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What Happens to the Human Body in Space?

Smithsonian Magazine

After spending 340 days in space, U.S. astronaut Scott Kelly and Russian cosmonaut Mikhail Kornienko are scheduled to touch down on our little blue marble around 11:30 p.m. ET today.

Though not the longest stint in space, it is the longest anyone has spent on board the International Space Station (ISS) and the best opportunity NASA has had to study what happens to the human body after prolonged exposure to weightlessness, cramped quarters and damaging radiation.

There’s no escaping the fact that Earthlings evolved to thrive with a certain amount of gravity. So since the early days of space travel, NASA has been trying to figure out what happens to a human body beyond our planet's pull.

“All those normal things that we take for granted, nobody was sure quite what would happen,” says Valerie Neal, curator and chair of space history at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. “Will they be able to swallow properly? Will they be able to see properly? Will they be able to urinate?”

The earliest experiments were done with animal subjects—dogs, monkeys and mice, to name a few. Then in 1962, astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit Earth, along with a tube of applesauce.

“They picked a nice soft, slippery food and put it in a toothpaste tube and had him take just little bits at a time to see if he could swallow and if the food would move down to his stomach,” says Neal. But the short duration of these flights limited what scientists could test—and tested the patience of the pioneering space travelers. “Astronauts were so busy doing what they needed to do, and they weren’t necessarily inclined to be treated as guinea pigs,” Neal adds.

As the length of flights increased, so did physiology testing. These days, ISS astronauts are exposed to a battery of tests before flight, regular health checks in-flight and a lengthy rehabilitation once their feet return to firm ground.

But with their sights on Mars, NASA still has much to learn about the effects of longer treks. For Kelly and Kornienko, their "Year in Space" mission is the first to focus solely on the physiology of being in space—a project made even more intriguing because Kelly has a twin brother on Earth. That means scientists will be able to look at both men and better identify any genetic changes caused by spaceflight.

Though we likely will learn much more from Kelly and Kornienko in the coming months, here are a few of the big effects NASA will be looking out for:


Spinning Heads Over Tails

Your inner ear works roughly like an accelerometer in a smartphone—it tells your body when you are moving or stopped, and when you are standing on your head or lying on your side. But in space, that little mechanism goes awry, which often gives astronauts motion sickness for a day or so after entering microgravity. Many also experience a similar problem when re-entering our planet’s pull, says Neal.

“It’s like coming off a ship and not having your land legs under you,” she says. Astronauts often initially report a sense of floating that eventually dissipates as their bodies re-adjust to Earth.

Bones and Muscles

One of the first things that scientists discovered in our ventures into space is that the low-gravity lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to strong bones and muscles, including the heart. While Earth-bound, these body parts actually work a fair amount just to keep us standing still. Without the downward force of gravity, the body works considerably less, causing muscle deterioration and loss of bone density.

In a single month in space, astronauts can lose as much bone mass as a postmenopausal woman does in a year, according to NASA. This startling decrease causes higher calcium levels in the blood, which can lead to a greater incidence of renal stones. To counteract these problems, astronauts exercise vigorously using specially designed machines aboard the space station. Kelly has exercised roughly 700 hours throughout the course of his mission, according to NASA.

Most of these effects can be counteracted upon landing, but it does take some work. “Just holding my head up is a bizarre new experience," astronaut Chris Hadfield told CBC News after a stint on the ISS in 2013. “I haven’t had to hold my head on top of my neck for five months.”

Floating Fluids

Every second, fluids rush throughout our bodies, and for the Earth-bound, gravity helps move these fluids down into the legs. But take away gravity, and the fluids float up to the head. According to NASA, over the course of his year in space, the amount of fluid shifting into Scott Kelly’s head could fill a two-liter soda bottle.

Because of this, the astronauts “tend to look cheekier,” says Neal. This fluidic drift also causes more serious conditions, including pressure on the optic nerve, which can affect vision. Once back on Earth, the eye troubles usually subside, but this is one of the big issues NASA wants to understand for longer-duration flights.

Cosmic Radiation

Earth's magnetic field provides a form of natural shielding that protects life on the surface from a good amount of high-energy radiation, which could otherwise damage DNA. Outside this safe zone, artificial shielding on the ISS can partially protect astronauts from radiation exposure, but it isn’t effective for all radiation types, leaving astronauts more susceptible to cancer and other long-term health risks.

A trip to Mars will be even more brutal, because in addition to the exposure time in transit, the red planet has no natural magnetic shield. With the latest ISS mission, scientists are hoping to suss out exactly how space radiation might trigger changes in Kelly’s DNA, and what that might mean for future Mars-bound travelers.

Despite all these severe-sounding effects, most of the known damage can be reversed after an astronaut’s return to Earth. In a press conference from space last week, Kelly was in high spirits. Though he reports some minor effects to his eyes, he says overall that he feels well and is in good shape psychologically: “It’s not like I’m climbing the walls.”

“I’ve tried to do this with a very deliberate methodology and deliberate pace,” he says, adding that he has used each mission task as a milestone. “I think that’s important, having those kinds of milestones that break up a long-distance flight. The next milestone is coming home.”

The Hubble Space Telescope Has Been In Space for 25 Years, Here's What it Has Seen

Smithsonian Magazine

Some 340 miles above the surface of the Earth flies an object that looks a lot like an elongated tin can with two stubby wings. The Hubble Space Telescope may not be a sleek piece of technology, but wondrous images come from the utilitarian form every year. Today marks the 25th anniversary of the Hubble’s launch and as many years of repairs, images and discoveries.

By lifting its mirrors and optics above the thick, star-obscuring air of Earth, Hubble has been able to see deeper into space than any telescope before. Observations from Hubble have helped researchers hone in on a more precise date for the beginning of the universe, learn about how stars are born, watch their spectacular deaths, snap the first visible-light photo of a plant orbiting another star and more. 

But it's the images themselves, even without the trappings of scientific breakthroughs, that make Hubble a favorite. 

When assembled together, the thumbnails of the Hubble Heritage collection — a smorgasbord of the telescope’s most visually-striking images — look like a collection of exotic jewels. Viewed one-by-one, they illustrate the majesty of the universe. The effect can be humbling to the casual viewer perusing on a home computer and the expert astronomer alike.

Jason Kalirai, an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute, highlighted a special Hubble image in a story by Geoff Brumfiel for The Hubble Deep Field image, captured in December 1995, revealed thousands of as-yet-undiscovered galaxies after it peered at a tiny, seemingly dark section of the sky for 10 days. Brumfiel writes:

"We're basically sitting on a rock orbiting a star, and that star is one of a hundred billion in our galaxy," Kalirai says. "But the deep field tells us that galaxy is one galaxy out of a hundred billion in the universe."

"I think Hubble's contribution is that we're not very special," he says.

That may sound like a bummer, but Kalirai doesn't see it that way. "I think it's exciting," he says. "It gives us a lot more to learn about. ... If we're not very special, you can continue to ask that question: 'What's next?' "

The Hubble was designed to be repaired and serviced by astronauts, so with the retirement of the space shuttle, the telescope's last update was in 2009. Eventually, it will stop working and sink lower in orbit until it burns up sometime between 2030 and 2040. The flow of images won't stop: The James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch in 2018, will continue Hubble's work.

Image by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA). Two galaxies dance together: The smaller one (bottom) apparently dove through the larger and now shows bursts of star formation in its center, perhaps triggered by the collision (original image)

Image by NASA, ESA, D. Lennon and E. Sabbi (ESA/STScI), J. Anderson, S. E. de Mink, R. van der Marel, T. Sohn, and N. Walborn (STScI), N. Bastian (Excellence Cluster, Munich), L. Bedin (INAF, Padua), E. Bressert (ESO), P. Crowther (University of Sheffield), A. de. The Tarantuala Nebula is the largest star-forming region scientists have found in neighboring galaxies (original image)

Image by NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA)-ESA/Hubble Collaboration. The red shroud in this image is the supernova remnant of Cassiopeia A (original image)

Image by Robert Williams and the Hubble Deep Field Team (STScI) and NASA. The iconic Hubble Deep Field image combines 276 total frames from two different cameras working for ten days. Some of the galaxies in this photo, just a section of the full image, appear as they were ten billion years ago. (original image)

Image by NASA, ESA, Y. Izotov (Main Astronomical Observatory, Kyiv, UA) and T. Thuan (University of Virginia). Zwicky 18 (bottom left) is possibly the youngest galaxy ever seen — NASA’s Hubble site calls the galaxy a late bloomer because it may not have started to form stars until 13 billion years after the Big Bang. A companion galaxy appears in the upper right. (original image)

Image by NASA,ESA, M. Robberto (Space Telescope Science Institute/ESA) and the Hubble Space Telescope Orion Treasury Project Team. Orion Nebula, 1,500 light-years away, more that 3,000 stars are nestled in this "cavern of roiling dust and gas." (original image)

Image by NASA and E. Karkoschka (University of Arizona). Closer to home, Hubble has offered stunning views of the planets in our own solar system, such as Saturn, here in ultraviolet light. (original image)

Image by NASA, ESA, M. Postman (STScI), and the CLASH Team. The mass of dark matter in this galaxy cluster is great enough to distort and bend light — the squiggly, twisted galaxies aren’t actually that shape, they just appear that way from Earth’s vantage point. (original image)

Image by NASA, ESA, and Q.D. Wang (University of Massachusetts, Amherst). The sharpest infrared picture of the center of the Milky Way show’s our galaxy’s core, where massive stars are born. (original image)

Image by NASA and The Hubble Heritage Team (STScI/AURA). This spiral galaxy 28 million light years from Earth seen edge on is called the Sombrero Galaxy. (original image)

What Is a Personal Food Computer?

Smithsonian Magazine

The personal food computer looks like a fish tank. It’s the right shape and size, but there’s no water. Inside the two-foot-long box, under glowing purple LED lights, lettuces and legumes sprout up, their roots, free of dirt, misted by digitally-controlled sprayers. It’s a tiny, low-water, climate-controlled agriculture system, designed for growing food in cramped city quarters. The machine is plugged into a network, so all the environmental information runs into a database, where other farmers can see how much water and light the plants are getting, and use that data to tweak the way they grow their own crops.

Call it open-source farming or data-driven agriculture. Either way, it’s a way to program how we grow what we eat. Caleb Harper, an engineer with a background in architecture and design, developed the personal food computer. He also runs the City Farm group, which looks at innovative ways to grow food in urban areas, at MIT’s Media Lab. He thinks his contraption is the future of food.

“It’s a digital interface that controls physical object,” Harper says. “What’s cool is that at the end of your grow cycle you get a digital recipe. If you were to grow basil again, you would get the same thing every time. You can email the basil recipe to your friends, and they can run the program again and get the same thing, or they can start messing with it.”

That "recipe" would include all the variables the farm would need to adjust to re-grow the basil the same way, like the amount of light and water, or the carbon dioxide levels inside. It's essentially the climate for the box. Those environmental factors are what make food taste and grow a certain way, and Harper is most excited about having the ability to control the system for other outside factors, to make food as good as humanly possible. "People talk about the phenome and the genome," he says. "We're not doing anything in the genome, we're just messing with the phenome."

The food computer plugs into the water and electricty in any building, and doesn't need any other resources, which is why it makes sense in a house or a classsroom. It uses shallow water culture and raft hydroponics to spray the plants' airborne roots instead of saturating soil. Farmers can grow just about anything that they could in the ground, as long as it doesn't get taller than four feet. Harper says his team has had good luck with greens and berries. He's trying to get the cost of the system down to around $300, so it would make sense for a classroom to buy one.

Harper comes from a family of famers, so he understands scale and what it takes to grow crops commercially. But he’s not just trying to farm more efficiently. He thinks the biggest gap in the food system is in the way we communicate about growing, and he’s building tools to fix that. By building small, connected farms, and creating a network and a database, he wants to change the way farmers share information and grow their food.

Harper has had good luck growing greens. (Caleb Harper)

Harper doesn’t actually believe that everyone can feed themselves out of a fish-tank-sized farm. Because it's four feet square, it can grow something like four heads of lettuce in four weeks. In September, he’s going to set them up in five schools in Cambridge, near MIT, as tools to teach kids the biology, engineering and creativity associated with farming. These student testers, in turn, will expose what works and what doesn't. This initial step will also be a way to get the database in place.

There’s a dearth of young farmers in the U.S. The average age of farmers in this country is 58, according to the most recent census, and, especially as we move more toward urban agriculture to provide local food for people in cities, there’s going to be a need for farmers who are both digitally savvy and aware of what it takes to bring a crop to fruition.

“There’s a lack of people and lack of modern tools in this world,” Harper says. “My goal is to create more farmers through the box.”

Despite the lack of skilled farmers, urban agriculture, as a concept, is growing. Cities, such as Boston, have changed their zoning laws to allow for farming within their limits. Harper says there are a lot of people designing and building small-scale, digitally-managed farms, like Freight Farms, out of Boston, with its Leafy Green Machine, a hydroponic shipping container farm. But they’re operating in silos, and not talking to one another. “To me that’s kind of boring,” he says. “I want to be building the network. People care right now, more than they did 20 years ago, but they want solutions, so now is the time for actually building platforms.”

Harper is working on two other models of urban farms that use the same principles and networked controls as the personal food computer. One is the size of a shipping container and could be used by a restaurant or an apartment building. The other, at 500 square feet, is industrial-sized, and could be used for commercial production.

“The thing that unites everything is that it’s all open source, the hardware, software and data,” he says. “I want to give everybody a place to go to share knowledge on a structured platform.”

Harper is launching the Open Ag Initiative, a new lab within the Media Lab, in September. The lab will pull in students, researchers and other faculty, as well as people from the tech and the agriculture industry, to work on the food computer and the network. Once he feels like he has the design for the food computer dialed in, he’s going to make it available to anyone who wants to grow veggies aeroponically in their living room. Users will be able to download the specs, or order a kit, and tinker.

“I’m kind of agnostic of what they get used for,” Harper says. “All I want to do is be a toolmaker, put them out there and see what happens. I don’t want to be telling people what they should do. I just want to democratize the growing of food.”

This Fossil Skull Unearthed in Tibet Is the Oldest Big Cat Ever Found

Smithsonian Magazine

A reconstruction of the newly discovered species Panthera blytheae, based on a skull discovered in Tibet that is estimated to be between four and five million years old. Illustration by Mauricio Antón, Via Proceedings of the Royal Society B/Tseng et. al.

In the summer of 2010, husband-and-wife paleobiologist team Z. Jack Tseng and Juan Liu traveled to the Zanda Basin in western Tibet with a group of colleagues. The remote area, a week’s drive from Beijing and near the border of Pakistan and China, is “basically badlands everywhere, with deeply cut valleys throughout,” Tseng says.

To explore the valleys, the team drove up dirt trail after dirt trail before coming upon a dense patch of fossils sticking out of the ground halfway up a hill. “In the little concentration of fossils, there were lots of limb bones from antelopes and horses obscuring everything else,” says Tseng, who was then a graduate student at USC and is now with the American Museum of Natural History. “It wasn’t until we started lifting things up, one by one, that we saw the top of a skull, and we thought, from the shape, that it looked something like a cat.”

After a few years of analysis, Tseng’s team has discovered that the skull doesn’t belong to any old cat. As they’ve documented in a study published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, the skull and six associated fossilized jawbone fragments are the first evidence of a newly discovered species, which they’ve called Panthera blytheae. The discovery represents the oldest “big cat” (a group that includes large predatory cats like lions, jaguars, tigers and leopards) ever found by a wide margin.

CT scans (left) and photos (right) of the skull. Via Proceedings of the Royal Society B/Tseng et. al.

The sediments that make up the basin as a whole range from 6 million to 400,000 years in age, so the group dated the fossil by analyzing the age of the particular rock layers it was buried in. This involved using techniques of magnetostratigraphy, in which scientists analyze the magnetic orientation of the rocks and compare it to known reversals of the Earth’s magnetic field. This method can only provide rough estimates for an item’s age, but it revealed that the skull is between 4.10 and 5.95 million years old. Previously, the oldest known big cat fossils—a number of tooth fragments found in Tanzania—were 3.6 million years old.

The new find fills a gap in the evolutionary record of big cats. By analyzing the DNA of living species, scientists had previously estimated that big cats had split from the Felinae subfamily—which includes smaller wild cats, like cougars, lynxes, along with domestic cats—about 6.37 million years ago. The very existence of P. blytheae confirms that the split happened prior to when this big cat roamed.

