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Tracking Fishing Vessels Reveals Industry's Toll on the Ocean

Smithsonian Magazine

Fishing feeds many of the world's 7.6 billion people. But our hunger for sea life has a toll—something not always easy to grasp thanks to the vastness of the oceans and diversity of fisheries. Now, a high-tech collaboration brings the startling range of our impact to light. As Dan Charles reports for NPR, a new study suggests fishing activity covers at least 55 percent of the the planet's oceans.

The study, published in Science, uses several maps to detail where fishing vessels go, when they fish and how. The scientists explain that past fishing surveys have relied on data collected in logbooks, by observers at fishing ports and electronic vessel tracking. But that hodgepodge of methods fails to capture a complete, global picture of fishing. This time, the researchers turned to more impartial, distant observers: satellites.

Recently, an increasing number of fishing vessels are required to carry an automatic identification system (AIS), originally meant to prevent ship collisions. The AIS sends data about the ship's location, identity, speed and turning angle to satellite and land-based receivers. The scientists were able to use that data in their work. Dubbed the Global Fishing Watch, the effort unites scientists from several institutions and universities as well as a remote sensing company called SkyTruth, based in Shepherdstown, West Virginia.

The effort "provides a stunning illustration of the vast scope of exploitation of the ocean," says SkyTruth's president, John Amos, in a press release. "Now that we can observe and directly measure fishing effort, governments, fishers, the seafood industry and consumers have new tools to manage these important resources, and a strong foundation to build toward sustainability.”

The team took 22 billion AIS positions collected between 2012 to 2016 and fed that data into two neural networks — computer algorithms that learn and look for patterns in large data sets. One matched vessels to official fleet registries to come up with the type of vessel, size and other identification information. The other looked at vessel tracks to figure out when the vessel was fishing and how.

In 2016 alone, the data set included more than 40 million hours of fishing. The tracked vessels consumed 19 billion kilowatt hours of energy (one kilowatt hour is roughly equal to the electricity needed to power the average microwave for an hour, according to a video from Ontario government services.) The ships traveled more than 460 million kilometers—a distance equivalent to traveling to the Moon and back 600 times.

The vessels captured represent just a portion of fishing boats on the seas, but it is enough to give the researchers a clearer picture of global fishery activity.

Most fishing happens near coastlines, where countries tend to stick within their own economic zones, but there are hot spots in open ocean, writes Carolyn Gramling for Science News. Those spots include the northeastern Atlantic and spots off the coasts of South America and West Africa where nutrient-rich waters well up from deeper waters. As Gramling writes, just five countries — China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea — are responsible for more than 85 percent of fishing that happens on the high seas, outside of their own economic zones.

(Kroodsma et al, 2018 Science/Global Fishing Watch)

“The results are remarkably consistent with the catch data that have been traditionally employed to measure fishing effort,” Jeremy Jackson, a marine sciences expert at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, tells reporters Chris Mooney and Brady Dennis for The Washington Post. “Ditto the fact that China, Spain, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea take 85 percent of it all on the high seas. Still, it’s good to see the strong confirmation, and of course it’s unsustainable without massive restrictions in effort.”

The completeness of the data could be improved if the results can help pressure the International Maritime Organization to require even small fishing vessels to be satellite-monitored, Daniel Pauly a fisheries expert at the University of British Columbia tells The Post.

Already the study offers a clearer large-scale picture of fishing than past efforts. With information, experts have the tools to see problems with overfishing and more importantly, the solutions.

Wreck of Nazi Germany's Most Advanced U-Boat Discovered

Smithsonian Magazine

Earlier this month, searchers from the Sea War Museum Jutland in Denmark located a little-known but very important shipwreck from World War II in Skagerrak, the strait between Denmark and Norway. As George Dvorsky at Gizmodo reports, U-3523 was a type XXI U-boat, the Third Reich’s most advanced long-range submarine. Some researchers have speculated that the wreck could have been used to transport valuables and even high-ranking Nazis to South America in the waning days of the war.

According to a press release, the submarine was located by the research ship Viña, which was scanning the seabed near the town of Skagen when the unmistakable profile of the submarine appeared on its sonar. The ship sits under 404 feet of water with its nose buried in the seabed and its tail facing upward at about a 45 degree angle.

U-3523 was designed to run quietly to avoid detection and, most importantly, it may have been capable of crossing the ocean from Europe to South America underwater. However, it was not bomb-proof. On May 6, 1945, just two days after Nazi troops in Denmark and the Netherlands surrendered, the fleeing sub was located by a British Liberator bomber, which dropped depth charges, sinking the submarine and killing 58 crew and any additional passengers who may have been onboard.

“This was the most modern submarine the Germans built during the [Second World War],” director of the Sea War Museum Jutland, Gert Normann Andersen told a Danish outlet, as Brandon Specktor at LiveScience translated. “Only two of the 118 that were ordered actually entered service.”

David Grossman at Popular Mechanics reports that the type XXI, which was nicknamed Elektroboote, German for electric boat, was a marvel of engineering. It was designed by the Hellmuth Walter, the same engineer who designed the engines for the first and only operational rocket-powered combat aircraft. The sub had two conventional diesel engine but also four battery-powered electric motors, allowing it to stay quietly submerged for days at a time. After the war, both the United States and Soviet Union based submarine designs on the type XXI and the later type XXIII, using those ships until the 1980s.

Dvorsky reports that, though the submarine was sunk, its wreckage was never located. That fueled rumors that continue to this day that the U-3523 escaped to Argentina carrying Nazi gold, high-ranking officials, Hitler himself or a combination of the three. According to the press release, the sub was likely missed by previous searchers because of its depth and because it was nine nautical miles west of the position reported by the bomber crew in 1945. While there’s no evidence U-3523 made it to South America, at least one Nazi sub did. At the end of the war the captain of U-977 fled to Argentina where he and his crew were captured.

So will we be able to open the ship up and see if it's full of gold or Nazi high-rollers? Dvorsky reports that since it is considered a war grave, signs point to no. Especially when you consider that the depth and position of the wreck would make it extremely difficult to explore.

This isn’t the first sub the Sea War Museum Jutland has found. Over the years the institution has located some 450 wrecks in the North Sea and Skagerrak straits, including nine German-made U-boats and three British submarines.

In recent years, there have been some other exciting U-boat discoveries that have surfaced, too. In 2014, researchers found the remains of U-576 off the coast of North Carolina, and just last year, the notorious German World War I U-boat UB-29 was found off the coast of Belgian.

This Bird Can Stay in Flight for Six Months Straight

Smithsonian Magazine

New sensing technology reveals that the alpine swift, a small migratory bird, can remain aloft for more than 200 days without touching down. Photo by D. Occiato

In 2011, Felix Liechti and his colleagues at the Swiss Ornithological Institute attached electronic tags that log movement to six alpine swifts. The small birds—each weighs less than a quarter of a pound—spend the summer breeding in Europe, then migrate to Africa for the winter, thousands of miles away.

“We wanted to learn about energy demands during migration. We expected to see how often they fly, how often they stop, that sort of thing,” he said.

But a year later, when three of the birds returned to the same breeding site and the scientists removed their tags to collect the data, the electronic tags revealed something unexpected. “When we looked at the data, we were totally blown away,” Liechti said. “During their non-breeding period in Africa, they were always in the air.”

For more than 200 straight days straight, as revealed by his team’s study published today in Nature Communications, the birds stayed aloft over West Africa. The tags only collect data every four minutes, so it’s impossible to rule out the chance that they touched down occasionally in between these intervals—but every single one of the data points collected for more than six months in a row indicated that, at the time, they were either actively flying or at least gliding in the air.

The tiny sensor records acceleration, the bird’s pitch and the timing of sunrise and sunset. Image via Swiss Ornithological Institute

Ornithologists had previously speculated that a closely related common swift was capable of staying in flight for extremely long periods of time, but this is the first time anyone has collected hard data. The new finding was, in part, enabled by developments in technology—this was the first time that this particular kind of sensor, developed by at Bern University, was attached to birds for research.

Its tiny size allowed the researchers to attach it to relatively small birds without interfering with their free movement. The tags solely collected data on acceleration, the pitch of the bird’s body (the angle of its body relative to the ground) and light hitting the bird at any given time. From the latter, scientists were able to infer latitude, due to the timing of sunrise and sunset.

By comparing the acceleration and pitch data to that of birds under observation, Liechti and the others could match particular data patterns with different types of movement—flying (with flapping wings), passively gliding in the air and resting on the ground. “They stayed in the air for all time they spent south of the Sahara, day and night,” he said. “Sometimes they just glide for a few minutes, so there’s no movement, but the pitch of the body indicates that they’re still gliding in the air.”

