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Is Europe Returning to Pre Cold War Divisions?

Smithsonian Magazine

Robert D. Kaplan was a 21-year-old college graduate when he first traveled to Romania in 1973 at the height of the communist era. The country under dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu was dark, depressing, and dangerous. But the journey kindled a lifetime passion for a little-known country in the heart of central Europe. His new book, In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania, weaves together the story of this first journey with subsequent travels to the region, cross-stitched with fascinating excursions down the byways of central European history, literature, and culture. 

Speaking from his office in Washington, D.C., Kaplan explains why the Danube is the pre-eminent European river, why Russian president Vladimir Putin has his eyes on the waterway, and how the map of Europe is becoming medieval again. 

The Danube carves a watery path across central Europe from the Black Forest to the Black Sea. How important has it been to the history and identity of the region?

One can argue that the Danube is the great river of Europe, more so than the Rhine or the Elbe. It starts in the heart of central Europe but ends in the Black Sea, on the border of the Russian steppe. It’s like an ideogram for greater central Europe. It was the umbilical cord for the Habsburg Empire, which to me is the ultimate, great European empire, and part of the European balance-of-power system that both resulted in wars and produced peace and stability. 

Your own particular stamping ground is Romania. Has the Danube shaped that country’s history and culture?

Very much so. The Danube flows through what is today the former Yugoslavia. It defines much of Romania’s southern border, then takes a dramatic almost right angle to go north, before turning east and flowing into the Black Sea. That right angle hook separates a region of Romania called Dobruja from the rest of [the country]. If you go to Giurgiu, a small Romanian city on the Danube, an hour’s drive south of Bucharest, you suddenly see the Danube, very wide, with lots of sea traffic. The river is very much alive with commerce today.


In Europe's Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania and Beyond

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The Danube-Black Sea Canal is today an important part of Europe’s internal waterways. It has a very dark history, doesn’t it? 

Yes, it does. And I witnessed it first hand. During the Communist regime under both Gheorghe Gheorghiu-Dej, in the early 1950s and 1960s, and the Ceauşescu regime, from the mid-1960s to the end of the 1980s, it was part of a prison labor system, where men went to work until they died. On my first reporting trip to Romania in 1981, I took a train from Bucharest to Cernavodă, in the Dobruja region, near the Danube, and watched construction on the canal. It was winter. There were scantily dressed workers lining up after a day’s work for the barest rations. It was a horrible scene, which I remember in grainy black and white.

You recently wrote, “As the EU continues to fragment … the continent’s map is becoming medieval again.” Explain what you mean by that. 

If you look at the map of Europe in the medieval or early modern period, before the Industrial Revolution, what you see is a mishmash of states and mini-states: Greater this, Lower that, and all the minor German states. It’s a map of dizzying incoherence, which reflected a Europe in conflict. During the Cold War, it was a very simple map. You had two blocs, West and East. 

In the post-Cold War period, up until about six years ago, there was this ideal of a super-European state stretching from Iberia to the Black Sea, united by free, open borders and a common currency. But now we see the beginnings of a more complex map caused by Russian revisionism, the refugee crisis, and the structural economic crisis in the EU—all of which harkens back to the medieval and early modern period.

I take it from the title that you think we are in a new Cold War. How does the Danube feature in Putin’s territorial ambitions? 

Since the Ukraine crisis began in December 2014, a number of political commentators have dubbed it a second Cold War between the West and what is now Russia. So I used that subtitle for the book. 

The Danube figures in this way: we all know about the northern front, the Baltic states and Poland and the Russian threat to that. But remember that Romania, combined with Romanian-speaking Moldova, has a longer border with Ukraine than even Poland has. And traditionally the Kremlin has had an imperial strategy to use the greater Danube area as a jumping-off point for influencing the eastern Mediterranean and the Greek archipelago.

We can’t let you go without telling us what your favorite spot on the Danube is, Robert. 

[Laughs] Very good question. My answer is Budapest at night, when I’m looking out from Castle Hill over the various bridges that are strung with lights. I think the combination of water and light over the Danube at night in Budapest rivals that of Paris. 

This New Virtual Reality Experience Drops You In Hiroshima Right After It's Been Bombed

Smithsonian Magazine

On August 6, 1945, Shigeru Orimen traveled from his rural home near Itsukaichi-cho to Hiroshima, where he was one of nearly 27,000 students working to prepare the city for impending U.S. airstrikes. For lunch that day, he had brought soybeans, sautéed potatoes and strips of daikon.

When the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima at 8:16 a.m., Shigeru was among the nearly 7,200 students who perished. Three days later, his mother Shigeko would identify his body using his lunch box; the food inside was transformed into coal, but the outside remained intact.

Today, his lunch box and Shigeko’s testimony are part of the archives at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. The object and its story left a haunting impression on filmmakers Saschka Unseld and Gabo Arora who co-directed a new virtual reality experience titled The Day the World Changed. Created in partnership with Nobel Media to commemorate the work of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (the winner of the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize), the film premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival last week.

The immersive experience begins with an explanation of the genesis, development, and deployment of the atomic bomb and then moves to a second chapter focused on the aftermath of the attack. Audience members can walk through the ruins of the city and examine artifacts from the bombing, including Shigeru’s lunch box. In the final chapter, the piece shifts toward the present, describing the frenetic race to create new atomic weapons and the continued threat of nuclear war.

It’s hardly the only piece at Tribeca to focus on difficult topics: Among the festival’s 34 immersive titles are pieces that grapple with the legacy of racism, the threat of climate change, AIDS and the ongoing crisis in Syria. Neither is it the first VR installation to achieve popular acclaim. Last November, filmmaker Alejandro G. Iñárritu received an Oscar at the Academy’s Governor’s Awards for his virtual reality installation CARNE y ARENA, which captures the experience of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border.

The Day the World Changed differs from these installations in a critical respect: Much of the material already exists in an archival format. Video testimony and radiated relics from the day of devastation come from the museum’s archives and photogrammetry (the creation of 3D models using photography) allowed for digital reproductions of surviving sites. In this sense, the piece shares more with the interpretive projects led by traditional documentarians and historians than the fantastical or gamified recreations that most associate with virtual reality.

What makes it different, Arora and Unseld say, is that the storytelling possibilities enabled by immersive technologies allow viewers to experience previously inaccessible locations—for example, the inside of the Atomic Dome, the Unesco World Heritage site directly underneath the explosion of the bomb that remains intact—and engage with existing artifacts in a more visceral way.

The future is exciting, though there’s a certain tension given the national conversation on the dangers of technological manipulation. “You have to be very careful,” Arora says. “We think it's important to figure out the grammar of VR and not just rely on an easy sort of way of horrifying people. Because that doesn't last.”


But what, exactly, makes a visual medium immersive? That question captivated one of VR’s early pioneers, Morton Heilig. In 1962, he developed the Sensorama, a mechanical device that looks like a combination of an arcade game and a tonometer. The Sensorama included a body tilting chair and full stereo sound, projected 3D images and even released aromas over the course of the short films.

While the project never received commercial funding, Heilig remained fascinated by the possibilities of new technologies. In 1992, five years before his death, he published a manifesto detailing this new “Cinema of the Future.” He argued that advances in magnetic tape would enable the sort of spectacular engagement foreshadowed by the Sensorama with greater clarity—and at far lower cost. “Open your eyes, listen, smell, and feel—sense the world in all its magnificent colors, depth, sounds, odors, and textures,” he proclaimed. “This is the cinema of the future!”

For Heilig, film was no longer just a visual medium, but an “art of consciousness,” and the future of cinema was not just in its ability to transmit lucid and realistic experiences, but to capture nature and history in its most gripping dimensions.

The spiritualism articulated by Heilig took an especially dystopian form a few years later in science fiction writer Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the book’s post-apocalyptic world devoid of meaning and genuine connection, survivors yearning for purpose and community follow a character named Wilbur Mercer. Through an “empathy box,” acolytes join Mercer on a never-ending climb up a barren mountain as he is stoned by unseen foes. Like self-flagellation, the exercise takes on a reverential quality among followers. As one explains, “It’s the way you touch other humans, it’s the way you stop being alone.”