But how much earlier? The find could suggest, Tsang says, that big cats branched off from smaller cats much farther back than thought. By comparing the skull’s characteristics with fossils from other extinct big cats, the anatomy of living cat species, and DNA samples taken from both living cats and a few recently extinct, Ice Age-era species (known as cave lions), the researchers assembled a new evolutionary family tree for all big cats. Using known rates of anatomical changes over time and the observed anatomy of P. blytheae, they projected backwards, and estimated that the earliest big cats likely branched off from the Felinae subfamily between 10 and 11 million years ago.

The new fossil also solves a geological mystery. Previously, using DNA analysis of all living big cats and mapping the the fossils excavated from various sites around the world, researchers had determined it was most likely that their common ancestor had lived in Asia. The oldest known specimens, however, were found in Africa. The new species provides the first direct evidence that central Asia was indeed the big cats’ ancestral home, at least as far back as the current fossil record currently goes.

From the fragmented fossils, it’s hard to know much about the extinct species’ behavior and lifestyle, but the researchers were able to make some basic extrapolations from the skull’s anatomy. “It’s not a huge cat, like a lion or a tiger, but closer to a leopard,” Tsang says. The creature’s habitat was likely similar to the current Tibetan plateau, so Tseng speculates that, like the snow leopards that currently live in the area, this species did not hunt on the open plains, but rather cliffs and valleys. Tooth wear patterns also suggest similarities with current snow leopards—the rear teeth, likely used for cutting soft tissue, remain sharp, whereas the front teeth are heavily worn, perhaps reflecting their use in prying open carcasses and picking meat off bones.

Tseng says that he and colleagues plan to return to the area to search for more fossils that could help enlighten us on the evolutionary history of big cats. “The gap still isn’t completely filled yet,” he says. “We need to find older big cats to put the picture together.”

How the Crusades Helped Create Your Gingerbread Latte

Smithsonian Magazine

Pine sap, falling snow, freshly baked cookies—Christmas is as much about fragrant smells as it is about visual spectacles. And among the most enduring fragrances are those of Christmas spices including cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger. They import their flavor to mulled wine and sweets, to candles and candies and coffee drinks. What is it about spices that makes them seem so quintessentially festive?

Spices are intertwined with the story of human cuisine and trade going back millennia. Their first known use is from 6,000 years ago; fragments of spicy mustard seeds were found in ancient pottery. Romans and Egyptians both used spices in funeral rituals and to embalm the bodies of the dead. There are also numerous mentions of spices in the Bible, including Moses’ use of cinnamon oil for anointments. Cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg all grew on the Spice Islands of Indonesia and came to be part of a thriving trade network between ancient Greece and Rome in the Mediterranean and the nations of India and China to the east. At this point, however, Christmas hadn’t yet become a holiday; for the Greeks and Romans, spices were more symbolic of wealth and luxury than any particular religious celebration.

In the New World, meanwhile, the native spices of vanilla, allspice and capsicum (which provides a mouth-warming kick), are all still in popular use today. But for European colonists in the New World, the traditional uses of Old World spices were the greater culinary influence.

The impetus for Christmas being feted with a bouquet of spices was the Crusades (the series of religious wars launched by Western European Christians against Muslims, whose territory had expanded across North Africa and the Middle East). “From 1095 onwards the successive attempts to liberate the Holy Lands from the Turks brought Norman Crusaders in contact with the cuisine of the Arabian Middle East,” writes historian Rebecca Fraser, author of The Story of Britain. Included among this cuisine were spices like pepper, cinnamon and nutmeg. The Crusaders ate mincemeat pies made with dried fruits and shredded meat mixed in a sauce of alcohol and spices. The spices also worked as preservatives, an essential function in the time before refrigeration. (More recently scientists have discovered that cinnamon inhibits the growth of listeria, E. coli and A. flavus, all types of bacteria or fungi that spoil food and cause illness.)

Europeans associated the new flow of spices with the Holy Lands, and they were also familiar with the Bible passage that describes the Three Magi bringing gifts of frankincense and myrrh to baby Jesus. But there was one more reason to associate spices with Christmas: feasts.

As the celebration of the Winter Solstice meshed with the religious holiday of Christmas, nobles and the European aristocracy displayed their immense wealth and generosity in Christmas feasts. Spices were central to this conspicuous consumption. “Just as in Roman times, much of the appeal of spices was not so much that they tasted good as the fact that they looked good,” writes Jack Turner, author of Spice: The History of a Temptation.

One example is Henry II, who celebrated Christmas in Lincoln, England, in 1157 and demanded 60 pounds of pepper for his feast. The local grocers had to send to London, nearly 150 miles away, to fill the order. Then there’s Prince Henry the Navigator of Portugal, who hosted a Christmas Eve feast in 1414 complete with barrels of fine wine, an assortment of seasoned meats, fresh and preserved fruits and sugary treats. Even religious communities incorporated spice into their Christmas treats; monks at the monastery of Marienthal in Alsace, part of current-day France, began making gingerbread (pain d’épices) for the Christmas holiday in the 15th century.

“Historically you were eating these spices to show that you had money, or they were a financial indulgence [for lower classes],” says Sarah Lohman, a food historian and the author of the new book Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. “On a practical level, that is why we have these spices in the wintertime around these big holidays like Christmas and New Years. The main factor is simply that they’re expensive.”

The spread of Christmas spices to America was a bit rough, thanks to the Puritans’ efforts to quash the holiday celebrations. Between 1658 and 1681, Christmas celebrations were actually outlawed in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It didn’t help matters that the colonists were forced to trade exclusively with Britain, which meant already-expensive commodities like spices became even more so.

After the American Revolution, the residents of ethnically diverse cities like Philadelphia and New York brought with them the Dutch, German and British traditions of making spice cakes and mincemeat pies and plum puddings, all seasoned with a mélange of spices. Christmas grew especially popular in the Civil War Restoration period, when it seemed as if the nation needed a common holiday to heal the fissures that developed during the war. In 1915, the holiday was so embedded in the cultural sphere The New York Times ran a story on the “Ideal Christmas Dinner,” citing an expert at the Bureau of Home Economics. The dessert options listed at the end? A traditional plum pudding or mincemeat pie, both of which are packed full of spices.

But the definition of what constitutes a Christmas spice has changed over the years. While initially the spice-driven nature of the holiday meal was a show of wealth and performative opulence, in more modern-times the “Christmas spice” palate has narrowed to specific flavors (see Starbucks’ holiday sugar-bombs or the ubiquitous Christmas ales from microwbreweries). According to Lohman, the first printed recipe for a Christmas cookie was flavored with coriander, a spice that’s since fallen out of popularity compared to cinnamon and nutmeg. 

In her research, Lohman discovered a series of recipes in Martha Washington’s papers, including one for spice cakes flavored with black pepper that were supposed to last for six months. “They’re kind of fruitcake-like, and I have to admit the original recipe is gross,” she says.

She ended up modifying the recipe for her book to create a Brown Sugar and Black Pepper Cake, similar to what we’d recognize as gingerbread. Someday, she hopes, we’ll be back to seasoning our Christmas cookies with black pepper as well as cinnamon and ginger. But until then, at least it’s still a time of year to indulge in all other manner of sugary, spicy treats. 

From Sarah Lohman's book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine

Pepper Brown Sugar Cookies
Recipe modernized from Martha Washington’s A Book of Cookery

Yield: makes 3 to 4 dozen, depending on the size of the cookie

4 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper, plus more to top the cookies
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon coriander
3/4 cup (11/2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups packed light brown sugar
Zest of one orange
Juice of 1/2 an orange (about 1/4 cup)
2 large eggs

In a large bowl, whisk together dry ingredients and spices. In the bowl of an electric mixer, add butter, sugar, and orange zest.Using the paddle attachment, beat on medium-high until light in color. Add the orange juice, and then add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.

With mixer on low, add the dry ingredients slowly. Stop and scrape the bowl, then continue mixing until combined. Divide dough in half, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill at least 1 hour and as long as overnight.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. On a generously floured work surface and with a floured rolling-pin, roll dough 1/8 inch thick. Using a pepper grinder, crack fresh pepper over the surface of the dough and then gently press the pepper in with the rolling-pin. Cut into desired shapes using a cookie cutter or knife. Bake on a cookie sheet 10 to 12 minutes, rotating the cookie sheet halfway through, until the cookies are brown around the edges. Allow to cool completely on wire racks.

Remembering Woodstock

National Museum of American History

The weekend of August 15 through 18, 1969, approximately 400,000 revelers traveled from near and far to inhabit the rolling fields of Max Yasgur’s dairy farm near Bethel, New York. There, some of the country’s biggest music acts, along with rising stars, performed at the Woodstock Music and Art Fair.

A musician performs in front of a sea of people.One of the performers on the second day of Woodstock. Photograph by Lisa Law.

Woodstock was the largest of the 1960s countercultural music festivals in the United States. It left an indelible impression on not only the artists and attendees but also on the minds of millions of young Americans who experienced Woodstock secondhand—through news media accounts, a widely seen documentary film, and the consumer products that soon followed.

Some objects in our collection tell a Woodstock history—one that stretches far beyond that New York farm.

The Festival

Woodstock was always intended to produce a profit. Organizers sold tickets in advance and began to punch them at the gates. However, ticket collection was quickly abandoned after throngs of attendees overwhelmed entrances and began entering through nearby gaps in fences. Organizers relented and ceased collecting tickets.

A manila colored ticket with a circular hole punch in the middle. The text reads "Woodstock Music and Art Fair, Saturday, August 16, 1969."The tickets in the museum’s collection were punched at the gates.

Ticketing abandoned, a huge crowd gathered. According to some accounts the festival was chaotic, and by others, ecstatic.

A photograph with 400,000 people in a field, take from overhead.Festivalgoers were awed by the crowd size, which revealed to them, often for the first time, that the number of like-minded souls in the country was far greater than they had previously imagined.  Photograph by Lisa Law.

Photographer Lisa Law captured all this—from drenching rain and dwindling supplies, to awe-inspiring musical performances and expressions of community. Law even hitched rides in helicopters that were transporting food and medical supplies when the roads became impassable. From there, she captured the enormous scale of the festival.

People load or unload boxes from a helicopter.Emergency medical and food supplies had to be flown in by helicopter when traffic and abandoned cars made the roads impassable.  Photograph by Lisa Law.Women mix a white mixture in a large bowl, under a tent.Lisa Law captured the preparation of a meal at the festival’s free kitchen. The Hog Farm, a long-standing commune, volunteered to construct the kitchen for use by the festivalgoers.  Photograph by Lisa Law.

Organizers of today’s music festivals generate much of their profit from selling a wide array of consumer goods onsite and online, including the ever-popular concert T-shirt. Organizers of the Woodstock festival provided T-shirts to staff and security; they did not sell them at the festival. Third-party vendors quickly filled the void, however, by selling clothing, posters, and other souvenirs.


A purple tee shirt with a Woodstock emblem (a bird sitting on a guitar neck).A purple T-shirt provided to a festival staff person.A white t-shirt with the Woodstock emblem (a guitar neck with a bird sitting on it) in a purple circle.This T-shirt was sold at the festival by an independent vendor.

Three Days in Woodstock, Forever in Our Memories

Though several hundred thousand people experienced the Woodstock festival firsthand, the idea of Woodstock greatly impacted the lives of millions of others. Many Americans came to know the festival through news coverage, stories from friends who made the trek, and through Woodstock, the festival’s wildly successful, three-hour long documentary film, which premiered in theaters only seven months later. The festival’s cultural impact continued to grow. Many young Americans expressed their affinity for the values they associated with Woodstock by purchasing records and movie and concert tickets; wearing T-shirts; and hanging posters on their walls.

A red poster with a graphic. The graphic is a neck of a guitar with a hand on it as though playing it. A bird rests on the guitar. The text reads "Woodstock Music & Art Fair, Aquarian Exposition, 3 Days of Peace & Music"An early Woodstock poster.

Irene Clurman was amazed to discover in 1970 that the local J.C. Penney in Gallup, New Mexico, was selling fabric featuring a photograph of hundreds of Woodstock attendees in the grass. Clurman grew up in Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco, where she participated in political protests and gained an affinity for the neighborhood’s countercultural values. While she could not cross the country to attend Woodstock, she recognized the photograph, purchased the fabric, and made it into a minidress. She wore it “as a tongue-in-cheek celebration of love, peace, and rebellion,” she explained. “People only noticed the field of hippies when I pointed it out. If I didn’t call attention to the famous photograph, the message of the dress remained my secret.”

A blue mini-dress with a keyhole detail at the neckline. The fabric features young people sitting in a field.Irene Clurman’s Woodstock dress.

The fact that “Woodstock” fabric was on sale at a national department store chain less than a year after the festival demonstrates the extraordinary rate and degree to which Woodstock was commodified, rendered as a consumable for American shoppers. Yet Clurman’s use of the fabric—as a covert expression of her values—reveals that the meaning of Woodstock remained quite powerful, even when purchased, for those who saw its calls for peace and love as a sign of affinity and hope.

While some felt that Woodstock’s ever-expanding commodification and entrance into mainstream culture was at odds with the countercultural trappings of the festival, others considered this a victory—a demonstration that the simply expressed values of peace and love were beginning to deeply resonate in a country otherwise riveted by strife and unresolved social injustices.

A black and white picture of two women at an office party. One woman wears a mini dress with pictures of young people on the fabric.Irene Clurman wearing the dress at an office party, around 1971.

The Legacy

As time went on, the meaning of Woodstock continued to be highly contested. For those debating the impact of the 1960s counterculture movements, it served as a flashpoint. Some saw the festival as the embodiment of a utopian movement comprised of young people who believed that living by the simple mantra of “peace and love” could serve as an effective antidote to social ills. They recognized the power of music to bring people together, and discovered that their values, branded as countercultural, in fact had a tremendous and ongoing resonance in shaping our national conversations. For others, Woodstock represented a lost opportunity—a display by mostly white, middle-class attendees of hedonistic self-indulgence, rather than a nurturance of political galvanization and renewed social justice activism. For others still, Woodstock represented all that had gone “wrong” with the United States during the 1960s—the loosening of sexual mores, the woeful acceptance of widespread drug use, and the gleeful embrace of antiauthoritarianism.

This year marks Woodstock’s 50th anniversary. 

50 years later, what does Woodstock mean to you?

John Troutman is Curator of American Music in the Division of Cultural and Community Life.

Posted Date: 
Friday, August 16, 2019 - 03:15
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Homemade Clothes for Hollywood - Made Movies

Smithsonian Magazine

A modest low-slung metal building, set in the woods off a dirt road, is home to the world-famous Thistle Hill Weavers, workplace and studio of textile historian and weaver Rabbit Goody. Approaching the building a muffled thwack-thwack-thwack mechanical sound created by power looms can be heard. When the door is opened, the noise spills out along with the smell of fibers mixed with machine oil.

Goody has been involved in movies for nearly 15 years. Since her start with the movie adaptation of The Scarlet Letter (1995), starring Demi Moore, Thistle Hill Weavers has worked on dozens of films. The studio has created historically accurate fabric for a number of iconic costumes, from Tom Hanks’ Depression-era overcoat in Road to Perdition to Daniel Day Lewis’ oil man outfit in There Will Be Blood to many of the costumes in HBO‘s John Adams. Goody understands how costume designers place great importance on the most miniscule details and knows how to get them right.

Costume designer Kimberly Adams worked with Thistle Hill on a number of projects including The Chronicles of Narnia and There Will Be Blood. “As a designer, you always want to sell the time period with fabrics and shapes that are true to the period in order to bring the audience into the real world of the story,” says Adams.

“Today’s fabrics often don’t work in other time periods,” Adams explains. “The weights, textures and content are quite different, and these factors really do make a difference in making a costume look true to a time period.”

Considering her Hollywood-based clientele, upstate New York seems an unlikely setting for Goody’s textile mill. She landed in the Cherry Valley area in the 1970s as part of the counter-culture movement, and she never left. (Allen Ginsberg had a farm down the road as did a number of other poets, artists and musicians.) Although she came to the area to farm – even today she notes “weaving is my trade but my lifestyle is agricultural” – she soon established herself as an accomplished hand weaver. Before setting up Thistle Hill, she worked for the New York State Historical Association in the nearby Farmer’s Museum, located in Cooperstown.