It’s still a mystery how the birds are able to physiologically accomplish this feat. The diet aspect is relatively straightforward—they largely feed on airborne insects—but until now, opinions differed over the question of whether birds could sleep while aloft. Sleep patterns in birds are fundamentally different than in mammals, and the difficulty of studying the brainwaves of migrating birds makes it very hard to fully understand how they rest while in motion. But the fact that these swifts never touch down for such a long time indicates that they’re able to rest in midair.

There’s also the deeper (and perhaps more confounding) question of why the birds would bother staying aloft for their entire time in Africa. At this point, it’s pure speculation, but Liechti suggests that diet could play a role. “We observed that the further north they go, the more they stay on the ground at night,” he said. “Additionally, the further north you go, the less insects there are in the air—so it might be related.” He also proposes that staying in air could reduce the risk of predation or perhaps the chance of catching a disease.

Perhaps most exciting is the fact that this finding came after just the first time the new, ultra-lightweight movement sensor was used in avian research. Tagging other sorts of birds that are too small for conventional sensors might tell us similarly surprising things about their movement or migrations habits. “It’s fascinating,” Liechti said, “and it opens up a whole new window for us into these species.”

Artist Coats Olympic Pavilion With the Blackest Black Pigment

SmithsonianMag RSS

When the Winter Olympics opening ceremony kicks off tonight, athletes from around the world will parade through South Korea’s Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium dressed in vibrant ensembles. But not far from this colorful spectacle sits a new structure that might very well be the darkest building in the world. As Lauren Ro reports for the Curbed, British architect Asif Khan has completely covered the UK’s Olympic pavilion in Pyeongchang with a version of Vantablack, the blackest pigment on the planet. The mind-bending structure will be unveiled on the same day as the opening ceremony.

The pavilion, which was sponsored by Hyundai, is made of steel and has a parabolic façade. But because it is coated in Vantablack VBx2, which absorbs 99 percent of light, it is difficult for the human eye to make out the contours of the building, as Keshia Badalge explains for ArchDaily. The pavilion’s walls are covered with thousands of little white light rods, making the structure resemble a twinkling night sky.

"From a distance, the structure has the appearance of a window looking into the depths of outer space," Khan said in a statement, according to Badalge. "As you approach it, this impression grows to fill your entire field of view. So on entering the building, it feels as though you are being absorbed into a cloud of blackness."

The UK lab Surrey Nanosystems unveiled ​VBx2's predecessor Vantablack in 2014. The pigment is made of carbon nanotube arrays and absorbs 99.96 percent of the light that hits it; when it is applied to 3-D objects, Vantablack can make even the most textured surfaces appear flat. Vantablack was originally intended to help reduce stray light in telescopes and satellites, but according to Anny Shaw of the Art Newspaper, Surrey Nanosystems was overwhelmed by requests from artists, designers and architects, who all wanted to get their hands on the super black pigment.

The company subsequently gave the British artist Anish Kapoor exclusive rights to use Vantablack, prompting an outcry in the artistic community. The artist Stuart Semple was so incensed that he created the world’s “pinkest pink” and “most glittery glitter,” which he made available to all artists—except Kapoor.

VBx2, which is sprayed onto surfaces, is a bit different from Vantablack. It is not based on carbon nanotubes, for one thing, and it is not quite as black. It also appears matt from all viewing angles, Ben Jensen, the chief technical officer at Surrey NanoSystems, tells Shaw. As Oliver Wainwright of the Guardian reports, the company plans to launch VBx2 next month, but the pigment can only be applied by trained specialists.

Khan has been working with Surrey Nanosystems since 2013, and first proposed his ambitious plans for the Olympic pavilion in 2015. The interior of the building is just as remarkable as its exterior. The room is entirely white, with a water installation that releases 25,000 droplets every minute. By interacting with sensors, visitors can create rhythms in the droplets as they collide.

Explaining his vision in a statement, Khan said that when visitors move from the deep black exterior of the pavilion to the stark installation inside, they will “feel for a moment that the tiny water drops are at the scale of the stars.  A water droplet is a size every visitor is familiar with. In the project I wanted to move from the scale of the cosmos to the scale of water droplets in a few steps.”

One Concussion-Free Football Season Can Still Damage Players’ Brains

Smithsonian Magazine

In just one season of college football, 38 players from the University of Rochester’s Division III team sustained a collective 19,128 hits to the head. Two of these encounters resulted in formal concussions, but the majority of hitsranging in intensity from “small dings to hard slams,” according to the New York Times’ Gretchen Reynolds—were not serious enough to warrant clinical diagnosis.

Despite the prevalence of ostensibly less harmful head injuries, a new study published in the journal Science Advances reports that more than two-thirds of the athletes experienced a discernible decrease in the structural integrity of their brain by the end of the season. As co-author Adnan Hirad, a doctoral candidate at the university medical center, tells the Times, the researchers observed a “kind of fraying” of white matter tissue in subjects’ midbrain, a section of the brainstem responsible for controlling motor functions of the eyes and ears.

The team’s findings suggest that football players can sustain traumatic brain injuries even without suffering concussions. Per Science magazine’s Eva Frederick, subconcussive hits incurred repeatedly over time can be just as damaging as the better-known injury, which manifests as a cluster of symptoms including loss of consciousness, headache, dizziness, disorientation and ringing in the ears.

Although it can be difficult to pinpoint the exact location of a brain injury, study co-author Jeffrey Bazarian, also of the University of Rochester Medical Center, says that regardless of where the head is hit, the force of impact is always translated into the midbrain.

In a press release, he adds, “Midbrain imaging might be a way in the future to diagnose injury from a single concussive head hit, as well as from repetitive sub-concussive head hits.”

According to Bradford Mahon, a psychologist at Carnegie Mellon University and scientific director of the University of Rochester’s Program for Translational Brain Mapping, the midbrain serves as a “canary in the coal mine” for brain injuries. If midbrain tissue is damaged, Mahon tells the Times, it’s likely that other brain sections have been affected and potentially harmed.

To measure the impact of repeated head hits, the scientists fitted players’ helmets with specialized accelerometers capable of tracking the frequency and intensity of encounters. As the study notes, 59 percent of injuries were sustained during practice, while 37 percent took place during competition and another 4 percent occurred during scrimmages and various meetings.

Speaking with Science’s Frederick, Hirad explains that the brain, much like the surface of a pond after a rock is thrown, ripples when hit from any angle. Based on data garnered from brain scans conducted pre- and post-season, repeated rotational hits, in which the head twists from side to side or front to back, proved more damaging to the midbrain than linear, or head-on, acceleration. The results, Justin Murphy reports for the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, showed that subjects who experienced the highest number of hits subsequently suffered more midbrain damage.

Interestingly, the Times’ Reynolds writes, the researchers further found that brain scans of 28 athletes who had been recently diagnosed with a concussion mirrored those of the football players studied, demonstrating a “slight disintegration” in the midbrain’s white matter.

Because the scientists did not re-scan players’ brains following the post-season tests or assess participants’ thinking and motor skills, it remains unclear how the brain injuries affected daily life and whether the white matter eventually returned to normal. Given the fact that pre-season scans of veteran athletes did not show white matter disintegration, Mahon says it is likely injured players experienced at least “some healing.”

Moving forward, Murphy notes that the researchers hope to create a real-time monitoring system capable of assessing players on the field, as well as gather crowdsourced data through their Open Brain Project portal.

“Public perception is that the big hits are the only ones that matter,” Mahon concludes in a statement. “The big hits are definitely bad, but the public is likely missing what’s causing the long-term damage in players’ brains. It’s not just the concussions. It’s everyday hits, too. And the place to look for the effect of such hits, our study suggests, is the midbrain.”

Folk art model of a slave ship on stand

National Museum of African American History and Culture
This model of a slave ship consists of a wooden hull (a), a removable deck (b), and a wooden stand (c).

The wooden hull (a) is made of a soft wood painted black on the outside, with a cream border around the top where sixteen square holes are carved, eight on each side. The interior of the hull is painted cream. At the interior of the stern is an enclosed white structure. A functioning door is attached at the center front of the enclosed structure, with carved slats and a small metal pin as a door knob. Two stained wooden circular pieces reach up out of the hull from the lower deck and extend above the removable upper deck (b) when it is in place. The rudder of the ship is functional. The exterior front of the bow has a decorative curled element with a carved outline detail. Above this is a stained wooden circular piece that protudes from the bow as a bowsprit. The lower deck has two rectangular cut-outs trimmed in cream raised edges. The one nearest the bow is larger than the one nearest the stern. They correspond to the rectangular openings on the removable deck (b). These cutouts are open to the hold. Lined along the lower deck are carved ivory figures painted or stained black. Each figure is an individually carved piece adhered to the ship, with individualized faces, bodies, and heights. Additional figures are visible in the hold from the rectangular openings. The figures are adult males and females, and some short figures may be meant to represent children or adolescents. All of the figures are wearing cloths around their genitals, but are bare-chested.

