangwill the melting pot was a caldron, "roaring and bubbling," as he wrote, "stirring and seething." And so it was. Violence erupted frequently. Anarchists ignited bombs. Gangs of loosely organized extortionists known as the Black Hand dynamited tenements in New York's Little Italy. Armies of disgruntled tobacco farmers, called Night Riders, galloped through Kentucky and Tennessee, spreading terror. Violence against African-Americans persisted, with dozens of lynchings in 1908. That August, whites in Springfield, Illinois—ironically, the hometown and resting place of Abraham Lincoln—tried to drive black citizens from the city, burning black businesses and homes and lynching two black men. (Like many events of 1908, even Springfield had a far-ranging impact: the riot led to the founding of the NAACP the next year.)

On the other side of the world, there was a breakthrough of sorts: on December 26, 1908, in Sydney, Australia, a 30-year-old African-American boxer from Galveston, Texas, named Jack Johnson stepped into the ring to fight Tommy Burns, the heavyweight champion of the world. Like every titleholder before him, Burns had refused to compete against a black man. But Johnson pursued Burns, badgering him until even whites began to suspect the Canadian was hiding beneath his white skin. Burns finally agreed to a match, but only with a deal that guaranteed him $30,000 of a $35,000 purse.

Johnson destroyed Burns before 25,000 spectators. Blood was pouring from Burns when police stopped the fight in the 14th round. The referee declared Johnson the victor. "Though he beat me, and beat me badly, I still believe I am his master," said Burns after the fight, already calling for a rematch.

Johnson laughed. "Now that the shoe is on the other foot, I just want to hear that white man come around whining for another chance." Eventually, Burns decided he did not want another chance after all.

Johnson would remain the heavyweight champion for seven years, fending off a series of "Great White Hopes." He would be sent to jail in 1920 after federal prosecutors, misapplying a statute meant to discourage prostitution, charged him with illegally transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes after he'd sent a train ticket to one of his white girlfriends. That was later, though. Now was Christmas, and Jack Johnson's victory was a gift for African-Americans to savor in the closing moments of 1908.

For all the problems, perhaps the most impressive trait Americans shared in 1908 was hope. They fiercely believed, not always with good reason, that the future would be better than the present. This faith was represented in the aspirations of the hardworking immigrants, in the dreams of architects and inventors and in the assurances of the rich. "Any man who is a bear on the future of this country," J. P. Morgan famously declared in December of 1908, "will go broke."

It's striking, in fact, how much more hopeful Americans were then than we are today. We live in a nation that is safer, healthier, richer, easier and more egalitarian than it was in 1908, but a recent Pew Research Center poll found that barely one-third of us feel optimistic about the future.

Of course, we are wiser now to the downsides of the technologies that were only just emerging in 1908. We cannot look at an airplane without knowing the death and destruction, from World War I to 9/11, that airplanes have wrought. Automobiles may have once promised exhilarating freedoms, but they also deliver thousands of deaths every year and horrendous traffic jams, and they addict us to foreign oil (1908 was the year, coincidentally, that oil was discovered in Iran) and pollute the atmosphere with, among other things, carbon dioxide, which will alter the earth in ways few of us dare imagine. The American military pride that sailed with the Great White Fleet on its voyage around the world in 1908 and was met with adoration at every port, is now tempered by the knowledge that much of the world despises us. We are left with the disquieting thought that the next 100 years may bear a price for the conveniences and conquests of the last 100.

Smithsonian Notable Books for Children 2009

Smithsonian Magazine

This year’s titles range across cultures, into the past and toward the future. Their creators have relied on humor to touch our hearts; documentary accounts to bring history alive; biography to convey the true meaning of courage; poetic language to demonstrate the power of the written word—and the artist’s brush or camera to create ravishing illustrations.

The age categories listed below are, of necessity, arbitrary. Adjust any choices to the interests and reading level of the individual child. For example, a book that may prove too demanding for a youngster to read on her or his own may constitute a perfect read-aloud.

For the Youngest Readers
(Ages 1-6)

It’s a Secret! by John Burningham
Britain’s acclaimed author-illustrator casts a new and irresistible spell as he answers the age-old question: “Where do cats go at night?” All children deserve an entire shelf full of Burningham’s brilliant creations. Enthralling for all ages.

Mommy, Where Are You? by Leonid Gore
An enchantingly original variation on the lift-the-flap book melds simple yet vivid text and a reassuring denouement.

The Snow Day by Komako Sakai
The Japanese illustrator’s evocation of the hushed and swirling moment when the flakes begin to fall is atmospheric and compressed as a verse by Basho.

Thunder-Boomer! by Shutta Crum, illustrated by Carol Thompson
On a hot day on the farm, clouds are gathering. A spirited tale, rooted in a sense of togetherness, that fairly begs for many a re-reading. A marvelous addition for every family bookshelf.

Red Ted and the Lost Thieves by Michael Rosen, illustrated by Joel Stewart
A bear, a crocodile and a cat set out across town to find their way back to the place where journeys under a lucky star will lead: home.

Budgie & Boo by David McPhail
The distinguished author has created a paean to friendship and its constancy, morning, noon and night.

Piglet and Granny by Margaret Wild, illustrated by Stephen Michael King
What’s a piglet to do when long-awaited Granny hasn’t yet swung open the squeaky garden gate? A picture-perfect portrayal of a bond between generations.

Built by Angels: The Story of the Old-New Synagogue by Mark Podwal
A lyrical evocation of Prague’s synagogue—“older than any other”—recounts its rich and varied history.

Mule Train Mail by Craig Brown
The Wild West meets the modern world in this surprising nod to a living tradition: mule-train mail delivery from the rim of the Grand Canyon to the town of Supai far below.

The Missing Chick by Valeri Gorbachev
There’s always one in every crowd: an errant youngster has the entire town turned inside out and searching high and low.

Dinosaur Woods by George McClements
Witty and warm-hearted, with snappy dialogue aplenty, a tale of forest creatures who band together to save their home. Kids will likely request this again and again.

Yummy: Eight Favorite Fairy Tales retold and illustrated by Lucy Cousins
Imbuing classics from “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” to “The Musicians of Bremen” with fresh energy, Cousins creates an indispensable compendium for the youngest readers.

Lost and Found: Three Dog Stories by Jim LaMarche
Faithful companions who help us find our way in the world—and into a trio of happy endings.

What Lincoln Said by Sarah L. Thomson, illustrated by James E. Ransome
The president’s eloquent words form the basis of a window on the life and times of the farm boy from Illinois who would enter the White House on the eve of the Civil War.

Moonshot: The Flight of Apollo 11 by Brian Floca
Relayed in adroitly compressed text and accompanied by magnificent illustration, Floca conveys the story of one great leap for mankind to a new generation of readers.

Night Lights by Susan Gal
Counting the ways that darkness is illumined, the illustrator-author also ushers in the stuff of dreams. A perfect bedtime book.

An Eye for Color: The  Story of Josef Albers by Natasha Wing, illustrated by Julia Breckenreid
A picture biography of the influential abstract painter illuminates an artistic vision that constituted one of the wellsprings of 20th-century art.

Hands of the Rainforest written and photographed by Rachel Crandell
The Embera of Panama continue to rely on traditional skills and artisanry to maintain their culture.  Crandell documents the ways in which day-to-day existence depends on a deep and ancient knowledge of the tropical forest.

For Middle Readers
(Ages 6-10)

Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle by Major Brian Dennis, Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery
A dog marooned by the Iraq war sets out on an incredible journey across the sands to find the Marines who had shown him the only kindness he had ever known. For anyone who wants to believe that compassion, loyalty and courage transcend all barriers, this book will restore your faith.

Camping with the President by Ginger Wadsworth, illustrated by Karen Dugan
In 1903, Teddy Roosevelt sent the Secret Service packing and dismissed the press when he joined naturalist John Muir for four days of roughing it in Yosemite. The president returned home determined to create the national park system.

Tumtum & Nutmeg by Emily Bearn, illustrations by Nick Price From inside a broom cupboard, two intrepid mice take on the world and protect their human charges. Old-fashioned stories in the best sense of the word.

Dinothesaurus: Prehistoric Poems and Paintings by Douglas Florian
With his signature whimsy and wordplay, the author takes a jaunty excursion into a long, long lost world.

Lin Yi’s Lantern by Brenda Williams, illustrated by Benjamin Lacombe
As the Moon Festival approaches in China, one small boy makes a brave choice and finds that his generosity is repaid in away he least expected.

African Tales retold by Gcina Mhlophe, illustrated by Rachel Griffin
From Namibia to Ethiopia and beyond, magic and healing, kindness and resourcefulness abound: the collected stories merit many a re-reading.

Scat by Carl Hiaasen
The author brings his comic timing and passion for Florida’s wilderness to the suspenseful tale of two kids who decide to investigate after an undeniably unpopular biology teacher disappears after a field trip to a swamp.

Cezanne and the Apple Boy by Laurence Anholt
In his artful introduction to Impressionist painting and his affecting portrayal of a father and son, Anholt pays homage to the power of individual vision. For aspiring young artists everywhere.

Peaceful Heroes by Jonah Winter, illustrated by Sen Addy
From Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King to lesser-known figures—including Ginetta Sagan, a founder of Amnesty International—individuals have risked their lives to forge a better world. The profiles in courage inspire action and light the way into the future.

Classic Animal Stories chosen by Sally Grindley
From Aesop’s Fables to Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals, this splendid anthology limns all the wonders of the wild creatures’ world.

Long Shot: Never Too Small to Dream Big by Chris Paul, illustrated by Frank Morrison
The NBA superstar offers an empowering remembrance of his childhood, when he was told: “You’re too small to play basketball.” He was, however, far too busy working toward his dream to listen to the naysayers. For every child who has faced seemingly insuperable obstacles.

My Name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Catherine Stock
When an eight-year-old boy arrives with his mother and sister in the United States from a refugee camp in Sudan, life seems dauntingly unmoored—until he devises an ingenious solution for connecting with his classmates and making his way toward friendship.

Lucky Breaks by Susan Patron
As she is about to turn 11, a girl called Lucky hopes that life will become more interesting in the small town that she calls home—Hard Pan. But diversion isn’t always as simple as it seems, in this appealing sequel to the Newbery-winning novel The Higher Power of Lucky.

The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix
A little-known story of resistance pays homage to those who risked all to create a secret sanctuary in wartime Paris.

Wild Times at the Bed & Biscuit by Joan Carris, illustrated by Noah Z. Jones
The next installment in the quiet exploits of the best fictional vet around. Grampa Bender rescues wild creatures from a cranky muskrat to a wounded Canada goose, nursing them back to health at his animal boardinghouse. A clever chapter book for elementary-school ages or an admirable read-aloud for pre-school children.

January’s Sparrow by Patricia Polacco
Polacco’s extraordinary evocation of a little-known chapter in American history, the tale of a daring rescue on the Underground Railroad, speaks to heroism at its most profound.

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by John Lawrence
The celebrated British illustrator has created an heirloom edition of one of the greatest adventure sagas ever told.

Image by Eerdmans, William B.. My name is Sangoel by Karen Lynn Williams and Khadra Mohammed, illustrated by Catherine Stock. (original image)

Image by Holiday House, Inc.. The Grand Mosque of Paris: A Story of How Muslims Rescued Jews During the Holocaust by Karen Gray Ruelle and Deborah Durland DeSaix. (original image)

Image by Candlewick Press. Yummy: Eight Favorite Fairy Tales retold and illustrated by Lucy Cousins. (original image)

Image by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Thunder-Boomer! by Shutta Crum, illustrated by Carol Thompson. (original image)

Image by Penguin Group (USA). January's Sparrow by Patricia Polacco. (original image)

Image by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Nubs: The True Story of a Mutt, a Marine & a Miracle by Major Brian Dennis, Kirby Larson and Mary Nethery. (original image)

Image by Lee & Low Books, Inc.. Cycle of Rice, Cycle of Life: A Story of Sustainable Farming written and photographed by Jan Reynolds. (original image)

Image by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers. Dinosaur, text by Stephanie Stansbie; illustrated by Robert Nicholls and James Robins. (original image)

Image by Candlewick Press. Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by John Lawrence. (original image)

Image by Candlewick Press. It's a Secret! by John Burningham. (original image)

Raspberries! by Jay O’Callahan, illustrated by Will Moses
Kindness has its own reward, as Simon learns after his bakery is forced to close down. A large-hearted stand-out, accompanied by a CD of the story, recorded by the author.

The Dragons of Ordinary Farm by Tad Williams and Deborah Beale, pictures by Greg Swearingen
Two siblings believe that a summer spent on their elderly uncle’s farm is going to be dull as all get-out—until they spot the dragon in the barn. A yarn invested with a great deal of charm from two master storytellers.

Nasreen’s Secret School: a True Story from Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter
At this moment, teachers in that war-torn land are placing their lives in the balance to give girls a future. Winter’s account affirms the transformative power of education and the healing strength of a grandmother’s love.

Dinosaur, text by Stephanie Stansbie; illustrated by Robert Nicholls and James Robins
For dino-obsessed children on your list, an interactive excursion to the giants of prehistory.

Breakfast in the Rainforest written and photographed by Richard Sobol
The world-class photographer trekked into wilds of Uganda to document the lives of a band of critically endangered mountain gorillas and the rangers committed to protecting them.

Miss Little’s Gift by Douglas Wood, illustrated by Jim Burke
In a second-grade classroom in 1950s Iowa—decades before a condition we now know as ADHD was recognized—a perceptive teacher saw that one child needed individual tutoring before he could learn to read. The author’s recollection of his own childhood experience is a tribute to teachers everywhere.

The Anne Frank Case by Susan Goldman Rubin, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth
In 1958, Simon Wiesenthal, the renowned Nazi hunter, learned that Neo-Nazis were perpetrating the idea that the Anne Frank story was a hoax. Thus began his five-year search for the Gestapo officer who arrested the Frank family, testifying to Wiesenthal’s determination to honor a young girl’s memory.

Stories from the Billabong retold by James Vance Marshall, illustrated by Frances Firebrace
From Australia, how the great Mother Snake created the world and the Kangaroo got his pouch: Aboriginal legends, memorably recast.

First Come the Zebra by Lynne Barasch
Against the backdrop of the annual migration of wildlife to Kenya, and recent violence in that country, a Maasai boy and a Kikuyu child bridge the differences that cast a shadow over both their lives.

Clover Twig and the Magical Cottage by Kaye Umansky, illustrated by Johanna Wright
Open the creaky gate to a disheveled homestead, where a slightly obstreperous witch is badly in need of rescue from a resourceful girl who arrives to put things right. Umansky’s delightful novel, shot through with magic potions and featuring a heroic cat, is this year’s most transporting creation for middle readers.

Muktar and the Camels by Janet Graber, illustrated by Scott Mack
In a Kenyan orphanage on the border with Somalia, a  boy encounters a traveling librarian who delivers books by camel train—and suddenly, a life of possibility emerges.

Three outstanding titles mark Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday:
Charles Darwin and the Beagle Adventure by A. J. Wood and Clint Twist
A sumptuously illustrated introduction to the scientific imagination, based on Darwin’s diaries and later works.

One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Matthew Trueman
Transfixed by the mysteries of the natural world, Darwin set off aboard the Beagle in 1831. This account offers a page-turning survey of the voyage that instigated an intellectual revolution.

What Mr. Darwin Saw by Mick Manning and Brita Granstrom
Whimsical and accessible, the writer-illustrator team presents complex ideas with their characteristic verve.

Mission to the Moon by Alan Dyer
Information-packed text and more than 200 photographs from NASA archives relay the race into space with immediacy and depth.

Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie by Robbin Gourley
This picture-biography surveys the contributions of Edna Lewis, the pioneering chef, who celebrated regional American cooking well before it was fashionable. Includes recipes.

Stars Above Us by Geoffrey Norman, illustrated by E.B. Lewis
The night sky shines brightly for a father and his young daughter—even when distances created by his deployment separate them. A touching narrative for any child who has awaited a parent’s return.