Against a backdrop of tech evangelists promoting virtual reality as the “ultimate empathy machine,” Dick’s admonition still feels remarkably appropriate. With cutting-edge technologies that promise to unsettle our sense of place, the line between compassion and trauma grows porous. Those anxieties manifest in The Day the World Changed, a piece with a clear message—the abolition of nuclear weapons—whose creators nonetheless say they have no interest in peddling ideology.

“You don't want to force something down someone's throat,” Unseld says. “But you don't want to leave them completely, either. You want to guide them in a way that is very respectful of their own pace and their own kind of humanity.”

Unseld says that because VR lends itself to stories about “our spirituality,” “our collective guilt,” “our collective responsibility,” and “our collective ability for change,” creators have to think about the lives and experiences of their audience and find ways to communicate a message while leaving choices open-ended. In this sense, it works best as provocation rather than polemic, a story that invites awareness without forcing the viewer into a particular pair of shoes.

Audience members can walk through the ruins of the city and encounter artifacts from the bombing. (The Day the World Changed)

Creators using these immersive mediums might take a page out of a surprising playbook—that of historians. Sure, their digital recreations may lack the dazzle of Hollywood visuals, but their focus on how to create meaningful engagement is certainly applicable. And as Lisa Snyder, an architectural historian at UCLA’s Institute for Digital Research and Education points out, vivid imagery isn’t always what makes people intellectually engaged.

“When people see photorealistic spaces, there is an acceptance,” she says. “It’s a harder leap for people to say, ‘Oh I should be critical about this.’”

Snyder has spent more than 20 years working in what she calls “desktop VR.” Basically, she creates incredibly precise models of historical sites—from Carnac to Chicago’s Columbian Exposition—that educators use for classroom exercises and museum audiences explore on guided tours. Her work is a painstaking process that requires the same dedication of traditional historians. She meticulously determines dimensions using build guides and archeological evidence, and creates textures and color palettes using contemporaneous sources. For every hour of modeling, she says she spends five hours researching.

“I'm not interested in somebody using this visualization as a spin the artifact thing,” she says. “I want something that people are going to walk through and experience.”

While historians' work may seem far afield at first glance, they are ultimately interested in the same end goal: Giving audiences the space to learn, discover and engage with the past. Technology can change the contours of that engagement, says Steven Mintz, a digital historian and professor at the University of Texas at Austin, but viewing isn’t enough.

“It's interacting with the material that is what history needs to be,” he says. “The analysis that you're doing is what makes it meaningful.”

As immersive technologies continue to delve into the past in order to shape attitudes in the present-day, Mintz says there is a need to avoid mere spectacle. But he’s optimistic about the future, especially if scholars and artists can find ways to work together with the support of foundations and cultural institutions. And as Arora and Unseld note, the new bells and whistles can only enhance, not replace, the human element of stories, even if immersive technologies can affect audiences with a power that other forms of media struggle to match.

“I think there's something in VR that inherently makes you feel,” Unseld says. “Because you're robbed of your body in a way, and you become a spirit, VR speaks to your soul.”

Explore our historic weights and balances for World Standards Day

National Museum of American History

When you pay for a pound of chocolates, how do you know if you get a pound, no more and no less? Do you rely on the goodness of the market, or do you trust the system? In recognition of World Standards Day (October 14), we call attention to some historic weights and balances in the National Museum of American History.

Poster with hashtag #SpeakStandards and yellow geometric design

Commercial standards were important in ancient Rome and China, highlighted in the Magna Carta, and used in many European markets. The early laws of Virginia, typical of many, state that "no Goods may be bought or sold in this Colony, by other Weights or Measures than the English Standard only."

Two photos of weights made of brass. Each has a handle-like protrusion on top and a bell-shaped bottom.

According to the Constitution (Article 1, Section 8), Congress has the power to establish the American standards of weights and measures. George Washington thought such standards were of great importance. So too did Thomas Jefferson, who prepared a "Plan for Establishing Uniformity in the Coinage, Weights, and Measures of the United States." But Congress was reluctant to address the matter, and so Americans bumbled along as best they could.

Until the establishment of the income tax in 1913, taxes paid on goods coming into the country provided the bulk of the federal budget. In 1830, in response to rumors about irregularities in the Custom House standards, Congress asked the Secretary of the Treasury to look into the matter. The task fell to Ferdinand Rudolph Hassler, a Swiss immigrant well trained in science and mathematics. When Hassler found that imported goods weighed and measured differently from one port to another, and thus paid a different amount of tax, he was hired to produce new standards for the nation’s several Custom Houses. This project soon expanded to include standards for the states and territories. In 1901, the federal Office of Weights and Measures became a key component of the newly organized National Bureau of Standards (now the National Institute of Standards and Technology).

In 1838, recognizing that weights are best used in conjunction with appropriate balances, Congress asked the Office of Weights and Measures to provide precise balances for the states and territories.

Black and white photo of a scale/balance. A central pole has two arms, each has a plate or tray suspended from it.

Through frequent use and careless handling, balances can get out of alignment and weights can lose some of their weight. And so there are community officials who conduct tests on a regular basis. In 1817, for instance, having been named Boston's "Sealer of Weights and Measures," Allan Pollock notified city residents that they must send him all their "scale beams, steelyards, weights, and measures" for adjustment agreeable to the recent Act of the Legislature.

Black and white photo of a balance. Two central arms hold a plate/tray on each side. The entire thing is in a cabinet that appears to open and close.

Deborah Warner is a curator of the Physical Sciences Collection who writes about history, science, and culture. Her interest in standards was stimulated when, as a student in Cambridge, she learned about measuring the Harvard Bridge across the Charles River in units of Smoots.

Posted Date: 
Wednesday, October 12, 2016 - 10:00


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Clothing Set: 19th Century Skirt

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.


Peale catalogue identifies # 443 and 444 as "[Spanish:] Saya [skirt, petticoat] e [probably "y" = "and"] Manta [cloak, or probably meant more in the sense of mantilla - veil or shawl worn over head and shoulders]. The ordinary walking dress worn by the ladies of Lima, Peru; it completely disguises the wearer - one eye only being visible."

On p. 21 of National Institute for the Promotion of Science, Washington, D.C. A Popular Catalogue of the Extraordinary Curiosities In the National Institute, Arranged In the Building Belonging to the Patent Office. Washington: A. Hunter, 1855, Peale #s 443 to 444 are described as "The Saya, a silk petticoat with vertical plaits - contains about 30 yards of silk or stuff, and costs as high as 60 dollars. It is drawn in closely at the bottom, so as to impede the walk of the wearer, and limit the steps to 10 inches at a time. It is elastic, and sits so closely to the shape, that the excellence of the wearer's figure is not concealed. The manto is a kind of mantilla, commonly of black silk; it is brought over the head and fastened at the waist. The hand is seen, with one eye peeping forth, and intrigues, often causing numerous awkward situations, occur. Husbands often accost their wives with gallant intentions, and pay them the compliments they have long languished for at home."

You Can Thank Scientists for the National Park System

Smithsonian Magazine

The two volcanic rocks couldn’t be more different at first glance. The hyalo-liparite obsidian could be mistaken for a candy bar with large chocolate chips, while beside it inside the glass case, the geyserite more closely resembles white sidewalk chalk.

The rocks were collected on the expedition of scientists, photographers and painters that geologist Ferdinand Hayden led in 1871, the first federally-funded survey of the American west. They are on view in a new exhibition “100 Years of America’s National Park Service” at the National Museum of Natural History. They are examples of the many specimens that scientists, exploring the American West, sent back to the early Smithsonian Institution.

The show honors the scientific collecting that helped to lay the groundwork for the creation of the national park system one hundred years ago this summer.

“Volcanic specimens such as these—along with survey reports that the land wasn’t suitable for agriculture, mining, or settlement—convinced Congress to pass legislation to create Yellowstone, America’s first national park,” notes a label in the show, which was co-organized by the museum and the National Park Service.