The removable deck (b) is made of a soft wood painted black on the top and left untreated on the bottom. The top of the deck has four cut-outs that are trimmed in cream painted wood. The first and third cut-outs from the bow are circular, the second is a rectangle with a raised cream edge, and the fourth is a rectangle with a box-like cream structure that is open on the back side but with a covered roof. In addition to the four larger cutouts there are two small square cut-outs in front of and flanking the circular cutout nearest the bow that are not trimmed in white detailing. There are three small holes, one at each side and one in front of the circular cut-out nearest the stern also not trimmed in white. There are two sets of two small holes at the edges of the deck flanking the cream roofed structure nearest the stern.

The stand (c) is made from wood and formed of two quatrefoil endcaps and a center dowel. There is decorative outline carving on the endcaps. The dowel is attached at a slight angle to accomodate the slope of the hull (a). The bottom of the hull sits parrallel to the dowel, resting on red wool pads that are adhered along the top edges of the endcaps. The wood is stained with a dark finish, of a different color than the black painted hull. The stand was clearly made for this ship model, but may not be original to it considering the different finish color.

Shaman's Dance Rattle "Kal-Chai-Ak"

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
From card: "Shaman's rattle. - Two small wooden hoops, one within the other, fastened to two sticks crossing each other at right angles. Numerous bear claws are tied to the hoops. Diameter 7 1/2 inches. Eskimos of Alaska. Collected by Wm. J. Fisher."

Provenience note: "Agliamate" on catalogue card for E74717 is a mistransciption of a culture name (it is not a locality name) otherwise listed as "Aglianyut" on catalogue cards E74714 - 8, and possibly (handwriting is hard to read) as "Agliamjut" in the Anthropology ledger book entry for these objects. One can speculate that the Aglianyut are actually the Aglurmiut (Yup'ik).

Learning About Magnets, Electricity and Acceleration at the Amusement Park

Smithsonian Magazine

After mentioning the Six Flags America Roller Coaster Design Contest earlier this month, I received an invitation to Physics Day at the amusement park. I had to convince my boss I didn’t intend to ride roller coasters all day (unlikely, since I get queasy riding backwards on the Metro), but then I was off to the park on a sunny, warm Friday morning last week.

A couple thousand high school (and a few middle school) students were at the park that day. Their teachers had been provided with an extensive workbook of activities for the kids—such as calculating the acceleration of the bus on their way to the park, determining angles of flight on the Flying Carousel and calculating the power used to take students to the top of the Tower of Doom. Of course, there were plenty of roller-coaster related activities as well. And there were even instructions on how to make a force meter (and, importantly, how to understand it).

In the park, college students from the Society of Physics Students and employees of the American Physical Society were on hand for demonstrations of physics concepts, such as wave motion, conservation of energy and gravity. I learned how to make a simple motor with a battery, nail, neodymium magnet and wire.

Two students in blue vests housing accelerometers ride in the front of Superman: Ride of Steel.

But the seven roller coasters and other rides were the real fun. Students could wear a vest with an accelerometer that would track how fast they were moving in three axes (x, y and z; side-to-side, up and down, and forwards and backwards). Once they got off the ride, the data would be downloaded onto laptops and a program called Data Studio that would graph their ride. I had seen similar graphs before (they’re a staple when designing rides in Roller Coaster Tycoon, once one of my favorite computer games), but I was a little surprised that the graphs were messier than the ones from the computer game. I shouldn’t have been though; reality is always more complicated than a simulation.

Joker’s Jinx, the only induction coaster at Six Flags America.

My favorite geeky moment of the morning, though, was the explanation I received of the Joker’s Jinx roller coaster, the only induction coaster at Six Flags America. I was enjoying the coaster from a purely aesthetic viewpoint—the green and purple coloring was striking, and the cars made a lovely wooshing sound unlike any of the others. Becky Thompson-Flagg, of the American Physical Society, explained to me that the other roller coasters slowly take the cars to the top of a large hill and then rely on gravity for the acceleration that will move the cars through the remaining hills and loops. An induction coaster, however, uses magnets and electricity for acceleration. (An in-depth explanation of linear motors as used in roller coasters can be found here.) Gravity obviously still plays a role, but the main advantage, as I see it, is that there is no long waiting period at the beginning of the ride. Shortly after you move away from the entrance, you’re propelled upward at high speed by the linear motor.

Six Flags America will host a Math and Science Day in May. And while some students will get nothing more out of these days than a bit of fun on the rides, I hope that at least a few will take advantage of the fun to be had in the acts of doing science and maybe get inspired to continue this as they grow up.

Shelf, hanging

Smithsonian Gardens
Wire trellis and plant shelf designed to be hung on vertical surface. Heavy iron wire has been wrought to form the armature and hook. Over this is interwoven crimped wire in diagonal crisscross pattern to create a trellis. The plant shelf is oblong, semi-circular, has a decorative and functional shelf guard. The shelf was meant to hold potted plants that could be trained to grow up the trellis, as well as others pots that could be changed out based on the growing seasons. Under the shelf are decorative arabesque embellishments. The foot curl is oriented to the back surface and is stylistically reminiscent of curved feet on free standing pieces. The entire piece has been painted black over dark green. The French excelled at making these delicate wrought-iron and wire garden furniture which were popular in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. These pieces were appealing for both the garden and terrace because they were less obtrusive than other types of garden furnishings due to the near invisibility of the wire. The playful scrolls of this design are in the manner of the late-Regency style wrought-iron furnishings of the 1820s and 1830s. The most popular style of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century leading up to the Victorian era (1837-1901) was Neoclassicism. In America it has been called the American Empire style, Greek Revival, or Grecian style and was called Regency or Empire style in Europe. Neoclassicism was seen in painting, sculpture, furnishings, architecture, fashion, and even politics. This revival of classical taste was encouraged by the increased interest in classical, ancient, and antique forms inspired by recent excavations of in Italy, Greece, and Egypt. Neoclassicism pulled motifs, ornamentation, and forms from antiquity, as well as the Renaissance interpretation of the classical world. Elements of neoclassical design included fretwork, columns, palmettes, pilasters, acanthus leaves, tulips and lotus motifs, grotesque masks, processional reliefs, mythical creatures, laurel garlands, fruit swags, scrolls, tassels, fringe, passementerie, frieze decoration, lyres, and vases; as well as accurate depictions of flora, fauna, birds, and insects; and repeating patterns such as the Greek key and egg-and-dart. A characteristic of Neoclassical designs is strict symmetry of all the elements.

The most popular style of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century leading up to the Victorian era (1837-1901) was Neoclassicism. In America it has been called the American Empire style, Greek Revival, or Grecian style and was called Regency or Empire style in Europe. Neoclassicism was seen in painting, sculpture, furnishings, architecture, fashion, and even politics. This revival of classical taste was encouraged by the increased interest in classical, ancient, and antique forms inspired by recent excavations of in Italy, Greece, and Egypt. Neoclassicism pulled motifs, ornamentation, and forms from antiquity, as well as the Renaissance interpretation of the classical world. Elements of neoclassical design included fretwork, columns, palmettes, pilasters, acanthus leaves, tulips and lotus motifs, grotesque masks, processional reliefs, mythical creatures, laurel garlands, fruit swags, scrolls, tassels, fringe, passementerie, frieze decoration, lyres, and vases; as well as accurate depictions of flora, fauna, birds, and insects; and repeating patterns such as the Greek key and egg-and-dart. A characteristic of Neoclassical designs is strict symmetry of all the elements.

Driving Miss Lazy

Smithsonian Magazine

With each passing day I grow more pessimistic about the likelihood of ever owning a flying car. The only reasonable people to blame for this dashed dream, of course, are the creators of Back to the Future Part II, who made that phenomenon appear certain—even mundane—in their conception of 2015. (In the flick, regular cars could be converted into hover cars for a measly $39,999.95.) We read stories every week about how society will struggle just to stop using oil by 2015, so I guess fueling our flying DeLoreans with garbage is, for now, out of the question.

To keep up morale in the meantime, an increasing array of goodies has been supplied for drivers who have come to terms with their earth-bound status. DVD players, satellite radio, Bluetooth headsets, GPS and dual climate-control have made car trips, if not enjoyable, bearable. But the same devices that keep our psyches intact in these times of woe can also distract our faculties, turning our attention from the road for a brief but dangerous moment.

For that reason, I ask, when will we have a car that can chauffeur us? When can we sit back in our driver's seat, fall asleep, dream about flying cars and awaken to find ourselves at our destination, snugly parked in a parallel spot?

The idea of autonomous vehicles dates back several thousand years to the ancient Chinese, who are said to have invented the "south-pointing chariot." Thanks to highly advanced gear mechanisms, a figure atop this two-wheeled contraption always pointed south, no matter which direction the chariot traveled. Evidence of these chariots is scarce, but it seems the Chinese did build many of them, and may have used them to raid or flee enemies under cover of darkness. (Today, self-driven vehicles remain of high military interest.)