Yellowstone Moran: Painting the American West by Lita Judge
In 1871, a young artist joined an expedition of scientists setting out to explore the West. The monumental canvasses based on his travels would become iconic images that are now part of our nation’s heritage.

In Her Hands: The Story of Sculptor Augusta Savage by Alan Schroeder, illustrated by JaeMe Bereal
With only her dreams and her genius to guide her, a young girl set out from Florida in the 1890s for New York City. There, she would become a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance.

In the Belly of an Ox: The Unexpected Photographic Adventures of Richard and Cherry Kearton by Rebecca Bond
In the 19th century, two venturesome brothers in the grip of a magnificent obsession—documenting British birds and their nests—carved out a pioneering niche in wildlife photography.

Cycle of Rice, Cycle of Life: A Story of Sustainable Farming written and photographed by Jan Reynolds
On the Edenic island of Bali, farmers have grown rice in harmony with their land for 1,000 years—practices that show promise for rice cultivation worldwide. Reynolds sends us on a compelling odyssey to one of the world’s great intact cultures.

Wildlife Gardening by Martyn Cox
How to do everything from attracting bees to creating an owl’s nest from an old boot: creating a refuge in your own backyard amounts to the ultimate in hands-on family fun.

Testing the Ice: A True Story About Jackie Robinson by Sharon Robinson, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
A daughter pays tribute to her father’s undaunted courage—on and off the playing field—in this quietly moving vignette from her childhood.

Whaling Season: A Year in the life of an Arctic Whale Scientist, written and photographed by Peter Lourie; Extreme Scientists: Exploring Nature’s Mysteries from Perilous Places, written and photographed by Donna M. Jackson
Both these titles, the latest in a series exploring the work of field scientists, vividly convey the thrill of research conducted everywhere from the edge of the ice to the top of great redwoods.

Sit-In: How Four Friends Stood Up by Sitting Down by Andrea Davis Pinkney, illustrated by Brian Pinkney
David. Joseph. Franklin. Ezell—college students who changed history when they took seats at the whites-only lunch counter in North Carolina on February 1, 1960. Poetic story telling and energetic illustrations illuminate a transformative moment in America.

Erika-San by Allen Say
When a young Japanese-American woman goes in search of her grandparents’ traditions, she locates her future on a Japanese island where the old ways continue to hold sway.

For Older Readers
(Ages 10 and up)

Genius of Common Sense written and illustrated by Glenna Lang and Marjory Wunsch
An American heroine of the first order, Jane Jacobs perceived cities as places where we thrive on interconnectedness. Her vision, eloquently explicated here, revolutionized our urban landscapes. For all ages.

Crows & Cards by Joseph Helgerson
Hilarious, touching and grounded in the American tall-tale tradition, Helgerson’s account of Zebulon Crabtree, who falls in with a riverboat gambler in 1849 St. Louis, has all the makings of a classic. Perfect as a read-aloud for somewhat younger children also.

Earth Heroes: Champions of the Wilderness by Bruce and Carol L. Malnor, illustrated by Anisa Claire Hovemann; Earth Heroes: Champions of the Ocean by Fran Hodgkins, illustrated by Cris Arbo
Profiles of dedicated scientists and environmentalists shed new light on science conducted in the field.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork
This novel, richly layered and satisfyingly complex, is at once a legal thriller and a love story—but most of all, a tale of an autistic protagonist finding his way forward when demanding choices must be made.

The Secret of the Yellow Death by Suzanne Jurmain
A portrayal of the researchers who put their lives on the line to solve a medical mystery constitutes a true-life tale that will inspire the next generation of medical investigators.

Lifting the Sky by Mackie d’Arge
On a tumbledown ranch in Wyoming, a teenage girl who befriends wild creatures and possesses her own kind of clairvoyance finds that a real home is at last within her grasp.

Almost Astronauts: 13 Women Who Dared to Dream by Tanya Lee Stone
In 1958, an unspoken rule was in place: astronauts must be male and must be white. The pioneers who challenged the system were pathfinders for young women who today fly jets and take off for missions in space.

Journey of Dreams by Marge Pellegrino
As a girl and her family set out on a harrowing escape from war-torn Guatemala, they rely on family and a tradition of storytelling to sustain them on their flight to freedom. Pellegrino’s powerful novel is set against the backdrop of events as they unfolded in 1980s Central America.

City Boy by Jan Michael
In Malawi, an orphaned boy, sent to the country to live with his relatives, believes that only the past has any meaning—until he begins to glimpse his future.

Heroes of the Environment by Harriet Rohmer, illustrated by Julie McLaughlin
In Mexico, a superstar wrestler campaigns to preserve habitats for sea turtles and whales. A teenage girl discovers a method for removing a toxic chemical from the Ohio River. What they hold in common is a passionate belief that one person can make a difference.

The Yggssey by Daniel Pinkwater
Wacked out, shot through with sorcery and utterly original as always, Pinkwater’s account of a girl who happens to notice that L.A.’s once-thriving ghosts seem to be vanishing amounts to a first-class page turner.

If I Had a Hammer written and photographed by David Rubel
An absorbing chronicle of Habitat for Humanity, which for a quarter century has created shelter from the ground up, everywhere from West Virginia to a Brazilian village, where children no longer sleep beneath a table when the rains begin.

Hannah’s Winter by Kieran Meehan
Witty and unpredictable, fantastical and touching, Meehan’s novel is set in present-day Japan. An ancient message uncovered in a Japanese family’s stationery shop sends two teenage sleuths on a quest for truth.

Juicy Writing: Inspiration and Techniques for Young Writers by Brigid Lowry
The author of many outstanding young adult novels, including Follow the Blue, shares her secrets and explores the rewards of creativity.

Shine, Coconut Moon by Neesha Meminger
Samar is a typical teenager—obsessed by school, friends and boys—until an uncle arrives from India, wanting to connect her family to its rich and contradictory Sikh heritage.

Marching for Freedom by Elizabeth Partridge
A documentary account of events in Selma, Alabama in the spring of 1965—when even children marched in support of the campaign for voting rights— is amplified by unforgettable contemporary photographs.

Pharaoh’s Boat by David Weitzman
Splendid drawings and compelling narrative meld past and present, revealing the secrets of shipwrights working in the shadow of the Pyramids and recognizing the contribution of the archaeologist who excavated the 4,600-year-old vessel they crafted.

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma by Trento Lee Stewart
Four friends who have already sorted out some evildoers find that they must unravel clues in an ominous new plot against their families. Suspense of a high order.

The Man Who Flies with Birds by Carole Garbuny Vogel and Yossi Leshem
Internationally renowned ornithologist Leshem has revolutionized our understanding of migration patterns and also has worked tirelessly for peace in the Middle East—reaching one bird lover at a time.

A Season of Gifts by Richard Peck
It’s quite a high-wire act to create a distinctive novel set in the Christmas season. But the singularly talented Richard Peck has done just that—and managed to bring back the beloved figure of eccentric, no-holds-barred Grandma Dowdel, as he returns to small-town Illinois, this time in 1958.

The Tallest, Strongest and Most Iconic Trees in the World

Smithsonian Magazine

Baobab trees

Baobab trees stud the brown plains of Africa like uprooted, upside-down oaks. These bizarro beasts are growing in Botswana. The biggest baobabs may be thousands of years old. Photo courtesy of Flickr user prezz.

Last week I wrote about the cork trees of the Iberian Peninsula, those great, handsome figures so emblematic of the interior plains of Portugal and Spain. But further abroad are many more trees of great stature and symbolic value—trees that inspire, trees that make us stare, trees that provide and trees that bring to their respective landscapes spirit and grandeur. Here a few of the most celebrated, most famous and most outlandish trees of the Earth.

Baobab. Its bark is fire resistant. Its fruit is edible. It scoffs at the driest droughts. It shrugs, and another decade has passed. It is the baobab, one of the longest-living, strangest looking trees in the world. Several species exist in the genus Adansonia, mostly in the semi-deserts of Africa and southern Asia. They can grow to be nearly 100 feet tall—but it’s the baobab’s bulk and stature that is so astonishing; many have trunks 30 feet in diameter. The Sunland Baobab of South Africa is far bigger still and is reportedly more than 6,000 years old. Its trunk, like those of many old baobabs, is hollow and—as a tourist attraction—even features a small bar inside. Baobab trees are leafless for much of the year and look rather like an oak that has been uprooted and replanted upside down. Numerous legends attempt to explain the bizarre and awesome appearance of the baobab, but if you visit the great Sunland Baobab, just let your jaw drop—and go inside for a drink.

Coconut palm. Where would a tropical beach be without one of the most recognizable of tree figures in the world—the coconut palm? Of 1,500 palm species in the world, just one—Cocos nucifera—produces coconuts, the wonderful fruit that makes desserts, curries and beers delicious, bonks unknown numbers of people each year when it falls, never drops far from the tree but will float across oceans if given the chance. As a provider of nourishment and material for mankind, the coconut is priceless. One study reported 360 uses of the tree and its fatty yet watery fruits. From the Philippines—which leads the world, along with India, in coconut cultivation—come several proverbs commending the plant for its usefulness, like this one: ”He who plants a coconut tree, plants vessels and clothing, food and drink, a habitation for himself, and a heritage for his children.” One coconut palm will produce between 25 and 75 fruits per year over its eight or so decades of life, and, worldwide, people harvest 17 billion coconuts per year.

Olive. It is one of the most often cited trees in the Bible and its fruit the soul of Mediterranean cooking: the olive. In his Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain called the olive tree, and the cactus, “those fast friends of a worthless soil.” It’s true: Olive trees will produce loads of fruit in the cruelest heat and driest gravels of Spain, Portugal, North Africa, the Middle East and myriad islands in the Mediterranean. Not only that, the trees thrive in places where others may wither–and olives don’t only thrive, but thrive for century after century. The oldest olive tree is, well, no one’s certain. But in the West Bank, folks may brag that their Al Badawi tree, in the Bethlehem district, is the oldest olive of all, at between 4,000 and 5,000 years. Greeks on the island of Crete may assure that the ancient, gnarly-trunked olive tree in Vouves is the oldest—at least 3,000 years, experts guess. A half dozen other olive trees are believed to be of similar age. Introduced in the post-Columbus age to warm and arid climates worldwide, the olive tree is a continual favorite emblem for Italian restaurants everywhere and certainly one of the planet’s most appreciated providers.

Olive trees like this giant on Sicily have watched kingdoms rise and fall, have lived through a hundred droughts and, though they may date back to the time of the ancient Romans, still produce fruit every fall. Photo courtesy of Flickr user dirk huijssoon.

Fig. Mediterranean counterpart to the savory olive, the sweet fig grows in the same thirsty country and occupies the same aisles of literary history as the olive. But whereas the olive is the is the tamed and pampered tree of neat orchards and tidy groves, the fig is often a wild child—an outlier of the goat herd hills and river canyons. But the fig is hardly a reject of fruit trees. Fresh figs are one of the hottest tickets in gourmet cooking today, and in the ancient era, Olympian athletes were given figs for strength and reward. And many great and prosperous people have communed with the fig: Siddhartha meditated in the shade of a village fig for days; Jesus scolded a fig tree for having no fruit when he wanted it (Jeez, man—give the tree a break. It wasn’t fig season!); Pliny praised figs, especially the Dottato—or Kadota—variety; and the prophet Mohammed reportedly declared that if he were allowed to bring a single tree to the afterlife, it would be a fig. Amen.

Eucalyptus. The tree Down Under, the eucalyptus includes 700 species mostly endemic to Australia. Various species have been introduced to landscapes around the world, where they now dominate some regions. In California, for example, groves of eucalyptus have encroached on native grasslands, and on stands of redwoods. In Portugal the trees occur on almost 15 percent of the land area, and though useful as a source of biomass for energy production, the trees are a recognized pest. But in their native lands, eucalyptus are honorable kings. They provide essential habitat and food for the koala, for one, and are regarded highly for the medicinal and aromatic uses of its oils, often used in hand lotions and soaps. And there is a less recognized fact about eucalyptus trees–that they grow tall, super tall, taller than most of the biggest-tree-contenders in the world, taller, perhaps, than any other species. You ready? Drum roll please: The tallest eucalyptus ever, at Watts River, Victoria, was just shy of 500 feet.

Redwood. On average the tallest tree in the world, the redwood tree can grow to be taller than the spire of the Notre Dame Cathedral, occurs only in coastal California (and part of Oregon) and was the object of affection of Julia Butterfly Hill, who occupied a redwood she named Luna for three years to protect it from loggers—and succeeded. Today, relatively young and small redwood trees grow throughout their historic range, but the trees as tall as skyscrapers have mostly been felled and remain only in a handful of isolated patches of unspoiled virgin forest. Attempts to preserve them have often led to heated conflicts between loggers and environmentalists—and certainly not every person is tickled to be sharing the world with these monarchs. In 1966, then-California governor Ronald Reagan said, in response to talk of expanding Redwood National Park, “A tree is a tree. How many more do you have to look at?” That he bore such indifference toward the redwood, of all trees, has made Reagan’s sentiments among the most infamous quotes of nature-haters’.

The unmatched height and the perfect posture of the redwood brings to its coastal California habitat a church-like grandeur that will awe nearly anyone who passes among the trees. Photo courtesy of Flickr user drburtoni.

Giant Sequoia. In about they year 100 B.C., while the ancients of Crete were harvesting olives from the Vouves tree, and while the Sunland Baobab was approaching its fifth tired millennium under the African sun, a green sprout appeared on the forest floor in a still-unnamed land far, far away. It took root, and quickly surpassed the forest ferns in height, and year by year it grew into the form of a tree. A conifer, it survived fires and deer, and eventually began to assume real girth. It ascended into the canopy of tree adolescence, and, after a few dozen decades, adulthood, becoming a recognized and admired figure in the surrounding tree community. If ever this tree had died, countless others would have attended the memorial service and said fine things about it—but instead, they died, falling to disease and old age, and this spectacular tree kept on growing. It eventually was not a pillar of the community, but the pillar. When European Americans arrived in California, it’s a wonder the tree wasn’t chopped down for sport and shingles. Instead, the Sierra Nevada resident was admired by a man named Muir, given formal protection and named General Sherman. Today, this giant sequoia tree—of the genus and species Sequoiadendron giganteum—is often considered to be the most massive single organism on the planet. General Sherman weighs an estimated 2.7 million pounds, stands 275 feet tall and measures 100 feet around at the ground. No, Mr. Reagan, if you’ve seen one tree, you haven’t seen them all—but perhaps you haven’t really seen any tree until you’ve met General Sherman.

No Shave November could cost you

National Museum of American History

 

A rust-colored coin with two lines of text, a frond around the edge and a depiction of a nose, whiskers and beard

No-Shave November, the annual cancer awareness campaign that urges men to forgo shaving for 30 days, will undoubtedly produce some sorry-looking stubble for some. You may encounter such fuzzy facial hair that you proclaim scraggly beards criminal. Alternatively, some men may produce such bountiful, beautiful whiskers that you will declare such beauty unlawful. Peter the Great, Russia's 17th-century autocrat, certainly had some strong opinions when he outlawed facial hair in 1698.

Peter I, who ruled from 1689 to 1725, tried to modernize and westernize Russia. He wanted his countrymen to be clean-shaven and wear western clothes like their European counterparts. So he imposed a hefty tax on beards. If you could afford it, you paid the tax and got a token to signify that you had paid for the right to have a beard.

This very hipster-looking coin, showing a mustache and beard on a floating, disembodied nose and lips, is a Russian beard token from 1705 that is part of the National Numismatic Collection (NNC), the Smithsonian's holdings of money and transactional objects. The NNC includes more than 1.6 million objects from around the world including coins, paper money, credit cards, and objects that reflect emerging digital monetary technologies.

Because the Russian beard tax remained on the books until 1772, several iterations of the beard token were created. The museum holds diverse samples, displaying two distinct styles. The annual tax dictated that a new coin be minted each year, which resulted in varying shapes, sizes, and designs.