Over the years she amassed an encyclopedic knowledge of American textiles and weaving technology, which has made her indispensible to the film industry and historic properties that are looking for historically accurate reproductions of clothing, bed hangings, window treatments and carpet.

Goody got her first movie job when the costume designer from The Scarlet Letter saw the textile work she did for Plimoth Plantation, a museum and educational center in Plymouth, Massachusetts, that recreates 17th-century America. The film needed clothing and interior furnishing fabrics accurate to that same time period from Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel.

“The camera eye is better than any human eye so inaccuracies show up glaringly,” explains Goody. “The minute anyone sees an inaccuracy in a movie, that picture is trashed – if you don’t believe one part of it, you’re not going to believe any part of it. A lay person may not know what would be appropriate for 17th-century fabric, but it will register that something is wrong.”

Image by Rachel Dickinson. One of Thistle Hill's weavers works with a power loom that the studio uses to create fabrics for major motion pictures. (original image)

Image by Rachel Dickinson. Rabbit Goody uses patterns to reproduce lace from an 18th century carriage. (original image)

Image by Rachel Dickinson. Rabbit Goody has been involved in movies for nearly 15 years. (original image)

Image by Rachel Dickinson. The finish room at Thistle Hill is overrun with fabrics from past projects. (original image)

Image by Rachel Dickinson. Goody's studio features a silk warper built in 1918. (original image)

When a designer contacts them, Rabbit and Jill Maney, Thistle Hill’s office manager, who also has a PhD in early American history, research everything they can about the movie – time period, characters, basic plot and what color schemes the costume designers will use. Then they send the designer an enormous packet of textile samples. From there it becomes a collaborative process. The designers determine what they like and don’t like (need it rougher, smoother, more texture, less texture) and if they like something, Goody asks what it is about the fabric that appeals to them.

“Costume designers for the most part do not speak ‘cloth,’” says Goody. “They do by the end, though.” Rabbit has found that designers pay a surprising amount of attention to detail. Drape, weight, texture, how a fabric moves, how it reflects color, or how it works with somebody’s coloring, for example, are all important to them.

Accurate fiber content is not as important to movies as it is for a historic house or museum looking for a historic reproduction. But Thistle Hill always uses natural fibers when creating movie textiles, so that the fabric can be dyed and aged by the costumers.

“Sometimes we hardly recognize our fabrics because they’ve been so aged,” says Maney. “For [the 2007 film] No Country for Old Men we made plaid cowboy shirts from the 1970s – doesn’t sound like a project for us – but the designer found a shirt she liked but couldn’t find enough of them so we provided yardage. Then the shirts had be aged in all different ways – sun-faded, torn, tattered, and soiled – and that’s the kind of detail that makes the movie believable.”

Six weavers work at Thistle Hill although Goody is the only one who does the design work. Everyone performs multiple tasks, from running power looms to spinning thread to making trim. Rabbit’s power looms are all at least 100 years old – there are a couple of nonworking looms sitting out behind the mill that are cannibalized for parts when the old looms break down.

The bulk of the mill is one big room with weavers either setting up or running huge looms. The noise is so deafening the weavers wear ear protectors. Everywhere you look big metal machines are creating gorgeous lengths of fabric, including striped Venetian carpet and white cotton dimity and soft, cream-colored cloth from Peruvian alpaca thread. One weaver sits at a bench before a loom pulling 3,300 threads through heddles – they keep the warp threads separate from each other. She then threads them through the sley, which resembles the teeth of a giant comb. The entire painstaking process takes her three days to complete.

Leftover yardage from past projects sits in an adjacent fitting room. Thistle Hill mixes in movie work with weaving for museums and historic houses so Goody can point to fabric used for George Washington’s bed at his historic headquarters in Newburgh, New York, as well as Brad Pitt’s trousers from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Clothing for John Adams and the other founding fathers kept Goody and her weavers busy for half a year. “Thistle Hill wove such beautiful fabrics,” remembers Michael Sharpe, first assistant costume designer for the miniseries. “They recreated fabrics that would have been ‘homespun’ by settlers in the New World. Thistle Hill fabrics allowed us to set the tone of ‘America’s’ fibers versus that of the fine English and French silks and woolens.”

Sharpe liked the fabric so much that as Maney sent him boxes of period-appropriate textiles from the finishing room, he kept wanting more. “I was frequently asked by our costume makers in the United States, London, Canada and Hungary where we’d found such incredible fabrics,” says Sharpe. “I happily replied – ‘We made them!’”

Mary Vaux Walcott’s Wild Flowers

Smithsonian Institution Archives

'Mary With a hint of spring finally in the air, my thoughts turn to the sights, sounds and smells of trees in bloom and birds nesting. I look forward to a beautiful day in May when I can walk through a nearby nature preserve and see delicate blossoms hiding among the leaf litter.  These wild flowers have not been bred to last in a vase; they appear and disappear quickly, attracting insect pollinators and fading away when that task is done.  What does it take to paint a wild flower that blooms for a single day in a deep forest?  For Mary Morris Vaux (1860-1940), a young Quaker woman who accompanied her family fossil hunting in the Rockies most summers, you pull out your paint box to sketch and paint with water colors for 17 hours to capture the shape, movement, and colors of the delicate petals and leaves.  Back at camp, comfortably ensconced on a tree stump, she would produce a more final version.  She also became quite skilled at photographing them as reference for her art work.

Mary Vaux Walcott, holding wild flowers in Canadian Rockies, c. 1920s, Record Unit 95 - Photograph Collection, 1850s - , Smithsonian Institution Archives, neg. no. 2004-22992.Mary Morris Vaux was born into a well-to-do Quaker family in Philadelphia and attended the Friends School.  She planned to enroll in Bryn Mawr College, but when her mother died, she stayed home to care for her father and brothers, as was expected of 19th century young women.  The family spent vacations in Canadian Rockies, so her father could pursue his amateur interest in geology.  Mary brought her sketching pads and watercolors so she could capture the beautiful wild flowers she found along the trails. Botany and drawing were considered very appropriate avocations for educated young women, although most sat in their gardens rather than scale peaks and cross glaciers.  Mary was far more adventurous – in 1913, she climbed Mount Robson, the highest peak in the British Columbia Rockies.  Mount Mary Vaux, some 10,881 feet high, was named in her honor.  Despite those adventures, her life was fairly circumscribed, centered around family and church.

Mary Vaux and Charles Doolittle Walcott, c. 1910s, Record Unit 7004 - Charles D. Walcott Collection, 1851-1940 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives, neg. no. SIA2014-00556.Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), watercolor on paper by Mary Vaux Walcott, 1916, Smithsonian American Art Museum, object number 1970.355.706.That same year as she scaled Mount Robson, she embarked upon quite a different adventure.  She told her father she planned to marry a paleontologist they had met in the Rockies. Her father rejected the notion summarily and refused to attend the wedding. He was very fond of his 53 year old unmarried daughter, who had cared for him lovingly since her mother died. He also did not much care for the fellow she intended to marry – Charles Doolittle Walcott (1850-1927) paleontologist and Secretary of the Smithsonian.  He regarded Walcott as something of a gold-digger and he was not a Quaker.  At 64 years, Walcott had been widowed twice and had four children.  Walcott's family was no happier about the wedding. His daughter Helen had cared for her father and brothers after her mother died and did not want an interloper taking her place.

Mary Vaux Walcott: A Selection of Her Wildflowers of North America, 2015 edition, Smithsonian Institution Press.Despite the negative response of their families, Mary and Charles married and shared many happy years, based on their mutual love of natural history exploration.  Mary Walcott quickly became part of the Smithsonian family and the Quaker community in Washington.  In the 1920s, when her husband launched a fund-raising campaign, Mary Walcott found a way to contribute.  She published a five volume set of her drawings of North American wild flowers, between 1925 and 1928, with proceeds going to the Smithsonian's endowment.  Her beautiful and accurate drawings have been displayed in exhibits and republished several times since then.  In 2014, the Smithsonian Institution Press with Smithsonian Institution Libraries reprinted a selection of them in a single volume.  It is nice to know that I can browse through them in the chill of winter and look forward to that sunny spring day when they will reappear at a pond's edge or in a mountain glen.

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Does Having a C-Section Alter Baby's First Microbiome?

Smithsonian Magazine

William Wordsworth was on to something. As the poet claimed, a newborn never enters the world in utter nakedness but instead comes trailing clouds of glory—if by clouds of glory you mean a coating of mostly helpful microbes picked up from the fluids inside mom's birth canal.

But studies suggest that babies born via cesarean section, or C-section, miss out on exposure to many of these beneficial microbes, which may have an impact on their long-term health. Disruption to the infant microbiome from modern practices like antibiotics use, bottle feeding and elective C-section births has been associated with conditions such as asthma, allergies, type 1 diabetes and obesity.

Now Maria Dominguez-Bello, of the New York University Langone Medical Center, and her colleagues may have a way to restore at least part of that lost microbiome and better mimic the microbial mix that natural-birth babies acquire—a bath in mom's vaginal fluid.

The unusual technique does appear to add diversity to the infant microbiome, according to a study published today in Nature Medicine. But it's not yet clear what, if any, impact it could have on the future health of C-section infants.

C-section deliveries can save the lives of both babies and moms. The World Health Organization (WHO) suggests that some 10 to 15 percent of all births worldwide involve a medically necessary C-section, and in some countries people who lack access to these procedures suffer unnecessary loss of life.

But women can also chose to have a C-section, for reasons that vary across countries and cultures. These births may be considered safer, pain-free, convenient and perhaps less traumatic for the newborn—though medical studies don't support these benefits beyond the 10 percent level of people who need C-sections for medical reasons.

Still, elective C-section rates are rising in many developed nations. In the U.S., about 30 percent of all births are by medical or elective C-section. Other countries have far higher rates. In Brazil, for instance, the number can top 80 percent in private hospitals and over 50 percent in the public health care system. 

One worry is that all those C-section babies are missing out on exposure to invisible, and possibly important, microbes. Previous studies showed that babies born vaginally have microbiomes that resemble the bacterial communities of their mom's vagina, while C-section babies do not.

Dominguez-Bello and colleagues developed an intriguing way to alter that equation. They placed sterile gauze inside the vaginas of mothers for an hour before their C-sections, then swabbed their babies' bodies and mouths with the gauze just after birth to simulate the early exposure to microbes that the infants would have experienced in the birth canal.

During the first month of life, those babies' microbiomes, particularly those of oral and skin bacteria, looked more like those of babies born vaginally—both had higher concentrations of Lactobacillus and Bacteroides, species that help infants' immune systems recognize and not fight off helpful bacteria. These beneficial groups weren't found at nearly the same levels in conventional C-section babies.

“Our study shows significant differences in the bacterial communities of C-section infants exposed to their maternal vaginal fluids, whose microbiota is partially restored and more similar to that of vaginally delivered infants,” study co-author Jose Clemente, of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said during a press conference last week. However, the study was only a very small pilot. The scientists swabbed 4 babies out of 11 C-section deliveries, and compared them to 7 vaginal births.  

Alexander Khoruts, a gastroenterologist at the University of Minnesota, adds that while the study was intriguing, the underlying reasons that people have C-sections may also be playing a role in infants' long-term health.

“Many [C-sections] are done for medical reasons, so right away you're starting with a difference from the scheduled C-sections in this study," he says. "So there's a part of me that wants to say hold on, we don't know what the problem is yet. But it certainly does make sense. It's logically compelling to think that this inoculation, the passage in the birthing process, would have an effect on the microbiome.”

Another caveat concerns which of the body's many bacterial communities are being affected. Previous work suggested that the biggest differences in the early microbiomes of C-section versus vaginal birth infants is in their acquisition of gut microbes.

“Ninety-nine percent of the microbes you'd expect to be in the gut, because that's where the food is,” Khoruts notes. “So if we look at what was changed in the study in terms of biomass, the gut microbes have changed little with this intervention. They look much more like a C-section baby's than a vaginal birth baby's.”

Sharon Meropol, a pediatrician at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine and Rainbow Babies & Children's Hospital, recently authored an Embryo Today review on development of the infant microbiome. She calls the new study interesting and well-done, but like the authors themselves, she notes that the research was further complicated by the infants' differing exposure to antibiotics.

Moms routinely receive antibiotics during pregnancy or labor to ward off infections. C-section mothers are usually given antibiotics, and all seven of the study's C-section mothers received them at some point before birth, while only about half of the vaginal delivery moms did.

“Antibiotics of course decrease bacterial diversity and select for certain species over others, and infants can be exposed to maternal antibiotics through the placenta,” Meropol says. “This is a bit confusing and makes comparison a bit difficult.”

What's more, figuring out successful ways to alter the infant microbiome won't matter much unless scientists can be certain that such interventions actually help human health.

“We would like to emphasize that our study establishes feasibility but not any health outcomes,” Clemente cautioned. Much more research will be needed to see if the process might be “translated into reducing the disease risks associated with C-section births,” he says.

That makes the new results an intriguing piece of a very complex puzzle that scientists are still striving to solve, Khoruts notes. 

“We have this huge question: Why are we having marked increases in diseases of autoimmunity?” he asks. “There's probably more than one answer, but is the infant microbiome part of the reason? If it is, it's probably the developmental period that's most important, so what are the most important factors that go into shaping that very early microbiome? One of them may well be this issue of vaginal birth versus C-section.” 

Is Artificial Intelligence the Key to Personalized Education?

Smithsonian Magazine

For Joseph Qualls, it all started with video games.

That got him “messing around with an AI program,” and ultimately led to a PhD in electrical and computer engineering from the University of Memphis. Soon after, he started his own company, called RenderMatrix, which focused on using AI to help people make decisions.

Much of the company’s work has been with the Defense Department, particularly during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the military was at the cutting edge in the use of sensors and seeing how AI could be used to help train soldiers to function in a hostile, unfamiliar environment.

Qualls is now a clinical assistant professor and researcher at the University of Idaho's college of engineering, and he hasn’t lost any of his fascination with the potential of AI to change many aspects of modern life. While the military has been the leading edge in applying AI—where machines learn by recognizing patterns, classifying data, and adjusting to mistakes they make—the corporate world is now pushing hard to catch up. The technology has made fewer inroads in education, but Qualls believes it’s only a matter of time before AI becomes a big part of how children learn.

It’s often seen as being a key component of the concept of personalized education, where each student follows a unique mini-curriculum based on his or her particular interests and abilities. AI, the thinking goes, can not only help children zero in on areas where they’re most likely to succeed, but also will, based on data from thousands of other students, help teachers shape the most effective way for individual students to learn. recently talked to Qualls about how AI could profoundly affect education, and also some of the big challenges it faces.

So, how do you see artificial intelligence affecting how kids learn?

People have already heard about personalized medicine. That’s driven by AI. Well, the same sort of thing is going to happen with personalized education. I don’t think you’re going to see it as much at the university level. But do I see people starting to interact with AI when they’re very young. It could be in the form of a teddy bear that begins to build a profile of you, and that profile can help guide how you learn throughout your life. From the profile, the AI could help build a better educational experience. That’s really where I think this is going to go over the next 10 to 20 years. 

You have a very young daughter.  How would you foresee AI affecting her education?

It’s interesting because people think of them as two completely different fields, but AI and psychology are inherently linked now. Where the AI comes in is that it will start to analyze the psychology of humans. And I’ll throw a wrench in here. Psychology is also starting to analyze the psychology of AI. Most the projects I work on now have a full-blown psychology team and they’re asking questions like 'Why did the AI make this decision?'

But getting back to my daughter. What AI would start doing is trying to figure out her psychology profile. It’s not static; it will change over time. But as it sees how she’s going to change, the AI could make predictions based on data from my daughter, but also from about 10,000 other girls her same age, with the same background. And, it begins to look at things like “Are you really an artist or are you more mathematically inclined?” 

It can be a very complex system. This is really pie-in-the-sky artificial intelligence. It’s really about trying to understand who you are as an individual and how you change over time. 

More and more AI-based systems will become available over the coming years, giving my daughter faster access to a far superior education than any we ever had. My daughter will be exposed to ideas faster, and at her personalized pace, always keeping her engaged and allowing her to indirectly influence her own education.

What concerns might you have about using AI to personalize education?