Surrounding the glass case housing the two volcanic rocks are contributions from 18 award-winning photographers, including a display of 15 gorgeous panoramic views created by nature photographer Stan Jorstad and 24 awe-inspiring images by Carol M. Highsmith of some of the most popular parks—Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Great Smoky Mountains, Grand Teton and Glacier National Park.

Scientists on expeditions conducting geological surveys of the west, says Pam Henson, an historian with the Smithsonian Institution Archives, were among the first to notice red flags in nature that suggested pathways to extinction of species if the status quo of human exploitation was allowed to continue.

One such scientist was William Temple Hornaday, a founder of the American Conservation Movement and chief taxidermist at the Smithsonian, who went out west in the 1880s to collect bison in the preserve that was later designated Yellowstone National Park.

“He goes out there, and he’s stunned because there are no bison,” says Henson. Instead, Hornaday found mountains of bison skulls.

Hornaday eventually found a small, remnant herd of the quintessential American species. “Over the time that he’s out there, you see in his correspondence essentially a conversion experience,” Henson says. “He’s like, ‘Oh my God. We have to preserve these things. They are iconically American.’” So Hornaday started a movement to preserve the American bison, a cause to which he devoted the rest of his life. He would later become a founder of the Smithsonian's National Zoo.

Hornaday brought live buffalo back to Washington, D.C., and started the Department of Living Animals. The bison grazed behind the red stone Smithsonian Castle Building on what’s now the Haupt Garden, and the animals became very popular.

Other scientists, such as John Wesley Powell who explored the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon, sent specimens back to the Smithsonian, and Powell became the founding director of the Bureau of American Ethnography. “The Smithsonian has close ties with all of these explorers,” Henson adds.

Image by Stan Jorstad. World renowned for its biological diversity, Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee (Roaring Fork, above) has more than 19,000 species documented in the park, with potentially another 30,000 to 80,000 yet to be identified. (original image)

Image by Stan Jorstad. Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming (Thumb Geyser Basin), the world’s first national park, was established primarily for its extraordinary thermal features and other geologic wonders. (original image)

Image by Stan Jorstad. The geologic deposits in Badlands National Park in South Dakota contain one of the world’s richest fossil beds with such ancient mammals as the hornless rhino, the three-toed horse and a cat-like saber-toothed animal. (original image)

Image by Stan Jorstad. Big Bend National Park (Rio Grande) in Texas is famous for its geology, varied habitats and species diversity—including more types of birds, bats and cacti than any other U.S. national park (original image)

historical account on the park service website explains, the service didn’t exactly start in 1872 with Congress’ creation of Yellowstone National Park. “Like a river formed from several branches, however, the system cannot be traced to a single source. Other components—the parks of the nation’s capital, hot springs, parts of Yosemite—preceded Yellowstone as parklands reserved or established by the federal government,” according to the site. “And there was no real ‘system’ of national parks until Congress created a federal bureau, the National Park Service, in 1916 to manage those areas assigned to the U.S. Department of the Interior.”

At first, the service faces opposition, notes Ann Hitchcock, a curator of the show from the National Park Service. “One of the debates in Congress was proving that this land was useless: not good for agriculture, mining or other kinds of developments. So you might as well preserve it, because it’s pretty unusual and interesting,” she says. “It’s a tremendous piece of our natural heritage.”

Hitchcock cites Franklin D. Roosevelt’s quote that “there is nothing so American as our national parks.” 

Henson notes that two powerful forces were pitted against the scientific imperative to protect U.S. wildlife and habitats at the outset. Settlers didn’t like the idea of restrictions on hunting even at-risk species, fearing the decimation of their way of life. And the influence of churches held sway with clergy that preached from the pulpit that the earth and its herds had been divinely bestowed upon people to do with as they saw fit.

Early settlers felt that “God put all of this out there for man’s bounty, and that there was no inherent value in the forest, in the plants and animals, other than to serve mankind,” Henson says. “It’s a giant shift to say these things have an inherent value that humans should not disrupt.”

But the possibility of extinction eventually changed hearts and minds, says Henson. “Extinction really was shocking. You have the Carolina parakeet and the passenger pigeon. The bison, you’re right at the edge. Things go extinct,” Henson says. “There were so many passenger pigeons that nobody conceived they could go extinct. That really becomes a metaphor for human destruction of God’s creation in a way.”

In 1872, when then-president Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law, more than 2 million acres of land were set aside to become public parks. Paintings by artists like Thomas Moran had shown the public the splendor of the American west. Specimens that scientists sent back East had delivered a message on the cultural and geological significance of the land.

In 1832 following a trip to the Dakotas, artist George Catlin presciently wrote of “some great protecting policy of government . . . in a magnificent park, . . . a nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all the wild[ness] and freshness of their nature’s beauty!”

In much the way Catlin’s early vision of a national park didn’t directly pave the way for the National Park Service, the scientific expeditions didn't immediately create the conservation movement. But they planted the seed.

"100 Years of America's National Park Service: Preserve, Enjoy, Inspire" is on view through August 2017 at the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

The Mystery of Roanoke Endures Yet Another Cruel Twist

Smithsonian Magazine

It seemed too good to be true. And it was.

Nearly 20 years ago, excavators digging on North Carolina’s remote Hatteras Island uncovered a worn ring emblazoned with a prancing lion. A local jeweler declared it gold—but it came to be seen as more than mere buried treasure when a British heraldry expert linked it to the Kendall family involved in the 1580s Roanoke voyages organized by Sir Walter Raleigh during Elizabeth I’s reign.

The 1998 discovery electrified archaeologists and historians. The artifact seemed a rare remnant of the first English attempt to settle the New World that might also shed light on what happened to 115 men, women, and children who settled the coast, only to vanish in what became known as the Lost Colony of Roanoke.

Now it turns out that researchers had it wrong from the start.

A team led by archaeologist Charles Ewen recently subjected the ring to a lab test at East Carolina University. The X-ray fluorescence device, shaped like a cross between a ray gun and a hair dryer, reveals an object’s precise elemental composition without destroying any part of it. Ewen was stunned when he saw the results.

“It’s all brass,” he said. “There’s no gold at all.”

The ring, previously thought to be gold, turns out to be brass. (Charles Ewen/ECU)

North Carolina state conservator Erik Farrell, who conducted the analysis at an ECU facility, found high levels of copper in the ring, along with some zinc and traces of silver, lead, tin and nickel. The ratios, Farrell said, “are typical of brass” from early modern times. He found no evidence that the ring had gilding on its surface, throwing years of speculation and research into serious doubt.

“Everyone wants it to be something that a Lost Colonist dropped in the sand,” added Ewen. He said it is more likely that the ring was a common mass-produced item traded to Native Americans long after the failed settlement attempt.

Not all archaeologists agree, however, and the surprise results are sure to reignite the debate over the fate of the Lost Colony.

The settlers arrived from England in the summer of 1587, led by John White. They rebuilt an outpost on Roanoke Island, 50 miles north of Hatteras, abandoned by a previous band of colonists. White’s group included his daughter Eleanor, who soon gave birth to Virginia Dare, the first child born of English parents in the New World.

White quickly departed for England to gather supplies and additional colonists, but his return was delayed by the outbreak of war with Spain. When he finally managed to land on Roanoke Island three years later, the settlement was deserted. The only clue was the word “Croatoan” carved on a post, the name of a tribe allied with the English and the island now called Hatteras.

ECU archaeologist David Phelps, now deceased, found the ring while excavating a Native American village there and took it to a jeweler named Frank Riddick in nearby Nags Head. Phelps reported that the jeweler tested the ring and determined it was 18-carat gold.

Riddick, who now runs a fishing charter company called Fishy Bizness, recalled recently that he didn’t conduct an acid-scratch test typically used to verify the presence and quality of the precious metal. “Since this wasn’t about buying or selling, we didn’t do that,” he said. “I just told him that I thought it was gold.” Phelps apparently didn’t want to subject the object to potential damage.