A square piece of silver metal. There is some decoration around the edges and writing in the center.

Peter instituted the tax after returning from a grand European tour, where he met with European leaders, tried to gather allies against the Ottoman empire, and learned new technologies such as shipbuilding and city planning. He traveled incognito with an entourage of more than 200 nobles, soldiers, and workmen (though with a posse that large, few were fooled due to the rumors of Peter's travels, paired with his 6'8" stature and demeanor).

Upon his return to Russia, Peter declared facial hair illegal and, according to Lucinda Hawksley's 2015 book Moustaches, Whiskers & Beards, was said to have personally cut off the beards of the high-ranking officials who welcomed him home. He even empowered his police to forcibly shave men's beards in the streets. The decree was met with backlash from members of the Russian Orthodox Church, who cited Ivan the Terrible's opinion that shaving "would mean blemishing the image of man as God created him." Additionally, the last prerevolutionary patriarch of Moscow, Adrian, declared shaving one's beard "a capital sin." This proclamation by Peter forced Old Believers to renounce their faith in order to comply with the law.

Peter eventually relaxed his stance and instead imposed an annual, graduated tax on facial hair that depended on income. According to William Andrews's 2014 book At the Sign of the Barber's Pole: Studies in Hirsute History, the tax could range from 30 to 100 rubles annually. Peasants were exempt from this law. However, the wealthy bourgeoisie had to pay a considerable sum to keep their bushy beards.

Once the tax was paid, the bearded gent received a beard token to be carried at all times, indicating he had paid for the right to facial hair. The ban was taken rather seriously and, if you were caught without your beard token, your facial hair could be cut off on sight, as illustrated in this famous image.

Other coins and medals from the National Numismatic Collection offer additional information about about Peter's reign. Facial hair was not the only way Peter tried to westernize Russia, or even his own image.

A silver coin with a man's face in profile. He has curly hair, a crown of laurels and classical garb. There is text running around the edges of the coin.

This coin depicts Peter in profile wearing a laurel wreath around his head like a crown. Centuries earlier, Roman leaders commonly depicted themselves wearing laurel wreaths to liken themselves to the god Apollo. Here, Peter wears the laurel to appear like ancient Roman rulers. Peter even includes a Latin inscription taken from Ovid's Fasti, a book of poems explaining the origin of Roman holidays, published in 8 AD.

This coin is particularly interesting because in the portrait, Peter himself has a mustache. This is odd considering he wants all of Russia to be sans facial hair. However, the name "beard tax" indicates that thin and well-groomed mustaches were acceptable. The French fashion of the time was clean-shaven chins, according to Victoria Sherrow's Encyclopedia of Hair. Apparently, beards became smaller and smaller until they went out of style around 1720. Peter considered bushy beards to be a symbol of Russia's "backwardness," yet he tried to emulate the west by sporting a dashing mustache and a hairless chin in his portrait.

Beyond coins, Peter also produced medals depicting even more images of him in a western light.

A silver coin depicting a figure on a horse rearing up over what appear to be many fallen bodies

On this medal, a beardless, armor-clad Peter is seen on horseback in a victorious stance with the bodies of his enemies lying dead around him. Peter wants to be revered in this medal, to be remembered for the city he built and the battles he won.

Today, at the outset of another No-Shave November, Peter the Great of the Romanov dynasty will be remembered for making facial hair illegal, and causing unbearably cool beard tokens to be created. We can feel gratified that here in the United States in this age of "man buns" and big, bushy beards, current tax policy has yet to interfere with the fickle fortunes of facial hair.

Ali Forster completed a summer 2017 internship in the Armed Forces History division. She is a senior at Miami University studying History and Greco-Roman Antiquity.

The author thanks Dr. Stephen Norris for the translations.

Author(s): 
intern Ali Forster
Posted Date: 
Tuesday, October 31, 2017 - 08:00
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How to Experience a Mission to Mars (If You Still Want to Come Back)

Smithsonian Magazine

In 2015, Space Camp hosted its oldest participant in history: 100-year-old Mercedes Fox. In the 1980s, while she was in her 70s, Fox had originally applied to be the teacher aboard the ill-fated Space Shuttle Challenger; but it wasn't until almost 30 years later that the space enthusiast accepted an invitation to attend a four-day training session and mock mission, along with a group of 42 teachers, at Space Camp's Hunstville, Alabama, campus. 

Fox was living out a decades-long dream of being a pseudo-astronaut—and you can, too. Space Camp doesn’t just cater to kids; adults ages 18 and up can go for a weekend-long spin at Adult Space Academy and have the same out-of-this-world experience. 

“Every week you get a whole team of different personalities,” crew trainer Sandman (known as Douglas Washington while on Earth) told Smithsonian.com. “It's fun to make a cohesive team out of so many personalities. A lot of times the adults are more excited than the [children] trainees.”

Participants in the academy spend the weekend living in the onsite habitat, more or less a dorm for Space Campers, and running multiple missions. These range from building and launching rockets to flying a shuttle simulator, repairing a shuttle while in space to landing on a simulated Mars—and even constructing a space station once you're there.

I embarked on my own mission earlier this year, donning the iconic blue space-training jumpsuit to guide my crew on a journey to the distant Red Planet. But first, we had to complete our training.

First up was the 1/6th gravity chair, designed to give you a sense of what it's like to walk on the moon. The build-up is almost as exciting as the walk itself; the chair descends from the ceiling, you're strapped in, and then slowly feel your sense of gravity drift away. Once you’ve acclimated to this new atmosphere, it’s time to step out onto the moon (provided you have the required helmet and closed-toe shoes, of course). We practiced three walks up and down the simulated moon ground: the bunny hop, when we learned to take short hops so we didn’t fly out into space; the side step, which can get you through a tight situation and is easier than walking; and freestyle. With these options in mind, I chose to burst through the sky like a rocket, inspired by the real ones on display in the shuttle and rocket parks just outside. Needless to say, I shot myself off the moon’s surface and had to be reeled back in with a rope tied to the back of my chair.

Our second training module was on the multi-axis trainer—a combination gyroscope and chair that spins you around at high speed, simulating an out of control tumble in space. This is a Space Camp-specific simulation; no one else has these exact trainers, and even real astronauts have trained on them, as during the Mercury program. Each go-round lasts for about 45 seconds to a minute. Our trainers assured us that those who are prone to motion sickness would not have an issue, because the spins are tied to your center of gravity. Thankfully, I was the only one on my team with a problem, and I stumbled off the chair to briefly regroup on a bench nearby.

Image by Jennifer Billock. The greenhouse in the mock space station on Mars. (original image)

Image by Jennifer Billock. A shuttle outside in the rocket park. (original image)

Image by Jennifer Billock. Entrance to the simulation training building. (original image)

Image by Jennifer Billock. The multi-axis trainers. (original image)

Image by Jennifer Billock. Setting up the 1/6th gravity chair. (original image)

Image by Jennifer Billock. Inside Mission Control. (original image)

Image by Jennifer Billock. Controls inside the shuttle. (original image)

Image by Jennifer Billock. The shuttle crew learns how to read the checklists. (original image)

Image by Jennifer Billock. Screens inside Mission Control. (original image)

Image by Jennifer Billock. Space suits. (original image)

Image by Jennifer Billock. Two trainees work on repairs. (original image)

Image by Jennifer Billock. A Space Camp button for alumni. (original image)

From there, we broke into teams to complete our mock mission to Mars. We could choose between three roles: Mission Control, Mission Specialist, or the orbiter crew. I opted to be the commander on the orbiter crew, meaning it was my job, along with the pilot, to fly the shuttle out of our atmosphere and land on Mars, to create a space station there, then to fly back to Earth and complete a nice, soft water landing. (I did, by the way. It was a total success.) Mission Control itself is straight out of a movie, and Mission Specialists have arguably the coolest job at Space Camp. They put on the big white space suits and float outside the shuttle or space station making repairs. Whatever your preference, though, everyone on your team will train for every aspect of the mission.

Checklists telling you exactly what to do—and when to do it—control every portion of your journey. And lest you think it's all just fantasy, rest assured that you'll be performing the exact same procedures that real astronauts do on an actual mission. It can be confusing at times, but is high energy and tons of fun—even if you accidentally allow outer space to invade the precious inner space of your shuttle, inadvertently killing everyone on your faux mission. Trust me, it happens here...a lot.

At the end of the Space Camp experience, you graduate. There’s a ceremony where your nametag (which has been on upside-down the entire time) is flipped upright, and you get a printed, ready-to-frame diploma. You’re also encouraged to apply to be an astronaut. Of course, you’ll have to meet a few requirements, but anyone is eligible.

“If you want to be an astronaut, all you have to do is apply,” Joseph Vick, manager of museum education at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, told Smithsonian.com. And if you’re a redhead like he is, even better. “I like John Glenn because he was the first ginger in space,” Vick explained. “Go gingers!” Red Planet, indeed.

How Midwestern Suffragists Won the Vote by Attacking Immigrants

Smithsonian Magazine

In September 1914, the nationally renowned suffragist Anna Howard Shaw spoke to a large crowd at a Congregational Church in Yankton County, South Dakota. Shaw, a slight but charismatic 67-year-old, was a masterful speaker who could be both reserved and lively. She was there to support an amendment on the ballot that would give women in the state the right to vote. It was neither her first visit to South Dakota nor even to Yankton County; during South Dakota’s 1890 suffrage campaign—its first of seven—Shaw had given a forceful lecture at an annual fundraising bazaar for the Methodist Church’s Ladies’ Aid Society. Nearly 25 years had passed, but Shaw’s resolve had not wavered, and she remained a spellbinding orator. The editor of the Dakota Herald, one of Yankton County’s local newspapers, called her “brilliant,” “delightful,” and “convincing.”

That Shaw, who was president of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, had come to a Midwestern state like South Dakota was not unusual; the region had a rich but contentious history with woman suffrage. The familiar narrative of women’s struggle to win the vote places national leaders like Shaw, Susan B. Anthony, and Carrie Chapman Catt on the East Coast, marching in parades in New York City or Washington, D.C. And that narrative defines their fight as a matter of women’s rights, based on calls for liberty and equality. But looking more closely at Shaw’s speech reveals the regional complexity of the movement—which was nationwide, and entangled in complicated local and regional issues that were not purely about justice. Shaw’s riveting address combined the struggle for woman suffrage with a broader debate about immigration in the region that ultimately asked difficult questions about a person’s “fitness” to vote.

Midwestern states like South Dakota had large immigrant populations, the majority from Germany, who tended to view woman suffrage with a mix of skepticism and hostility. Often living on farms in isolated ethnic enclaves, some opposed the cause because they espoused conventional gender roles and thought politics too corrupt for women. Others feared that women voters would seek to curtail cherished cultural practices like drinking, and argued that suffragists merely wanted the ballot to institute prohibition.

Indeed, many Midwestern suffragists had come to support woman suffrage through the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, or WCTU. These Midwestern suffragists were also often Yankees, either born in the Northeast or to parents from the region—and mostly white, Anglo-Saxon, and Protestant—who saw the ballot as necessary to protect their homes and communities from corruption caused by vices like drunkenness. But by the early 1910s, most Yankee suffragists in the Midwest had begun to distinguish their work in the WCTU from their work for suffrage. State associations elected new leaders with no formal ties to the WCTU, hoping to send a message that their desire to vote had nothing to do with Prohibition.

Still, immigrants opposed the cause, and Midwestern suffragists grew increasingly frustrated. They began to disparage their foreign-born neighbors as stubbornly and irrevocably ignorant. “They probably know little of our American ideals,” declared one Iowa suffragist.

By 1914, the suffragists’ frustration had turned to outright prejudice—and Shaw expertly tapped into those long-simmering fears. World War I had just erupted in Europe, and while the United States did not join the flight until April 1917, the conflict weighed heavily on the people in her audience. Native-born Americans were suspicious of South Dakota’s large German population, and as Germany invaded Belgium and northern France, many in the state—men and women—had begun to cast Germans as lawless aggressors. At the podium at the Congregational Church, Shaw amended her usual pro-suffrage lecture to unveil a novel argument: that citizenship was a civic responsibility, that the vote was a duty rather than just a right, and that politically-active native-born women were more deserving of the franchise than their ignorant male immigrant neighbors.

Shaw began her talk by reviewing some well-worn assumptions about gender and citizenship. During the 19th century, she said, government seemed like “some subtle thing beyond the reach of the inexperienced [woman]”—a mysterious force that citizens, and especially disenfranchised women, only felt distantly. During the early 20th century, however, women had grown close to politics and, as Shaw put it, “should be a part of the government.” Civic virtue had long been a hallmark of Midwestern political culture. Yankees were the first group to settle in large numbers in the region after the Civil War, often donating their land, money, and time to develop infrastructure and public institutions. Later generations, in turn, venerated Yankee pioneers’ activism, which demonstrated what they saw as steadfast resolve in the face of hardship and loneliness.

While conventional ideas about gender reinforced distinct roles for the men and women who settled the vast prairies, Midwestern women often transcended these boundaries, stepping in when towns lacked basic municipal services, starting garbage collection services, establishing public parks, and raising funds for public schools. Most of these women were Yankees, and many spoke of themselves as virtuous citizens who sacrificed on behalf of their communities. By 1914, Progressivism, a reform movement that promoted government action and direct democracy, was flourishing throughout the United States, and native-born women in the Midwest heeded its call. For example, in Clay County, Iowa, one group of women focused on “pure food” initiatives to promote sanitary conditions in meat processing facilities and end the sale of adulterated foods by sponsoring a film series and articles in local newspapers.

In contrast, Shaw suggested, South Dakota’s naturalized male immigrants were taking advantage of naturalization and its benefits without giving back. She alleged that foreign-born men—mainly Germans—were filing papers to become citizens, and thus gain the vote, at a remarkable rate. This may not have been true: the National Archives reports that 25 percent of all the foreign-born individuals listed in the census from 1890 to 1930 had not become naturalized or even filed their first papers. But the system was certainly haphazard and disorganized, and for generations had allowed noncitizen immigrants to assert voting rights with great ease. In 1914, a number of Midwestern states, including South Dakota, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois and Ohio, had allowed or still allowed male foreigners to vote before becoming citizens.

Shaw suggested that naturalization was a nightmare because it was wrongly assumed that “any person, upon arriving at the age of 21 years, if he be male, is fully capable of assuming the responsibilities of government.” Instead, Shaw suggested, many foreigners were too ignorant to be good citizens. At one citizenship hearing, she told her audience, a “foreigner appeared…and after going through the usual form, was asked the question, through an interpreter: Who is the president of the United States? He very promptly and intelligently answered, ‘Charles Murphy.’”

Shaw’s shocking story struck a nerve with her audience; one observer remarked that she left a “favorable impression” because she presented “undeniable truths.” When Shaw commented that foreigners “all over the country today on account of the war in Europe” were “very anxious to take out their first papers of citizenship,” she pandered to growing fears that Germans had plotted to take advantage of the chaotic naturalization process as a means of undermining their adopted nation.

Shaw’s speech to the Congregational Church in the fall of 1914 reflected how powerful nativism was becoming as a political force in the Midwest. She surely hoped her remarks about citizenship, including her not-so-veiled nativist anecdote, would convince voters to support woman suffrage. But her speech also rang an ominous tone that resonated well beyond the 1914 campaign.

Despite Shaw’s efforts, voters in South Dakota defeated the 1914 amendment by about 12,000 votes. Newspaper reports indicated that voters still believed either that suffragists only wanted the ballot to enact temperance legislation or that woman suffrage was far too radical. Undeterred, state suffrage leaders secured another amendment bill in 1916, but defeat again dashed their hopes. Nativist ideas percolated, and by 1916, suffrage leaders across the Midwest were commonly targeting the right of immigrants to vote.