The biggest issue facing artificial intelligence right now is the question of 'Why did the AI make a decision?' AI can make mistakes. It can miss the bigger picture. In terms of a student, an AI may decide that a student does not have a mathematical aptitude and never begin exposing that student to higher math concepts. That could pigeonhole them into an area where they might not excel. Interestingly enough, this is a massive problem in traditional education. Students are left behind or are not happy with the outcome after university. Something was lost. 

Personalized education will require many different disciplines working together to solve many issues like the one above. The problem we have now in research and academia is the lack of collaborative research concerning AI from multiple fields—science, engineering, medical, arts. Truly powerful AI will require all disciplines working together.

So, AI can make mistakes?

It can be wrong. We know humans make mistakes. We’re not used to AI making mistakes.

We have a hard enough time telling people why the AI made a certain decision. Now we have to try to explain why AI made a mistake. You really get down to the guts of it. AI is just a probability statistics machine.

Say, it tells me my child has a tendency to be very mathematically oriented, but she also shows an aptitude for drawing. Based on the data it has, the machine applies a weight to certain things about this person. And, we really can’t explain why it does what it does. That’s why I’m always telling people that we have to build this system in a way that it doesn’t box a person in.

If you go back to what we were doing for the military, we were trying to be able to analyze if a person was a threat to a soldier out in the field. Say one person is carrying an AK-47 and another is carrying a rake. What’s the difference in their risk?  

That seems pretty simple. But you have to ask deeper questions. What’s the likelihood of the guy carrying the rake becoming a terrorist? You have to start looking at family backgrounds, etc.

So, you still have to ask the question, 'What if the AI’s wrong?' That’s the biggest issue facing AI everywhere.

How big a challenge is that?

One of the great engineering challenges now is reverse engineering the human brain. You get in and then you see just how complex the brain is. As engineers, when we look at the mechanics of it, we start to realize that there is no AI system that even comes close to the human brain and what it can do.

We’re looking at the human brain and asking why humans make the decisions they do to see if that can help us understand why AI makes a decision based on a probability matrix. And we’re still no closer.

Actually, what drives reverse engineering of the brain and the personalization of AI is not research in academia, it’s more the lawyers coming in and asking 'Why is the AI making these decisions?' because they don’t want to get sued. 

In the past year, most of the projects I’ve worked on, we’ve had one or two lawyers, along with psychologists, on the team. More people are asking questions like 'What’s the ethics behind that?' Another big question that gets asked is 'Who’s liable?'

Does that concern you?

The greatest part of AI research now is that people are now asking that question 'Why?' Before, that question relegated to the academic halls of computer science. Now, AI research is branching out to all domains and disciplines. This excites me greatly. The more people involved in AI research and development, the better chance we have at alleviating our concerns and more importantly, our fears.

Getting back to personalized education. How does this affect teachers?

With education, what’s going to happen, you’re still going to have monitoring. You’re going to have teachers who will be monitoring data. They’ll become more data scientists who understand the AI and can evaluate the data about how students are learning. 

You’re going to need someone who’s an expert watching the data and watching the student. There will need to be a human in the loop for some time, maybe for at least 20 years. But I could be completely wrong. Technology moves so fast these days.

It really is a fascinating time in the AI world, and I think it’s only going to accelerate more quickly. We’ve gone from programming machines to do things to letting the machines figure out what to do. That changes everything. I certainly understand the concerns that people have about AI. But when people push a lot of those fears, it tends to drive people away. You start to lose research opportunities.

It should be more about pushing a dialogue about how AI is going to change things. What are the issues? And, how are we going to push forward?

Found: 120-Million-Year-Old Colony of Fossilized Flying Reptiles, Plus Their Eggs

Smithsonian Magazine

Around 120 million years ago, a colony of flying reptiles once lived on the shores of an ancient lake in China’s Turpan-Hami Basin. Today the environment is within the Gobi Desert—a far cry from lush, temperate lakeshore it once was. But the Gobi’s dry, arid climate makes for excellent fossil preservation.

In 2005, researchers came across evidence of the area’s former inhabitants: pterosaurs, a group of flying reptiles that includes the pterodactyl family. Recent excavations of the site have yielded a plethora of fossil specimens of these ancient reptile residents, including the most juvenile of them—their eggs. A team of paleontologists from China and Brazil found that the unearthed bones and fossilized eggs actually represent a previously unknown genus and species of pterosaur. They published their results today in Current Biology.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty details of the discovery, it’s important to note that pterosaurs aren’t dinosaurs. These reptiles share a different evolutionary history to their dino cousins. Thus, unlike dinosaurs, they aren’t directly related to birds either. Pterosaurs dominated the skies during the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods, but pterosaurs and birds are two evolutionary paths that separately reached the skill set of flight.

In the fossil record, pterosaurs are rare commodities: only one or two fossil specimen define each species, and only four eggs have ever been unearthed—all are smushed or flattened. That makes the Turpan-Hami fossils extremely valuable for analyzing nesting habits. As the researchers write, “sites like the one reported here provide further evidence regarding the behavior and biology of this amazing group of flying reptiles that has no parallel in modern time.”

After the researchers realized they had a huge pterosaur find on their hands, they began systematically excavating the site, and in 2008, they came across their first egg: “I was more excited than surprised,” says Xiaolin Wang, a paleontologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Beijing. With such a fossil-rich site, finding an egg wasn’t out of the realm of possibility.

The team recovered five eggs in total from the site. Microscopic and spectroscopic analysis revealed that the eggs had a thin shell for a top layer, made mostly of calcium carbonate, and underneath that lay a soft, thin membrane. “It is similar to ‘soft’ eggs of some modern snakes; the size and structure are nearly the same,” says Wang.

Beyond cracking the mystery of the eggs, the researchers also wanted to figure out how the Turpan-Hami Basin pterosaurs fit into the larger pterosaur family tree. They had removed fossilized bones from 40 individuals at Turban-Hami, though the entire site could ultimately yield hundreds.

After a closer examination of the bones, they found that these animals had marked differences from other species: a hooked bone at the end of the jaw, wider eye cavities, a well-developed forehead crest, a wrist bone with a protruding spike, and other unique features. Their wingspans ranged from 4 feet to 11 feet, and an evolutionary tree analysis suggested that the individuals belonged to a new genus and species of pterosaur, which the scientists named Hamipterus tianshanensis.

An artist's vision of two Hamipterus tainshanensis parents guarding their eggs near the ancient lakeshore 120-million-years ago. (Image: Chuang Zhao)

As they unearthed the specimens, the researchers also noticed that some individuals had the same skull (in shape and size) but different head crests: some were large, wrinkled, with a flare at the end of their snout, while others were smaller, smoother, and less protruding. The researchers think they’ve happened upon a sexually dimorphic trait—one that separates the boys from the girls.

Though some modern reptile species do have larger females, the trend in reptiles is big males, small females. So, Wang and his colleagues made the educated guess that, in the case of the pterosaurs, larger crests belong to males and the smaller crests to females.

For creatures like pterosaurs and dinosaurs, figuring out which has male bits and which has female bits can be a window into the lives of these ancient beasts. But as you might expect, sexual dimorphism—though suspected in pterosaurs—can be hard to nail down in fossilized animals. More analysis is needed to say for sure.

In addition, finding the bones and eggs present a picture of gregarious social life and reproduction behaviors that resembles that of modern reptiles. “These pterosaurs nested in the shore of the ancient lake and buried their eggs in the moist sand,” says Wang. The nesting behavior is similar to modern snake species, particularly rat snakes.

Finding in one location evidence of sexual dimorphism and of behaviors that are much more reptile-like than bird-like is quite rare. “This is something of a Holy Grail—a site potentially recording all of these interesting aspects in the same locality,” notes Mark Witton, a paleontologist at the University of Portsmouth who was not affiliated with the study.

"A long-extinct group of flying reptiles may seem unimportant in the big scheme of things, but they're a component of something we must pay more attention to: our changing biosphere,” Witton added. “Looking at the way species and ecosystems have evolved through Deep Time gives us the only long-term insight into the way the natural world works—how it adapts to adversity, when it blooms and diversifies, and so forth.”

It also shows how populations can be snuffed out—near this lake, the nesting pterosaurs also met their demise. The fossil-containing rock layers at Turpan-Hami are divided by the mud and sand deposits traditionally left by huge storms. These storm layers, called tempestites, form when debris from different sediments mix together in the storm’s deluge. Here’s what the scholars think may have happened: “The storm may have killed live pterosaurs, and transported the dead bodies and eggs for a short distance,” says Wang “And then buried them quickly.”

It must have been horrible way to go for these ancient creatures, but a perfect storm for researchers, who now have a better picture of what life was like when lizards dominated the land and sky. 

He must have been an admiral, a sultan or a king… beards, beards, beards.

National Museum of American History

We're celebrating National Coin Week with a series of posts by our National Numismatic Collection team. See our previous posts about fantastic beasts, goddesses, and military money.

I think by now most of the people in my life are aware of the fact that I heavily support good facial hair. That appreciation for follicles and my love for the Byzantine Empire proved to be a pretty fun union for exploring the National Numismatic Collection's Byzantine holdings. But what about the coinage of the rest of the world?!

Here are five world leaders who tried to inspire their people toward success through waxed, braided, and oiled ringlets. Cultures east and west of Byzantium shared a similar love for a scruffy leader or a well-oiled chinstrap on a king. Beards on military leaders conveyed strength and wisdom, and encouraged troops to follow their wearers.

Two sides of a bronze coin, showing a man with a helmet and a bounty of hair and an altar-like structure with text and votives on the reverse

About a century before the foundation of Byzantium, the Sasanian Persians rose as a force against the Roman Empire led by the Shahanshah Ardashir I. Frankly, Ardashir's beard alone must have been considered a force against the Roman Empire! His meticulously curled and coiffed tresses were as impressive to me as his prowess in battle as he tried to reunite the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Though Herodian leaves it out of his narrative of the Persian and Roman battles for Mesopotamia, it's probably a safe guess that Ardashir's confidence to take on the armies of Alexander Severus is due in no small part to his buxom beard.

A silver coin with a man's face in profile wearing a crown of leaves. On the back is a standing figure. There is text on both sides.

Unlike his adversary, Alexander Severus wore scruff, a soldier's beard. Rather than meticulous curls, his follicles were trimmed close to the face, a no-fuss look that might have left him energy to focus on rallying his troops in Syria to hold off the advancing Sasanians and their gloriously bearded leader. Perhaps Alexander's beard was too short, as he could not quite lead his men to victory. Though he lost the battle, a final invasion never came from Ardashir, who instead focused his tresses on stabilizing his Sasanian legacy internally.

A silver coin with a man's head in profile on one side, wearing a crown. On the other side is a sigil of some sort, with a crowned eagle.

Beautiful beards were not just a favored accessory of antiquity. Humbart I of Italy chose to compliment his crown with the KING of all mustaches. The walrus (or the Sam Elliott) commands respect while hiding the true feelings mouths can convey. Humbart was a staunch supporter of the Triple Alliance with Austria-Hungary and Germany as well as the Italian imperial expansion into North Africa. He had dubious expansionist goals—much like how his mustache expanded past his mouth.

Two sides of a gold coin. A man stares at the viewer wearing some sort of military garb. On the reverse, there is text and circles.

A well-placed mustache can change the tides of war. General Maharaja Sir Ganga Singh sure proves that in my book. He had incredible precision, both in his finely waxed face fuzz and his leadership skills. Singh introduced a plethora of reforms to Bikaner, including legislation which stopped child marriages. Singh brought railways and electricity to his state and established a partially democratic system of elections for municipal positions. In his very first year as ruler, the general and maharaja dealt with the famine of 1899 by creating food programs and an irrigation system for his region. As the only non-white member of the British Imperial War Cabinet, Singh and his curled whiskers demonstrated to the rest of the world what revolutionary facial hair could inspire.

A silvery-bronze coin with a man sitting in profile crowned with leaves. On the opposite side there is an animal or a sigil that looks like an eagle, but the surface of the coin makes it hard to decipher

It seems obvious to me to conclude this list with a man whose facial hair was named for him! The Franz Joseph is a slight twist on the mutton chop, and has a more dignified and angular shape than the Winfield Scott. Joseph's diligently groomed locks mimicked his rigid and firm position as emperor of Austria, and king of Hungary, Croatia, and Bohemia. His strictly poised beard and understanding of his role as ruler made him a powerful leader. This mentality led to a contentious relationship with his nephew—and heir apparent—Franz Ferdinand. At the death of his nephew and the onset of World War I (which happened a century ago this year!) Joseph was, for the first time, forced to step back from leading. Joseph's grandnephew Charles I ascended the throne as the Great War began to spiral across the globe. Franz Joseph died within the year and his kingly tresses could no longer offer finely groomed rigidity to Europe.

Beards have and have had a prominent place in many militaries both past and present. This year's National Coin Week focusing on military themes in numismatics provides the perfect opportunity to use numismatics to explore the winners and losers of great historic battles based upon their facial hair of choice. To see more fabulous follicles check out my first facial hair blog post on Byzantine beards—it's alliterative and hairy, who doesn't love that?

Emily Pearce Seigerman is a museum specialist with the National Numismatic Collection. While she does not wear a beard herself, she was born into a bearded family, married a bearded man, and really enjoys schnauzers and German shorthaired pointers.

Posted Date: 
Wednesday, April 19, 2017 - 08:00
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An Easter Typhoon and Galactic Ghosts Are Among These Spacey Visions

Smithsonian Magazine

Astronauts spy on a super-typhoon, Mars sprouts black-and-white veins, Hubble spots green galaxy ghosts and more in our picks for this week's best space-related images.



Deep Eye


Seen from space, the eye of Typhoon Maysak looks like a sinkhole in the clouds above the Pacific Ocean. This image, taken by astronauts aboard the International Space Station, was snapped on March 31 while Maysak was a Category 5 storm. As of April 2, the super-typhoon had crossed the Federated States of Micronesia, where it caused five deaths, ruined crops and contaminated water supplies, according to the Sydney Morning Herald. A slightly weakened but still menacing Maysak is expected to make landfall in the Philippines over the Easter holiday weekend.

Martian Veins


Veins of mineral deposits jut out of the Martian surface in an area nicknamed Garden City in this recently released mosaic panorama from the Mars rover Curiosity. The two-toned veins are made of layers of light and dark material, some stacked together like ice-cream sandwiches, according to rover science team member Linda Kah. On Earth, such veins form when fluids flow through cracks in rock, leaving behind mineral deposits. The multi-hued nature of the Martian veins suggests that different types of fluids moved through the cracks at different points in time, so studying them could reveal more about the red planet's watery past.

Galaxy Ghosts

(NASA, ESA, and W. Keel (University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa))

Glowing green tendrils surround the galaxy known as NGC 5972—one of several galaxies recently shown to be haunted by the ghosts of their past meals. Images from the Hubble Space Telescope released on April 2 show similar loops and braids surrounding eight galaxies classified as quasars. These cosmic objects have supermassive black holes in their centers that are actively feeding on infalling matter, which gets so compressed and heated that it sends out bright radiation. Astronomers think the green wisps orbit quasars that used to be much more powerful, so that their beams of radiation charged up the distant filaments and made them glow. These quasars have since quieted down, but the green structures remain, serving as echoes of their former glory.

Cosmic Cat's Paw

(S. Willis (CfA); NASA/JPL-Caltech/SSC)

Gravity is usually the main player in the story of star birth: cool clouds of dust and gas collapse under their own weight and spark stellar formation. But new research from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics suggests magnetism also has a crucial supporting role. Using multiple observatories, the team examined dust in the Cat's Paw Nebula, a rich cloud of star-forming material about 5,500 light-years away. Since dust aligns with magnetic fields, the team could trace magnetic orientation in the nebula and get a sense of how it influences star birth at multiple scales. Their work, described online this week in Nature, shows that magnetism is involved in many stages, from shaping star-forming nebulae to regulating the material available for individual stars to blossom.

Gassy Babies


This artist's illustration shows baby stars blowing bubbles as they might look to the human eye in the star-forming region known as IRAS 16547-4247. Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) in Chile spotted the multiple gas outflows in radio data, which indicates that a cluster of high-mass stars is being born in the region. The births of very massive stars have been harder to study, because these stars form in shrouded clusters and are usually farther from Earth than their low-mass cousins, making it difficult to tease out details. But the recently completed ALMA observatory has better resolution than its predecessors, giving astronomers finer views of these kinds of complex systems.