In the 1970s, the Stanford Research Institute developed "Shakey," considered to be the first artificially intelligent vehicle. Shakey used a television camera to take pictures of several surrounding positions. The cart processed these images for about an hour before deciding where to move, advanced a few feet and repeated the entire process. Not unlike today's Sunday Driver.

But modern cars can also run on auto-pilot, almost as soon as they leave the dealership. Many of these self-operating vehicles faced off recently during the Urban Challenge, a robot race held by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). During the 60-mile race, autonomous cars navigated an entire city environment—they accelerated and braked, yielded at intersections and avoided oncoming traffic, all on their own.

Some of the mechanisms aiding this autonomy aren't very advanced. With minor adjustments to the basic chassis, engineers can program a computer inside a vehicle to control its engine, brakes and steering wheel. A series of sensors can read wheel counts and the angle of tires; combined with global-positioning satellites, these devices can estimate where a car is, how fast it's moving and how it can reach a desired location.

Autonomous cars also need external sensors, which include perhaps dozens of lasers, radars and cameras. Some scan upcoming terrain, searching for telephone poles, oncoming cars or octagonal-shaped signs that could impact future actions. Others scan lateral areas, helping robotic vehicles to abide basic rules of four-way stops or even to merge into moving traffic. Some sensors look far ahead, while others focus on nearby obstacles, which can help a car get into, or out of, a tight parking spot.

Add to these functions some accoutrements—automated windshield wipers, cruise control and seat memory, many of which are already available to car consumers—and fully autonomous cars don't seem too far out of reach. To give a sense of the technology's rapid advancement, none of the robotic entrants finished the course when DARPA held its first race in 2004. The following year, four autonomous vehicles completed a course of desert terrain, with few obstacles. This year, half a dozen cars maneuvered through a mock city filled with some 50 human-driven cars, which provided a steady flow of traffic.

But before you spend $39,999.95 to convert your regular car into an auto car, note some drawbacks. Autonomous cars can handle basic traffic, but they can't yet avoid darting objects, such as deer. They don't work well in bad weather. They might navigate Poughkeepsie, New York, just fine, but wouldn't hold up during rush hour in Manhattan.

During the robot race, many vehicles stopped at crosswalks, but often with the help of information embedded in the painted lines. And though they handle four-way stops, artificially intelligent cars can't yet discern colors. In other words, it might detect a traffic light, but it wouldn't know whether to stop, slow down or proceed at pace.

Which raises one final, major question about the future of our automotive industry: If we do one day have flying cars, and with them full-fledged "skyways," where will city, er, aerial planners hang the traffic lights?

The real Wishful Thinker behind this column was Carnegie Mellon robots professor William "Red" Whittaker, whose automated Chevrolet Tahoe, Boss, won the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge in early November.

Have an idea that should be thought about wishfully? Send it to

Image by Cate Lineberry. (original image)

Display cloth

National Museum of African Art
Bark display cloth composed of five dark panels stitched in natural and four natural panels with varying painted geometric motifs in dark brown.

Graphical Firing Table M17 Slide Rule

National Museum of American History
This one-sided rule is made of two types of wood and painted white on top. The top edge is beveled and has a scale for 1:20,000 yards. The top of the base has scales for 100-yard shift, 33 1/3 yards, and range, with D and K scales at the bottom. The D scale is a standard logarithmic scale for multiplication, but the K scale is not a logarithmic scale for cubes. The bottom of the base is marked: GRAPHICAL FIRING TABLE. The top right corner is marked: B180971. The bottom right corner is marked: B180972. The clear plastic indicator has white plastic edges. A black wheel is inside the bottom edge of the rule. Originally the instrument would have had three slides, including one with a standard logarithmic C scale, but this example has only one slide. The slide was used to position an 8-inch M1-type howitzer armed with high explosive M106 shells, M51 and M67 fuses, and charges of 5, 6, or 7. The howitzer was a U.S. Army cannon introduced around 1942 and used into the 1950s. One side of the slide is for setting the cannon at a high angle and has scales labeled ELEV., 10 M Si (change in elevation), DRIFT, and TF (time of flight). The other side is for setting the cannon to fire at long range and has scales labeled ELEV., c, DRIFT, and FS (fuse setting). The left end is marked: LONG RANGE (/) FT 8-J-1. This mark indicates the corresponding firing table. The right end is marked: GFT M17 (/) C81758. The back has tables for accounting for the influence of changes in temperature and wind direction. A third table provides range limits for charges from 1 to 7. The right end is marked: TABLE, GRAPHICAL FIRING, (/) M17 (/) STOCK NO. 6574317 (/) 81873. A dark brown leather case has a belt loop and a strap for tying it to the leg. Two additional vertical pockets inside the case held the additional two slides. The flap is marked: CASE, CARRYING (/) M23 (/) D4130. Clark McCoy attributed the rule to Keuffel & Esser, a prominent New York slide rule manufacturer. For another graphical firing table, see 1977.1141.25. One use for the ENIAC and other early electronic digital computers was to compute artillery firing tables. References: Dr. Ing. Federico Ramirez Santa-Pau, "The Artillery Graphical Firing Table: A Description of a Specialized Slide Rule," Journal of the Oughtred Society 9, no. 2 (2000): 17–20; Clark McCoy, "Graphical Firing Table Slide Rule,"

Bark Cloth, Colored

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

Peale catalogue identifies # 1435 - 1456 as "Ngatu." Bark cloth prepared for curtains by the natives of the Fiji Islands."

Large rectangular thin tapa of medium texture made from at least 12 pieces of rectangular shaped smaller pieces of tapa, presumably adhered together with arrow root, per Adrienne Kaeppler, Curator for Oceania Ethnology. This piecing is visible on the back side. The adhered pieces are of varying dimensions. There are three small rectangles of plain barkcloth adhered to the back. These do not appear to be repairs but may be reinforcements. The tapa is almost completely covered with applied designs on the front. The large central design is a light brown fine linear pattern of parallel dots in various configurations probably applied with a pattern board. This design has a more Samoan influence? Narrow dark shiny applied lines define the central design into large rectangles. Additional design elements include dark brown circles and triangles. The wide decorative borders on the short sides have fine linear patterns in black and dark red in at least eight stenciled designs. These are more Fijian in design. There is cut fringe along the short sides cut at an angle. The fringe is black and red brown in color.

Omicron Ellipsograph

National Museum of American History
The Omicron Ellipsograph Model 17 was manufactured by the Omicron Company of Glendale, CA, in the 1950s. An oval shape, the ellipse is one of the four conic sections, the others being the circle, the parabola, and the hyperbola. Ellipses are important curves used in the mathematical sciences. For example, the planets follow elliptical orbits around the sun. Ellipses are required in surveying, engineering, architectural, and machine drawings for two main reasons. First, any circle viewed at an angle will appear to be an ellipse. Second, ellipses were common architectural elements, often used in ceilings, staircases, and windows, and needed to be rendered accurately in drawings. Several types of drawing devices that produce ellipses, called ellipsographs or elliptographs, were developed and patented in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The U.S. Army purchased several examples of this device for use in surveying and mapping. The Omicron Ellipsograph is not an elliptic trammel like many of the other ellipsographs in the Smithsonian’s collections. This ellipsograph is a linkage, in particular a Stephenson type III linkage. A linkage is a mechanical device made of rigid bars connected by hinges or pivot points that move in such a way as to produce smooth mathematical curves. The most common types of linkages are used to draw true straight lines. See the Kinematic Models in the Smithsonian’s online collections for examples of other linkages. In this ellipsograph, a metal bar is attached to two sliding brackets. One is on the stationary bar that runs horizontally across the device and is the major axis of the ellipse. The other sliding bracket is attached to a curved arm. A pencil is inserted through the hole at the top end of the bar. As the pencil is moved, the linkage articulates at five pivot points (the two adjustable sliders and three pivots as seen in the image). This constrains the pencil to move in an elliptic arc. Unlike the elliptic trammel, only half an ellipse can be drawn with this device, making it a semi-elliptic trammel. It can be turned 180 degrees to draw the other half of the ellipse. Although this device cannot draw a complete ellipse in one motion, it does have the advantage of being able to draw very small ellipses. By adjusting the distance between the two slider brackets, the eccentricity of the ellipse can be changed. Eccentricity is a number between zero and one that describes how circular an ellipse is. By moving the slider brackets closer together, the eccentricity of the ellipse is reduced, creating a more circular ellipse. As the brackets are moved farther apart, the eccentricity is increased and a more elongated ellipse is produced. Several demonstrations of how an elliptic trammel works are available online. Comparing the slider motion of the elliptical trammel and the linkage ellipsograph highlights the similarities of the motion of these two ellipsographs. Both devices constrain the motion of the sliders so that as one moves inward on a straight line, the other slider moves outward on a straight line perpendicular to the first. Thus both types of ellipsographs produce an elliptic curve using the same mathematical theory, but incorporating different physical configurations. The Omicron Ellipsograph is made of aluminium and steel on an acrylic base. The base is 18.5 cm by 8.5 cm (7 1/4 in by 3 3/8 in). The top bar is 18 cm (7 in) long. The whole linkage rests on the central pivot directly above the company logo. It can draw ellipses with major axes up to 12 inches long. Resources: Antique Drawing Instrument Collection, John Byant, Chris Sangwin, How Round is Your Circle?: Where Engineering and Mathematics Meet, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008, p. 290.