In South Dakota and Iowa, state officials produced propaganda and issued post-election reports that accused Germans of seeking to commit electoral sabotage as part of elaborate terroristic plots. In one case, press directors in South Dakota created a map that indicated in black the counties in which residents had defeated the 1916 amendment. A note above the map read that “the ‘German’ counties are all black,” meaning that those counties that defeated suffrage in 1916 had majority German populations. The message was clear—Germans had masterminded the defeat of woman suffrage.

Nativist fear built into outright hysteria, and Midwestern suffragists began recasting decades of foreign resistance to assimilation as treason. They argued that to protect democracy, only those citizens who understood civic responsibility should vote. By 1917, when the United States entered World War I, suffragists crystallized their message. In South Dakota, propaganda warned of the untrustworthy “alien enemy” while celebrating patriotic suffragists who sacrificed “so deeply for the world struggle.” Another message deemed the “women of America…too noble and too intelligent and too devoted to be slackers” like their German counterparts.

That rhetorical maneuver finally gave woman suffrage the political leverage it needed to achieve victory. In November 1918, voters in South Dakota passed a woman suffrage amendment to the state’s constitution with an impressive 64 percent majority. Of the first 15 states to ratify the 19th Amendment, about half were in the Midwest— a startling shift for a region that had seemed permanently opposed to woman suffrage.

While Shaw’s speech was meant for an audience living in an important historical moment and place, it also resonates today. Suffragists had no qualms about using nativism to open democracy to women. They were willing to skewer immigrants in their decades-long quest for political equality. Shaw’s remarks also remind us how many assumptions Americans have made—in 1914 and today—about the rights and responsibilities that accompany citizenship.

It Might Be Impossible to Turn Back the Clock on Altered Ecosystems

Smithsonian Magazine

While it's usually shrouded in fog, on a clear day two pictures emerge of Point Reyes National Seashore in California. 

In one landscape you’ll see an abundance of thigh-high coyote brush, purple bush lupine and hairy velvet grass waving with wind from the Pacific Ocean. The build-up of dead vegetation on the ground is thick enough that it has a trampoline-like feel when you walk on it, and though you may not be able to see them, deer mice, meadow voles and ground beetles are abundant in the understory.              

The second landscape is a little greener. More fresh seedlings sprout from the four-inch grass cover and less dead vegetation gathers on the ground. The rodents and ground beetles may not be as common in the large open spaces. Instead the compacted soil favors the carrion beetles, ants, spiders and pill bugs crawling about.

The difference? Tule elk, a species originally native to large parts of California, has been reintroduced to the second, greener area after being hunted to near extinction in the 19th century. Federal and state agencies collaborated to reintroduce the elk in the 1970s in an effort to "rewild" the seashore, or return it to its natural state.

Some people seem to think that ecosystems are fixed in time—with the ideal wildlife habitat dating to the pre-industrial age. To fix the problems we may have since caused via introducing invasive species or removing native wildlife, we just have to turn back the clock. But ecosystems aren't like that. Humans have been altering habitats for thousands of years. Now some experts are beginning to think that rewilding is not only impossible but possibly harmful if ecologists aren't able to untangle the many variables in these new, human-made landscapes.

Of the two areas in Point Reyes, “Is one better than the other? That’s a tough call,” says J. Hall Cushman, a professor of biology at Sonoma State University who has been tracking the ecosystem changes in Point Reyes due to elk reintroduction. He notes that there is a vast difference in reintroducing a species that has been absent for a few decades to a rewilding scheme in which a species that never lived in an area, or that has been gone for thousands of years, is reintroduced. 

He says that the elk have had a positive effect on the removal of invasive velvet grass. The lack of longer grass has also made it easier for land managers to conquer some invasive insects like Argentine ants and certain species of pill bugs. But then shorter plants, both invasive and native, thrive in the hoof-compacted earth. “In every single instance when you reintroduce a large animal that used to be in an area, it’s going to have a mixed bag of effects.”

The trouble is that the natural state of Point Reyes, whatever that was, was gone for good by the time the elk had been wiped out in the region.

“Grazers don’t deal with all plants equally. It could even exacerbate the increased dominance of some introduced plants in areas. That’s barely considered in any rewilding schemes,” says Daniel Simberloff, a professor of environmental science at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Simberloff recently co-authored a study in Current Biology questioning the idea of rewilding and restoration, and one of his principal messages was this: You may be able to take an animal back to the same place, but you can’t take it back to the same time. 

To some extent, Cushman and other researchers tracking the return of the tule elk agree.

“You can’t take a piece out and expect it to be the same way it was when you put it back in,” says Brent Johnson, a research coordinator with Pinnacles National Park who worked with Cushman on tracking the elk. “The same can be said for the removal of species.”

Even removing an invasive species can sometimes go wrong. Federal, state and local organizations coordinated in the Invasive Spartina Project to remove 92 percent of cordgrass, an invasive grass that alters the physical structure and biological makeup of the tidal marshes around San Francisco Bay. But the federally endangered California clapper rail, a chicken-sized shorebird, had taken to nesting in the invasive cordgrass.

“They couldn’t continue the eradication of the invasive,” says Adam Lampert, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who studied the situation. “The main message is, you cannot remove invasive species too rapidly. Once established in a sufficiently large area, the local population becomes dependent sometimes on the invasive species.”

Another study showed that veeries, small songbirds found across the northern U.S., find successful nesting opportunities in invasive and introduced shrubs like Japanese honeysuckle in New York state forests. In Hawaii, the wattle-necked turtle is wreaking havoc on freshwater lakes in Kauai, but hunters have brought the reptiles to the brink of extinction in their native range in China and Vietnam, creating a conundrum for conservationists.

Grad student Clark Richter and NPS Wildlife Biologist David Press investigate the dividing line between where tule elk are allowed to graze and where they are not, at Tomales Point at Point Reyes National Seashore. (Courtesy J. Hall Cushman)

The situation has some scientists questioning the concept of rewilding.

“Often you can’t even tell what’s being talked about or what the goal of a project is,” says Simberloff. “It’s sold as a conservation mechanism, and often it doesn’t conserve biodiversity.”

He points out a number of these schemes that have had unintended consequences: Wolves reintroduced to parts of the United States and Europe have lowered the number of grazers through predation, which results in more berries growing for grizzly bears. But they’ve also hybridized with dogs that are now ubiquitous in these areas, irrevocably changing the gene pool of some wolf populations. An extreme case in North Carolina has seen the fledgling experimental red wolf population hybridizing with coyotes, worrying since it’s the only population of wild red wolves in the world. If this continues in an extreme form, the species could be bred out of existence.

Simberloff stresses that his message isn’t that reintroduction or restoration is always bad, but that the whole cascade of possible effects to an ecosystem needs to be considered rather than looking at things one- or two-dimensionally.

“We’re not saying [rewilding] should never be done. We’re saying that it requires a lot more systematic and comprehensive thought than seems to have gone into it in many cases,” Simberloff says.

Often, the human footprint in a given area is so large that it’s impossible to restore the original ecosystem. Instead of rewilding, we may be better off focusing efforts on so-called novel ecosystems, Simberloff says. The latter include everything from the plants and animals living on or around old human buildings to the wildlife adapting to cities, farms or other factors of the Anthropocene. They could even be engineered to provide humans with desired services.

“Start with what we have, not what we had,” he says.

Cushman, the California biologist, continues with the experiment he’s running, with around 24 plots excluding or including elk, and researchers will keep tracking the results. He says that the answer is going to be complex in any situation, but he so far believes the elk have had a net positive effect on the Point Reyes ecosystem. Tall and lumbering, with horns both jagged and curvaceous, the tule elk can cut an epic silhouette on the horizon, particularly when the backdrop is the Pacific Ocean. And beyond aesthetics, the elk are steadily removing the invasive velvet grass.

“Elk are greatly decreasing the abundance and cover of this exotic grass," he says. "That’s a very positive effect of having elk in the system.”

Discover South Africa's Cradle of Humankind

Smithsonian Magazine

Some 2.5 million years ago when saber-toothed cats roamed the rolling grasslands and rocky outcrops of modern-day Johannesburg, a young hominin strayed from its mother. Snatched up by an eagle, it fell into a network of subterranean limestone coves.

Fast forward to 1924. Paleontologist Raymond Dart, a professor at the University of Witwaterrand, was on his way to a wedding when he received two boxes from a quarry manager at Taung containing fossils. In them, he discovered the skull of what would become known as the “Taung Child.” Though the fossil exhibited apelike features, the position of the foramen magnum, or the opening that allows the spinal cord and brain to meet, convinced Dart that the child had walked upright like a human. He characterized the species Australopithecus africanus and touted it as a missing link between apes and humans, a claim that was met with much skepticism as it was widely believed that human race originated in Europe or Asia. 

Two decades later, Scottish doctor and paleontologist Robert Broom and his assistant J.T. Robinson discovered the pelvis of an adult Taung Child in the nearby Sterkfontein Caves, confirming that Australopithecus africanus had indeed walked upright and placing Africa firmly on the map of early hominin hunters. Scientists began unearthing hundreds of hominin fossils in and around Taung and Sterkfontein, adding fuel to the theory that humans and their ancestors originated in Africa. In 1999, UNESCO declared the area a World Heritage site, referring to it as the “undisputed Cradle of Humankind.”

Fossils ranging from ancient cats to hominins as well as stone tools have been discovered in over a dozen major sites spanning 180 square miles, and the story of the Cradle is still unfolding. In September 2015, University of the Witwatersrand Professor Lee Berger revealed the discovery of Africa’s largest single collection of hominin fossils in the Rising Star cave system near Sterkfontein. In the chamber, accessed by a vertical chute that narrows to 7-inches wide, his team unearthed fossils from at least 15 individuals whose traits warranted a new species distinction: Homo naledi. Berger’s discovery has turned a spotlight back on the Cradle and its potential to expand our understanding of human evolution.

Lee Berger holds the skull of Homo naledi. (cc Wits University)

In addition to scientists and researchers, tens of thousands of visitors travel to the Cradle each year to learn about its unique history. Though many fossil sites are closed the public, there are several ways to explore this incredible region:

Sterkfontein Valley

Image by © South African Tourism. The Maropeng Visitor Center welcomes visitors to the Cradle of Humankind. (original image)

Image by © South African Tourism. (original image)

Image by © South African Tourism. (original image)

Image by © South African Tourism. (original image)

Image by © South African Tourism. (original image)

Image by © South African Tourism. (original image)

Image by © South African Tourism. (original image)

Sterkfontein Valley, a short 45-minute drive from Johannesburg, is home to the Cradle's largest collection of fossil sites as well as its official visitor center. Located on the boundary of the Cradle, the Maropeng Visitor Center takes visitors on an evolutionary journey from the start of our universe, some 14-billion years ago, to the present.

Resembling an ancient burial mound known as a tumulus, Maropeng's entrance blends artfully with the grassland surroundings. Once inside, visitors are transported on boats across an artificial lake to an interactive exhibition. Displays tackle questions about how our brains developed, where language came from, when we first used fire and what the risks are for us as a species in the future. As many sites in the Sterkfontein Valley are not accessible without an appointment, the exhibit provides an overview of groundbreaking discoveries, such as when a schoolboy discovered a new species of hominin at Kromdraai.

Emerging from the back of the building, a striking view over rolling hills towards the Magaliesberg greets you. Glancing back, you will see the tumulus is now transformed into a futuristic building of glass and steel, a symbol of how far we’ve come as a species.

Maropeng's companion site is the world-famous Sterkfontein Caves. Among its highlight discoveries are "Mrs. Ples," the most complete skull of an Australopithecus africanus specimen ever discovered, and "Little Foot," an almost complete Australopithecus skeleton dating back about three million years. You can easily visit both the Sterkfontein Caves and Maropeng in a day, and the experiences complement one another. If you want to stay over in the area, there is a boutique hotel at Maropeng, and for a different perspective of the landscape, hot air ballooning and horse back riding are popular sightseeing options.

(© South Africa Tourism)

Taung Heritage Route

Located off the beaten path in the North West province, the Taung Heritage Route runs for 28 miles past the area where Buxton Limeworks miners extracted the 2.5-million-year-old Taung Child. A monument at the site details the fossil’s significance in furthering exploration of the surrounding region. Visitors can venture into an abandoned mine tunnel or enjoy lunch at one of several picnic tables.

The route also passes several natural wonders, such as a limestone waterfall and the Blue Pools, a collection of natural rock basins, streams and caves in a lush river valley. Visit in late September to enjoy an annual heritage celebration that involves completing the route with local archaeological experts. From Johannesburg, take the N14 to the N18 between Vryburg and Jan Kempdorp.

Makapan Valley

Northeast of Mokopane in the Limpopo province, Makapansgat is one of the greatest paleontological records of human evolution in the world. Once a marshy wetland, the site has yielded large quantities of ancient mammal and hominin fossils. From 1925 to 1947, following the discovery of the Taung Child, Dart systematically investigated the fossils at Makapansgat and identified and described several new Australopithecus africanus specimen. In 1947, the same year that Broom discovered Mrs. Ples, palaeontologist James Kitching unearthed more Australopithecus africanus fossils from the Cave of Hearths.

Today, tours run through three Makapan Valley caves, beginning with the limeworks where the hominin fossils were discovered. The Cave of Hearths exhibits evidence of the earliest controlled use of fire in Africa, and the Historic Cave reveals the tragic outcome of lingering hostilities between the Voortrekkers and local Ndebele tribes. Before visiting Makapansgat, tour the nearby Arend Dieperink Museum. The "Caves Through the Ages" exhibit depicts the life of early hominins and features archaeological and palaeontological material as well as historical artifacts discovered at the caves.

Learn More About the Cradle of Humankind.

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Earth's Magnetic Field Could Take Longer to Flip Than Previously Thought

Smithsonian Magazine

Swirling around the solid inner core of our planet, more than 1,800 miles below the surface, hot liquid iron generates a magnetic field that stretches beyond the atmosphere. This field provides us with everything from compass directions to protection from cosmic rays, so it’s no surprise that scientists were alarmed earlier this year when they noticed that the northern magnetic pole was rapidly drifting towards Siberia. While geophysicists scrambled to release an updated model of Earth’s magnetic field ahead of its five-year schedule, the migrating pole posed an urgent question: Is the Earth’s magnetic field preparing to flip?

The magnetic state of our world is constantly changing, with the magnetic north and south poles wandering by a few degrees every century or so. Occasionally the magnetic field experiences a complete polarity reversal, causing the magnetic north and south poles to switch places, although no one knows exactly what causes this turnabout. (In fact, the north pole of the planet is a magnetic south pole right now, but it is still referred to as “magnetic north” to correspond with our geographic measurements.)

In a study published today in Science Advances, researchers report a new estimated timeline of the last polarity reversal, named the Brunhes-Matuyama reversal, which happened around 780,000 years ago. Using a combination of lava samples, ocean sediments and ice cores, they were able to track the progression of this reversal and demonstrate that its pattern was longer and more complex than suggested by previous models. The findings could enable better understanding of how our planet’s magnetic environment evolves and hopefully guide predictions for the next major disturbance.

“[Polarity reversal] is one of the few geophysical phenomena that is truly global,” says Brad Singer, professor of geoscience at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and lead author of the study. “It’s a process that gets started in the deepest parts of the Earth, but it manifests itself in rocks across the entire surface of the planet and effects the atmosphere in pretty important ways. … If we can establish chronology for the timing of reversals, we have markers that we can use to date rocks all over the planet and know common time points around the entire Earth.”

The generation of Earth’s magnetic field starts at its very center. Heat from the solid inner core produced by radioactive decay warms the surrounding liquid iron, causing it to circulate like a pot of water on a stovetop. The fluid motion, or convection, of the iron creates an electric current, which generates a magnetic field. As the Earth spins, the magnetic field roughly aligns with the axis of rotation, creating the magnetic north and south poles.

Over the last 2.6 million years, Earth’s magnetic field flipped 10 times and nearly flipped more than 20 times during events called excursions. Some researchers believe polarity reversals are caused by a disturbance in the balance between Earth’s rotation and the temperature at the core, which alters the fluid motion of the liquid iron, but the exact process remains a mystery.