Snow Trouble

(NASA Earth Observatory images by Jesse Allen, using data from the Level 1 and Atmospheres Active Distribution System (LAADS))

In the arid U.S. West, snowfall in the mountains acts like a freshwater savings account—melting snow trickles down the slopes to replenish rivers and reservoirs. But in California, troubles caused by ongoing drought are being compounded by a severe lack of snow in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Images from NASA's Aqua satellite show the drastic reduction in snowfall between 2010, the last year that saw average winter snowfall, and 2015. Data from NASA’s Airborne Snow Observatory show that the Tuolumne River Basin, which supplies water to San Francisco and its surrounding neighborhoods, contained only 40 percent of the water content the same region held in 2014, which was already one of the driest years in California's recorded history. 

This Former Noma Chef Is Revamping the School Cafeteria

Smithsonian Magazine

Dan Giusti trained at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America and spent three years as head chef of Noma, the cutting-edge Copenhagen restaurant that’s earned two Michelin stars and is considered by many the best restaurant in the world. Tables fill up months in advance, and lunch can easily run $500.

But now, Giusti is focused on cooking for a slightly different clientele: schoolkids. His program, Brigaid, brings professional chefs into public school cafeterias to create made-from-scratch menus. Brigaid launched in the New London, Connecticut school system in 2016 and expanded to the Bronx last fall.

We talked to Giusti about what he’s learned since the program started, how he hopes to change kids’ attitudes towards food, and why butternut squash soup is no longer on the menu.

What did you see as the biggest problem with school food when you decided to start Brigaid?

There’s this misconception—people think that [the problem with] school food is all about the nutrition. But all school food has to meet standard nutritional guidelines. The real problem is that the kids aren’t eating the food because it’s not tasty. In a nutshell, the idea was that the food doesn’t taste good, there’s not enough thought put into the food itself. If you could make food consistently that met the nutritional guidelines and the budget and that tasted very good to the kids, then you would be in great shape.

What are some of the changes you have made to the menu?

We took all those processed things—chicken nuggets, chicken tenders—and we put on raw meats we cook from scratch, so that we can control how they’re cooked and seasoned. We make all our own pasta sauces. We make a lot of baked goods ourselves. You’re not just appealing to a kids’ tastes when you’re cooking—kids can smell things that are happening. We serve them warm; it’s just a different experience.

Beef enchiladas with salsa roja, stewed black beans, kale caesar salad and fresh cut cantaloupe (Brigaid)

What is something that has been a hit with the kids?

It was such a simple thing, but we saw the consumption of fruit just spike up because we went from serving whole pieces of fruit that were not really good quality—kids weren’t interested in eating a whole apple that wasn’t very nice, or fruit that was frozen or canned—to serving fresh fruit that’s been cut daily. That really encouraged kids to eat fruit, which they really weren’t eating. Which was really strange because kids—most people—eat fruit. The baked goods we do, kids love. Certainly things that are more traditional like pizza—we make our own dough, and kids really love the pizza that we make. They recognize that a good amount of work goes into it. We do composed salads where we assemble a salad like a chicken Caesar or Cobb, and they just take it and put dressing on it. In a school of 700 or 800 kids we can sell 100 in a day. We like our kids wanting to eat salads, so that’s really cool.

What were some notable failures?

Things that didn’t work? There are tons. It’s a challenge. When we started, we had lots of kids inquire about fish. We managed to create a relationship with a purveyor out of Boston who supplied us with fresh fish. It was a pretty amazing thing, but just super-polarizing. A small percentage of kids enjoyed it, but a good portion of kids when they think fish, they think ‘fish sticks’—some kind of processed fish that’s breaded and fried. We’re not going to do that. If we revisit it, maybe there’s a way to mimic a fish stick.

We’ve done soups. Some soups are successful. But one soup was butternut squash that was pureed. Kids don’t want pureed soup. You find out when a kid spits it out on the ground.

A typical day of lunch offerings: Two hot entrées (chicken curry with ginger rice and roasted cauliflower or ravioli with marinara sauce, a garlic roll and steamed broccoli), two types of sandwiches (BLT and tuna), cold entrée salads (chicken caesar and cold lo mein), kale caesar side salad, and various fresh cut fruits (pineapple and honeydew melon). (Brigaid)

What was one of your unexpected challenges?

The challenging thing is not letting your own tastes get in the way. We made a lot of changes we thought were appropriate, and it made sense to take away processed foods. But sometimes those changes are deterrents. Taking a chicken patty off the menu that kids really enjoyed, because it’s a processed product, could really hurt you in terms of getting food that children will eat.

The biggest challenge, honestly, is that there’s a big discrepancy about the perception of what 'good' food is between parents, administrators, teachers, etc. People have this idea in their head, everything should be organic, everything should be this or that. But sometimes we serve very basic things because we want to make the kids feel comfortable, and sometimes people are disappointed about that, almost underwhelmed. It’s not about 'look what we got the kids to eat!' Lunch should be the last place that kids feel stressed out. We want to make sure the kids are eating, and that they feel good about it. If that’s happening, then we can use that environment to get them to try new things.

Public schools don't have the budgets of high-end restaurants. How do you keep costs down?

Well, it's a lot of experimenting. You kind of have to rethink how you cook. You need to find less expensive ways to develop and add flavor. For example, as a chef, you are very accustomed to using a lot of fresh herbs. We cannot really afford that, so instead we use a lot of dried spices and herbs.

How do you hope the program might change kids’ relationships to food in the long run?

Oftentimes, people are trying to get kids to really think deeply about things regarding food. Seasonal, local—that’s fine. But kids’ appetites for [learning about food culture] might not be there just yet. You need to sell them on the food first. Our idea is slowly but surely introducing new items so they trust you and they’ll continue to try things. We’ve seen this already with the kids that we’ve been with for three years. You can see that their attitude towards trying things or not trying things is much different than what we saw when we first came. They’re just experienced with eating.

The goal on a day-to-day basis is to make these kids feel comfortable and really provide them with a meal that makes them feel good and helps them get through their day.

Caribbean chicken with rice and beans, roasted sweet potatoes, kale caesar salad and orange segments (Brigaid)

You’re hiring trained chefs. What’s the appeal to them of working in a school cafeteria?

The initial appeal is that it’s weekends off, it might be a shorter day, you might have holidays off, which is a huge change from working in the hotel or restaurant industry. That’s a benefit, but by no means do we want people choosing this job solely for that reason. Chefs want a challenge—it’s their personality. To come day in and day out and solve a problem that’s very complicated.

What’s the difference between cooking for schoolkids and cooking for the kind of people who eat at restaurants like Noma?

I think the biggest difference is kids are honest. They have no reason not to be honest. They’ll tell you what they think, and sometimes they don’t have much of a filter and they say things that are difficult to hear. If you can get them to articulate why, you can really use that feedback. You can be upset about it, or take that and make improvements.

Adults, especially in a place like Noma, where people are waiting months to eat, it’s hard to get an honest opinion. They’ve waited all this time to eat in a restaurant, they’re there with their family, they don’t want to be the one who didn’t like the food because it’s almost like they feel they didn’t ‘get it.’

Do you remember eating in your own school cafeteria? Did you have any favorite dishes? Anything you hated?

I don’t even remember eating at all. I think it’s because for me, lunch was just a break period. At that time in my life food was very important—I came from an Italian family, I was used to eating well, and I was working in a restaurant full-time. But lunch was just a break period to talk to your friends. That’s indicative. If you don’t feel like food’s being prepared in a thoughtful manner, it’s just a break period.

I was fortunate to have access to good food outside of school. But there are a lot of kids who are coming to the cafeteria who don’t have access to good food—or food—outside of that lunch. So it’s even more imperative that we put as much of our thought into it as we can.

Is Bridj the Next Phase in How People Will Get Around Cities?

Smithsonian Magazine

In the realm of disruptive innovations, it’s hard to top ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. Seemingly overnight, they’ve replaced cabs, buses and subways as the ride of choice for a lot of people moving around cities. They’re doing what true disruptors do—they’re changing behavior.

But the concept that could shape the next phase of urban mobility comes from a startup that is considerably smaller and far less known.

It’s a Boston outfit called Bridj and its approach is kind of a cross between Uber and shuttle buses, with a pinch of old-fashioned jitney cabs. The company is part of a new urban trend known as “microtransit,” where multi-passenger vehicles have no fixed stops, but instead follow routes based on rider input. For Bridj, that means operating small fleets of passenger vans upon which people can reserve a spot with a mobile app. And those vans use real-time data to find routes that avoid the inevitable headaches that come with city traffic.

Matthew George, a young tech entrepreneur and Middlebury College graduate, founded Bridj in Boston in 2014. His vision is to collect tons of data about how people move around a city, then deploy a network of vehicles based on what that tells you. The company began operating in Washington, D.C. last year, but it’s a project starting up in Kansas City next month that may be key to how urban transportation evolves.

Public-private partners

What makes that endeavor, called “Ride KC: Bridj,” unique is that it will be done with the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority as a partner. Specifically, the people driving the Bridj vehicles will actually work for the transit agency. Ford is also a partner—it’s providing 10 new vans, each with free WiFi and room for as many as 14 passengers.

This may not seem like such a big deal. But it’s the first time in the U.S., a private ride-hailing operation—with a mobile app to order rides—will become tied into a city’s public transit system. If it works, expect the model to be copied in other cities as a way to offer people a more modern and flexible transportation option, one that takes advantage of much of the technology that has made Uber so popular.   

One big difference from Uber is that Bridj vehicles can carry a dozen or more people. Door-to-door service for that many passengers wouldn’t be very efficient. So, Bridj works a little differently. A person uses the company’s mobile app to reserve a space on the van, and a route is mapped out based on who has ordered rides on that shuttle. Some people may have to walk a few blocks to get to one of that van’s “pop-up” stations.

Once on board, riders are taken to one drop-off spot determined by all their requests. It might be a major public transit station or it could be a neighborhood where a lot of people work, say, at a university or a large medical center. The route may change from day to day, based on real-time data on traffic conditions, but the goal is to efficiently get people where they need to go.

No one knows yet if more people in Kansas City will use the service simply to hook into existing bus or streetcar lines—the city doesn’t have a subway—or if more will take the shuttles all the way to work. That’s what Bridj will be closely tracking during the year-long project.

One thing the company does know is that not many people in and around Kansas City take public transportation—U.S. Census Bureau data suggests that only 1 percent use it. It doesn’t help that, according to Bridj CEO Matt George, research has found only 18 percent of the jobs in the metropolitan area are within a 90-minute commute on public transportation.

Filling gaps

That’s a big hurdle. But the hope is that vans on demand will start filling gaps in the system, and ultimately encourage more people to stop driving their own cars. It’s been suggested, in fact, that this kind of service could most benefit mid-sized, spread-out cities like Kansas City, where there can be a lot of miles between where most people live and where they work.

Each trip will cost $1.50, payable by credit card through the mobile app. That’s the same as the basic fare on the city’s buses. But, to entice people to try the service, the transit authority is offering riders 10 free trips.

Whether that’s enough to get people to start changing their daily habits is yet to be determined. But it’s clear those running the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority know it’s time to try new ideas. While there may always be a place for some bus routes that haven’t changed in 50 years, today’s commuters—particularly the younger ones—expect much more. Much more personalization, more flexibility, more nimbleness.

In time, George suggests, a fleet of Bridj vans could go driverless. But that’s getting ahead of things. The goal now is to show how technology and algorithms can change how a transit system can function, and make it work for everyone in a city, no matter where they live.

The new carpool

There’s another ride-hailing study in the works, this one a joint undertaking of the University of California, Berkeley and the National Resources Defense Council. They are taking a close look at the claim by outfits like Uber and Lyft that they’re good for the environment because they take cars off the roads. Critics say the contrary is true, that ride-hailing has led to more and more vehicles cruising city streets. 

Do ride-hailing services encourage people to use public transportation more or less often? Does access to rides on demand actually motivate people to give up owning a car? Do people find themselves biking or walking less now that it’s easy to order a ride? The study will attempt to answer these questions.

The research will include both ridership surveys and rider data from Uber and Lyft, something those companies haven’t shared before. It will also focus on cities where “pool services,” such as UberPool and Lyft Line are now available. This feature, where people share rides at a lower cost, is a fast-growing part of the urban mobility mix, and researchers want to see what effect it may be having on how people are using—or not using—cars.

Finding Joy and Voice in Music: A Q&A with Sonia De Los Santos

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

Uniting Mexican heritage and life in the United States through song, marrying the folk music traditions of Latin and North America—this is what Sonia De Los Santos does best. She sings in Spanish and English, plays the jarana and the guitar. She reinvents and translates classic folk songs to pass on their messages to younger generations.

Born in Monterrey, Mexico, Sonia has always been interested in music. She moved to New York to pursue musical theater when a chance audition with Dan Zanes led her to tour with the group Dan Zanes and Friends. The opportunity opened the doors to folk music as well as to family music. During the time she toured with Dan Zanes, she learned how to perform for children and used that experience to make her own album.

In 2015, Sonia released her first album Mi Viaje: De Nuevo León to the New York Island, reflecting her journey from Mexico to the United States. She is currently touring the country promoting her second album, ¡Alegria! Through this album, Sonia wants to spread joy to the families across the country.

On Sunday morning, Sonia will bring her songs to the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, performing in Spanish, transforming and translating the classic songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. In this interview, she explains some inspirations and aspirations for her music.

What inspired your album ¡Alegria!?

The story behind ¡Alegria! (“joy!”) is an anecdote that my mom always tells me. She says, “Sonia, you were born with a smile on your face.” And my answer is always, “What? That’s not true! All babies are born crying.” And my mom was like, “No! I mean, yes, you cried a little bit, but it was very early on when you started to see the world around you and started smiling. You had a bright smile and you looked pretty obvious to be so happy that you were in the world.”

First, if my mom said I was born smiling, I’m going to believe her. Second, even if there are rainy days and things don’t go where you want them to be, which happens all the time for all of us, doesn’t matter how old you are, who says I can’t go back to that smile? I was born with that smile, so I know I can go back to that place in my heart and find joy anytime I want. I wanted to pass that idea out to people of all ages.

What’s your favorite song from your catalog?

“La Golondrina.” Golondrina means the “swallow bird.” It’s a migrant bird, and of course I identified with that bird. In the song, I tell the story of visiting my grandmother and sitting on her porch, watching these birds who are up in a little nest in the corner of her house and learning all about them. Then going back there and all of a sudden the birds are not there. They’re gone. My grandmother explains to me that they are migrant birds.

Many years later, I got inspired by that story to write this song, “La Golondrina.” It’s about my own journey being an immigrant in the United States.

Sonia De Los Santos
Sonia De Los Santos performs in the Txiki-Txoko children’s activities tent at the 2016 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Photo by Joe Furgal, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

What have you learned from performing for children?

If, fifteen years ago, you told me I was going to be in a kids’ band, the first thing I would think of is people all wearing the primary colors and dressed exactly the same, jumping around. Then being able to do with Dan Zanes for so many years, watching how organic his performance was, I learned a lot about that. I can be myself and be natural and tell stories of how I grew up and things I like to do, and get people singing. I’m excited about that.

It doesn’t have to be something that’s super high energy and everybody jumping at the same time. There can be some of that. At the beginning, I was concerned about retaining people’s attention, but I feel like the more relaxed I am and the more time I take to explain something and try to convey why a song is important to me, then people get interested and people can find a way in.

When you perform, what do you want the children listening to come away with?

A sense of possibility. First of all, you’re seeing a woman of color singing and playing an instrument and leading a band, singing in English and in Spanish. For young people to see that kind of representation I think is really important nowadays.

I spend time thinking of all of the messages that I say in my songs, how I present things, how I try to engage children to sing and play with each other. I think hard about those things. I want them to walk away with a sense of possibility and a sense of hope for the future.

Sonia De Los Santos
Sonia De Los Santos performs in the Txiki-Txoko children’s activities tent at the 2016 Smithsonian Folklife Festival.
Photo by Joe Furgal, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

What do you think music can do for others?

I think music is so powerful. I feel fortunate that I can pass on important messages through song. It gives me a voice, because if Sonia just stands somewhere and tries to say something, maybe it’s hard to get across, but if I have the opportunity to perform at a festival like this, it gives me space as an immigrant woman to share my story, to say I am here and this is what I believe in.

I want to honor the life of Pete Seeger and other folk icons that have done so much not just for the music of this country but to social issues that have shaped this country.

Catch Sonia De Los Santos at Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall at 11:30 a.m. on Sunday, June 30. The event is free and open to the public.