These Sea Creatures Have a Secret Superpower: Invisibility Cloaks

Smithsonian Magazine

Being a snack-sized animal in the open ocean is tough. Some have it easier than others. Creatures on the bottom can blend in with stones and sand. Stands of kelp and coral provide hiding places in other ocean habitats.

But in midwater, there is no place to hide. There, creatures can get eaten pretty quickly by something unless they can find a way to disappear. Laura Bagge, a graduate student at Duke University, thinks she knows how to make that happen—at least in a group of tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans called hyperiids.

Bagge, along with biologist Sönke Johnsen and Smithsonian zoologist Karen Osborn, recently published a paper in the journal Current Biology, describing how hyperiid amphipods use nanotechnology to cloak themselves with invisibility.

The discovery was made by Bagge, the paper's lead author, who worked with Osborn at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C. “She was interested in the transparency of these animals. Transparency has been looked at in other animals and they do it in known ways so far but nobody had looked at this in these guys."

Bagge examined the surfaces of the animal's exoskeleton to study their structure. "She found these bumps and thought they were interesting,” says Osborn.

The bumps turned out to be microscopic spheres. In some cases she found a nano-sized shag carpet and on others, a layer of tightly packed nano-spheres. They were sized just right to dampen light in a manner similar to the sound-proof foam insulation that decreases noise in a recording studio. Hyperiids seem to have two possible ways to make their surfaces not reflect light—nano protuberances on their cuticle (a shag carpet essentially) or a microfilm layer of tiny spheres. The closer that they looked, the more those little spheres seemed to be bacteria. 

“Every indication is that they are bacteria but. . .  they are extremely small for bacteria,” says Osborn. "There is a possibility that these are some strange excretions, but it's a pretty microscopic chance.” She adds that Bagge is now working on exploring that possibility with microbiologists.

Animals living in the midwater habitat of the ocean adapt different camouflage methods to deal with light coming from different directions. Light from the sun becomes dimmer and changes color as it penetrates deeper water. To deal with this, fish and other sea creatures hide from predators stalking them from above by adapting dark colors on the top parts of their bodies as a disguise to blend in with the dark depths below.

At the same time, to hide themselves from predators lurking beneath them, they may be shaded underneath their bodies with lighter colors, or even glow, in order to blend in with the light from above. Mirroring on the sides of some fishes is another way to hide.

The hyperiids start out with a big advantage: They are transparent. But that only gets them so far. A pane of glass is also transparent, but when you shine a light at it from certain angles, it will flash and become visible.

Bioluminescence is an important part of the strategies of many creatures that are both predators and prey in the ocean. By flashing lights from various directions, a predator can see the flash back from its transparent prey. To avoid detection, a free-swimming hyperiid with no place to hide needs a way of dampening the light and keeping it from flashing back.

This is what the bacteria seem to be doing for their hosts. These cells are small as bacteria go, ranging from under 100 nanometers to around 300 nanometers (100 nanometers is less than the diameter of a single strand of hair). The ideal size for dampening flashes is 110 nanometers in diameter, but anything up to around 300 nanometers can help reduce visibility.

“Hyperiids are really tough little buggers,” says Osborn. They were relatively easy to work with, she says, because they stay alive in a laboratory setting. “They are happy in a bucket, happy if you leave them alone.”

The scientists plan to sequence at least parts of the genomes of the bacteria in order to learn more about them. Do all species of hyperiid host the same species of bacteria? Do the bacteria also live in the water without a host? Sequencing DNA is an important step towards answering these and other questions.

Bagge initially concentrated on only two species of hyperiids, but Osborn encouraged her to branch out and see if these nanotechnologies were common among more of the 350 known species in the sub-order. Osborn was able to find her more samples, both living and long dead.

“It was really interesting to compare the fresh specimens to the things we have in the collections at the National Museum of Natural History that are over 100 years old,” says Osborn. “We found the microfilm consistently on the specimens we looked at . . . It gives us the diversity that you can't get from anywhere else. Smithsonian's historical collections come into play for a lot of studies.”

How Augmented Reality Will Change How You Buy Furniture

Smithsonian Magazine

If visualizing how a new couch will look in your living room is a skill you’ve never mastered, take heart. In the future, your smart phone will be able to do it for you.  

This fall, Lenovo, the Chinese tech company, will unveil the Phab 2 Pro, a smartphone with an oversized screen—more than six inches wide—and a unique ability: It will be able to see. Not quite the way we humans do, but pretty close. 

The Phab 2 will be the first phone to use a “vision” technology called “Tango” that Google has been working on for several years. Through the use of motion-tracking cameras, sensors and sophisticated software, Tango makes it possible for a mobile device to not only create 3D maps of indoor spaces, but also to reorient the map based on where the phone is in those spaces. For instance, Phab 2 phones will have depth perception, thanks to a sensor that uses infrared light to gauge depth by how light is shaped by objects in a room. 

A phone today can’t really “see” anything beyond what appears on its screen. With Tango, though, it will be able to stay aware of where windows, doors and objects are, even as the device is moved to different locations in that room. In that sense, it would perceive space much as we do. Like us, it wouldn’t need to be facing a door to know where it is.   

This is a big leap in phone functionality. It also provides a glimpse of the potential of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) in our daily lives, beyond the world of gaming. AR adds a layer of digital data or images to the real world, while VR replaces or replicates an environment with an entirely digital version.

Interior motives

Which brings us back to the new couch dilemma. Once a Phab 2 phone creates a map of a room and stores it, you’d be able to select a digitized image of a piece of furniture, insert it on to the 3D map, and then move it around so you could see how it looks in different places and from different angles. 

Not surprisingly, one of the first companies to embrace the technology is Lowe’s, the home improvement chain. It will have its own Tango app, called Lowe’s Vision, available this fall. Shoppers will  able to point their Phab 2 smart phone at a space in their kitchen and see how different models of refrigerators, for example, would look there. Lowe’s will also take the unusual step of selling this particular Lenovo model phone in its stores. The retail price will be $499.

Another early adopter of Tango is Wayfair, the Boston-based online furniture store. It’s coming out with its own app, called  WayfairView, which is similar to what Lowe’s has developed. The app will let users select 3D images of the company’s furniture and use their phone’s touch screen to position objects on a virtual version of their homes’ floors, walls or ceilings—functionality that will take most of the guesswork out of shopping for furniture online, and mean fewer returns for Wayfair. The phone will also be able to take very precise measurements of indoor spaces.

Mapping the indoor world

These apps offer more of a real-world experience than how some retailers have started using virtual reality to engage customers. In April, IKEA unveiled a virtual reality app that allows shoppers to put on a headset and explore different styles of virtual kitchens. While in that digital world, they can design their own versions by changing colors and other features. But it’s meant to provide more of a fun, learning experience for customers than be an actual shopping tool. IKEA wants shoppers to give it feedback on the pilot program, running through the end of August, so it can refine how it uses VR in the future.

Lowe’s has been offering the same type of VR experience with its Holoroom kiosks in 19 of its stores since late last year. Shoppers can play out their design fantasies in virtual kitchens and bathrooms. Again, the point is to give people ideas rather than help them actually buy products.

So if, as it seems, AR has the edge over VR when it comes to online shopping, it has Google Tango to thank. But, that technology’s greatest potential may be as an indoor mapping tool. It could become the indoors version of Google Maps by allowing 3D maps to be created of big interior spaces, such as airports, arenas or malls. That way you could be guided through even the most confusing buildings.

According to a recent report in Bloomberg Technology, Google is working on a system that would allow Tango smartphones to share these maps with other devices. And that could enable it to eventually connect them all into a massive, detailed representation of a lot of the world’s buildings and what’s inside them.

Google never thinks small.

Ancient Volcanoes May Have Shifted the Moon’s Poles

Smithsonian Magazine

The moon may not have always spun at the same angle it does today. According to a new study, patches of water ice that formed in craters on opposite sides of the moon suggest that its axis may have shifted billions of years ago.