Schematic illustration of the invisible magnetic field lines generated by the Earth, represented as a dipole magnet field. In actuality, our magnetic shield is squeezed in closer to Earth on the Sun-facing side and extremely elongated on the night-side due to the solar wind. (Peter Reid / NASA)

Singer and colleagues obtained more precise chronological estimates for the last polarity reversal by using new techniques for dating solidified lava. Basaltic lava, which erupts around 1,100 degrees Celsius (2,012 degrees Fahrenheit), contains magnetite, an iron oxide whose outermost electrons orient themselves along the Earth’s magnetic field. When the lava cools down to 550 degrees Celsius (1022 degrees Fahrenheit), “the magnetization direction gets locked, literally baked into the flow,” Singer says. As a result, the magnetic field’s history is stamped into the solidified lava, which Singer and his team could read using a specialized process to measure the argon isotopes of the decayed lava samples.

Unfortunately for geologists (but fortunately for the rest of us), volcanoes don’t erupt all the time, making lava a spotty record-keeper of the magnetic field’s evolution. To sew together the missing dates, the research team combined the new measurements from seven different lava sources around the world with past records of magnetized elements in ocean sediments and Antarctic ice cores. Unlike lava, the ocean provides a continuous record of magnetization, since grains of magnetic material constantly settle on the seafloor and align with the planet’s field. “But these records get smooth and deformed by compaction, and there’s a lot of critters that live at the bottom of the seafloor… so the record gets destroyed a bit,” Singer says.

Antarctic ice offers a third way of resolving the history of Earth’s magnetic field, since it contains samples of a beryllium isotope that forms when cosmic radiation strongly interacts with the upper atmosphere—precisely what happens when the magnetic field weakens during an excursion or reversal.

By combining all three of these sources, the researchers patched together a thorough story for how the magnetic field evolved during its last reversal. While previous studies suggested that all reversals go through three phases in a timespan no longer than 9,000 years, Singer’s team discovered a much more complex reversal process that took over 22,000 years to complete.

“We can see a lot more nuances of the waxing and waning of strengths and directional behavior during this 22,000-year period than ever before,” Singer says. “And it doesn’t match the [three-phase] pattern … so I think they’re going to have to go back to the drawing board.”

The findings call into question whether future field reversals will exhibit similar intricacies and durations. “This is an important paper as it documents new volcanic data, and brings together volcanic and sedimentary records pertaining to instability of the geomagnetic field prior to the last polarity reversal,” says James Channell, a geophysicist from the University of Florida who was not involved in the new research, in an email. “Is this pre-reversal instability a characteristic of all polarity reversals? As yet, there is no evidence of this from older reversals.”

Study coauthor Rob Coe and Trevor Duarte orienting cores from a lava flow site recording the Matuyama-Brunhes magnetic polarity reversal in Haleakala National Park, Hawaii, in 2015. (Brad Singer)

Even with the three sets of measurements, some question remains as to whether the patched-together history provides enough information about how long a reversal takes and exactly what state the field is in when such flips occur. “As long as no complete record shows evidence for the complex succession of events that is depicted by the authors, I am not convinced that the uncertainties on the ages allows us to discern more than two distinct phases,” says Jean-Pierre Valet, a geophysicist from Paris Institute of Earth Physics who was not involved in the research, in an email. Valet also questions the duration of the reversal, arguing that uncertainties in the data suggest the entire process could have ranged from 13,000 years to 40,000 years—still longer than previous estimates.

Learning more about the processes that lead to polarity reversals could be critical for future civilizations, since the shifting magnetic field can have far-reaching effects on the planet.

“When the [magnetic] field is weak, which is during reversals, the main dipole field collapses to something on the order of ten percent of its normal strength,” Singer says. This collapse could spell trouble for life on Earth, since the magnetic field stabilizes ozone molecules, shielding the planet from ultraviolet radiation. Singer points out that recent work suggests modern humans adapted to have protective genes after Neanderthals suffered from radiation during an excursion that deteriorated the magnetic field.

“It’s been discussed for quite a while whether magnetic reversals have an impact on the biota at the surface of the Earth,” he says. “Most of the early claims are kind of preposterous, because the chronology wasn’t good enough to know that the discovery of fossils of Neanderthals, for example, were correlative with an excursion. But now we know those timings much better.”

For the past 200 years or more, Earth’s magnetic field has been decaying at a rate of five percent each century. If this weakening and the recent migration of the northern magnetic pole are indicative of a looming field reversal, it could have serious implications for technologies that rely on satellites, which may be damaged by cosmic radiation. However, Singer cautions that a reversal not likely to happen for the next couple millennia.

“What we’re seeing now with the north pole moving rapidly, that’s actually quite normal,” Singer says. “There are papers published out there based on much poorer records than the ones we’re working with that suggest a reversal could take place in less than a human lifetime, and that’s just not supported by the vast majority of records. … The actual reversal, the final reversal, takes several thousand years.”

That should buy humanity some time to better shield its technologies from radiation by the next reversal. Until then, don’t be alarmed if your compass shifts by a degree or two.

From Budweiser to Heineken, Alcohol Brands Are Rampant in Hollywood Films

Smithsonian Magazine

“Are you drunk?” asks James T. Kirk in a scene from the 2013 film Star Trek: Into Darkness. Kirk is on the phone with his trusty engineer Scotty, attempting to ask him about a series of mysterious coordinates. The scene switches over to the loud bar in which Scotty is sitting. Next to him is a sleek, futuristic bottle of Budweiser beer—which is apparently still being marketed in 2259.

This kind of scene is no accident, contends new research being presented Tuesday at the 2017 annual Pediatric Academic Societies Meeting. Alcohol brand placement has nearly doubled over the past two decades, the authors find, and most of that is likely paid product placement.

"More than 80 percent of movies contain depictions of alcohol use," says Dartmouth University pediatrician James D. Sargent, who has been combing films for their depictions of violence, tobacco, drugs and drinking for more than 20 years. While this percentage remained relatively unchanged during those two decades, the presence of specific brands depicted on screen increased dramatically.

Sargent argues that the vast majority of alcohol depiction in films now is likely product placement. He found that roughly 44 percent of the 2,000 films studied showed real alcohol brands over the 20-year period studied. Moreover, the depiction of alcohol brands increased 96 percent in the movies studied, from 140 appearances in the top 100 films in 1996 to 282 appearances in the top 100 films of 2015.

The most-frequently seen brands were Budweiser, Miller and Heineken, says co-author Samantha Cukier, a public policy researcher who works with Sargent at Dartmouth, with the triad representing one-third of the total brands seen. "We assume it's being paid for,” says Sargent. While the alcohol and film industries have resisted efforts to disclose paid brand placement, for Star Trek: Into Darkness, Budweiser was a major partner in marketing the film. 

For this research, two longtime professional viewers from Sargent's team looked at the top 100 earning films from 1996 to 2015, and watched them closely for alcohol use and specific brands. They found that more than 1,700 of those some 2,000 films depicted alcohol consumption. In total, 93 percent of R-rated films and 92 percent of PG-13-rated films released during those years featured alcohol being consumed.

It isn’t just adult films that are heavy on the booze. According to the research, 72 percent of PG-rated films and 46 percent of G-rated films surveyed featured alcohol use. While that number appears to have stayed steady over time, again, brand placements nearly doubled within the 20-year period. For instance, in the 2003 film “Elf”—described as a “good-natured family comedy” by the film review website Rotten Tomatoes—Will Ferrell accidentally pours whiskey into his coffee, and then starts the party at work.

"It can really deliver a lot of alcohol images to an underage group," Sargent says.

Sargent compares this trend to portrayals of tobacco use in movies. To stop a flood of lawsuits from states and people seeking compensation for illness and death from smoking cigarettes they had been told was safe, America's largest tobacco companies agreed in 1998 to a settlement that, among other things, put restrictions on funding product placement in movies. In a study last year, Sargent and others found the depiction of smoking and tobacco brands in movies dropped by roughly half in the years following the settlement.

If similar film restrictions were put on the alcohol industry, Sargent says, "I would bet that you would get the same kind of decline with alcohol." However, this is an unlikely proposition, as there there is no similar flood of lawsuits against alcohol companies, and Sargent says that the public and lawmakers generally tend to view alcohol as less malicious than tobacco.

"There's a substantial amount of research out there now" about teen drinking and movies, Sargent says. Much of this peer-reviewed research has been led by Sargent himself, and has found that the more movies with alcohol use a teen has watched, the more likely he or she is to try drinking. These studies surveyed students in the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany and asked them which movies they’d watched and about their attitudes and consumption of alcohol.

Unsurprisingly to Sargent, they found that alcohol-infused movies appeared to encourage drinking among these adolescents. While no comparable study has been conducted in Europe, the prevalence may be even higher there: one study found that 100 percent of the most viewed European films in 2009 depicted or mentioned alcohol use.

"The alcohol industry has long figured out that they can get their brands out there in movies and they will not be monitored as closely as if they were doing commercials in the more traditional way," says Cristel Russell, a marketing professor at American University who was not involved in this research. "We know these companies are in the entertainment marketing business."

Russell's past research has found similar impacts of alcohol depiction in television shows on teenagers. In a study that is now being peer reviewed at the Journal of Health Communication, Russell developed mock television episodes with all details and characters the same except for one had a storyline where drinking led to positive outcomes (such as getting a girl or making friends), while another had drinking lead to negative outcomes (such as social awkwardness).

For the subjects, who ranged in age from 14 to 17, just one exposure to the “positive” alcohol storyline led them to express more positive attitudes toward drinkers.

"You're clearly having an influence on the views that teenagers have of the consequences of drinking," Russell says. Between experimental research like hers and content analysis research like Sargent's study, she adds, "there's no doubt in my mind that there's enough of a body of evidence out there" to prove that alcohol depiction in movies is a considerable public health problem.

While the average viewer can't do much to stop this, Russell says that increasing teens’ media literacy can help them resist these subtle messages, because teenagers often don't like to feel like they're being manipulated into liking something. "By merely being aware of these influences, you can counteract them a little bit," Russell says. One such effort is the U.S. government’s “Too Smart to Start” program, which creates resource guides and advertisements that encourage kids to be aware of the subliminal messaging.

Sargent is looking next to review more than 10 studies that have tracked the outcomes of roughly 50,000 young people to disentangle how exposure to alcohol in movies affected their lives. In the future, he hopes that the film industry will take a more active role in helping parents keep track of their children's viewing experiences, pointing out that the current film rating system used by the Motion Picture Association of America doesn't provide any warning for films that show drinking—even for movies targeted at the youngest viewers.

"If there's alcohol brand placement, they're not going to find out about it until they watch the movie," Sargent says. "That to me is a much more important component to the ratings than the f-word."

The Surreal Streets of Festa Major de Gràcia

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

The Festa Major de Gràcia in Barcelona, Catalonia, begins on August 15 and continues for a full week of cultural events, street decorations, and late-night intergenerational partying.
August 15 is also my birthday, so it has become somewhat of a tradition for me to attend the celebration.

The festival started in 1817 on the day of the Assumption of Mary, also the fifteenth of August, in honor of Gràcia—an independent town until 1897, when it was annexed by Barcelona. During the nineteenth century, the town started transforming from a rural area to an urban town. Throughout this transition, the town continued the tradition of decorating the streets and squares with varying degrees of participation from locals, depending on the current political and social climate.

Over the past two hundred years, the festival has gone through many changes, notably becoming more of a secular civic celebration with fewer Catholic traditions—a trend among many festivals across Catalonia. Yet it has kept true to its roots of bringing together a community, celebrating the neighborhood, and being free to the public.

Festa Major de Gràcia now attract thousands of locals and tourists from around the world who come to the neighborhood to see the decorated streets and participate in the ongoing cultural activities. The festival includes many traditions, including castells (human towers), theater performances, and concerts on stages that pop up in the decorated streetscapes.

Gallery

Click on the image above to view full gallery

But the most impressive part of the festival is the street decor, called engalaments in Catalan. Eighteen streets and squares are decorated by neighborhood associations, each street following a theme and competing for prizes. Last year, one street transformed into a ski chalet, another into a candy shop, and yet another into a colorful market. These decorations, made from mostly recycled goods, transform the tiny, romantic streets into larger-than-life immersive experiences. Together they demonstrate what urban environments can become when local residents come together to create something special.

The street decorations are visually stunning, even mesmerizing up close when you realize how they are made. Those gorgeous flowers? Plastic bottles. That ski lodge wall? Foam board. The giant elephant? Papier-mâché. On each street, neighbors create these scenes by working side by side with artisans from a range of occupations—from florists and carpenters to IT specialists. Everyone takes part.

My aunt, Diana Trujillo, remembers seeing the team that put together the ski chalet theme street: “They were all in their matching team shirts, enjoying food and drinks together on the last day. There was such camaraderie among them.”

Festa Major de Gràcia is a unique tradition that gives visitors a glimpse into local life and civic collaboration through amazing food, history, and culture. And of course, drinking and dancing in the plazas with folks of all ages, all night long.

For the 2018 Folklife Festival featuring Catalonia, the curatorial team is working with community members from the Gràcia neighborhood to display engalaments on the National Mall. Mark your calendars for June 27 to July 1 and July 4 to 8, 2018.

Stephanie Echeveste is a creative placemaking consultant and founder of Distill Creative. In the past, she has led cocktails + craft workshops at the Folklife Festival Marketplace. She is obsessed with retail storefronts and public spaces, and finds herself traveling often to find them.

Dolphins Can Remember Their Friends After Twenty Years Apart

Smithsonian Magazine

New research shows that bottlenose dolphins are capable of long-term memory, recognizing the distinctive whistles of tankmates up to 20 years after they last lived together. Photo by Flickr user warriorwoman531

Last week, we looked at evidence that bottlenose dolphins use distinctive whistles to identify themselves, suggesting that these creatures, among the smartest in the animal kingdom, use the noises in a way that’s roughly analogous to our use of names to identify people.

Now, a separate study confirms dolphins’ ability to recognize these “names”—and indicates that they’re able to remember them over time far longer than we imagined. In tests of 43 dolphins kept in captivity around the United States, Jason Bruck of the University of Chicago found that the animals reacted differently upon hearing whistles that belonged to dolphins they’d shared tanks with up to 20 years previously, as compared with those of dolphins they’d never met.

The findings, published today in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, could force us to reconsider what we imagine animals are capable of remembering over time. If they hold up, they’d represent the longest-held memories we’ve seen thus far in any non-human animals.

The basics: High-pitched whistles, or “chirps,” are made by bottlenose dolphins in friendly social settings. Acoustic analysis has shown that the whistles differ slightly from individual to individual, and that the whistle a particular dolphin makes is consistent over time.

Previous studies with this dolphin species have found that the animals are more likely to move towards a speaker  emitting the whistle of of a relative than a random bottlenose and that mothers frequently emit the whistles of their calves when separated from them, suggesting that they’re calling out their names in hopes of finding them.

For this project, Bruck sought to test the animals’ ability to distinguish between whistles of dolphins they’d previously shared tanks with from those of others they’d never met. Relying on records kept by a consortium of six different aquatic facilities that frequently rotate dolphins for breeding purposes (the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, the Indianapolis Zoo, the Minnesota ZooDolphin Quest: Bermuda, the Texas State Aquarium and The Seas at Walt Disney World), he was able to sort out which of the 43 dolphins included in the study had previously lived together, and which had never met.

To test their memories, he used an underwater speaker to repeatedly play various dolphins’ recorded whistles and then observed their responses, specifically noting whether they largely ignored the noise, turned their head towards the speaker, swam towards it, or even made forceful contact with the gate protecting the acoustic equipment.