Malgorzata Mical is an intern at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and a senior at University of Florida, where she is studying English and Russian.

Why Are Superachievers So Successful?

Smithsonian Magazine

What does a Pulitzer Prize-winning war photographer have in common with a tennis legend? Or how about a celebrated opera diva and a Los Angeles civil rights lawyer? What does Alec Baldwin have in common with Yogi Berra?

A lot, says journalist Camille Sweeney, who, along with co-author Josh Gosfield, interviewed dozens of highly accomplished men and women for a new book, The Art of Doing: How Superachievers Do What They Do and How They Do It So Well. Whether someone is setting out to create one of the most popular blogs on the Internet, as Mark Frauenfelder did with BoingBoing, or to win a record amount of money on "Jeopardy!," people who accomplish amazing things rely on a particular collection of strategies to get to the top—and many of them are not what you’d expect.

Who is a superachiever?

Somebody at the top of their craft. Ken Jennings, for example, he didn’t just win on "Jeopardy!," he was the winningest contestant ever on "Jeopardy!"—he won 74 times. It’s the person who is going beyond success.

Do you think that the people you interviewed for the book are fundamentally different from the rest of us?

No! It’s interesting. I think when we started out I might have thought that. But after talking to them and really thinking about their lives, I don’t think that they’re different. When they arrived at what they thought they were going to be doing, they just kept at it. They kept up the energy. And when all the doubters and the haters were saying, “This isn’t going to work,” they didn’t listen. When they felt like they could learn something, they took what they could. It gave me hope that if you put your mind to something, you can be a superachiever. It takes a lot of work, and the work doesn’t stop. These people are pretty 24/7 about what they’re doing.

Your book includes profiles of a wide array of people—business gurus, scientists, actors, musicians, writers and athletes. How did you decide whom to include?

We always thought of our cast of characters as being the most fabulous dinner party you could go to. Anywhere you could sit, you would be getting information from people as disparate as high-wire artist Philippe Petit, dog whisperer Cesar Millan or the opera diva Anna Netrebko.

This is an eclectic group, but you discovered they all share several key strategies and personality traits. What are some of the common threads?

Probably the biggest is self-awareness—the ability to be self-questioning. I love to talk about Martina Navratilova. She had picked tennis up as a young girl and was playing extremely well, better than 99.9 percent of people worldwide ever played tennis. Yet, she was very inconsistent. She had this realization when [American tennis great] Chris Evert beat her, just a drubbing, that all along she was playing based on the assumption that talent and instinct alone was enough to get her to the top and keep her there. She realized that she was not in nearly the condition that she would need to be to be able to play consistently, so she started playing four hours every day. She transformed herself into a playing machine. Using this process of self-evaluation, she was able to get so much further than she would have had she not. She’s just one example, but we kept seeing this over and over again.

Superachievers might look like loners—at the top of the mountain, by themselves. But they all found ways to connect themselves to people who would support their dreams and their goals. Everybody had this skill of active listening, when you’re taking in what another person’s saying and processing it, listening for information that you’re going to put into action. That’s something that’s surprising for very successful people—you would imagine that they don’t want to be told (what to do), because they know everything. You wouldn’t think that Tony Hsieh, the CEO of, or Martina Navratilova, has to listen, but that is what they’re doing.

Another thing that these people had in common was patience—not something that you would normally associate with a hard-charging, successful person. We had a really good chat with Hélio Castroneves, the Indy 500 race car driver. When he was a young boy, his father got him into go-karting. He would get in there and he’d feel like he’d have to lead every lap and go as fast as he could and get to the end. His father kept saying, “Use your head.” By that, he meant, “You’ve got the passion and you’ve got the ambition, but temper that by knowing when to make the right move.” So, in one particular race, he literally held back and let another kart go in front of him so he could use all the energy that he had for that very last lap. Boom, he won the race. It was a wake-up call for him that he didn’t have to win every lap. recently interviewed a psychologist who argued that successful people often benefit from psychopathic tendencies. Did you detect any psychopaths among your subjects?

Well, I’m not a scientist. But I think what is interesting is [how psychopaths] manage emotions. Being really skillful at managing your emotions means you’re able to separate yourself and examine those emotions, feel them when they’re about to occur, and create a path for them to happen but not derail you. These people that I talked with, they’re really skilled at using their emotions. They’re able to use their frustration and their anger to propel them, to fuel action.

One thing that seemed conspicuously absent from your list was natural talent. How important do you think that is to success?

I think it is important, but I think you could have a really talented artist who never picks up a pen and draws. Certainly, the people that we talked to showed talent early on. But I think it’s what you do with that talent that makes all the difference. One of my favorite interviews was with Jessica Watson, the teenager who circumnavigated the globe alone [in a sailboat] in 2010. It was an idea she had when she was 11. She had no sailing background. There was no talent that she was pursuing. But at 11, Jessica got this idea that she could do it. So, her real talent became holding onto that dream. 

Are there any downsides to being a superachiever? Did these people have to make sacrifices to reach their goals?

I think one of the things with superachievers is that they’re very single-minded, very focused. They shape their life around their dreams or their goals, rather than the other way around. But to me, as long as you’re keeping the goal in mind and recognizing all of the sacrifices that goal is going to take, then I wouldn’t say there’s a downside.

Even if we aren’t superachievers, can regular people use these techniques and strategies in our own lives?

Absolutely. There is a process of doing everything. Superachievement may seem like this impenetrable block of success, this almost intimidating concept. But when you break it down into very small things, or patterns to the way somebody does something, you can grab it and absorb it right into your life. There is this exciting opportunity for people to start seeing the world through this different lens, whether you’re looking at the people we chose or people in your life.

You met so many people for this project—who was the most fun to interview?

Philippe Petit, the high-wire artist who walked between the World Trade Center towers. He’s full of anger and bravado. He has ideas about how you have to go straight into chaos in order to create art, risking his life by being up on the high wire. He has a lot of interesting techniques and strategies. One is he goes rock-jumping in riverbeds. If it’s slippery and mossy, he could fall and hit his head, so every time he moves to the next rock, he has a whole process of decision-making that he has to do very, very quickly.

There’s a lot of good advice in this book, but that’s probably one thing we shouldn’t try at home.

Exactly. No!

Pluto May Have Ice Volcanoes at the Bottom of Its Heart

Smithsonian Magazine

Colorful, craggy and decorated with a heart, Pluto has been flaunting its weirdness since it first came into focus in July. Now planetary scientists can add ice volcanoes to the tiny world's growing list of unexpected quirks.

Two mountains near the southern edge of the heart-shaped plains on Pluto appear to be volcanoes that once spewed a slurry of ices onto the surface. These so-called cryovolcanoes support the notion that cold, tiny Pluto is a far more active world than previously thought.

One icy peak, informally named Wright Mons, stands about two miles high. The other, Piccard Mons, is 3.5 miles high. Both are about 100 miles wide and have definite depressions at their tops. According to the team, the formations look a lot like shield volcanoes, akin to the Hawaiian island chain on Earth and Olympus Mons on Mars.

"We see nothing of this scale with a summit depression anywhere else in the outer solar system," Oliver White, a scientist with NASA's Ames Research Center in California, said today during a press briefing. "Whatever they are, they are definitely weird, and volcanoes may be the least weird hypothesis at the moment."

The finding comes from the New Horizons mission to Pluto, which conducted a flyby of the distant world in July. The probe gathered a wealth of data as it zoomed past Pluto, and not all of the information has even made it back to Earth. While the images in hand allowed the team to build 3D maps of Pluto's topography and spot the volcanoes, it's still unclear when these features might have been active and what would have driven their eruptions.

According to White, the team was fortunate to even see Piccard Mons because it sits in the twilight zone, near the day-night border in the New Horizons maps. Without enough of an atmosphere to scatter some light, the dim peak may have gone unnoticed. As it stands, Piccard is a harder mountain for teasing out details.

Mission scientists got a better view of Wright Mons, and they can see some light cratering on its slopes. That at least tells them that the volcanoes are somewhat older than the nearby craterless terrain of Sputnik Planum, the western lobe of the heart feature, which suggests it's been a while since the volcanoes were active.

Since Pluto is relatively small, heat from its initial formation must have vanished quickly. Instead, the team thinks that some radioactive material inside Pluto probably provided the heat needed to drive eruptions. You would not need much, says White--the known ices on Pluto are relatively volatile, and it would not take anywhere near as much energy to get them oozing out of a cryovolcano as we need to drive eruptions of molten rock on Earth.

He adds that finding two volcanoes together suggests that this region may have once hosted a volcanic plain, and more icy peaks may be lurking in the dark of Pluto's night side.

Wright Mons, a possible ice volcano on Pluto. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI)

The cryovolcanoes are arguably the coolest revelation in a parade of Pluto results being presented this week at the American Astronomical Society's Division of Planetary Sciences meeting in Maryland. 

"It's been four months past the flyby, and we can tell you that New Horizons gets an 'A' for exploration," says project leader Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute. "But I also think we get a couple 'Fs', and one of those is for predictability--Pluto is baffling us."

In addition to the possible volcanoes, the topography maps revealed tall scarps and other so-called expansion features--signs that Pluto may have a subsurface ocean of water that is expanding as it freezes. Other data from New Horizons show that Pluto's atmosphere is much more compact than previously thought, and that it is being stripped away by solar radiation at a rate thousands of times slower than predicted.

Also, studies of Pluto's small moons--Styx, Nix, Kerberos and Hydra--show that they are tilted on their sides and are spinning at wildly faster rates than thought. Hydra, the outermost moon, rotates so fast that a day lasts just 10 hours, and the other moons are not far behind. This dizzying dance is bizarre, because while impacts could have set these small moons spinning, gravitational tugs from Pluto and Charon should slow them down over time.

"We predicted that this system is chaotic," says Mark Showalter, a New Horizons team member at the SETI Institute. "I would describe this system not as chaos but pandemonium."

An animation of Pluto and its moons in action, based on the latest data from New Horizons. (NASA/JHUAPL/SwRI/Mark Showalter)

Now that New Horizons has sped past Pluto, mission members are making preparations for an encounter with another object out in the Kuiper belt. Dubbed 2014 MU69, this small body is thought to be a pristine relic from the birth of our solar system, a raw planetary building block that formed in the cloud of dust and gas leftover from the sun's birth.

The mission team has already pointed the spacecraft at 2014 MU69 and is waiting for news on whether they will have enough funding from NASA to continue the mission. In the meantime, they will continue to analyze the information that is still raining down from the spacecraft and present findings that will no doubt spark hearty debates among planetary scientists.

"New Horizons has put on quite the show for us, starting with the close encounter back in July," says Curt Niebur of NASA headquarters. "Today marks another exciting milestone: It marks the beginning of the process for figuring out what all this wonderful data means in the grand scheme of things."

Tennessee - History and Heritage

Smithsonian Magazine

With a rich tapestry of American heritage, Tennessee’s historical stomping grounds are sure to enlighten visitors while educating them on the state’s legendary past.

  • Three U.S. Presidents called Tennessee home: Andrew Johnson, James K. Polk and Andrew Jackson.
  • Sequyouh (a Cherokee Indian born in Vonore) created the Cherokee alphabet.
  • In 1960, Wilma Rudolph became the first American woman to earn three gold Olympic medals.
  • Memphian Clarence Saunders created the first grocery store chain: Piggly Wiggly.
  • Tennessean Jack Massey is the only person in American history to take three companies to the New York Stock Exchange: Kentucky Fried Chicken, Hospital Corporation of America and Winners, Corp.
  • The legendary David "Davy" Crockett was a Tennessean.
  • Carnton Plantation is home to McGavock Confederate Cemetery, the largest privately owned military cemetery in the nation and is the setting for the New York Times bestselling book, Widow of the South.
  • The Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville celebrated its bicentennial in 2007. A 30-acre historic site representing 200 years of Tennessee history, the Belle Meade Plantation features an antebellum mansion, frontier log cabin and seven outbuildings.

Museum and Monuments
Tennessee offers an abundance of cultural and historical museums and monuments.

Bicentennial Mall State Park
In the middle of the state, experience the 19-acre park that gives visitors a taste of Tennessee’s history and natural wonder: Bicentennial Mall State Park. Designed to serve as a lasting monument to Tennessee’s bicentennial celebration, the park includes a 200-foot granite state map that highlights the major roads, 95 counties, rivers and details of each county. The park also includes information on Tennessee’s railroading history and 31 vertical water fountains—reflective of each of the predominant waterways throughout the state.

The Cotton Museum (Memphis)
Further west, experience the business of one of the state’s keen crops: cotton. The Cotton Museum tells the story of the cotton industry, including its many influences on daily life. Located in the city that remains the epicenter of worldwide cotton trading—Memphis—the museum offers a variety of interpretive exhibits, educational programs and research archives.

American Museum of Science & Energy (Oak Ridge)
Science and history meet at the American Museum of Science & Energy in Oak Ridge in East Tennessee. A center for exploration dedicated to the World War II Manhattan Project history and the science that emerged from Oak Ridge, features live demonstrations, interactive exhibits and presentations.

Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art (Nashville)
Within its 55 acres, Nashville’s Cheekwood Botanical Garden & Museum of Art offers a complex institution rich in history, beautiful gardens and fine art. Each summer an outdoor life-size exhibit is on display in the gardens. The museum presents American and European art and is recognized as a center for contemporary art in the Southeast. Named to the National Register of Historic Places, the mansion and the original boxwood gardens are amazing works of architecture and design and the ideal setting for the gardens and art museum.

African American History
Throughout the state, there are dozens of attractions and festivals that showcase the impact African Americans have had on music, art and events that helped shape the world.

National Civil Rights Museum
The National Civil Rights Museum offers a comprehensive overview of the civil rights movement in thorough interpretive exhibits and profound audio visual displays. Housed at the site of the Lorraine Hotel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, the $8.8 million center serves as an educational institution designed to help visitors understand the civil rights movement and how it impacted other movements for social rights worldwide.

Beck Cultural Exchange Center (Knoxville)
Knoxville offers the Beck Cultural Exchange Center, which features the history of African Americans in Knoxville and East Tennessee from the late 1800s to the present. The historic information is displayed through photographs, newspapers, biographies, audio and video recordings, books and artwork.

Alex Haley Museum
Just 35 miles south of Memphis, African American history buffs will be fascinated by the ten-room bungalow that has been transformed into the Alex Haley Museum, the boyhood home of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Roots. In Henning, the house, which Haley proclaimed as the "birthplace of Roots," contains some of the 1919 furniture that belonged to Haley’s family. The museum includes memorabilia, family artifacts, a small gift shop and stands as Haley’s final resting place.

In Knoxville, there’s the magnificent statue honoring Haley. Designed for interaction, the statue is surrounded by a playground and city park. Created by internationally acclaimed sculptor Tina Allen, the statue depicts Haley, who spent the last 14 years of his life in East Tennessee, gazing toward the Smoky Mountains.

Hadley Park
Middle Tennessee celebrates its African American heritage with such attractions as Hadley Park, established in 1912 and believed to be the first park for African Americans in the United States. The 34-acre park stands on part of the antebellum plantation of John L. Hadley, a European American slave-owner committed to helping post civil war freed men and women adjust to their new status. At Hadley’s invitation Frederick Douglass spoke to former slaves in 1873 from the porch of the Hadley house, which stood in this park until 1948.

Fisk University
Fisk University was founded in 1866 as one of the first private educational institutions offering a secondary liberal arts curriculum to freed slaves. Fisk University features the world famous Fisk Jubilee Singers—the original nine of whom introduced slave songs to the world in 1871 and were instrumental in preserving the American musical tradition known today as Negro spirituals. During an international tour, the singers collected enough funds to construct the first permanent structure in the country solely built for the education of newly freed slaves, Jubilee Hall, which is the oldest and most distinctive building on the school’s campus. The historically black college in Nashville is currently under the leadership of its 14th president, Hazel O’Leary, former Secretary of Energy under President Clinton.

Civil War
Tennessee’s Civil War history is rich, as the state ranks number one in the total number of soldiers who fought in the War Between the States. After the war began, Tennessee became the last of 11 states to secede from the Union. The bloodiest two-day battle of the entire Civil War was fought in Chattanooga, with a staggering 37,000 casualties. More Civil War battles were fought in Tennessee than in any other state except Virginia.

Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park
In Chattanooga, take a walk in the shoes of 124,000 Civil War soldiers through the Chickamauga Battlefield. The Chickamauga-Chattanooga National Military Park is still the largest of its kind in the nation, with districts at the Chickamauga Battlefield, Point Park and Lookout Mountain Battlefield, Missionary Ridge, Orchard Knob and Signal Point.

Fort Negley
Fort Negley, originally built in 1862, is one of the largest fortifications built by Union troops residing in Nashville during the Civil War. Black laborers assisted the Union Army in building Fort Negley, which reopened to the public in December 2004 after a $1 million restoration. The unique, star-designed Union fort from the Civil War is located between Greer Stadium and the Adventure Science Center near downtown Nashville.

Shiloh National Military Park
Established in 1894 to commemorate the scene of the first major battle in the Western theater of the Civil War, Shiloh National Military Park is considered one of the best preserved battlefields in the nation. The two-day battle, which involved about 65,000 Union and 44,000 Confederate troops, resulted in nearly 24,000 killed, wounded and missing. The park has within its boundaries the Shiloh National Cemetery along with the well-preserved prehistoric Indian mounds that are listed as a historic landmark.

Carter House
The Carter House, built in 1830 by Fountain Branch Carter, was the stage of the Second Battle of Franklin—one of the worst disasters of the Civil War for the Confederate Army. This Registered Historic Landmark was used as a Federal Command Post while the 23 members of the Carter family hid in the cellar during the five-hour battle.

Carnton Plantation
Just down the road, John and Carrie McGavock opened the doors of their Carnton Plantation as a field hospital for the wounded Confederates during the Battle of Franklin. In 1866, the McGavock’s, concerned about the conditions of the Confederate dead who had been buried in shallow graves where they fell, designated land near their family cemetery for the re-interment of nearly 1,500 Confederate soldiers. Today, the McGavock Confederate Cemetery is the largest privately owned military cemetery in the nation. Don’t miss the riveting tale of Carrie McGavock in Robert Hicks’s debut novel, The Widow of the South.

How the Lowly Mosquito Helped America Win Independence

Smithsonian Magazine

In recent months, millions of Aedes aegypti mosquitos have been at work spreading the Zika virus in South and Central America. This summer, millions more, all capable of conveying the virus, will flit and bite throughout the southern United States. Congress just approved funding to battle its spread. This is not the first time a mosquito-borne virus has broken loose in the Americas and it will not likely be the last. Indeed, mosquitoes and viruses have shaped the history of our hemisphere in surprising ways for centuries.

Before 1492, Aedes aegypti did not live in the Americas. It came from West Africa as part of the Columbian Exchange, probably on ships of the transatlantic slave trade. The mosquito gradually colonized those parts of the Americas that suited its feeding and breeding requirements, and for centuries served as the primary carrier for yellow fever and dengue, viruses that are cousins of Zika.

Aedes aegypti is a peculiar and fussy mosquito. It has a strong preference for human blood—rare but not unique among mosquitoes—which makes it an efficient spreader of human disease. It lays its eggs in artificial water containers such as pots, cans, barrels, wells or cisterns. This preference for human activities distinguishes it from the thousands of other mosquito species. Aedes aegypti is, in effect, a domesticated animal.

Together these mosquitos and their fevers decided the fate of empires. In 1697 the kingdom of Scotland attempted to establish a trading colony on the Caribbean shore of Panama. New Caledonia was intended to position Scots to take advantage of Pacific and Atlantic trade networks. A large share of the liquid capital of Scotland and 2,500 eager volunteers went into the effort. Within two years, however, some 70 percent of the Scots were dead of “fever.” The Scots’ immune systems were unprepared for yellow fever, dengue and malaria—any or all of which might have attacked them—and they paid the price. So did Scotland, which in 1707 accepted union with England partly to pay debts incurred by the disaster.

These tiny mosquitos and their tinier viruses helped to undermine the grand plans of empires in the Americas for the next century. In 1763, France had just lost Canada in war to Britain and hoped to regain its position in the Americas with a new colony in what is now French Guiana. Some 11,000 hopeful souls were recruited from France and elsewhere in Europe. Like the hapless Scots, their immune systems had no previous experience with yellow fever or dengue (and in most cases none with malaria either). They too sailed into prime Aedes habitat. Within 18 months, 85 to 90 percent of them had died from disease, with yellow fever playing the largest role.

The British also lost thousands of troops to mosquito-borne fevers. They tried to take the Spanish strongholds of Cartegena (Colombia) and Santiago de Cuba in 1741 and ’42, but gave up after diseases killed most of their soldiers. Twenty years later, in another war, yellow fever proved a disaster when they finally took Havana. The lexicographer and man of letters Samuel Johnson wrote, “May my country never be cursed with another such conquest!” At the subsequent peace conference, Britain eagerly handed Havana back to Spain.  

By the end of the 18th century, the mosquitoes were not just intervening in imperial schemes, they were helping the Americas win their liberty. Yellow fever and malaria ravaged European armies sent to prevent revolution in what is now Haiti and Venezuela, leading to the creation of independent countries.  

Even the U.S. owes its independence in part to mosquitoes and malaria. In 1780, the southern colonies, a region with widespread malaria, became a decisive theater in the American Revolution. British troops had almost no experience with malaria, and thus no resistance to it. American militiamen, and much of the Continental Army, had grown up in the South and faced malaria every summer of their lives. So in the summer of 1780, the British Army hosted its own malaria epidemic, which was particularly intense in the South Carolina Lowcountry. At times, half the British Army was too sick to move. No one knew that mosquitoes carried malaria, and the British did not have the means to combat it.

In 1781, the British commander in the South, Lord Cornwallis, decided to move his army north, into the hills of Virginia, in order to avoid “the fatal sickness which so nearly ruined the army” the summer before. His superiors, however, ordered him to move to the tidewater, and so in June, Cornwallis dug in at Yorktown. 

In the warm months, mosquitoes (including a malaria vector species called Anopheles quadrimaculatus) started to bite and by late summer of 1781, malaria had taken hold of his army once again. Some 51 percent of his men were too sick to stand duty, unable to conduct the counter-siege operations that Cornwallis knew were required. American and French forces penned the troops in until Cornwallis surrendered in October, which in effect decided the outcome of the American Revolution. 

The Continental Army and its French allies stayed healthy until the surrender, mainly because they had only recently arrived in Virginia (from New England) and malaria had not had time to do its worst. (Many of them were also resistant from prior experience with malaria). Thus, mosquitoes and malaria helped win American independence.

Mosquitoes only lost their political importance after medical researchers realized that they were spreading the fevers. The first to publish the idea that Aedes aegypti could carry yellow fever was a Cuban doctor, Carlos Finlay. U.S. military doctors led by Walter Reed confirmed Finlay’s hypothesis. Armed with this knowledge, when the U.S. Army occupied Cuba (after 1898) and Panama (after 1903) they made life miserable for Aedes aegypti—covering up water containers and putting a drop of kerosene into those without covers. Within a couple of years, mosquito control had banished yellow fever from Cuba and Panama’s Canal Zone.

Over the next 70 years or so, mosquito control acquired ever more weapons. Insecticides, such as DDT—brought to bear in the 1940s—proved deadly to all mosquitoes (and many other creatures too). Aedes aegypti, because of its fondness for human settlements, fell victim to spraying campaigns more easily than did most other mosquitoes.

But Aedes aegypti control proved too successful for its own good. Once the mosquito populations had fallen drastically, and the risk of yellow fever and dengue diminished, the logic of paying for continued mosquito control weakened. Budgets were redirected away from mosquito control all over the Americas. On top of that, the nasty side effects of DDT and other insecticides became well known in the 1960s.

Had the Zika virus come to the Americas in the 1930s or 1950s its prospects would have been poor—Aedes aegypti was under control. But since the 1980s Aedes aegypti has made a dramatic comeback in the Americas. While the main reason is the lapse in mosquito control, another reason is the warming climate, which slowly extends the range of the mosquito. Today, Zika’s chances of spreading widely among human populations via Aedes aegypti are far greater. And it will have help from Aedes albopictus, another mosquito capable of transmitting the virus, which arrived from East Asia in the 1980s. Aedes albopictus has a wider range in the U.S. than Aedes aegypti and potentially could spread Zika to more northerly states. Fortunately it is less efficient as a disease vector.

Combatting Zika will require mosquito control, and the political difficulty that arouses shows a defiant aspect of the American character to which mosquitoes and malaria gave free rein. Malaria may have helped Americans win the revolution in 1780-81, but their descendants cherish their liberty and say, in effect, "don't tread on me" when told to cover water containers. Any attempt to spray pesticides in our democracy quickly excites opposition. Eventually, perhaps, a vaccine will sideline Zika, but until then these coming summers give the virus a chance to run amok and mosquitos to again make history.

John R McNeill is professor of history at Georgetown University. His book Mosquito Empires: Ecology and War in the Greater Caribbean 1620-1914, won the 2010 Albert J. Beveridge Award from the American Historical Association.

Inside Every Frog's Mouth Is a Sticky, Grabby Bullet

Smithsonian Magazine

How does one get stuck studying frog tongues? Our study into the sticky, slimy world of frogs all began with a humorous video of a real African bullfrog lunging at fake insects in a mobile game. This frog was clearly an expert at gaming; the speed and accuracy of its tongue could rival the thumbs of texting teenagers.

Further YouTube research yielded amazing videos of frogs eating micetarantulas and even other frogs.

The versatile frog tongue can grab wet, hairy and slippery surfaces with equal ease. It does a lot better than our engineered adhesives—not even household tapes can firmly stick to wet or dusty surfaces. What makes this tongue even more impressive is its speed: Over 4,000 species of frog and toad snag prey faster than a human can blink.

What makes the frog tongue so uniquely sticky? Our group aimed to find out.

Early modern scientific attention to frog tongues came in 1849, when biologist Augustus Waller published the first documented frog tongue study on nerves and papillae—the surface microstructures found on the tongue. Waller was fascinated with the soft, sticky nature of the frog tongue and what he called “the peculiar advantages possessed by the tongue of the living frog…the extreme elasticity and transparency of this organ induced me to submit it to the microscope.”

Fast-forward 165 years, when biomechanics researchers Kleinteich and Gorb were the first to measure tongue forces in the horned frog Ceratophrys cranwelli. They found in 2014 that frog adhesion forces can reach up to 1.4 times the body weight. That means the sticky frog tongue is strong enough to lift nearly twice its own weight. They postulated that the tongue acts like sticky tape or a pressure-sensitive adhesive—a permanently tacky surface that adheres to substrates under light pressure.

Frog tongue holding up a petri dish just with its stickiness. (Alexis Noel/Georgia Tech, CC BY-ND)

To begin our own study on sticky frog tongues, we filmed various frogs and toads eating insects using high-speed videography. We found that the frog’s tongue is able to capture an insect in under 0.07 seconds, five times faster than a human eye blink. In addition, insect acceleration toward the frog’s mouth during capture can reach 12 times the acceleration of gravity. For comparison, astronauts normally experience around three times the acceleration of gravity during a rocket launch.

Thoroughly intrigued, we wanted to understand how the sticky tongue holds onto prey so well at high accelerations. We first had to gather some frog tongues. Here at Georgia Tech, we tracked down an on-campus biology dissection class, who used northern leopard frogs on a regular basis.

The plan was this: Poke the tongue tissue to determine softness, and spin the frog saliva between two plates to determine viscosity. Softness and viscosity are common metrics for comparing solid and fluid materials, respectively. Softness describes tongue deformation when a stretching force is applied, and viscosity describes saliva’s resistance to movement.

Determining the softness of frog tongue tissue was no easy task. We had to create our own indentation tools since the tongue softness was beyond the capabilities of the traditional materials-testing equipment on campus. We decided to use an indentation machine, which pokes biological materials and measures forces. The force-displacement relationship can then describe softness based on the indentation head shape, such as a cylinder or sphere.

When the indentation head pulls away from the tongue, it adheres and stretches. (Alexis Noel/Georgia Tech, CC BY-ND)

However, typical heads for indentation machines can cost $500 or more. Not wanting to spend the money or wait on shipping, we decided to make our own spherical and flat-head indenters from stainless steel earrings. After our tests, we found frog tongues are about as soft as brain tissue and 10 times softer than the human tongue. Yes, we tested brain and human tongue tissue (post mortem) in the lab for comparison.

For testing saliva properties, we ran into a problem: The machine that would spin frog saliva required about one-fifth of a teaspoon of fluid to run the test. Sounds small, but not in the context of collecting frog spit. Amphibians are unique in that they secrete saliva through glands located on their tongue. So, one night we spent a few hours scraping 15 dead frog tongues to get a saliva sample large enough for the testing equipment.

How do you get saliva off a frog tongue? Easy. First, you pull the tongue out of the mouth. Second, you rub the tongue on a plastic sheet until a (tiny) saliva globule is formed. Globules form due to the long-chain mucus proteins that exist in the frog saliva, much like human saliva; these proteins tangle like pasta when swirled. Then you quickly grab the globule using tweezers and place it in an airtight container to reduce evaporation.

After testing, we were surprised to find that the saliva is a two-phase viscoelastic fluid. The two phases are dependent on how quickly the saliva is sheared, when resting between parallel plates. At low shear rates, the saliva is very thick and viscous; at high shear rates, the frog saliva becomes thin and liquidy. This is similar to paint, which is easily spread by a brush, yet remains firmly adhered on the wall. Its these two phases that give the saliva its reversibility in prey capture, for adhering and releasing an insect.

How does soft tissue and a two-phase saliva help the frog tongue stick to an insect? Let’s walk through a prey-capture scenario, which begins with a frog tongue zooming out of the mouth and slamming into an insect.

During this impact phase, the tongue deforms and wraps around the insect, increasing contact area. The saliva becomes liquidy, penetrating the insect cracks. As the frog pulls its tongue back into the mouth, the tissue stretches like a spring, reducing forces on the insect (similar to how a bungee cord reduces forces on your ankle). The saliva returns to its thick, viscous state, maintaining high grip on the insect. Once the insect is inside the mouth, the eyeballs push the insect down the throat, causing the saliva to once again become thin and liquidy.

It’s possible that untangling the adhesion secrets of frog tongues could have future applications for things like high-speed adhesive mechanisms for conveyor belts, or fast grabbing mechanisms in soft robotics.

Most importantly, this work provides valuable insight into the biology and function of amphibians—40 percent of which are in catastrophic decline or already extinct. Working with conservation organization The Amphibian Foundation, we had access to live and preserved species of frog. The results of our research provide us with a greater understanding of this imperiled group. The knowledge gathered on unique functions of frog and toad species can inform conservation decisions for managing populations in dynamic and declining ecosystems.

While it’s not easy being green, a frog may find comfort in the fact that its tongue is one amazing adhesive.

Rare Forest Elephants Seen for the First Time in South Sudan

Smithsonian Magazine

The world's youngest country is now home to Africa's smallest and most endangered elephants.

Wild forest elephants (Loxodonta cyclotis) have been scientifically documented for the first time in South Sudan, researchers from Bucknell University and Fauna & Flora International (FFI) announced this week.

The researchers spotted the critically endangered pachyderms, which are smaller than their more famous savannah cousins, using camera traps set up in South Sudan's Western Equatoria state, a region of densely forested hills near the borders of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Central African Republic.

The elephants weren't the only surprise. A total of 37 species appeared in the images, including four more species never before documented in South Sudan: an elusive African golden cat, a water chevrotain (sort of like a tiny deer), red river hogs and a giant pangolin.

The cameras also picked up previously known South Sudanese species, such as chimpanzees, leopards, forest buffalo, bongo antelope and honey badgers. Such a cornucopia is the product of Western Equatoria's unique position in South Sudan, where the Congo Basin meets the flat savannahs of the Horn of Africa.

"You sort of have the fauna and flora of West and Central Africa meeting the fauna and flora of East Africa," explains Bucknell biology professor DeeAnn Reeder. "They sort of crash together in this place, it's a transition zone if you will, and that sets it up to be really biodiverse."

The thriving forest wildlife is good news for South Sudan, a five-year-old country that hopes to someday promote wildlife tourism but is mired in a brutal civil war. Since the war broke out in December 2013, 50 percent of elephants collared by the Wildlife Conservation Society are believed killed, bringing estimates for the country's total elephant population down to just 2,500 individuals. The hunting was likely done by soldiers and civilians alike hunting wildlife for sustenance amid near-famine conditions.