A senior member of London’s College of Arms subsequently noted that the seal on the signet ring was of a lion passant, and suggested that it might relate to the Kendall family of Devon and Cornwall. A Master Kendall was part of the first colonization attempt in 1585, while another Kendall visited Croatoan when a fleet led by Sir Francis Drake stopped by in 1586. Though this link was never confirmed, the object was nicknamed the Kendall ring.

Since Phelps thought the ring was made of a precious material and likely belonged to the Elizabethan era, he argued it was an important clue. “That doesn’t mean the Lost Colony was here,” he told a reporter at the dig site after the ring’s discovery. “But this begins to authenticate that.”

Some archaeologists, however, were skeptical of the artifact’s connection to Roanoke, given that it was found with other artifacts dating to between 1670 and 1720—about a century after the Elizabethan voyages. This was also an era in which brass rings showed up at Native American sites up and down the East Coast.

But Mark Horton, an archaeologist at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom, says that Ewen’s results don’t necessarily preclude that it belonged to a Roanoke colonist. “The fact that the ring is brass actually makes it more similar to other British examples,” he said, noting that the ring could have been made in the 1580s. “I would argue that it was kept as an heirloom, passed down, and then discarded.”

Horton is currently digging at the Hatteras site where the ring was discovered. The excavations, sponsored by the Croatoan Archaeological Society, have so far uncovered several artifacts that may have been made during Elizabethan times, including the handle of a rapier and bits of metal from clothing.

If the Lost Colonists left Roanoke for Croatoan in the late 1580s, argues Horton, they might have brought along their most precious objects. Over a couple of generations they may have assimilated with the Algonquian-speaking Croatoan people and their English heirlooms would have eventually worn out. “Oh, there’s granddad’s old sword in the corner rusting away,” said Horton. “Why are we keeping that?”

His theory is also based on archaeological finds that show that Native Americans on Hatteras manufactured lead shot and used guns to hunt deer and birds by the 1650s. Prior to this, their diet was based heavily on fish and shellfish. The technological sophistication, Horton suggests, hints at the presence of Europeans before the second wave of English arrived in the area in the late 1600s. That, too, could point to the presence of assimilated colonists and their descendants.

That theory is a stretch, says archaeologist Charles Heath, who worked with Phelps and was present when the ring was found. “Such items would have been used, modified, traded, re-traded, lost, discarded or curated by their native owners—and subsequent native owners—for many years,” he argued. In the end, he said, “a stray 16th-century artifact found here and there on the Outer Banks will not make for a Lost Colony found.”

Horton acknowledges that rather than Roanoke colony possessions brought along by assimilating English, the Croatoan people could have acquired the goods from Jamestown, the later Virginia colony to the north, instead. Gunflints, coins, and glass beads found at the site almost certainly came from the newer English settlement. But he is confident that the current excavations will soon reveal additional evidence.

Meanwhile, the hunt for the Lost Colony continues. Another group of archaeologists working about 50 miles west of Roanoke Island at the head of Albemarle Sound say that they have pottery and metal artifacts likely associated with the Lost Colony. The digs by the First Colony Foundation were sparked by the 2012 discovery of a patch concealing the image of a fort on a map painted by John White.

But like the finds at Hatteras, the objects might be associated with the second wave of English settlement.

Last fall, a dig by the National Park Service at Fort Raleigh on Roanoke Island—thought to be the site of the original settlement—yielded no trace of the colonists. But earlier in 2016, archaeologists did find a handful of fragments of an apothecary jar that almost certainly date from the 16th century.

That the gold Kendall ring is likely a cheap brass trade item won’t derail the quest to find out what took place on the Outer Banks more than four centuries ago. As for Ewen, he hopes that the analysis of the ring will help put researchers back on track in their search for scarce clues to the Roanoke settlers. “Science actually does work,” he said—“if you give it time.”

History Was Writ Large on This Desk Belonging to Thomas Jefferson

Smithsonian Magazine

At first glance, the mahogany writing box is unassuming. The reddish hinged case is neither as flashy as the tall Women’s Suffrage Wagon nor as darkly arresting as the Ku Klux Klan hood, both on display elsewhere in the National Museum of American History’s new exhibition, “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith.” But for curator Harry Rubenstein, the quietness of the writing case belies its true power as an artifact: it was the desk upon which Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence.

“There was Thomas Jefferson, in a rented room, writing on scraps of paper—things like stable receipts. He was putting together the thoughts that the committee would eventually pull together to draft the Declaration of Independence,” Rubenstein says.

The historic scene is all thanks to the evocative power of the writing box, and its indelible connection to the document the Founding Fathers used to build the United States of America.

In 1776, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to manage the war effort, make decisions about the formation of a new republic, and plea for help from France and Spain. Among those chosen for the committee that would write a document about why the colonies deserved independence from England were John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, Roger Livingston and Thomas Jefferson. As Jefferson was elected chair of the committee, the duty of writing a draft fell to him—and he had only 17 days to produce it.

At the time, Jefferson was staying in a rented room with cabinetmaker Benjamin Randolph—the very same person Jefferson had commissioned to build his writing box. Randolph was “the proprietor of one of the most successful cabinetmaking shops in Philadelphia during the 1760s and 1770s” writes antiques expert Andrew Brunk. Jefferson wasn’t Randolph’s only famous client; he also built pieces for George and Martha Washington. But Jefferson’s writing desk was a special build, in part because it came from its owner’s design—a symbol of inventiveness and ingenuity to go with the innovation of writing a declaration of nationhood.

“Jefferson always claimed the desk was by his own design, but it  definitely was a collaboration between the two,” Rubenstein says. “While it seems like a simple desk, this takes a lot of carpentry skill.” Similar in shape to a modern briefcase, when the writing box is unfolded, it offers a slanted writing surface, a drawer to hold inkwells and quills, and plenty of room for paper. Like the writing desks owned by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton, Jefferson’s was meant to be portable, the tool of a man constantly on the move and constantly writing letters, documents and addresses.

And it certainly succeeded in helping him finish writing several drafts of the Declaration of Independence, which went on to be signed by other members of the Continental Congress—and eventually to have a huge impact on the fledgling nation. “The Declaration, precisely because it was a propaganda document, was addressed to the widest possible audience—to the whole ‘candid world,’ to that mankind whose opinion deserves a decent respect,” writes historian Gary Wills in Inventing America: Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. “Thus the large formal parchment brought into the Congress on August 2 was kept available, over the next six months, for men to sign, joining their peers and predecessors. It gave men a kind of overnight antiquity and tradition because it was already outside time’s more immediate and practical challenges.”

That singular document wasn’t the only thing to come from Jefferson's writing box. The case traveled with him to France during his time as an ambassador; to Monticello when he returned to his home in Virginia; and to the White House when he became the country’s third president. Eventually he bequeathed the traveling desk to his granddaughter and her new husband, Eleanora and Joseph Coolidge when they were married in 1825. Based on the note he attached to his gift, Jefferson was well aware of the desk’s future importance:

“Politics as well as Religion has its superstitions. These, gaining strength with time, may, one day, give imaginary value to this relic, for its association with the birth of the Great Charter of our Independence,” he wrote.

Joseph Coolidge was no less effusive in his praise of the relic. “When I think of this desk, ‘in connection with the great charter of our independence,’ I feel a sentiment almost of awe, and approach it with respect; but when I remember that it has served you fifty years… I would fain consider it as no longer inanimate, and mute, but as something to be interrogated, and caressed.”

The desk passed from the Coolidge’s to the U.S. government in 1880, and from there to the Smithsonian Institution’s collection in the 1920s. The artifact has been on display at the American History Museum on and off ever since then, quietly prompting visitors to consider the Revolutionary era.

Jefferson’s self-importance and the accolades he bestowed upon his writing box are well merited in Rubenstein’s mind. “Is there a more important document in all American history?” he says of the Declaration of Independence. “[The Founding Fathers] were entering into an experiment that they had no idea of how it would turn out. The bigger experiment than even the revolution is this idea that you’re going to build a country around this democratic idea.”

Jefferson’s work in catalyzing the nation’s democratic experiment and other questions of American democracy can be considered in the new permanent exhibiton “American Democracy: A Great Leap of Faith”  at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.