When they dolphins heard unfamiliar whistles, they tended to get bored quickly, showing little response. On the other hand, their reactions upon hearing whistles from animals they’d previously lived with were notably different. “When they hear a dolphin they know, they often quickly approach the speaker playing the recording,” Bruck said in a press statement. “At times they will hover around, whistle at it, try to get it to whistle back.” This held regardless of the age or sex of the animal, and was also true for both unrelated pairs of dolphins that had lived together and family members.

The time period for which the dolphins had been separated from others ranged widely, from 4 to 20 years. Interestingly, though, quantitative analysis of the reactions showed that the time apart made no difference: Whether the pairs had been separated for 5 or 15 years, the dolphins demonstrated a similar level of response upon hearing a familiar whistle.

In the most extreme example, Bailey (a female dolphin who now lives in Bermuda) recognized the whistle of Allie (who lives at the Brookfield Zoo). They most recently lived together at Dolphin Connection in the Florida Keys, 20 years and six months ago.

Previously, monkeys have demonstrated the ability to remember the faces of other monkeys after three years apart, while elephants have been shown to recognize others’ vocalizations ten years later. If these new findings are accurate—and the dolphins’ behavior truly reflects memories they’ve held for decades, rather than, say, reactions to some other aspect of the recordings—they’d be the longest-held memories by any animals species by a wide margin. Along with other recent research on the surprising distinctiveness of individual animals’ personalities, the findings reveal how, in many ways, the most intelligent animals differ less from humans than we long imagined.

They also prompt another question, ripe for further research: When the dolphins appear to react to the whistles, what exactly is going on in their minds? It’s easy to speculate that the noises correspond to names, it’s hard to say how far the analogy can be taken. “We don’t know yet if the name makes a dolphin picture another dolphin in its head,” Bruck said. “That’s my goal—to show whether the call evokes a representational mental image of that individual.”

Pubs: Ireland's Watering Holes

Smithsonian Magazine

Pubs are a basic part of the Irish social scene, and, whether you're a teetotaler or a beer-guzzler, they should be a part of your travel here. "Pub" is short for "public house." It's an extended living room where, if you don't mind the stickiness, you can feel the pulse of Ireland.

Smart travelers use the pubs to eat, drink, get out of the rain, watch the latest sporting event, and make new friends. Unfortunately, many city pubs have been afflicted with an excess of brass, ferns, and video games. The most traditional atmospheric pubs are in the countryside and smaller towns.

Pub grub gets better every year—it's Ireland's best eating value. For around $15–20, you'll get a basic hot lunch or dinner in friendly surroundings. Pubs that are attached to restaurants, advertise their food, and are crowded with locals are more likely to have fresh food and a chef than to be the kind of pub that sells only lousy microwaved snacks.

Pub menus consist of a hearty assortment of traditional dishes such as Irish stew (mutton with mashed potatoes, onions, carrots, and herbs), soups and chowders, coddle (bacon, pork sausages, potatoes, and onions stewed in layers), fish-and-chips, collar and cabbage (boiled bacon coated in bread crumbs and brown sugar, then baked and served with cabbage), boxty (potato pancake filled with fish, meat, or vegetables), and champ (potato mashed with milk and onions). Irish bread nicely rounds out a meal. In coastal areas, a lot of seafood is available, such as mackerel, mussels, and Atlantic salmon. There's seldom table service in Irish pubs. Order drinks and meals at the bar. Pay as you order, and don't tip.

I recommend certain pubs, and your B&B host is usually up-to-date on the best neighborhood pub grub. Ask for advice (but adjust for nepotism and cronyism, which run rampant).

When you say "a beer, please" in an Irish pub, you'll get a pint of Guinness (the tall blonde in the black dress). If you want a small beer, ask for a glass or a half-pint. Never rush your bartender when he's pouring a Guinness. It takes time—almost sacred time.

The Irish take great pride in their beer. At pubs, long hand pulls are used to draw the traditional, rich-flavored "real ales" up from the cellar. These are the connoisseur's favorites: They're fermented naturally, vary from sweet to bitter, and often include a hoppy or nutty flavor. Experiment with obscure local microbrews. Short hand pulls at the bar mean colder, fizzier, mass-produced, and less interesting keg beers. Stout is dark and more bitter, like Guinness. If you don't like Guinness, try it in Ireland. It doesn't travel well and is better in its homeland. Murphy's is a very good Guinness-like stout, but a bit smoother and milder. For a cold, refreshing, basic, American-style beer, ask for a lager such as Harp. Ale drinkers swear by Smithwick's. Caffrey's is a satisfying cross between stout and ale. Try the draft cider (sweet or dry)...carefully. Teetotalers can order a soft drink.

Pubs are generally open daily from 11 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 10:30 p.m. Children are served food and soft drinks in pubs (sometimes in a courtyard or the restaurant section). You'll often see signs behind the bar asking that children vacate the premises by 8 p.m. You must be 18 to order a beer, and the Gardí (police) are cracking down hard on pubs that don't enforce this. A cup of darts is free for the asking.

You're a guest on your first night; after that, you're a regular. A wise Irishman once said, "It never rains in a pub." The relaxed, informal atmosphere feels like a refuge from daily cares. Women traveling alone need not worry—you'll become part of the pub family in no time.

Craic (crack), Irish for "fun" or "a good laugh," is the sport that accompanies drinking in a pub. People are there to talk. To encourage conversation, stand or sit at the bar, not at a table.

The Irish government passed a law making all pubs in the Republic smoke-free. Smokers now take their pints outside, turning alleys into covered smoking patios. An incredulous Irishman responded to the law by saying, "What will they do next? Ban drinking in pubs? We'll never get to heaven if we don't die."

It's a tradition to buy your table a round, and then for each person to reciprocate. If an Irishman buys you a drink, thank him by saying, "Go raibh maith agat" (guh rov mah UG-ut). Offer him a toast in Irish—"Slainte" (SLAWN-chuh), the equivalent of "cheers." A good excuse for a conversation is to ask to be taught a few words of Gaelic.

Traditional music is alive and popular in pubs throughout Ireland. "Sessions" (musical evenings) may be planned and advertised or impromptu. Traditionally, musicians just congregate and play for the love of it. There will generally be a fiddle, a flute or tin whistle, a guitar, a bodhrán (goatskin drum), and maybe an accordion. Things usually get going around 9:30 (but note that Irish punctuality is unpredictable). Last call for drinks is usually around 11:30.

The music often comes in sets of three songs. The wind and string instruments embellish melody lines with lots of tight ornamentation. Whoever happens to be leading determines the next song only as the song the group is playing is about to be finished. If he wants to pass on the decision, it's done with eye contact and a nod. A céilí (KAY-lee) is an evening of music and dance...an Irish hoedown.

Percussion generally stays in the background. The bodhrán (BO-run) is played with a small, two-headed club. The performer's hand stretches the skin to change the tone and pitch. You'll sometimes be lucky enough to hear a set of bones crisply played. These are two cow ribs (boiled and dried) that are rattled in one hand like spoons or castanets, substituting for the sound of dancing shoes in olden days.

Watch closely if a piper is playing. The Irish version of bagpipes, the uilleann (ILL-in) pipes are played by inflating the airbag (under the left elbow) with a bellows (under the right elbow) rather than with a mouthpiece like the Scottish Highland bagpipes. Uilleann is Gaelic for "elbow," and the sound is more melodic, with a wider range than the Highland pipes. The piper fingers his chanter like a flute to create individual notes, and uses the heel of his right hand to play chords on one of three regulator pipes. It takes amazing coordination to play this instrument well, and the sound can be haunting.

Occasionally, the fast-paced music will stop and one person will sing a lament. Called sean nos (Gaelic for "old style"), this slightly nasal vocal style may be a remnant of the ancient storytelling tradition of the bards whose influence died out when Gaelic culture waned 400 years ago. This is the one time when the entire pub will stop to listen as sad lyrics fill the room. Stories—often of love lost, emigration to a faraway land, or a heroic rebel death struggling against English rule—are always heartfelt. Spend a lament studying the faces in the crowd.

A session can be magical or lifeless. If the chemistry is right, it's one of the great Irish experiences. Between songs, talk to your neighbor. Locals often have an almost evangelical interest in explaining the music.

Irish Pub and Music Words
The Irish love to socialize. Pubs are like public living rooms, where friends gather in a corner to play tunes and everyone is a welcome guest. Here are some useful pub and music words:

Trad: traditional Irish music
Céilí (KAY-lee): Irish dance gathering
Bodhrán (BO-run): traditional drum
Uilleann (ILL-in): elbow (uilleann pipes are elbow bagpipes)
Poitín (po-CHEEN): moonshine, homemade liquor
Táim súgach! (taw im SOO-gakh): I'm tipsy!
Slainte (SLAWN-chuh): Cheers! To your health!
Go raibh maith agat (guh riv mah AG-ut): Thank you

Rick Steves (www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, WA 98020.

© 2010 Rick Steves

What Death Threats Against My Parents Taught Me About Taking a Stand

Smithsonian Magazine

My eight-year-old daughter and I watch, heads together, as a young John Lewis walks across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. We are visiting the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and we have sat down at the large lunch counter interactive to explore key moments in the struggle for Civil Rights.

Lewis, now a U.S. Congressman from Georgia, along with Hosea Williams, an organizer of the march and one of Martin Luther King’s most trusted advisors, are at the head of a long column of people setting out from Selma, Alabama, to march for the African Americans in Alabama who were denied the right to vote. The unarmed and non-violent protestors walk calmly over the bridge, straight towards a wall of state troopers and local police. 

There is a standoff, after which the police advance toward the protestors, who stand stock-still. At the front of the line are Lewis, dressed in a smart trench coat, and Williams. The police walk up, jab Lewis in the stomach with a nightstick, and then knock him down, along with a number of others. Williams manages to outrun the officers, but Lewis’ skull is fractured. The officers proceed to beat the protestors—even those on the ground. When officers on horseback enter the fray, people on the ground are trampled.

More than 50 were hospitalized later that day, March 7, 1965, known today as “Bloody Sunday,” and John Lewis was beaten within an inch of his life, as he told me in an interview in 1999. These images helped galvanize support for the Voting Rights Act, and their raw depiction of human violence is the worst I have ever seen.

That’s when I tell my eight-year-old daughter that her grandparents played a small role in the movement. In 1965, my parents, John and Ardath Mason, had worked to change a racist system that did not reflect their values, mostly educating churchgoers in Wilmington, Delaware, about the Civil Rights Movement. When King called for people to join the march in Selma after Bloody Sunday, my father responded. He and other local clergy set off, and the local press covered their departure.

My mother still tells the story of what happened next (though I have not yet told my daughter). “The phone rang at 2:30 in the morning. The man at the other end of the line said, ‘Thousands of people are praying that your husband and your children will be killed.’”

I was as young as 3 or 4 years old when I first heard the story, and I still remember the way my stomach clenched in fear.

As a folklorist, I am trained to think of family stories as a way to explore themes like “where have I come from?” and “where am I going?” Over the last year, I have been shocked by the racially charged language and violent acts that have racked our nation.

My parents’ story showed me the value of knowing my principles and acting in accordance with them. For my parents, this meant educating local people about the Civil Rights struggle and, when the time came, engaging in direct action to support the Movement. For me, this has meant carrying their work forward by exploring and representing people in the African Diaspora—their struggles and successes, calamity and creativity—through research, writing, exhibitions, public programming and film—most recently helping to produce Freedom Sounds, a three-day festival last September to mark the opening of the new National Museum of African American History and Culture.

It’s these stories that need to be told now more than ever. My parents did not need to get involved in the struggle for Civil Rights, but they chose to address what they understood as the major issue of their time. They were young and idealistic, willing to put themselves in harm’s way to help create a more perfect union where each person could live “free and equal in the laws of her country and in the eyes of God,” as President Barack Obama said at the opening of the new museum.

As the President pointed out, these stories are complicated, and messy, and full of contradictions. But they are our stories, fundamentally American stories, and they deserve to be told—and heard.

Even so, these practices are often met with resistance. My parents’ struggle brought that painful insight to light: the world is not always a safe place. There are people who are so deeply committed to their prejudice and privilege that they are willing to hurt others in order to sustain it. At a very young age, my parents’ story awakened me to a hard but common truth: There are bigots in the world, and at least some of them want you dead.

Like so many, Martin Luther King, John Lewis, Hosea Williams, and thousands of others were part of a social movement that used direct action to make change. Direct action has been used for centuries to raise awareness, change attitudes and call for specific changes.

In 1773, the Sons of Liberty defiantly resisted unjust taxation without representation at the Boston Tea Party, destroying 342 chests of imported tea. In 1913, suffragettes crashed President Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration, holding an illegal march in Washington, D.C., to call for the right to vote. In 1886, the Knights of Labor organized street protests to call for an eight-hour work day, and strikes over the years have been a primary driver of increased worker safety. It’s this direct action that highlights tensions, which already exist and provokes engagement on difficult issues, as King captured in his famous letter from Birmingham jail:

Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches and so forth? Isn't negotiation a better path? You are quite right in calling, for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue.

As I talked with my daughter about the issues of racial discrimination and the small role that her grandparents played in the important story of Civil Rights, she looked off into the distance for a quiet moment. Then with surprising maturity, she said, “Change isn’t always easy, is it?” 

Behind the Scenes: Skinning Condors in the Name of Science

Smithsonian Magazine

The majestically macabre California condor is the largest bird in North America, Mother Nature’s critically endangered cleanup crew, and a miracle conservation success story. After making a comeback with captive breeding, things are looking up for the condor—but not the birds that recently arrived at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Bird Collection laboratories. These condors were dead, and many of them had been for quite awhile.

During the Pleistocene Era, 2 million to 11,000 years ago, robust populations of condors soared high over the continent like grim reapers, scavenging the carcasses of giant prehistoric mammals. But once giant sloths, stag-moose and mastodons became extinct and human developments grew across North America, the California condor population took a nosedive.

By 1982, their numbers had dwindled to just 23 surviving condors. With extinction eminent, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) launched the California Condor Recovery Program to capture the remaining birds in the wild and restore the population through captive breeding. After just five years, enough birds had hatched in captivity that they could be released to the wild. About 500 descendents of the original 23 condors thrive today, with more than half released and sailing free over the cliffs of California, Utah and Baja California.

Though condors are still critically endangered, the ongoing program continues to both safeguard them from extinction and provide an unparalleled source of ecological insight into these ancient vultures. FWS has tagged and tracked every condor and kept a record of its life milestones. Researchers know exactly where and when each bird hatched, where it nested once released to the wild and when it ultimately dies. Following death, the carcass is collected and stored for future study in a walk-in freezer at the FWS Pacific Southwest headquarters in Sacramento, California.

A few months ago, that freezer filled up.

Even in death endangered species are protected, so FWS needed somewhere to offload their brimming surplus of giant bird carcasses. Luckily, the Smithsonian Institution’s Division of Birds agreed to take them and put them to use for research and museum display. Last week, the freight of dead, frozen condors arrived and set off a flurry of activity as specialists raced to prepare the frozen specimens for the museum’s collection.   

The California condor is the largest bird in North America. (© Glenn Simmons, Encyclopedia of Life)

“They’re coming to us in various forms of degradation,” says Christopher Milensky, a museum specialist and orchestrator of the condor preparation activities. FWS has been stockpiling the birds for nearly half a century, “so some are sort of fresh, and some are sort of nasty.” Milensky gives this disclaimer as he walks guests through the cavernous Museum Support Center in Suitland, Maryland.

The vast 435,000 square-foot complex serves as a storage facility for the millions of specimens that are not on display in museums. It’s also the laboratories and workspaces for the behind-the-scenes preparation of all the museum’s artifacts. With taxidermied animals from around the planet, jars of preserved specimens suspended in liquid, library books, aircrafts and artwork, the place gives the impression of a giant, immersive diorama put together by a confused curator.

Past the stairs guarded by mountain lions, left at the oryx, and through a hall lined with pygmy whales is the Osteo Prep Lab, the facility where curators have prepared many of the skeletons of mammals, birds, amphibians, and fish on view in the Osteology Hall at the National Museum of Natural History. The lab is also home to one of the most valuable players in a curator’s arsenal: a colony of flesh-eating beetles that hungrily await new specimens to feed upon.