While the moon doesn’t have much in the way of geologic activity anymore, about three billion years ago it was pulsing with volcanic activity beneath its surface. A team of planetary scientists say that all that magma sloshing around in the moon may have shifted its axis, moving its poles about six degrees to where they are today, Dani Cooper reports for ABC Science.

"It would be as if Earth's axis relocated from Antarctica to Australia,” lead author Matthew Siegler, a researcher at the Planetary Science Institute, says in a statement. “As the pole moved, the Man [in] the Moon turned his nose up at the Earth."

Scientists have believed that the moon’s surface has patches of water ice in its shadowy regions since the 1990s, when NASA’s Lunar Prospector probe discovered traces of hydrogen. Lunar researchers have theorized that there are ice deposits still located in craters at the moon’s poles, which are permanently in shadow. However, according to the new study published in the journal Nature, when Siegler and his colleagues took a closer look at the poles they couldn’t find any traces of water ice. Because the ice should have accumulated over billions of years, Siegler suspects that some of the craters were at one time exposed to sunlight, Loren Grush reports for The Verge.

"The ice is like a vampire; as soon as it gets hit by sunlight, it poofs into smoke," Siegler tells Grush.

Meanwhile, Siegler and his team noticed that the water ice at the moon’s modern poles appears to trail off in mirroring directions. Also, Siegler found that each pole had a hydrogen-rich region a short distance away, which could mark the moon’s original, or “paleopoles.” By calculating the geologic changes that it would take to shift the moon’s axis, Siegler pinpointed the shift to a part of the moon called the Procellarum region; the center of almost all of the moon’s volcanic activity, Cooper reports.

"It takes a huge change in the mass of the Moon to do that—something like a giant crater or volcano forming," Siegler tells Cooper.

Ancient lunar ice indicates the moon's axis slowly shifted location 125 miles, or 6 degrees, over 1 billion years. (James Keane, U. of Arizona)

Siegler says that volcanic activity beneath the moon's surface about 3 billion years ago may have melted part of the moon's mantle, causing it to bubble up towards the surface. If enough mass shifted at that particular spot, it could have caused the moon to tilt on its axis, Grush reports.

The moon isn’t the only object in the solar system that scientists believe has experienced polar wander. Recently, researchers discovered that Mars may have experienced a similar event billions of years ago, when a massive volcanic region spewed so much magma that the Red Planet's surface shifted.

While more research must be done to determine how old the ice at the current poles is and how it formed, Siegler hopes that the findings will encourage NASA to send more probes to explore the moon’s poles in the future. Right now, NASA plans to send a rover to examine lunar ice in the 2020s, but for now does not expect to bring any samples back to Earth for study.

"The ice may be a time capsule from the same source that supplied the original water to Earth," Siegler says in a statement. "This is a record we don't have on Earth. Earth has reworked itself so many times, there's nothing that old left here. Ancient ice from the moon could provide answers to this deep mystery."

Coca-Cola’s Creator Said the Drink Would Make You Smarter

Smithsonian Magazine

The history of Coca-Cola is a history of drugs—and not just cocaine, the now-illegal substance that was infamously part of its recipe until 1904.  

The late nineteenth century was a time when medicine hadn’t caught up with other fields, writes Mark Pendergrast in his history of the Coca-Cola company. That meant people turned to the massive industry of patent medicines, brewed concoctions marketed by people professing medical knowledge. But patent medicines, which could contain things as harmful as arsenic or as benign as vegetables, generally didn’t help. Coca-Cola was marketed as a patented medicine throughout its meteoric rise in popularity, he writes: "Far from being  a unique beverage that sprang out of nowhere, Coca-Cola was a product of its time, place and culture." 

In that culture, people overwhelmed by industrialization and urbanization as well as the holdover of the Civil War and other social changes struggled to gain purchase, turning to patent medicines for cures that doctors couldn't provide. Nineteenth-century people also struggled with things like addiction unaided—like John Stith Pemberton, the Georgia pharmacist who first brewed Coca-Cola syrup in his backyard on this night in 1886.

Pemberton was injured when he fought in the Civil War, writes historian Howard Markel, and like many others developed a morphine addiction during his search for relief. “Not surprisingly, he was intrigued by medical reports in the early 1880s that cocaine might be a cure for morphinism,” Markel writes.

Like many pharmacists of the period, Pemberton also made patent medicines, and he was always on the lookout for new recipes that would sell. He hit on Vin Mariani, a massively popular cocaine and wine beverage marketed by a Parisian chemist named Angelo Mariani.

Literary figures like Jules Verne were into it—but also religious leaders like Pope Leo XIII and Zadoc Khan, the chief rabbi of France, writes Jonathan Hamblin for The Atlantic. Why was it so popular? It actually made people feel great, and it was sold as medicine. Combining cocaine and alcohol produces another chemical more potent than what's normally found in cocaine, enhancing the high. Markel writes:

Ever the savvy medicinal magnate, Mariani extolled his product to the general public in solorful advertisements and pamphlets. “It nourishes, fortifies, refreshes, aids digestion, strengthens the system,” the advertisements declared; it is unequaled as a tonic, it is a stimulant for the fatigued and overworked body and brain, it prevents malaria, influenza and wasting diseases.”

Then in the 1880s, writes Hamblin, Pemberton brought the drink to America in the form of “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca.” The beverage might have been enjoyed in Atlanta the same way it was in Europe, but then in 1886,  Fulton County in Atlanta went dry.

So Pemberton concocted a recipe using coca leaves, kola nuts and sugar syrup. “His new product debuted in 1886: ‘Coca-Cola: The temperance drink,’” writes Hamblin. He used similar marketing strategies to Mariani, and the new drink, originally sold at soda fountains (businesses that were often located in or near pharmacies), caught on with wealthy whites, he writes.

But rather than taking the cure-all approach as Mariani did, Pemberton really played up his drink's supposed mental benefits. One early advertisement that Hamblin links to describes the drink as an "intellectual beverage" as well as a non-alcoholic one. It contained "the valuable TONIC and NERVE STIMULANT properties of the Coca plant and Cola (or Kola) nuts," the ad reads, later describing the drink as "a valuable Brain Tonic, and a cure for all nervous affections."

This "brain tonic" angle is readily visible in early Coca-Cola advertisements and swag like mirrors, trays and even clocks, all of which have become collectors' items and Pinterest favorites.  

Your Smartphone And Sunglasses Could Soon Project Holograms

Smithsonian Magazine

Imagine a future in which wearing a device didn’t make you a walking eyesore (yes, we’re looking at you, Google Glass).

Part of that future came into focus last week, as the California-based Ostendo Technologies showed The Wall Street Journal a display chip that can project crisp images—in both 2D and 3D—when built into a phone, a tablet, a pair of glasses or anywhere else you might normally have a flat display.

The Quantum Photonic Imager (QPI) imager chip, smaller than a Chicklet, is attached to a miniature projector; together, they can be embedded in a variety of mobile devices to bring anything from advertisements to images to life. A smartphone could project an image above its screen, for instance; the contents of a website could be bounced from a chip embedded in the arm of a pair of glasses onto its lenses.

The QPI chip comes at a time when major tech companies are all in hot pursuit of virtual and hyper reality. Facebook recently purchased Oculus Rift, a company credited with the biggest breakthrough in virtual-reality goggles to date. Amazon is rumored to be working on a phone that uses a multi-camera system to make its display appear 3D; Apple has even filed patents that hint at future 3D displays.

The pursuits are bringing to small devices what we've been seeing in things like museums and events for years. Microsoft has demonstrated a full holographic presentation room and there’s an entire holographic museum in Queens, New York; San Diego company AV Concepts famously projected an image of the late rapper Tupac Shakur at Coachella in 2012—and let's not forget the holographic Michael Jackson at this year's Billboard Music Awards.

One of the biggest challenges facing wearable displays, like the one on Glass, though, has been that the internal components are too large to be hidden. Ostendo says it has spent the past eight and a half years quietly developing the QPI image engine to be both compact and high in resolution. 

The 5-by-5-millimeter chip contains an image processor, micro LEDs and image-rendering software. To produce an image, the processor controls the precise distance and angle of each of those LEDs. The images are higher in resolution than those produced by most current phone screens. A QPI image has 3,000 dots per inch; a Samsung Galaxy S IV has 441.

A single QPI module can either project a 2D image or create a small 3D hologram. (For the latter, the Princess Leia references are unavoidable.) Companies could also connect several modules together to create much larger images.


Ostendo's QPI image chip can project virtual 3D objects above a surface. (Courtesy Ostendo Technologies Inc.)

Ostendo says it ultimately wants to embed its chips anywhere there would normally be a display, including storefronts or even our living rooms.

It's a lofty goal. But Ostendo, which means “to show” in Latin, comes with the pedigree needed to make that dream a reality. Founder and CEO Hussein El-Ghoroury served as Executive Vice President of Linkabit Coroporation, the company that would later become Qualcomm, and was the founder of CommQuest Technologies, a company that pioneered the first quad-band cellular chipset in North America and is now owned by IBM.