Four Generations Connect through a Stoneware Churn

Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage

In the summer of 2017, the Jackson family traveled from their home in Alabama to Washington, D.C., and came to our office first thing the next morning. As Lena, her husband, and their children stood in front of the large glass case just off the lobby, which holds some of the Center’s most beloved objects, I pointed to a large stoneware churn. They suddenly grew quiet.

The churn had been made by Lena’s grandfather, Cleater Meaders Jr., more than thirty years ago. Cleater also made and gifted the well-formed pitcher standing nearby. The two pieces were the focus of the Jacksons’ visit—and the journey to find them had been long.

The two older girls quickly snapped out of their shyness and began peppering their mother with questions. Why was their great-grandfather’s pottery here? What was the Smithsonian Folklife Festival? Could they work here too? I told them that their great-grandfather demonstrated his family’s distinctive style of pottery making at the 1983 Folklife Festival, and that he and others in the large extended family from northern Georgia were, in fact, very well known by the Festival’s co-founder, Ralph Rinzler, who had long appreciated their work.

Lena’s quest to find her grandfather’s work had taken several years. She had been told by other family members that it was “somewhere at the Smithsonian,” but no one knew exactly where. When you consider that the Smithsonian holds more than 154 million objects in 19 different museums, the challenge was clear: What museum? What collection?

Churn by Cleater Meaders Jr.
Stoneware churn with Cleater Meaders Jr.’s signature on the bottom.
Photos by Zvonimir Bebek, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

After coming up short several times before, Lena’s intuition led her to contact her Alabama congressman’s office for assistance. He called the Smithsonian’s congressional liaison who, in turn, suggested our office as a possible location. The congressional aide left a message for Folklife curator Marjorie Hunt about a constituent seeking information about her grandfather, Cleater Meaders. Marjorie was able to enthusiastically affirm that, yes, we had a number of Cleater’s pieces in our office collection.

The family arrived three days before the opening of the 2017 Folklife Festival, and most staff were already on the National Mall getting ready for the fiftieth anniversary celebration. I had just finished curating an online exhibition, 50 Years | 50 Objects—which included Cleater’s churn—and was available to meet them. We looked closely at Cleater’s two pots. The churn, which dominates the case, measures nearly two feet high and is coated with a distinctive “snakeskin” alkaline glaze. It’s a functional shape used for churning butter that could be found in rural Southern households well into the twentieth century.

I then brought the group back to my workspace for a special treat. I wanted them to see the churn on the exhibition website. Not only would they now recognize it on the homepage, but once they clicked on the photo and got to the object profile, they could see a film clip of Cleater at the 1983 Festival. The segment shows him finishing a jug, taking it off the wheel, and talking to a visitor as he works.Tears appeared in Lena’s eyes. She noted that her children were too young to have ever met their great-grandfather and, as a result, had never heard his voice.

She then got out her phone, reached her mother on FaceTime, and asked to see the clip again. A wonderful conversation ensued as three generations of the family reconnected with a fourth through our website! The family learned from me that the man Cleater was speaking to—who was visible only from behind—was the Secretary of the Smithsonian, S. Dillon Ripley.

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

The work of Southern potters had been of special interest to Festival co-founder Ralph Rinzler since he first began traveling in the region in the early 1960s. When he came to the Smithsonian in 1967, documenting the Meaders family pottery was his first research project. In Nancy Sweezy’s 1984 book, Raised in Clay: The Southern Pottery Tradition, Rinzler recalls:

“The owner, a man of eighty [Cheever Meaders, Cleater’s uncle], had retained the original tools, forms, and techniques he had inherited from his older brothers who, with their father, had established a kiln site in 1893. I approached the project with urgency because the old man was ill and seemed unlikely to continue working much longer…”

The results of this work were a groundbreaking documentary film and monograph (co-authored with anthropologist Robert Sayers), The Meaders Family: North Georgia Potters. The film was re-released in DVD format in 2003 by Smithsonian Folkways, and the monograph remains available free of charge on the Folkways website as a PDF download.

After the Jackson family left, I couldn’t help but marvel at the combination of persistence and good luck that finally got them to our office—and at the best possible time. Had Lena found us sooner, the family would have been able to see her grandfather’s pottery but not the film. It was, in fact, the occasion of the Festival’s fiftieth anniversary that led many of us back to the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives in search of documentation of the earlier years.

Pottery display case at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Pottery display case at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage
Photo by Erin Younger, Smithsonian

The volume of these archival materials is huge. The Center’s commitment to keeping it accessible is fundamental to its mission but has also become a race against time. Media disintegrates and cataloging systems change. Finding the perfect photograph or audiotaped discussion from thirty years ago can be a long, slow process and does not always end with success. But when it does—as it did with Cleater Meaders’ participation in the 1983 Festival—the effort is extremely gratifying.

Of all the objects highlighted in the anniversary exhibition, the Meaders churn holds one of the best stories of the value of the archives, tying seamlessly into the history of the Festival through Rinzler’s seminal work with the family. The clip of Cleater speaking with visitors while he works provides a glimpse of his skill on the wheel, as well as his quiet Southern humor. When paired with this archival gem, the static churn on our display shelf comes to life.

If we then fast-forward to summer 2017 when Cleater’s descendants sought to reconnect with their past, the conversation and the record become even richer. For the Center, the experience of the Jackson family’s visit is a testament to the value of the Festival’s work, and also to remaining committed to making the resources of the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives accessible.

Erin Younger is a former museum professional and current research associate working with the material culture collection at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. She was the curator of 50 Years | 50 Objects and plans to add new entries to the “Storied Objects” site in the year ahead. Her experience with the Jackson family has inspired her to dig ever deeper into the Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives for illuminating companion resources.

Raised in Clay: The Southern Pottery Tradition by Nancy Sweezy was both a traveling exhibition and a book published in 1984 by the Smithsonian Office of Folklife Programs (now the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage). The book remains an invaluable resource on the roots of pottery making in the American South.

You have what stored in the vault?! Five of the most unexpected things in the National Numismatic Collection

National Museum of American History

When people ask what I do for a living, I say, "I work at the National Numismatic Collection. It's the Smithsonian's collection of monetary and transactional objects." People generally assume I'm talking only about coins, paper money, credit cards, and checks. I like to shock them by following up that statement by saying that one of my favorite objects in the collection is a taxidermy bird. The National Numismatic Collection (NNC) houses so much more than the monetary objects that we are most familiar with today. Here are my top five picks for the weirdest, most unexpected, and overall most bizarre objects in the NNC.

1. A feathered friend among the financial objects

Photograph of green taxidermy bird on wooden perch with a round base. Alert eye. Yellow beak. Long green tail.

This quetzal bird was transferred to the NNC in 1956 from our colleagues at the National Museum of Natural History. The quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala, but what does it have to do with money? The indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica used feathers from quetzal birds as currency. Quetzals featured prominently in Mayan mythology and symbolized wealth. In 1925 Guatemala changed its national currency from the peso to the quetzal, and the new quetzal banknotes feature an image of the bird on each note. This quetzal doesn’t come alive at night like in the movies, but regardless it is still a favorite object of mine.

2. A sink stopper with a high art pedigree

Round object with raised bumps in circle shape

The NNC has an expansive collection of American and foreign medals commemorating various historical events, people, and societies, but it also includes medals that were created as art! That leads me to the somewhat odd and surprising object pictured above, a medal designed by famed artist Marcel Duchamp. (You know, the same guy who presented a urinal as art and titled it Fountain.) Duchamp created a series of works called "readymades," which were ordinary objects that he transformed into art. This medal was the fifth of 100 cast in bronze from a lead original created by Duchamp from his sink stopper.

3. A familiar French face

White sculpture-like object showing a man's face, eyes closed. Handsome nose. High forehead. Medium-sized brows. Strong chin and peaceful lips.