“Most of what we’re doing is turning [the condors] into skeletons,” says Milensky, pulling open the door to the lab to reveal a laundry facility and a bank of shower rooms. “We’re just doing the triage here,” he says. Things tend to get a little messy at the Osteo Prep Lab, hence the showers.  “We’ll make them look pretty back at the museum.”

Sprawled across the hallway to Milensky’s right is an enormous, black-feathered carcass. “There’s a condor,” he says. “That’s one I still need to deal with.” The facility is suddenly so full of dead condors they’re literally overflowing into the hallways. As far as problems go, it’s one the Bird Division is celebrating. The Smithsonian hasn’t had a new condor specimen to study or display for nearly a century. Now they’ve got close to 50.

“Here’s the party,” Milensky jokes, entering the big garage-like room where he and his team are working. He notes that the lab can easily be hosed down when they’re done prepping the birds. The room is crowded, buzzing with researchers and specialists, each wearing a pair of gloves and lab coats as they scurry between operating tables and black industrial garbage bags, each of which is stuffed with a condor carcass.

“This is epic,” says Helen James, beaming as she stretches her arms wide to mimic the prodigious 10-foot wingspan of the condors all around her. In her years as curator in charge of the Smithsonian's Division of Birds at the Natural History Museum, she never expected to receive such a windfall of rare specimens in one fell swoop. “It’s a once in a lifetime chance,” she says.

The majority of the museum’s bird specimens are found in the wild, so they can only make educated guesses about their age or provenance. “Most of our other collections are a mystery,” James says, and that makes comparative anatomy and other studies more of a challenge. That’s not the case for these condors. Thanks to the intensive conservation effort and meticulous monitoring by FWS, James says, “we know how old each specimen is—they were all reared in captivity and followed in the wild.”

In addition to the comparative anatomy and ecological data the condors will provide, these vultures have historical importance as well. “It’s a part of American history,” James says. “It has significance in indigenous populations that have overlapped with its range,” kept alive today through cave paintings and stories of ceremonies where condors were used to heal or imbue people with special powers. 

With that 10 foot wingspan, it takes five people just to measure one of the specimens they’re prepping. “Just look at this bird!” James exclaims as Milensky helps a colleague pull another condor out of a bag on the floor. “It’s the largest vulture,” James says, a master of flight able to reach heights of 15,000 feet and soar more than 150 miles to find a meal.

Scissors snip and feathers fly as the team descends on the condor, skinning it, then trimming and discarding as much muscle and skin as possible. If the birds aren’t stripped of all the juicy pieces, the carcasses run the risk of rotting. The next stop is the flesh-eating beetles, and Milensky points out that they won’t eat any carcass that’s gone bad—apparently it makes them lose their appetite.

“The bugs take it from flesh to bone,” Milensky says, taking a break from the skinning party to go water the beetles (they like it nice and humid). In the beetle room, he picks up a specimen jar that’s recently been finished, awaiting a rinse and rearticulation. Inside is a ghostly white skeleton of a bird that’s been picked perfectly clean.

Being much too large to fit inside a jar, the condor specimens will be placed in enclosed rooms like meat lockers where the bugs roam free. Milensky pulls over a hose and swings the locker door open to give them a spritz. Inside are buckets and trays filled with the carcasses of everything from mice to giant porpoises and turtles. They’re all crawling with the tiny, black, flesh-eating critters. Each the size of a dime, they happily munch meat away from the bones, and in the process help to craft the perfect museum specimen.

Back in the prep lab, Teresa Feo, a postdoctoral researcher, finishes snipping away the last bits of flesh on a condor before breaking for lunch. “Tasty,” she says, picking some condor gristle off her fingers as she surveys her handiwork.

Feo's research relies on fossilized and real feathers in the museum’s collection to study how the mechanical engineering of flight has evolved over time. She’s confidant the condor samples will be tremendously helpful to her research. “I’ve never used them because that type of material is never available,” she says. These condors offer the opportunity to add to her existing dataset an extreme, large bird end member.

“We’re not just talking sparrows and warblers anymore,” she says. One flight feather from a condor is so big it can weigh as much as 30 hummingbirds. She grabs a ball of string and winds it tightly around her cleaned specimen to help keep it intact as the beetles go to work.

“It’s done. The bugs will like it I think,” says Feo as she proffers her trimmed, trussed and beetle-ready condor carcass to Milensky. “Oh, it’s really smelly,” she adds, holding it a bit further from her nose as Milensky swoops in to grab it, saying, “It’s lovely.” 

Marian Anderson: Freedom Singer and Mentor To Generations

Smithsonian Magazine

“Writing about Marian Anderson coming to grips with the meaning of her life was one of the joys of my life,” Arsenault told a group of 50 people attending “Voices of Change, Sounds of Freedom,” a biannual forum presented by the Humanities Council of Washington, DC.

Throughout the discussions, the diva’s presence loomed large. Thanks to a documentary, Marian Anderson: Voice of Conscience, presented by WETA, featuring interviews with her at age 94, as well as Arsenault’s groundbreaking book, which illuminates Anderson’s life and career, her resilient spirit is more fully emerging.

“I was interested in her primarily as a civil rights icon and how she changed America,” says Arsenault. But the depth of her significance as a mentor and role model, he says, while not unexpected, was surprising. Rising from humble beginnings in Philadelphia, Anderson managed to learn five languages, develop a three octave range and exude constant grace in the face of persistent prejudice.

By 1939, she was a global star managed by Sol Hurock, who made her the third biggest box office draw in the nation, attracting crowds of 5,000 or more.

“At that time, Washington was the only large city in the U.S. without a municipal auditorium,” says Arsenault. Howard University sponsored annual concerts with Anderson but had no campus venue large enough for her growing fan base. University leaders sought out the much larger Constitution Hall venue, despite having been rebuffed in the past.

Segregating audiences, not concert halls, was a general practice in DC, says Arsenault.  But following an incident at a Roland Hayes event, management at Constitution Hall halted black performances and adopted a “white artists only clause” to prevent the embarrassment of having too few black seats in the house to meet the growing demand of music-loving black patrons, even as the seats reserved for whites only remained empty.

After several refusals, Howard leaders asked the DC School Board for permission to use the auditorium of a large white high school. There, they were also denied. Lafayette Park, located across the street from the White House, was considered, but ruled out because it was too small.

Assistant Interior Secretary Oscar L. Chapman emerged as a critical, though rarely acknowledged, advocate. He personally garnered the support of the White House, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt approved the use of the Lincoln Memorial grounds, even though the location had never been used for a public event. “If Chapman had not been there it probably wouldn’t have happened,” says Arsenault.

As the date of the concert neared an unexpected April storm turned the weather cold. No one knew if people would show up. Anderson had never sung outdoors. Two days before the concert, Anderson grew apprehensive. She backed out, but then relented under pressure from Hurock and Walter White, head of the NAACP.

Robert Scurlock covered Marian Anderson's performance at the Lincoln Memorial after she was denied the stage at Washington's Constitution Hall. (Scurlock Studio / Archives Center / NMAH, SI)

“Amazingly 75,000 people showed up,” says Arsenault. It was a multiracial sign of unity. Black and white boy scouts passed out copies of the Gettysburg Address. NBC radio broadcast portions of the event, which has never been broadcast in its entirety.

Anderson later said she was paralyzed with fear. “When she opened her mouth,” says Arsenault, “she didn’t think anything would come out.”  There was a delay, then America the Beautiful …my country tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.

“Everyone had a sense that this was an incredible moment in American history,” Arsenault says.  “People rushed the stage to touch her. Many commentators envisioned this was what America could be but wasn’t.”

Yet.

That night Anderson and her mother stayed at a private home before returning to Philadelphia.  They’d been unable to find an area hotel to accept them.

Arsenault says there is a message to her story. “People have to perceive civil rights as a national or international problem.  You can’t put it all on whites from the South. You have to get over that and see racism as a stain on the national honor before you can mobilize people on a national level,” he says.

“We need to look unblinkingly at our past.  Otherwise we continue to make the same mistakes,” he adds.  Marian Anderson’s story “shows the importance of historical knowledge.”  However the full 30-minute concert, he says, is only available via the UCLA Film Archives and costs a whopping $25 a second to view.

In a 2009 tribute on the 70th Anniversary of the historic  concert, opera star Dencye Graves celebrated Anderson’s legacy performing numbers from the historic concert.  Graves was resplendent in a gown presented to her by the great diva.

Before a crowd of 75,000, Anderson’s performance became a sign of unity. (Photo courtesy of Robert S. Scurlock Studio Records, ca. 1905-1994, Archives Center, National Museum of American History)

Mining the past can yield unexpected treasure.  For historian and author Ray Arsenault, whose book The Sound of Freedom delves into the back story of how the venue for a 30-minute concert became a much-treasured shrine of dignity and national unity, the gold dust is still there.

The concert is the pivotal 1939 performance where the African American artist Marian Anderson sang on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and moved a nation. The lesson, Arsenault says, is how Anderson’s talent and grace created a moment that transformed a populace grappling with race, not just in the deep South, but everywhere.

Throughout her career Anderson had amassed supporters worldwide, performed before heads of state and inspired impresarios like Arturo Toscanini to proclaim her contralto to be a voice that emerges only “once in 100 years.” But Arsenault says there is more to her legacy. The much-acclaimed performer opened the doors and offered classical music careers to future generations of black divas, personally providing support to budding ingénues, like Grace Bumbry and Shirley Verrett, out of  her own pocketbook.

Tate Britain's Female-Led Exhibition Is a Hopeful Sign of What's to Come

Smithsonian Magazine

Women in art had some cause for celebration this year, with unheralded artists ranging from Baroque painter Michaelina Wautier to Renaissance portraitists Lavinia Fontana and Sofonisba Anguissola, Swedish abstract art pioneer Hilma af Klint, and Old Master Artemisia Gentileschi headlining—or poised to headline—blockbuster retrospectives across the globe. But the path toward parity is still a work in progress: According to statistics compiled by the Washington, D.C.-based National Museum of Women in the Arts, women (who constitute 51 percent of contemporary visual artists) working across arts professions make around $20,000 less per year than their male counterparts. And, between 2007 and 2013, only 27 percent of 590 major exhibitions held by institutions across the United States were devoted to female artists.

Come April 2019, Mark Brown reports for the Guardian, Tate Britain will take steps to subvert this male-centric model by transforming its fee-free Sixty Years galleries, which explore the history of art from the 1960s through the present, into completely female-dominated spaces. The revamped display is set to remain on view for at least a year and will feature around 60 paintings, sculptures, photographs, drawings and video works by 30 different artists, including Bridget Riley, Rachel Whiteread and Mona Hatoum.

Currently, of the 48 works on view in Sixty Years, 32 are by men, 14 are by women and two are by collectives. Gender notwithstanding, highlights include Chris Ofili’s elephant dung-laden 1998 portrait of a mother mourning the murder of her son, Richard Hamilton’s 1992 recreation of a British pop art collage, and Gillian Wearing’s diverse portraits of Britons carrying signs that express sentiments such as “Will Britain get through this recession?” and “I have been certified as mildly insane.”

Sarah Lucas, "Pauline Bunny," 1997 (Tate © Sarah Lucas)

It’s unclear which, if any, of the works by female artists will remain on display in the updated gallery, but Robert Dex of the Evening Standard notes that Tate has already spotlighted several new additions: amongst others, Susan Hiller’s “Belshazzar’s Feast, the Writing on Your Wall”—a multimedia installation that recreates a modern living room complete with a droning television in place of a more traditional hearth—and Sarah Lucas’ “Pauline Bunny,” a wiry, bunny-shaped sculpture stuffed with tights and cotton wadding to provide what Tate terms a representation of “abject femininity, in thrall to the arena of male virtuosity.”

Monster Chetwynd, fresh off of her Christmas commission from Tate Britain (she adorned the London gallery’s entrance with two giant leopard slugs), will be featured with two new mixed media works entitled “Crazy Bat Lady” and “Jesus and Barabbas (Odd Man Out 2011).” 2006 Turner prize winner Tomma Abts’ “Zebe,” a 2010 abstract canvas filled with slightly misaligned protrusions and lines, will also go on display.

Tate director Maria Balshaw tells the Guardian’s Brown that she hopes visitors barely even register the change, as the progress made toward highlighting female artists’ contributions has, in recent years, ostensibly made their presence in exhibitions the norm rather than an anomaly.

This process of recognition “has been slow for too long,” Balshaw adds. “We are happy that it is speeding up.”

Tomma Abts, "Zebe," 2010 (Tate © Tomma Abts)

Tate isn’t the only British museum set to launch female-led exhibitions in the near future: In a separate Evening Standard article, Robert Dex writes that the National Portrait Gallery’s upcoming Pre-Raphaelite Sisters show will honor the women who worked as models, gallery assistants and artists alongside better-known male Pre-Raphaelites like Sir John Everett Millais and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. And in 2020, Martin Bailey and Hannah McGivern report for the Art Newspaper, London’s National Gallery will host a major exhibition dedicated to Baroque artist Artemisia Gentileschi, whose early 17th-century self-portrait made headlines this summer after selling to the gallery for £3.6 million, or roughly $4.7 million USD.

As Katy Hessel, a curator and writer who runs the popular Instagram account @thegreatwomenartists, commented in a recent interview with Sleek magazine’s Emily May, Tate’s display is a significant move. As she puts it, “­­Anyone from any background, of any age, will be able to walk into the free galleries and learn that women were also major contributors to art history, and that they mattered.”

Kermit the Frog and Friends Join American History Museum's Collections

Smithsonian Magazine

Jim Henson, one of America's great powerhouses of imagination, has been gone from this earth for 20 years. Though not physically here to ply his puppeteering genius and expand his artistic horizons to who knows where, he is still with us by way of his creations. And who here doesn't know the cheery urban landscape of Sesame Street, the vaudevillian stage of The Muppet Show or the subterranean world of Fraggle Rock—and the menagerie of wonderful creatures therein? Although his range went well beyond those hallowed television programs, they are perhaps what he is best remembered for. And if there was ever a poster boy for the body of Henson's work, it's Kermit the Frog.

Kermit—that verdant amphibian whose optimism and earnestness has endeared him to generations of viewers has joined the collections of the American History Museum. Again. No, the Smithsonian isn't collecting Kermits like one collects glass animals or Hummel figurines. The frog most visitors have seen is from 1969 when Kermit's presence graced Sesame Street. What joined the collections on the morning of August 25 was the earliest incarnation of the character, along with a troupe of friends known primarily to TV viewers in the D.C. metro area.

The show was Sam and Friends, a five-minute program that ran on NBC between 1955 and 1961, sandwiched in between the Huntley/Brinkley Report and The Tonight Show. It was a time slot that made it clear that this was puppet show that could entertain people of all ages. A teenage Henson crafted the colorful cast of characters himself, including Sam, who never spoke but lip synched to popular recordings, Harry the Hipster, a jive-talking and jazz-loving puppet, and Icky Gunk, a fiendishly-grinning snakelike character. (The one exception is the bulbous Mushmellon, sort of a prototypical Oscar the Grouch character, which was made by Henson's future wife, Jane.) "Sam and Friends are ingenious and creative characters who add a spark of humor and imagination to the collections," said museum director Brent Glass during the donation ceremony.

And then there's Kermit. Fashioned from Henson's mother's discarded coat, ping pong balls and a pair of denim jeans, he was an abstract, lizard-like creature when he appeared on Sam and Friends. (Think of it as the pollywog phase of Kermit's development. He wasn't positively identified as a frog until the mid-to-late 1960s.) You'll note that the original puppet doesn't sport the signature 11-point collar or flipper feet of the more familiar character design. The early Kermit would also occasionally don a wig to assume a feminine alter ego, Kermina, who you can see in this YouTube video lip synching to "That Old Black Magic" alongside Sam.