The discovery is also good news for forest elephants generally. Across Africa, over 60 percent of the animals disappeared between 2002 and 2011 amid intense poaching pressure, according to a 2013 survey published in PLOS ONE. South Sudan is far to the north and east of forest elephants' previously known range, which opens the possibility that the animals inhabit large tracts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in between.

"Forest elephants are already critically endangered—they're really under fire," says Reeder, who co-led the camera-trap investigation. "We've just significantly extended their range to the east. If you look at 2013, of where forest elephants remain, they're nowhere near this part [of Africa]."

Image by FFI & Bucknell University. A bongo antelope wanders into the view of a camera trap in South Sudan. (original image)

Image by FFI & Bucknell University. This honey badger don't care that it was caught by a camera trap in South Sudan. (original image)

Image by FFI & Bucknell University. Red river hogs shuffle through the underbrush in South Sudan. (original image)

Image by FFI & Bucknell University. An African golden cat walk along a trail in South Sudan's Western Equatoria forests. (original image)

Image by FFI & Bucknell University. A giant pangolin hurries past one of the South Sudan camera traps. (original image)

Image by FFI & Bucknell University. The camera traps caught a family of up to eight forest elephants in South Sudan. (original image)

Image by FFI & Bucknell University. A leopard stalks through the grass of Western Equatoria. (original image)

Image by FFI & Bucknell University. A chimpanzee walks across a log in South Sudan. (original image)

Image by FFI & Bucknell University. A ranger and a wildlife ambassador set up a camera trap in the South Sudan forest. (original image)

To find the elephants and other animals, Reeder and her colleagues assembled a team of South Sudanese wildlife rangers and "wildlife ambassadors" drawn from local communities. They set up 23 camera traps across some 3,100 square miles of Western Equatorian forest.

After six months, the team checked the photos and found images of a family of up to eight forest elephants lumbering through the forest, standing in the rain and eyeballing the camera.

"Thousands and thousands of photographs you're looking through, and then the first one is an elephant looking through a frame," says Reeder's co-leader Adrian Garside of FFI. "Absolutely amazing."

Savannah elephants (Loxodonta africana) also roam Western Equatoria, but Reeder says the elephants in the images had telltale forest-type characteristics: smaller size, tusks pointing straight down, rounded ears and a uniquely shaped head. She showed the photos to colleagues for further corroboration, and dung samples collected for DNA tests await export approval.

Persistent wars since the 1950s have restricted scientists from accessing the area that is now South Sudan to study what lives there. Reeder only started researching in the region in 2008, three years after the end of a 22-year civil war.

The area's continued instability also means species remain at risk. In Western Equatoria, illegal logging is the greatest threat to wildlife survival, but poachers aren't far off either. Armed ivory trafficking gangs—some linked to South Sudan's army and the Ugandan rebel group the Lord's Resistance Army—reportedly operate just across the western border.

And a recent increase in fighting between South Sudan's rebels and its government could create opportunities for further criminal activity and force civilians to hunt more wildlife for survival.

For these reasons, the researchers have been careful not to release any details about where the forest elephants were spotted in Western Equatoria's 30,600 square miles. They continue to work with South Sudan's wildlife conservation ministry training dozens of rangers and educating hunting communities about which animals need protection.

Reeder says she's also cautious not to draw the conclusion that the new South Sudanese population means forest elephants are now less threatened.

"This doesn't in any way say forest elephants aren't really endangered," Reeder says. "It extends the range where we need to have protective measures."

Still, given the steady stream of depressing news coming from South Sudan over the past two years, finding so many unique species thriving despite the chaos is a glimmer of hope.

"The whole of South Sudan was one of the most phenomenal areas for wildlife," says Garside. "In the course of civil wars that was depleted considerably, but what we are discovering is there are these little pockets left in South Sudan and in this region where there is significant wildlife. ... There's hope for the future."

The Life and Times of a Maine Island

Smithsonian Magazine

An island is a special place, often invested by both its residents and outside observers with an identity, a life and a personality. People talk and whisper, defend and attack, brag and condemn an island as if the landmass were a friend, family member or nemesis.

I don't know why islands inspire such personification or generate such strong opinions. Some people, including friends and relatives of mine, have stepped off the shores of Long Island and never again returned. Others leave for several years before coming back. And still others leave, but no matter how young they were when they sailed, they still consider it "down home."

For me, even more than an island or a hometown, Long Island is a family and a heritage. I was born an eighth-generation islander. I am unapologetically proud to say my family built the island community and has helped sustain it for going on 200 years.

The family flourished and failed and feuded on the shores of Long Island. They were keen business operators, tireless workers, layabouts, bandits, alcoholics, church workers, community leaders, detached, mean, congenial and fun-loving along the banks of a harbor that bears the family name and on hillsides that contain the bodies of their forebears.

It is a heritage that to people from other states sometimes inspires a certain amount of intrigue, bewilderment and snobbery. The myths, both positive and negative, about islands—and Maine itself, for that matter—are legion. Residents of both are alternately portrayed as crusty fisherman, sturdy woodsmen, wizened sages or drunken, backward hicks.

Certainly, some spiritual justification exists for all this. An island does seem to possess, and can potentially lose, a unique life force. Some 300 year-round Maine island communities, although many consisted of no more than a few families, have died over the past century or so. Yet, more than 250 years after it first appeared on nautical charts and nearly two centuries after settlers built the first log cabins, Long Island survives. Out "amid the ocean's roar," as one writer put it, Long Island is one of only 15 Maine islands that still support a year-round community. And it is one of the smallest and most remote.

The island itself lies in Blue Hill Bay roughly eight miles southwest of Mount Desert Island, but a world away from the tourist-driven economy of Bar Harbor and the posh estates of Northeast Harbor and Seal Harbor.

The working-class village surrounding Bass Harbor is the closest mainland port and the one most frequently used by Long Islanders. On the run from Bass Harbor to Long Island, three main islands are clustered in the first four miles: Great Gott Island, Placentia Island and Black Island. All three once supported year-round communities, but now Great Gott has summer residents only, Black has one house and Placentia is abandoned.

Because of its spot along the outermost line of Maine islands, Long Island was usually called Outer Long Island and sometimes Lunt's Long Island in the 1800s to distinguish it from a similarly named island closer to Blue Hill. Starting in the 1890s, the village on the island became known as Frenchboro, named after a Tremont lawyer who helped establish the island's first post office.

The community of about 70 year-round residents sits on or near the sloping banks of Lunt Harbor, a long horseshoe-shaped inlet that provides protection from all weather but a northeast wind. The sheltered and accessible harbor is one reason why Long Island has survived while other island communities have died.

Lunt Harbor opens toward Mount Desert Island with the Mount Desert hills looming ghostlike on the horizon. On summer nights, you can sit on a wharf and watch headlights from cars full of tourists as they climb to the peak of Cadillac Mountain, high above Acadia National Park.

The banks make sharply away from Lunt Harbor, providing a perch for mostly modest homes to sit in quiet observance of the daily goings and comings.

Image by Dean Lawrence Lunt. Lobster boats (original image)

Image by Dean Lawrence Lunt. Eastern Beach on Frenchboro, Long Island (original image)

The island has just over one mile of paved road that starts at the ferry pier and runs around the cove to Lunt & Lunt Lobster Co., the island's only full-time business. Along the way, the road passes the Frenchboro Post Office, the Frenchboro Historical Society, Becky's Boutique, the Long Island Congregational Church and the Frenchboro Elementary School. The church and school were built in 1890 and 1907 respectively. There is no general store.

Leaving the harbor, paths and dirt roads wind through sometimes-pristine spruce forests, past bogs, lichen-covered ledges and small mossy patches where evergreen branches have given way to occasional glimpses of sunlight. There is little warning before these paths empty onto the island's granite shores, and suddenly the confining, sometimes claustrophobic woods give way to the mighty Atlantic.

The main trails are actually old logging roads. These dirt roads run to Eastern Beach, the Beaver Pond, Southern Cove and partway to Richs Head, the island's most distinguishing geographic feature and its easternmost point. The roundish Head, connected to the main island by a narrow neck of rocks, is exposed to the open sea.

Settled by William Rich and his family in the 1820s, Richs Head hosted the island's only other village for almost 80 years. It was abandoned by the turn of the century. Only the slight depressions of hand-dug cellars near former farmland suggest that three generations of pioneers lived, worked and raised families there.

I find it strangely sad to read about the historic deaths of the once common island communities, killed by progress and a changing way of life, during the 19th and early 20th century. Many have vanished without a trace. Some days, as I stand in my father's lobster boat and sail past the now deserted Placentia and Black Islands and even the summer colony of Great Gott Island in Blue Hill Bay, I am enveloped by a sense of melancholy.

On Black, I envision the railways that once carried granite from quarries to waiting vessels. I imagine old man Benjamin Dawes, an island pioneer in the early 1800s, ambling across the shore to his fishing boat. Or my great great great grandmother, Lydia Dawes, building castles as a child on the sandy beach along Black Island pool. Knowing a community once existed makes the island seem even older and more lifeless—like the once-bustling house on the corner that stands silent and empty, save for drawn curtains and dusty dishes stacked in cobwebbed cupboards. You just know that life will never return.

I no longer live in Frenchboro; college, work and life have carried me across New England and New York to explore other places for awhile. This exploration has been fun and enlightening and no doubt provided some clarity to island life, something to which I someday will return. Still, for nearly 23 years Long Island fit me like a second skin. I knew its landscape by touch, smell and intuition. From the well-trodden woods behind my house to the deer paths that wound through huckleberry bushes to the Salt Ponds to the tumbled beach rocks of Big Beach, I knew the land. I knew the smell of moss, the hidden brooks, the cracked ledges, the shoreline and the unique trees. I was baptized in the harborside church, educated in the one-room school, consumed by daydreams on Lookout Point and engaged on the sloping granite of Gooseberry Point.

For two months in July and August, Lunt Harbor is filled with yachts, their passengers taking advantage of the relatively easy and scenic walking trails. Or they might just sit and soak in the nighttime quiet broken only by the lapping of water against hull or the occasional clanging of Harbor Island bell.

On such crisp island evenings, which require sweatshirts even in August, you can look up into the clear night sky, and see more stars than you ever knew existed. In fact, they seem so numerous and hang so close it seems you can almost reach out and touch Heaven itself.

This is an adaptation from chapter one, "Long Island Maine," of the book, Hauling by Hand: The Life and Times of a Maine Island by Dean Lawrence Lunt (paperback), Islandport Press, 2007.

Jim Crow Compounded the Grief of African American Mothers Whose Sons Were Killed in World War I

Smithsonian Magazine

In the summer of 1930, Mrs. Louise Kimbro, a 57-year-old African American woman from Columbus, Ohio, boarded a train for New York City. She was one of 6,685 women who accepted the government’s invitation to join the Gold Star Mothers and Widows pilgrimage between 1930 and 1933. Her son, Private Martin A. Kimbro, had died of meningitis in May 1919 while serving with a U.S. Army labor battalion in France, and his body lay buried in one of the new overseas military cemeteries. Now she would see his grave for the first time.

The journey was enabled by legislation signed by President Calvin Coolidge on March 2, 1929, just before he left office. It authorized mothers and unmarried widows of deceased American soldiers, sailors, and marines buried in Europe to visit their loved ones’ final resting places. All reasonable expenses for their journey were paid for by the nation.

Newspapers promoted the democratic spirit of the event, reminding the public that all the women, regardless of religion, social status, income, or place of birth, were guests of the U.S. government and would be treated equally. In early 1930, however, President Herbert Hoover’s administration announced that “in the interests of the pilgrims themselves,” the women would be divided into racially separate groups but that “no discrimination whatever will be made.” Every group would receive equal accommodation, care and consideration.

Hoover’s staff did not anticipate the political backlash awaiting the War Department once these intentions were revealed. Inviting African American women to participate on these terms required their acquiescence to the same segregated conditions under which their sons and husbands had served during the war. The ensuing protest by the black community, though largely forgotten today, prefigured events from the civil rights movement decades later.

Walter White, executive secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), held a press conference in New York City just as the first ship carrying white women to the cemeteries was sailing out of the nearby harbor. He explained that his organization had written to all eligible black Gold Star mothers and widows encouraging them to boycott the pilgrimage if the government refused to change its segregation policy.

Consequently, hundreds of cards were sent to the secretary of war with signatures protesting the government’s plan, along with a separate letter directed to the president, vehemently objecting to the proposal. Signed petitions from around the nation began arriving at the War Department, claiming that “the high principles of 1918 seemed to have been forgotten.” Others reminded policy makers that “colored boys fought side by side with the white and they deserved the due respect.”

Gold Star Pilgrims with Col. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. (center) aboard ship in 1931. Although nearly 1,600 African American mothers and widows were eligible to travel to Europe, fewer than 200 participated, partly because of the segregated nature of the program. (National Archives and Records Administration)

One resentful Philadelphia mother asked, “Must these noble women be jim-crowed, [and] humiliated on such a sacred occasion?” Undeterred, the Hoover administration insisted that “mothers and widows would prefer to seek solace in their grief from companions of their own race.”

But this rebuttal failed to satisfy black mothers, who continued to send in their petitions as part of the NAACP’s efforts. They claimed they would decline to go at all unless the segregation ruling was abolished and all women could participate on equal terms. The NAACP campaign, threats that black voters would switch to the Democrats, and even the adept pen of W. E. B. Du Bois ultimately failed to alter the government’s stance.

In a sharp assault, Du Bois referred to the more than 6,000 African Americans whose “Black hands buried the putrid bodies of white American soldiers in France. [Yet,] Black mothers cannot go with white mothers to look at the graves.” Walter White had hoped that when the mothers and widows understood the separate conditions governing their travel, they would “repudiate the trip.” For some mothers, however, refusing the government’s invitation was one sacrifice too many. Most seem to have signed the petition without intending to forfeit this unique offer. When they were forced to choose between motherhood and activism, motherhood prevailed.

The number of eligible African American women was, in the event, too small to influence policy. Approximately 1,593 black mothers and widows were deemed eligible to make the pilgrimage. Many declined, largely because of ill-health, death or remarriage. Only 233 accepted the invitation, and fewer than 200 actually sailed.

For those who went, traveling posed challenges: most of the women were mothers in their 60s, but a number were over 70 and in failing health. Some were so poor that they were unable to buy even the suitcase necessary for the trip, and most had never traveled so far on their own. And for women like Louise Kimbro, who endured a 24-hour train journey across a segregated nation before boarding a ship to Europe, there were additional hardships involved.

With no luggage racks in the “colored” section of the train, passengers were forced to cram their suitcases around their feet in the crowded compartments. “Colored” train bathrooms were smaller and lacked the amenities of the “whites” bathrooms, and while traveling through Southern states, women were required to move to “colored only” railcars so that white passengers could board.

On arrival in New York, African American women were accommodated at the YWCA hostel, rather than the more comfortable Hotel Pennsylvania where white pilgrims stayed. The African American women who embarked on the SS American Merchant, a freighter-passenger vessel (rather than a luxury liner), hailed from a variety of states and social backgrounds, from illiterate women to college graduates. They were escorted by Colonel Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the army’s highest-ranking black officer.

Once they landed in France, separate trains carried African American and white pilgrims to Paris, where they were welcomed at the station by the trumpeted notes of “Mammy,” played by Nobel Sissle’s orchestra. The African American women enjoyed many of the same elegant restaurants and receptions offered on the white women’s itinerary but were again lodged in different hotels, since French hoteliers hesitated to accept black women for fear of offending some of their white American clientele.

Most women returned from their pilgrimage without regrets. One Georgia mother told reporters, “Every effort was made to get me not to come. I think it is a shame that some mothers were induced not to come by people who had nothing to lose, and who, if they were in our places, would certainly have come.” No one seems to have publicly challenged those who accepted the government’s offer, which required of them a compromise that white mothers and widows had not been asked to make.

It is estimated that 23 women, their identities no longer known, refused the invitation at the urging of the NAACP. Although they may not have achieved their objective of an integrated pilgrimage, this minority of older and mostly poor, uneducated black women had challenged the injustices of Jim Crow and succeeded in shifting the balance of power nationally by questioning the hypocrisy of the program and the violation of the democratic principles over which the war had been fought.

Excerpt from "Gold Star Mothers" by Lisa M. Budreau, We Return Fighting: World War I and the Shaping of Modern Black Identity, © Smithsonian Institution

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