The company, which has more than 100 patents to its name, has raised more than $90 million in venture capital for this and other projects. Investments include monies from early Facebook funder Third Wave Ventures. Forty million of that sum came from DARPA, the Defense Department’s technology development arm, the company says.

El-Ghoroury told the Wall Street Journal that the company is already in talks with a few smartphone manufacturers. The chips should cost about $30. First to market sometime next year will be a 2D–capable projector chip, with its flashier hologram-producing cousin following shortly thereafter.


NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

This Camera Can See Around Corners

Smithsonian Magazine

Self-driving cars, and even cars using lane assist or other supplements, rely heavily on computer vision and LIDAR to read and make sense of what’s around them. They’re already better at it than humans, but there’s another step, coming soon, that could make them a lot safer still: What if those cars could see around corners?

“Saying that your car can not only see what’s in front of it, but can also see what’s behind a corner, and therefore is intrinsically way safer than any human-driven car, could be extremely important,” says Daniele Faccio, a professor of physics at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland.

Separate but complementary research coming out of the University of Wisconsin, MIT and Heriot-Watt is tackling this problem and making big strides. It’s largely focused on superfast, supersensitive cameras that read the rebounds of scattered laser light, and reconstruct that into an image sort of the way LIDAR, radar and sonar work.

This technology is useful in applications far beyond autonomous vehicles. That wasn’t even the primary motivation when Andreas Velten started studying femtosecond (one quadrillionth of a second) lasers at the University of New Mexico, and then their application in imaging at MIT. Now a professor and assistant scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Velten and his lab have developed and patented a camera that can reconstruct a 3D image of an object that is situated around a corner.

Image by Research is largely focused on superfast, supersensitive cameras that read the rebounds of scattered laser light, and reconstruct that into an image. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Morgridge Institute for Research. These cameras could be used for remote exploration, especially of hazardous areas—for example, to see occupants inside a building during a house fire. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Morgridge Institute for Research. Being able to evaluate the interior of a building before entering has obvious benefits. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Morgridge Institute for Research. Velten’s lab is working on applying the technology to see through skin (which also scatters), as a non-invasive medical diagnostic tool. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the Morgridge Institute for Research. A camera that can see around corners has industrial applications as well. (original image)

To make sense of the object, to see it at all, requires a camera that can track the passage of light. A laser, situated on or near the camera, fires short bursts of light. Each time those packets hit something—say, a wall on the other side of the corner—the photons that make up the light scatter in every direction. If enough of them bounce in enough different directions, some will make it back to the camera, having bounced at least three times.

“It’s very similar to the data that LIDAR would collect, except that LIDAR would cue up the first bounce that comes from the direct surface and make a 3D image of that. We care about the higher order bounce that comes after that,” says Velten. “Each bounce, the photons split up. Each photon carries a unique bit of information about the scene.”

Because the light bounces off various surfaces at various times, the camera must be equipped to tell the difference. It does so by recording the exact time at which the photon hits a receptor and calculating the paths that photon could have taken. Do this for many photons, and a number of different angles of the laser, and you get a picture.

The technique also requires a sensor called a single-photon avalanche diode, built on a silicon chip. The SPAD, as it’s called, can register tiny amounts of light (single photons) at a trillion frames per second—that’s fast enough to see light move.

“They work like Geiger counters for photons,” says Velten. “Whenever a photon hits a pixel on the detector, it will send out an impulse and that is registered by the computer. They have to be fast enough so they can count each photon individually.”

Faccio’s lab is taking a bit of a different approach, using some of the same technology. Where Velten’s latest has been able to show a 3D image at a resolution of about 10 centimeters (and a decrease in size and cost over previous generations), Faccio has focused on tracking motion. He too uses a SPAD sensor, but keeps the laser stationary and records less data, so he can do it faster. He gets movement, but can’t tell much about the shape.

“The ideal thing would be to have both combined together, that would be fantastic. I’m not sure how to do that right now,” says Faccio. Both also need to work on using lower power, eye-safe lasers. “The real objective is, can you see real people at 50 meters away. That’s when the thing starts to become useful.”

Other potential uses include remote exploration, especially of hazardous areas—for example, to see occupants inside a building during a house fire. There’s military interest too, says Faccio; being able to evaluate the interior of a building before entering has obvious benefits. Velten’s lab is working on applying the technology to see through fog (which scatters photons as well), or through skin (which also scatters), as a non-invasive medical diagnostic tool. He’s even speaking with NASA about imaging caves on the moon.

In conjunction with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab, the Velten lab is developing a proposal to place a satellite, containing a high-powered version of the device, in orbit around the moon. As it passes certain craters, it’ll be able to tell if they extend laterally, into the interior of the moon; such caves could provide good shelter, one day, for lunar bases, says Velten.

One Man's Search to Find the Families of the "Deportees" in the Famous Woody Guthrie Song

Smithsonian Magazine

On January 28, 1948, the engine of a plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon, about 60 miles southwest of Fresno, California, killing 32 people. Gabriel Thompson at reports that the incident was the deadliest plane crash in California history, the type of tragedy that typically takes over the newspapers and spawns biographies and memorials to the deceased.

But in 1948, news reports only identified four of those killed—two crew members, a flight attendant and an immigration official by name. Their bodies were recovered and sent back to their families. The other 28 people on board were Mexican farm workers being sent back home after working in the U.S. under the Bracero Program, which allowed Mexican guest workers to legally work in the U.S. to fill agricultural labor shortages. Their names were not listed, their families were not notified, and they were buried in mass grave with a plaque reading: “28 Mexican citizens who died in an airplane accident near Coalinga.” Radio reports simply called them deportees.

"Three months before that accident there was a very similar one, another plane crashed in Utah and 52 people died, in the news every passenger with his name appeared and they even showed their pictures in the Los Angeles Times," Tim Z. Hernandez, author of the 2017 book All They Will Call You, which uncovers the names and stories of the unnamed individuals who perished in the Los Gatos Canyon crash, tells the BBC in a recent interview.

In 2010, Hernandez, who teaches at the University of Texas El Paso, first saw articles about the California plane crash while researching a different novel in the Fresno library. The clippings summoned the memory of the song “Deportee (Plane Wreck at Los Gatos)," which began as a poem written by folk icon Woody Guthrie, who penned it after hearing about the tragedy on the radio. He was upset that the migrants were not treated with the same respect as the flight crew. A friend set his words to music and gave the song to Pete Seeger, another folk luminary who popularized the tune. Over the decades names like Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, Dolly Parton and others have sang their story.

But Hernandez, the son and grandson of Mexican farm workers, was shocked to find that no one had yet to answer the central question in the song: “Who are all these friends all scattered like dry leaves?/The radio said they are just deportees.”

Inspired to investigate further, he tracked down a list of names from their death certificates. But the spellings of their names had been horribly botched, which made it difficult to further trace the men back to their descendants in Mexico. So Hernandez put a notice in a bilingual Fresno paper that he was looking for relatives of the braceros, writing: "If someone is related, please get in touch." "Si alguien está relacionado, por favor, pónganse en contacto."

The grandson of one of the deceased got in contact and led him to a local Spanish-language newspaper that published the correct names, hometowns and relatives of the workers a few days after the accident.

In the coming years, Hernandez tracked down families of seven of the individuals on the flight that day. He learned that one, José Sánchez Valdivia, was a Babe Ruth fan and organized a Mexican baseball league that used cabbages as bases. Luis Miranda Cuevas from Jocotepec, Jalisco, dressed up like a girl to fool his future wife’s father so that he could sit next to her and talk while she sewed.

“The more I dug into the story, the more angles I kept discovering,” Hernandez told Rigoberto González at NBC News in an interview last year.

Now, 70 years after the crash, Hernandez and the families of the deceased have worked to get a new headstone placed at the grave. It includes the names of all 32 individuals killed in the accident, bringing some closure to families who were never able to hold a funeral. Last month, on the official anniversary of the crash, the names of the victims were read on the Senate floor of California's state capitol. The folk singer Joan Baez was invited to play a version of Guthrie’s song for those in attendance.

For Hernandez, his search is not over. He explains it's become his lifelong mission to track down the remaining relatives of the crash who still don't know the fates of their loved ones. As he puts it to the BBC, "I'm still looking."

Cape Sagres

Smithsonian Magazine

In the days before Columbus, when the world was presumed to be flat, this rugged southwestern tip of Portugal was the spot closest to the edge of the Earth. Prince Henry the Navigator, determined to broaden Europe’s horizons and spread Catholicism, founded his navigators’ school here, and sent sailors ever further into the unknown. Shipwrecked and frustrated explorers were carefully debriefed as they washed ashore.