"I'm sure Jim would have been so pleased to know that they've come to live here," Jane Henson remarked. "It's really a great privilege for the museum to want our pieces, and I hope you get to know these characters in the future through the Smithsonian." And indeed you shall. Current plans are to have the Sam and Friends cast go on display in November, alongside the 1969 iteration of Kermit.

Image by Photo by Richard Strauss, courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Cast of Sam and Friends. (original image)

Image by Photo by Richard Strauss, courtesy of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Kermit, first created in 1955. This Muppet was made in 1969 and has been in the museum’s collections for three decades. (original image)

Image by The Jim Henson Company and The Muppets Studio LLC. Jim Henson and Jane Henson pose with characters from the TV show Sam and Friends, ca. 1956/57. From left, Moldy Hay, Jane Henson, Sam, Harry the Hipster, Jim Henson, Kermit and Yorick. (original image)

Image by The Jim Henson Company and The Muppets Studio LLC. Henson uses a remote controlled animatronic device to operate Kermit the Frog. (original image)

Image by The Jim Henson Company and The Muppets Studio LLC. Henson poses with characters from the TV show "Sam and Friends," ca. 1956/57. From left, Harry the Hipster, Sam, Henson, Kermit and Yorick. (original image)

Image by The Jim Henson Company and The Muppets Studio LLC. The original Kermit. (original image)

Image by The Jim Henson Company and The Muppets Studio LLC. Henson with characters from the TV show Sam and Friends, ca. 1956/57. The show was a five-minute program that ran on NBC between 1955 and 1961, sandwiched in between the Huntley/Brinkley report and the Tonight Show. (original image)

Image by The Jim Henson Company and The Muppets Studio LLC. Henson crafted the colorful cast of characters of Sam and Friends, including Sam, who never spoke but lip synched to popular recordings, Harry the Hipster, a jive-talking and jazz-loving puppet, and Icky Gunk, a fiendishly-grinning snakelike character. (original image)

Image by The Jim Henson Company and The Muppets Studio LLC. Current plans are to have the Sam and Friends cast go on display at the American History Museum in November. (original image)

Image by The Jim Henson Company and The Muppets Studio LLC. A sketch of the original Kermit the Frog. (original image)

History in a Glass: (Re)discovering Armenian Wine

Smithsonian Magazine

Armenia holds a remarkable depth and diversity of cultural and natural landscapes, all within an area approximately the size of the state of Maryland. This diversity and richness is evident in music, cuisine, art, and—increasingly—Armenia’s burgeoning wine industry.

What makes a wine Armenian? I posed this question to Irina Ghaplanyan and Vahe Keushguerian, two wine professionals passionate about the country’s current wine renaissance. Ghaplanyan represents Vineyards of Armenia, a group of almost a dozen winemakers from across the country, including both boutique and large-scale wineries. Keushguerian is a winemaker and the owner of Semina Consulting, a winery consultancy based in Yerevan. He has been involved in the wine industry for over twenty-five years, first in the San Francisco Bay Area as a wine importer, then Tuscany, Puglia, and now Armenia.

Ghaplanyan and Keushguerian emphasized the unique grape varietals indigenous to Armenia and the country’s exceptional terroir, the characteristics that soil, weather, climate, and other environmental factors impart to the grapevines. Armenian wine is also connected across time with a more than six thousand-year-old history of viniculture.

In 2011, researchers from UCLA and the Armenian Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography discovered the oldest winemaking facility in the world, dating from approximately 4100 BCE. This Areni-1 cave complex sits at the mouth of a gorge leading to the medieval Noravank monastery, at the outskirts of Areni village.

Image by Photo by Sossi Madzounian, Smithsonian. Underground in the Areni-1 Cave Complex (original image)

Image by Sossi Madzounian, Smithsonian. The Noravank Monastery is in Vayots Dzor region near Areni village. (original image)

The discoveries at Areni-1 place Armenia at the fore of an emerging “Historic World” of wine, including Georgia, Iran, Israel, Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan, and Syria. Working with Historic World colleagues, Armenian wine geneticists, archaeologists, and producers are rediscovering ancient varietals that are the ancestors of today’s wine varietals. In a region fraught with conflict, this is a kind of “wine diplomacy,” bridging contemporary geopolitical borders.

Ghaplanyan and Keushguerian recently traveled to northwestern Iran, near the Hajji Firuz site where the oldest winemaking related evidence has been discovered, to search for grape varietals in abandoned vineyards.

“Genetic analysis found that four of these varietals had unique genotypes, which is fascinating, and another clue to understand the period of grapevine domestication, and also the way it began migrating to Europe,” Ghaplanyan remarks. These discoveries may “explain how they migrated and the links between the current European varietals and the varietals we have here.”

Armenian grape varietals, like Areni, Kakhet, Voskehat, Khatun Kharji, Movuz, Sireni and Chilar, are still relatively unknown outside of the region. Indigenous to the area and distinct from both the European Old World and New World varietals, these are the grapes that, as Keushguerian puts, “would perplex a wine professional.” He continues, “Their flavor profile is different than what you’re used to—not too different, but distinct. The sensation is different.”

Image by SLMotley, Smithsonian. A hand-painted map shows the grape varietals in the Semina winery. (original image)

Image by SLMotley, Smithsonian. Vahe Keushguerian and Irina Ghaplanyan discuss the distinctions of Armenian wine grape varietals. (original image)

Ghaplanyan and Keushguerian are propagating many of these vitis vinifera varietals in nurseries. They grow rediscovered varietals and produce wine in a process called “microvinification,” creating wines from very small batches of grapes to learn more about the different flavor profiles possible from these ancient grape types. One of their discoveries is the sheer number of flavor profiles possible from only one varietal.

“If you compare different grapes, there’s usually a set amount of flavor profiles that a grape can produce,” she explains. “With the Voskehat grape, the aroma profiles and complexity are much higher than average. It is also a very terroir-driven grape. In 2013, a colder year, it acquired a very stone fruit flavor, very peachy, apricot. 2014 was a lot warmer, so we had tropical notes from banana to pineapple to passion fruit.”

Situated at the intersection of the European and Arabian tectonic plates, Armenia has frequent seismic activity. The resulting volcanic soil is ideal for grape cultivation, enriching terroir. Georgian wines also benefit from this soil type, but Armenia’s higher elevation and extreme continental climate distinguishes its grapes. Ghaplanyan says very hot summers and very cold winters give the grapes boldness and “a certain maturity.”

The Keush vineyards with iconic Mt. Ararat in the distance (Vineyards of Armenia)

Armenia’s extreme climate is surprising when you consider its latitude—roughly the same as Sicily and Mt. Etna. The Armenian highlands produce a range of microclimates, and diverse grapes grow from the lowest elevations of 2,000 feet above sea level to the highest at 5,700, where Keushguerian grows the grapes for his Keush sparkling wine.

“What we’re doing is something like ‘extreme winemaking,’” he says. “We are pushing the limits of the frontier. Armenian vineyards are some of the highest in the northern hemisphere, apart from one small patch of vineyard in Colorado.”

This elevation also breeds a high concentration of polyphenols. These chemicals, which may be linked to prevention of degenerative diseases, lend Armenian wine “a higher structure, a certain je ne sais quoi … a certain elegance similar to northern Italian wines,” as Keushguerian describes.

The extreme climate also breeds grapes with high acidity, so there is no need to add tartaric acid during the winemaking process, which is common with wines of the New World. High acidity without additives made early winemaking possible, when early inhabitants of the South Caucasus may have used wines for ritual purposes.

Labels for the Keush sparkling wine are printed at the winery. (SLMotley, Smithsonian)

Winemaking in Armenia dates from at least 4100 BCE to the present day, but Armenian viniculture has been disrupted throughout history by imperial conquests, political revolutions, and shifts in society. During Soviet times, and especially when Stalin came to power in the 1930s, the government asked Armenian winemakers to shift production toward cognac and European-style fortified wines (i.e. sherry, madeira) instead of table wines. This system rewarded quantity rather than quality.

“We can give one credit to the Soviets,” Ghaplanyan reminds. “They created collective nurseries, where they would preserve the historic varietals. They didn’t industrially use them because they weren’t as weather resistant, but they didn’t ignore them. They had a collection which we lost during the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

Instability, privatization, and conflict characterized this collapse in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the wine industry lay dormant for years. The vineyards, which need steady and constant care, fell into neglect until the late 1990s.

Since 1998, they and their fellow winemakers have been rebuilding and expanding the Armenian wine industry, and today there is a renaissance. The 2010 vintage was a watershed year, and Yerevan now boasts almost a dozen wine bars, while Armenian wines are appearing on global top ten lists.

Irina Ghaplanyan, My Armenia project specialist Hamazasp Danielyan, and Vahe Keushguerian walk through the Semina winery. (SLMotley, Smithsonian)

Ghaplanyan and Keushguerian see this evolving industry as a boon to local communities. As wine quality improves, so does the value of the final product and the grapes themselves. Within a more profitable economy, many farmers who have been steadily leaving for work in Russia might be able to afford to stay on their land. In marginal plots of land, on hillsides dotting the Armenian highlands, winemakers, communities, and families are cultivating the future of Armenia—by revisiting and reinterpreting its historic grapevines.

Vahe Keushguerian and Irina Ghaplanyan will present a selection of Armenian wines with the Smithsonian Associates on May 18, including a tasting of Voskehat.

This article originally appeared on the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage's "Talk Story: Culture in Motion" blog. For further reading on Armenia, check out the "My Armenia" project.

Works Referenced
1) Sullivan, M. “Chemical analysis confirms discovery of oldest wine-making equipment ever found,” UCLA Newsroom, January 11, 2011.
2) Brouillard, R., George, F. and Fougerousse, A. “Polyphenols produced during red wine ageing,” BioFactors, 6: 403–410, 1997.

What Experts Know About a Rare Inflammatory Syndrome Linked to COVID-19

Smithsonian Magazine

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, reports of new and unusual symptoms are on the rise. The latest side effects of a novel coronavirus infection range from nerve damage to “COVID toe.” In rare cases, COVID-19 seems to cause severe inflammation in children.

Scientists are racing to better understand what causes the condition, called “multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children,” or MIS-C, Jennifer Couzin-Frankel reports for Science magazine. The children present fevers, stomach pain, rashes and heart problems—or, as 14-year-old Jack McMorrow told the New York TimesPam Belluck, a pain “almost like someone injected you with straight-up fire.”

A lot remains to be discovered about MIS-C. It seems rare among those exposed to the virus behind COVID-19 and has affected both children and young adults, per the Washington Post’s Ariana Eunjung Cha and Chelsea Janes. MIS-C has also been compared to Kawasaki disease, another pediatric inflammatory syndrome.

What is Kawasaki disease?

Like with MIS-C, children with Kawasaki disease (KD) have symptoms like rash and fever. Kids with KD can also show signs like swollen hands and feet, peeling skin, red eyes, “strawberry tongue,” and swollen lymph glands in the neck. KD is a relatively uncommon condition, affecting about 15 to 20 out of 100,000 kids under 5 years old according to the Kawasaki Disease Research Center at the University of California, San Diego, though it can also appear in older kids and teens.

The similarities in symptoms “raise some concern that [MIS-C] is somehow linked to KD, although that exact linkage still has to be figured out,” Adriana Tremoulet, UCSD pediatrician and KD specialist, tells the KD Foundation in a video about the pandemic.

The disease was first described in 1967 by Japanese pediatrician Tomisaku Kawasaki. The cause of KD is not yet known, but the current hypothesis is that kids have a genetic predisposition for the disease. When they encounter something in the environment, called a trigger, the disease appears, per a video by the KD Foundation. Researchers aren’t sure yet what might trigger classic KD, but they have a good idea of what happens in the body when KD takes hold.

As explained in the same video, the coronary arteries, which carry oxygen to the heart, become inflamed when immune cells leave the bloodstream and enter the wall of the blood vessel. When immune cells gather in the wall, they recruit chemicals that cause the arteries to expand.

If the disease is treated quickly, an artery that expands will usually return to normal, but in severe cases the artery could expand further into an aneurysm. An aneurysm prevents blood from flowing normally and can lead a clot and a heart attack. Luckily, an effective treatment for KD exists, and kids with a history of KD just need to follow up with a cardiologist every few years.

Research into KD is ongoing, and previous work at the UCSD lab investigated whether coronaviruses—but not the one that causes COVID-19, since it hadn’t emerged at that time—could trigger KD, and found they could not.

How is MIS-C different from KD?

While MIS-C is triggered by SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, Kawasaki disease has been recognized for decades longer than the current pandemic and therefore probably has a different trigger. And so far, doctors treating COVID-19 have seen two kinds of Kawasaki-like disease, as Amy McKeever reports for National Geographic. One is viral sepsis, which causes depressed heart function and low blood pressure, and another more closely resembles Kawasaki-like symptoms.

While young children tend to have cases that most closely resemble KD, and it can appear weeks after initial exposure to SARS-CoV-2. But older teens and young adults can have an “overwhelming” response to the virus that involves the heart and other organs, as pediatric infectious diseases doctor Jennifer Lighter tells the Washington Post. For McMorrow, the 14-year-old, symptoms of a 102-degree fever, rash, and sore throat appeared about a month after he cleaned out his locker at school, per the New York Times. He was hospitalized for heart failure.

“He could have definitely died,” said McMorrow’s primary care doctor Gheorghe Ganea to the Times. “When there’s cardiovascular failure, other things can follow. Other organs can fail one after another, and survival becomes very difficult.”

Northwell health pediatric critical care doctor James Schneider emphasized to the Washington Post that the inflammatory syndrome requires hospital care and medications for blood pressure, steroids, and sometimes a ventilator. KD is treated with a high dose of gamma globulin, a protein found in human blood, given through an IV.

Who is at risk of the inflammatory syndrome?

Cases of MIS-C are very rare and are mostly popping up in COVID-19 hotspots like New York City, which as of May 21 had reported 147 cases, per the Washington Post.

“There’s clearly some underlying genetic component” that puts some children at risk, says the director of Columbia University’s Precision Medicine Initiative, Tom Maniatis, to Science magazine. To find out what that genetic component might be, the New York Genome Center, of which Maniatis is CEO, is sequencing the genomes of the affected children, their parents and the virus which with they’re infected.

Not all of those affected by MIS-C have active COVID-19 infections, which are found with the nose swab test. A recent study published in the Lancet found that eight out of ten children with MIS-C in Italy had antibodies to SARS-CoV-2, but new guidelines from the CDC show that antibody test results are far from cut-and-dry. (And immunity to the coronavirus is even more complicated.)

While Kawasaki disease commonly affects children of Asian ancestry, the inflammatory syndrome linked to COVID-19 hasn’t been reported in Asian countries, Science reports. Data from cases of the inflammatory syndrome in London showed that of the 37 cases reported there as of May 7, “a fair number of those children are actually of African and Afro-Caribbean descent,” Tremoulet says in the KD Foundation video. “That definitely needs to be further studied, and we need to understand why that group is having a much higher attack rate than we would expect given the number of African and Afro-Caribbean children in the London area.”

And as the Washington Post points out, while turning 18 years old is the milestone between childhood and adulthood, the distinction is more legal than biological.

“People in their 20s are at their physiological peak in terms of their lung capacity, reproductive system and strength,” Cha and Janes write in the Post. “So in this way, young adults may be more similar to children than to people in their 30s — some of whom may be starting to experience the slow, gradual declines of aging.”

Time and scientific research will tell what’s happening in those affected by the inflammatory syndrome. As Science reports, a project called DIAMONDS is working with children in Europe affected by MIS-C as well as those with COVID-19 to screen their blood for viruses and other pathogens (including SARS-CoV-2) and also study their immune systems. A global research project in adults aims to better understand whether the condition is really unique to children.

To treat those affected by MIS-C, “we need to identify early and we need to intervene early,” says Toronto rheumatologist and immunologist Rae Yeung to Science. “The kids we’re seeing so far, they respond to the treatments we’re giving.”

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