You might expect that the NNC would have coins and medals that feature the likeness of Napoleon Bonaparte, but our collection holds something even closer to the original: a plaster copy of his death mask! Napoleon held many titles, most prominently Emperor of the French. He died in 1821 in exile on the British island of Saint Helena. At that time it was a common practice to make a death mask of notable figures who passed away. At the time of death, Napoleon's physician, François Carlo Antommarchi, cast one mask. He later produced copies, like this one made in 1833. But why is it in the numismatic collection? There is a small medal embedded at the base of the neck with a portrait of Napoleon wearing a laurel wreath, the name of the physician, and the date. I see a lot of faces on coins and currency, but rarely does my work involve something this realistic (and creepy)!

4. Can you spot me a few clams, pal?

Oyster shell painted or colored a dark yellow, perhaps covered in fabric. Text: "Olympia Oyster Money C. of C. Olympia, Wash. Will pay 25 cents on or before July 31, 1933."

The Great Depression saw a variety of new currencies develop in the United States. The banking crisis led communities to creative solutions for bartering and exchange. In Pismo Beach, California, they made clamshell money. Similar to the clamshell money, this oyster money is a creative currency from Olympia, Washington. Made out of wood and designed to look like an oyster shell, this object was worth 25 cents. Other Pacific Northwest cities including Raymond and Tenino, Washington, issued similar currencies at the time. Honestly, if someone offered to pay me in clams or oysters, I’d probably take that as payment!

5. One giant check

Steel document in very silver color. Text: "The Lincoln Electric Company."

Checks are not completely surprising things to find in a numismatic collection. But a two-foot-long check made of steel? That's pretty unexpected, and very heavy! This check, dated June 6, 1932, was made out to Homer N. Wallin and Henry A. Schade, who were the winners of a welding contest. More than welders, Wallin and Schade were naval officers who applied their skills to ship construction, repair, and salvage. The president of the Lincoln Electric Company, which hosted the welding contest, signed the check by arc welding, and Wallin and Schade endorsed it in the same way.

These and many more fascinating objects in the National Numismatic Collection are ready to be researched!

Jennifer Gloede is the outreach and collections specialist for the National Numismatic Collection.

Posted Date: 
Monday, November 13, 2017 - 07:00


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Ross Precision Computer Circular Slide Rule

National Museum of American History
This circular slide rule consists of a silver-colored metal dial, 8-1/2" wide, mounted on a silver-colored metal disc. Three oblong holes on the base disc permit the reading of trigonometric scales on a white celluloid and cardboard disc that is between the metal discs. The celluloid disc is marked: COPYRIGHTED (/) L. ROSS, SAN FRANCISCO (/) PATENTS PENDING. On the front of the instrument, the top dial is divided along the outer edge into 400 equal parts. In each quadrant of the dial, the scale is marked from 100 to 1,000, with every tenth division marked. Inside of this scale, there is a spiral scale with 25 coils divided logarithmically from 0 to 1,000, making the rule equivalent to a linear slide rule about 50 feet long. These scales are marked in purple and are worn away in several places, including around much of the edge and underneath where the indicators rest. Affixed to the center of the disc is a brown metal linear rule, 1-1/8" wide, marked with N, M (Sum), D (Difference), and Root scales. This rule is made of three pieces, but the center no longer slides. Also affixed to the center is a yellow celluloid hairline indicator, 3/4" wide, and a second yellow celluloid indicator, 1-1/2" wide. This indicator is marked on the left side by fours from 0 to 100, labeled Quadrants, and on the right side at varying intervals from 100 to 1,000, labeled Nos. It is attached to a metal handle lined with yellow-white celluloid. The handle is also attached to a pivot at the center back of the instrument. The handle is marked: THE ROSS (/) PRECISION COMPUTER (/) Computer Mfg. Co. (/) San Francisco. The handle has reminders for setting the device for multiplication, division, and proportion, and there is a thumbscrew for making adjustments. The instrument also came with a loose, wedge-shaped piece of yellow celluloid with a hole at one end for attaching to the center of the computer. It is marked with the names of various trigonometric functions and various angles. The round part of the instrument fits into a black leather case with two snaps, stamped both inside and outside: x THE ROSS ÷ (/) PRECISION COMPUTER (/) COMPUTER MFG. CO. (/) SAN FRANCISCO U.S.A. (/) PAT. PEND. COPYRIGHTED. An instruction manual (1996.3077.02) and a letter and advertising literature (1966.3077.03) sent to the purchaser, Roy Kegerreis of New York, were received with this instrument. The letter is dated July 31, 1918, and the manual was copyrighted in 1919. Louis Ross of San Francisco designed three circular slide rules in the 1910s: the Precision Computer, the Meridi-o-graph, and the Rapid Computer. Advertisements and reports of surviving instruments indicate that the Precision Computer varied in appearance and size. The Computer Manufacturing Company sold the Precision Computer for $20.00. A clamp for mounting the rule above a desk sold separately for $2.50. The company claimed its customers included the Panama Canal Commission, DuPont Powder Works, and General Electric. The company's offices were originally located on 25 California Street in San Francisco; in 1921, the factory moved from 268 Market to 340 Sansome. The Sansome address is handwritten inside the instruction manual, suggesting Kegerreis learned about the computer in 1918 but did not purchase one until 1921. Dr. Roy Kegerreis (1886–1968) obtained his BS in Electrical Engineering from The Ohio State University in 1907, his MS in Mathematics from Harvard, and his PhD in Physics from the University of Michigan in 1917. At the time he purchased this slide rule, he apparently was living in New York City. Kegerreis went on to get an MD in 1934, and he worked for many years as a radiologist. This slide rule was given to the Smithsonian by his daughter, in his memory. References: Accession file; Edwin J. Chamberlain, "Long-Scale Slide Rules," Journal of the Oughtred Society 8, no. 1 (1999): 24–34, "Long-Scale Slide Rules Revisited," 13, no. 1 (2004): 23–43, and "Circular Slide Rules with Very Long Scales," 17, no. 1 (2008): 52; "A Five-Place Calculating Device," Electrical World 66, no. 11 (1915): 604; "San Francisco Companies Move to New Quarters," San Francisco Business 3, no. 19 (November 11, 1921): 22; "Ross Precision Computer," NIST Museum Digital Archives,

San Andreas May Have Had Help Triggering a Historic Earthquake

Smithsonian Magazine

On December 8, 1812, an earthquake shook the Spanish mission of San Juan Capistrano in southern California, toppling buildings and killing 40 people attending mass at the mission. That doesn't come as a big surprise in the history of a region known for plentiful and powerful temblors, and this particular event, estimated as a magnitude 7.5, was long thought to be yet another product of the infamous San Andreas fault.

But now scientific detective work has revealed that the 1812 earthquake might have been the result of two faults acting together—and that means the people of southern California are on shakier ground than anyone thought.

Julian Lozos, an assistant professor of geophysics at California State University, Northridge, built a computer model of the San Andreas fault and the adjacent San Jacinto fault, centered on the region around San Bernardino. Coupled with geologic signs of past earthquakes and historical records, his model shows there's a good chance the 1812 quake started along the San Jacinto fault, and the energy from that initial shaking caused the nearby San Andreas to rupture as well in a kind of cascade effect.

"The implications stretch just beyond this one damaging earthquake," he says. "The fact that the effects of this historic earthquake can be explained by the San Andreas and San Jacinto working together means that this is, at the very least, a physically plausible thing"—and that it could happen again.

That would be a disaster for the cities of San Bernardino and Riverside, which sit right on top of the area where the two faults come close together. The San Jacinto comes within a mile of the San Andreas at Cajon Pass, where a major highway, Interstate 15, passes through. Hazard maps from the city and county show that I-15 runs right over a region at high risk of liquefaction, when the ground essentially turns to mush during a quake.

Combination earthquakes aren't necessarily more powerful than single-fault ones, but they do travel in different ways. Instead of zipping relatively neatly along the fault line under San Bernardino, a multi-fault earthquake—even a less powerful one than the 1812 temblor—could jump right across a very densely populated region, causing even more damage than anything the San Andreas could produce alone.