Portugal’s “end of the road” is two distinct capes. Windy Cape St. Vincent is actually the most southwestern tip. It has a desolate lighthouse (currently closed for restoration) that marks what was referred to even in prehistoric times as “the end of the world.” Outside the lighthouse, salt-of-the-earth merchants sell figs, seaworthy sweaters (€25 average), cotton tea towels (a bargain at €1), and the “Letzte Bratwurst vor Amerika” (last hotdog before America). Cape Sagres, with its old fort and Henry the Navigator lore, is the more historic cape of the two. At either cape, look for daredevil windsurfers and fishermen casting off the cliffs.

Lashed tightly to the windswept landscape is the salty town of Sagres, above a harbor of fishing boats. Sagres is a popular gathering place for the backpacking crowd, with plenty of private rooms in the center and a barely existent beach and bar scene.

Sagres Fort and Navigators’ School
The former “end of the world” is a craggy, windswept, wedge-shaped point that juts into the Atlantic (short drive or 15-min walk from Sagres). In 1420, Prince Henry the Navigator used his Order’s funds to establish a school here for navigators. Today, little remains of Henry’s school, except the site of buildings replaced by later (sometimes new) structures. An 18th-century fortress, built on the school’s original battlements, dominates the entrance to the point (€1.50, daily May–Sept 9:30–20:00, until 17:30 off-season, tel. 282-620-140).

1. Plaque Inside Entrance: After entering through the 18th-century battlements, find the carved stone plaque that honors Henry. The ship in the plaque is a caravel, one of the small, light craft that was constantly being reinvented by Sagres’ shipbuilding grad students. The astrolabe, a compact instrument that uses the stars for navigation, emphasizes Henry’s role in the exploration process.

2. Wind-Compass: Sagres’ most impressive sight--a circle on the ground, 100 feet across and outlined by round pebbles--is a mystery. Some think it was a large wind-compass (rosa-dos-ventos). A flag flying from the center could immediately announce the wind’s direction. Others speculate it’s a large sundial. A pole in the center pointing toward the North Star (at a 37-degree angle, Sagres’ latitude) would cast a shadow on the dial showing the time of day.

3. Remains of the School: The row of buildings beyond the wind-compass is where the school once was. The tower-cistern (abutting the end of the modern Exhibition Centre) is part of the original dorms. The small whitewashed 16th-century Church of Our Lady of Grace replaced Henry’s church. The former Governor’s House is now the restaurant/gift shop complex. Attached to the gift shop is a windbreak wall that dates from Henry’s time, but is largely rebuilt.

The Sagres school taught mapmaking, shipbuilding, sailing, astronomy, and mathematics (for navigating), plus botany, zoology, anthropology, languages, and salesmanship for mingling with the locals. The school welcomed Italians, Scandinavians, and Germans and included Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Captured Africans gave guest lectures. (The next 15 generations of Africans were not so lucky, being sold into slavery by the tens of thousands.)

Besides being a school, Sagres was Mission Control for the explorers. Returning sailors brought spices, gold, diamonds, silk, and ivory, plus new animals, plants, peoples, customs, communicable diseases, and knowledge of the routes that were added to the maps. Henry ordered every sailor to keep a travel journal that could be studied. Ship designs were analyzed and tweaked, resulting in the square-sailed, oceangoing caravels that replaced the earlier coast-hugging versions.

It’s said that Ferdinand Magellan (circumnavigator), Vasco da Gama (found sea route to India), Pedro Cabral (discovered Brazil), and Bartolomeu Dias (Africa-rounder) all studied at Sagres (after Henry’s time, though). In May 1476, the young Italian Christopher Columbus washed ashore here after being shipwrecked by pirates. He went on to study and sail with the Portuguese (and marry a Portuguese woman) before beginning his American voyage. When Portugal denied Columbus’s request to sail west, Spain accepted. The rest is history.

4. The Point: Beyond the buildings, the granite point itself is windswept, eroded, and largely barren, except for hardy, coarse vegetation admired by botanists. Walk on level paths around the edge of the bluff (a 40-min round-trip walk), where locals cast lines and tourists squint into the wind. You’ll get great seascape views of Cape St. Vincent, with its modern lighthouse on the site of an old convent. At the far end of the Sagres bluff are a naval radio station, a natural cave, and a promontory called “Prince Henry’s Chair.”

Sit on the point and gaze across the “Sea of Darkness,” where monsters roam. Long before Henry’s time, Romans considered it the edge of the world, dubbing it Promontorium Sacrum--Sacred (“Sagres”) Promontory. Pilgrims who came to visit this awe-inducing place were prohibited to spend the night here--it was for the gods alone.

In Portugal’s seafaring lore, capes, promontories, and land’s ends are metaphors for the edge of the old, and the start of the unknown voyage. Sagres is the greatest of these.

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

© 2010 Rick Steves

North American F-86A Sabre

National Air and Space Museum
America's first operational swept-wing fighter (35 degrees); single-engine, single-seat, low-wing catilever monoplane, jet fighter.

America's first swept-wing jet fighter, the F-86 Sabre joined the ranks of great fighter aircraft during combat operations high above the Yalu River in Korea. Even though they could not pursue the enemy across the Chinese border, Sabre pilots established an impressive shoot-down advantage against enemy MiGs. Sabre designers capitalized on captured German aerodynamic data, which showed that swept wings delayed air compressibility effects encountered at high subsonic airspeeds. Swept-wing aircraft could therefore be controlled at much higher speeds than similar straight-wing aircraft.

This F-86A saw combat against MiG-15s during the Korean War. It flew most of its missions from Kimpo Air Base near Seoul and bears the markings of the 4th Fighter Wing, the first F-86 unit in Korea.

The F-86 Sabre joined the ranks of the great fighter aircraft during combat operations high above the Yalu River area of Korea. Although the enemy MiG-15s could not be pursued across the Chinese border, the American Sabre pilots established a victory ratio of more than ten to one.

In the fall of 1944 the Army Air Forces ordered three prototypes of a modified North American FJ-1 Fury, a jet fighter being developed for the Navy. It was designated the XP-86. The design progressed through the mock-up stage, but by the summer of 1945 it was apparent that the fighter's top speed would be well below the 600 mph called for in the specification. Fortunately, a great deal of captured German aerodynamic data became

available to the North American designers with the surrender of Germany in May 1945. These data indicated that a swept wing delayed the compressibility effects encountered at high subsonic speeds. Swept winged aircraft could be controlled at a considerably higher Mach number (percentage of the speed of sound) than a straight winged aircraft of the same general configuration. The swept wing, however, introduced low-speed stability problems. After scale model wind tunnel tests, the designers selected a wing that was swept back at an angle of 35 degrees, and added automatic leading edge slats to solve the stability problem.

The first XP-86 flew on October 1, 1947, powered by an Allison J35-C-3, a 3,750 lb. thrust engine. In April 1948, the XP-86 exceeded Mach 1 (the speed of sound) in a shallow dive. On December 28, 1947, the Air Force ordered 221 P86As to be powered by the 4,850 lb. thrust General Electric J47-GE-1 engine. In June 1948, a month after the first P-86A flight, its designation was changed to F-86A.

On September 15, 1948, an F-86A set a world speed record of 671 mph. In addition to its high performance, the F-86A had excellent handling characteristics and was well liked by its pilots. The Sabre was armed with six .50-caliber M3 machine guns mounted in the nose. The Mark 18 manual-ranging computing gun sight was replaced in later models with the A-1CM, which used radar ranging.

In December 1950, the 4th Fighter Interceptor Wing, one of the first of the Air Force's Sabre units, arrived in Seoul to fight the Russian-built sweptwing MiG-15s, which had appeared in Korea in November. On December 17, in the first known combat between sweptwing fighters, Lt. Col. Bruce H. Hinton shot down a MiG-15s. By the end of the Korean War, the Sabres had destroyed almost 800 MiG-15s with the loss of fewer than eighty F-86s.

The F-86 progressed through several improved versions-the F-86E, F, H, D. and K models. The changes, in most cases, included improved armament, more powerful engines, and control-system modifications. The F-86D, however, was an all-weather interceptor with a radar nose, and was armed with rockets instead of machine guns. The F-86K was a D-model with 20-mm machine guns replacing the rockets. In addition to those produced in California and Ohio, F-86s were built under license in Canada, Japan, and Italy. Of the 8,443 Sabres produced, 554 were F-86As.

The National Air and Space Museum's F-86A was assigned to the 4th Fighter Interceptor Group at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, in July 1949. It was shipped to Japan in December 1950 with other F-86s of the 4th Group, and flown in Korea. Most of its combat missions against Mig-15s were flown from Kimpo Air Base near Seoul. It is displayed in the markings of the 4th Fighter Wing, the first F-86 unit in Korea. These markings were in use before June 1952.
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