"A San Andreas-San Jacinto joint 7.5 rupture is scarier, because more of the fault goes through a more densely populated area than the southernmost San Andreas does," Lozos says.

Earthquakes in that part of California are mostly caused by strike-slip faults, where two big chunks of Earth's crust are sliding past one another. In this case, the Pacific plate is moving roughly north past the North American plate. Since the faults aren't perfectly smooth, the two pieces of crust catch on each other (the strike) and once enough tension builds, they release suddenly (the slip). That release is what we feel as an earthquake.

If two faults are close enough, a rupture in one can trigger a rupture in another. This observation isn't new—the 1992 Landers earthquake reached magnitude 7.3 after multiple faults ruptured.

"It zigzagged between six or seven different faults," Lozos says. Luckily that quake was centered in the Mojave Desert, and the nearby towns of Yucca Valley, Joshua Tree and Twentynine Palms are relatively small. The question was whether the same thing could happen along the San Andreas and its subsidiary faults, such as the San Jacinto, affecting much more populated areas.

A map indicates where people made historical records of the December 1812 earthquake in southern California. (Lozos Sci. Adv. 2016; 2 : e1500621)

Lozos started by looking at existing data about earthquakes in the past, including changes in geologic layering that indicate when and where older quakes happened. Faults aren't always continuous; they can be made up of several sections, called strands, that are separated by short bits of intact crust. Studying how sediment layers have shifted around these strands can reveal whether they were involved in an earthquake.

Critically, Lozos found geologic data for three strands—two on the San Jacinto and one on the San Andreas—that showed evidence of movement in the 19th century. However, accounts from the period only tell of two major quakes, the one in December 1812 and another on November 22, 1800. That suggests one of those quakes had "jumped" between the fault strands.

Lozos also looked at earlier studies of precariously balanced rocks conducted by Jim Brune of the University of Nevada Reno and Lisa Grant Ludwig at UC Irvine. Factoring in the shape of the rocks and structure of the pile, certain kinds of shaking will topple these natural structures. Looking for balanced rocks that are still standing shows where past earthquakes didn't happen, helping to narrow down the regions where the two 19th century quakes occurred.  

Lozos then created a computer model based on the physics of the faults around San Bernardino, incorporating data such as the characteristics of the rock. He input various initial conditions until he got a simulated earthquake that produced the same effects as the ones he observed in the gathered data. The most plausible way to produce a magnitude 7.5 earthquake that damages buildings in the right pattern was if the San Andreas and San Jacinto ruptured together, he reports this week in Science Advances.

One reason nobody has really studied this phenomenon in the San Andreas is that it's so big relative to all the other faults in the state, Lozos says. Generally the assumption has been that big temblors are coming from the big fault.

David Oglesby, a professor of geophysics at the University of California, Riverside, says the model Lozos designed is believable because it works under many different scenarios. "You could make a model do anything if you put in the right assumptions" Oglesby says. "But this one works without too much fine tuning."

The model also agrees with geologic data spanning centuries, says Nate Onderdonk, associate professor of geoscience at California State University, Long Beach. In his studies of the northern part of the San Jacinto fault, data shows that there was not only a seismic event there in the right time frame, the early 19th century, but that it was bigger than what could have been contained in one section of the San Jacinto by itself.

Onderdonk adds that he is submitting an independent study that shows this has happened several times in the past two millennia—adding to evidence that a devastating joint quake could happen again in the future.

Learn more about this research and more at the Deep Carbon Observatory.

This Device Translates Text To Braille in Real Time

Smithsonian Magazine

In the wee hours of Valentine's day last year, a team of six women, all MIT engineering undergraduates, sat exhausted but exhilarated. Their table strewn with colorful wires, post it notes, food wrappers, scraps of papers, shapes cut from cardboard. This was no craft project gone awry. The team had just competed in MakeMIT’s hackathon—a competition in which teams of students spend 15 hours designing, coding, constructing, testing and debugging ambitious projects.

The women, competing under the team name 100% Enthusiasm, had set out to tackle a big challenge: accessibility for the blind. Their idea: a portable, inexpensive device that could scan text and convert it to braille in real time. It was something with potential to transform the lives of some of the 1.3 million Americans who are legally blind.

This first iteration was rough. Nearly the size of an adult’s hand, the mechanics of the device were sandwiched between two panes of plastic—wires and circuit boards exposed. Six pins poked up through the top of the device to display a single braille character (letter, number or punctuation mark). It imaged each character of text using an external computer’s webcam, rather than an internal camera as the team had hoped, explains Chen “Bonnie” Wang, one of the team members who is currently a senior majoring in material science and engineering. It was slow and not particularly portable. But it worked, translating text to braille. Team 100% Enthusiasm won.

Image by Lemelson-MIT. At the MakeMIT hackathon, the team initially constructed a rough prototype with a cardboard frame before 3D printing the pins and laser cutting the acrylic panels. (original image)

Image by Lemelson-MIT. The first prototype they developed at the 2016 MakeMIT hackathon was rough, but it worked. (original image)

Image by Brian Smale, Microsoft. The team initially used an external camera for their prototypes (as shown here), but have since developed an internal multi-camera system for the product. (original image)

The win was just the beginning of their work with the device, which they dubbed Tactile. Now, many prototypes later, the team has received another accolade. Tactile is one of nine winners for this year’s Lemelson-MIT Student Prize, which celebrates the translation of “ideas into inventions that improve the world in which we live,” according to the contest’s website. The winning inventions—a folding electric drone, proteins to fight superbugs, and a solar-powered desalination system for off-grid water production, to name a few—tackle a wide range of problems.

“We were super honored to be chosen as one of the winners of the award,” says Wang. The title came with a $10,000 prize that they are hoping to put back into the project to continue to improve how the device works.

The team’s latest prototype, about the size of a candy bar, can display six characters at a time (the average English word is roughly five characters long) and has a built in camera. Users can place it down on a line of text and with a push of a button, the device takes an image. Optical character recognition then takes over, identifying the characters on the page using Microsoft’s Computer Vision API. Then the team’s software translates each character into braille and subsequently triggers the mechanical system in the box to raise and lower the pins. They have applied for a patent for the integration of the system through Microsoft’s #MakeWhatsNext patent program, which supports women inventors.

“Currently the camera only takes a picture of its field of view,” Chandani Doshi, one of the team members who is majoring in electrical engineering and computer science, explains via email. “We are aiming to make the device similar to a handheld scanner that allows the user to scan the entire page in one go.” The idea is to make it as easy as possible to operate, preventing the user from needing to keep track of where they are on the page.

Team Tactile is composed of six MIT senior engineering undergraduates—Chen Wang, Chandani Doshi, Grace Li, Jessica Shi, Charlene Xia and Tania Yu—who all wanted to make a difference in the world. (Brian Smale, Microsoft)

Though this is not the first real-time text to braille device, most products are based on digital text, like ebooks or pdfs—and they are extremely expensive. For example, the HumanWare Brailliant can connect to mobile devices and computers, allowing the user to type on the six-keyed braille keyboard and read using the one-line display of 32 characters. Prices for the device start at over $2,500. Also popular are what’s known as braille note-takers. These are like mini-computers, allowing word processing, the use of excel and powerpoint, and internet browsing. But these, too, retail in the thousands.

And a lot of text is not readily available in electronic format—menus, brochures, receipts, business cards, class handouts and more. Tactile would raise the text of these inaccessible documents right off the page. The team hopes to eventually sell the device for a maximum cost of $200.

One of the many challenges in development, however, is figuring out a better way to raise and lower the pins. In similar devices on the market, this has long been done using piezoelectronics—an expensive method that harnesses the properties of crystal structures. The team hopes to use microfluidics (differences in either liquid or air pressure) or electromagnetism (interactions of electric currents and magnetic fields) to move the pins. They are now testing both systems to figure out which is the least expensive, but most responsive and shrinkable for their final prototype.

Ultimately the team hopes that the final product will be slightly smaller than their current prototype and display two lines of 18 characters each. They hope to get it to market within two years.

“This opens up the world, really. What limitation is there if you have a device that would transcribe any document into braille?” the team’s adviser Paul Parravano, who has been visually impaired since he was three, inquires in a video about the device. “Suddenly the library is open.”

The question, however, is how many people will be waiting and ready to read the library. A commonly cited statistic is that less than 10 percent of people who are legally blind can actually read braille. Many people prefer to use text-to-speech technology and other audio-based programs, says Marion Hersh, a researcher who specializes in assistive technology at the University of Glasgow. Braille is challenging to learn and given the option, she says, many instead choose audio or even magnification (if they have limited eyesight).

It is important to note, however, that the braille literacy numbers are based on an outdated mode of measurement: supply of braille books from American Printing House for the Blind, explains Ike Presley, National Project Manager for the American Foundation for the Blind. “We definitely want to stifle that misconception that braille is dead and technology is putting braille out of business,” he says. “If anything, technology is making braille more accessible.”

The team has received feedback on each iteration of Tactile from their adviser Paul Parravano, who has been visually impaired since he was three. (Lemelson-MIT)

The women of team Tactile are well aware of the statistic, but believe that part of the problem is the lack of inexpensive devices to make braille more available. The market for such devices is small, so few companies venture in with innovative ideas. “We don't have a Microsoft or an Apple ... the tech companies that make the tools for people who are blind or visually impaired are relatively small,” says Presley.

This means less competition, less innovation and higher prices. “It really drives up the cost, which limits access to braille even more. It's just a bad cycle,” says Wang.

“Whether this could encourage people who don’t already know braille to use it is open to questions,” says Hersh. But she notes that any new accessibility technology that combines low cost with ease of use could be extremely helpful in the market.

Learning braille means literacy for the blind community, says Presley, who helps train service providers so they can more effectively work with the visually impaired. Audio systems don’t provide the same understanding of language. “Auditory is great...but it doesn’t give you the literacy,” he says. “When you listen to [text read aloud], you don't know how to spell the words, you don't see the grammar, you don't see how text is formatted ...But when you read it in braille, you do.”

Studies also suggest that braille literacy increases both likelihood of being employed and an overall higher earnings potential for the blind and visually impaired—a group that has historically suffered high rates of unemployment.

These factors have only made team Tactile more determined to keep working on their product. All six engineers will graduate this June. But that isn’t going to slow them down. Three plan to continue working on Tactile, says Wang, and the others will continue part time.

“These women are on a great path, and as young as they are, if they can devote the next 20 years of their career to this, wow,” says Presley. “There's no telling what they might come up with.”

As the World Faces One of the Worst Flu Outbreaks in Decades, Scientists Eye a Universal Vaccine

Smithsonian Magazine

With the deadly 2017-2018 flu season still fresh in public health officials’ minds, this year’s outbreak is shaping up to be just as severe. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), says this flu season could be one of the worst in decades. “The initial indicators indicate this is not going to be a good season—this is going to be a bad season,” Fauci told CNN earlier this month.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that there have been at least 9.7 million cases of the flu since early October. The CDC has also been tracking flu mortality, reporting at least 4,800 flu-related deaths this season. The young, elderly and immuno-compromised are especially susceptible to the flu—this season, 33 children have died from the virus.

Even in mild cases, the flu virus can cause unpleasant symptoms like high fevers, muscle aches and fatigue. To protect yourself against the annual flu outbreak, public health officials have a simple piece of advice: get your flu shot.

While the flu shot is the best defense currently available against seasonal influenza, it is not 100 percent effective. The CDC reports that the influenza vaccine typically reduces the risk of illness by between 40 and 60 percent, and that’s only if the viruses included in the vaccine match the subtypes of influenza circulating that season.

As an RNA virus, influenza has a high tendency to mutate, Fauci told Smithsonian. Even within subtypes of influenza, the virus’s genetic code is constantly mutating, causing season-to-season changes that scientists call antigenic drift.

“Most of the time, the virus changes just enough from one season to another so that last year's flu isn't exactly the same as what this year's flu is,” Fauci says. “In order to get optimal protection, you recommend vaccinating people every year. That's very unique. There really is no other vaccine that you recommend somebody getting vaccinated every single year.”


To keep up with antigenic drift, scientists are constantly tweaking the flu vaccine, which is designed to respond to a surface protein called hemagglutinin, targeting what Fauci calls the “head” of the protein. “When you make a good response, the good news is you get protected. The problem is, the head is that part of the protein that has a propensity to mutate a lot.”

The other end of the protein—the “stem”—is much more resistant to mutations. A vaccine that targets the hemagglutinin stem has the potential to provide protection against all subtypes of influenza and work regardless of antigenic drift, offering an essentially universal defense against the flu. NIAID, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is currently working to develop a candidate for a universal flu vaccine in a Phase 1 clinical trial, the first time the vaccine candidate has been given to people. Results on the safety and efficacy of the vaccine are due in early 2020.

Along with protecting against the seasonal influenza, a universal vaccine would also arm humanity with a weapon against the next pandemic strain of the flu. Flu pandemics come along occasionally and unpredictably, usually when a subtype of influenza jumps from animals to humans. This phenomenon, called antigenic shift, introduces a flu so novel to humans that our immune systems are caught entirely off guard.

The most severe flu pandemic in recorded history was the 1918 influenza, which infected one-third of the world’s population and claimed at least 50 million lives. The first outbreak of illness occurred at Camp Funston in Fort Riley, Kansas, in March 1918, according to the CDC. Genetic evidence suggests the particular virus came from a bird. The deployment of troops to fight in World War I contributed to the spread of disease, and at the conclusion of the war, the flu’s death toll surpassed the total number of civilian and military casualties due to the fighting. Unlike the seasonal flu, the 1918 pandemic was fatal for many otherwise healthy adults aged 15 to 34, lowering the life expectancy in the United States by more than 12 years.

Kanta Subbarao, director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Reference and Research on Influenza, says there are three criteria for a strain of influenza to be considered pandemic: novelty, infectiousness and ability to cause disease. “If a novel virus emerges, we need to know two things,” she says. “What is the likelihood that it would infect humans and spread? But also, if it were to do that, how much of an impact would it have on human health?”

The infectiousness and severity of impact can dictate whether a pandemic turns out to be relatively mild, like the 2009 swine flu, or as brutal as the 1918 epidemic.

Sabrina Sholts, curator of the exhibition “Outbreak: Epidemics in a Connected World” at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, says the human activities that drive the emergence and spread of disease—like living in close quarters and traveling around the globe—have only intensified since 1918. But while globalization can escalate the transmission of disease, it can also facilitate the worldwide dissemination of knowledge.

“Now, we have a means to monitor and coordinate globally that didn't exist at that time [in 1918],” Sholts says. “I think that that communication is a tremendous tool, and that's an opportunity to respond rather quickly when something like this happens.”

Subbarao points to the WHO’s Global Influenza Surveillance and Response System (GISRS) as one example of global cooperation on flu research. She estimates that there are about 145 national influenza centers in 115 countries monitoring seasonal influenza, as well as any flu viruses that manage to jump from animals to humans.

In a statement in March, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced a Global Influenza Strategy for the upcoming decade. The strategy has two overarching goals: to improve every country’s preparedness to monitor and respond to influenza and to develop better tools to prevent and treat influenza. Research on a universal vaccine could support the second objective of arming the global population with a stronger defense against the flu.

“The threat of pandemic influenza is ever-present,” Ghebreyesus said in the statement. “We must be vigilant and prepared. The cost of a major influenza outbreak will far outweigh the price of prevention.”

Monument Marks Little-Remembered Case That Set Precedent for Asian Americans to Testify in Court

Smithsonian Magazine

Chinese immigrants moved to the territory of New Mexico in large numbers in the 1800s. They came, like so many other diaspora groups, in search of work. But legalized discrimination, through laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, created profound hurdles for them.

That’s why the little-known case Territory of New Mexico v. Yee Shun is so significant. On the evening of February 24, 1882, Yee Shun got off the train in East Las Vegas, New Mexico. The 20 year old, who had emigrated to the United States shortly before, was on his way to Albuquerque in search of a job, but decided to make the stop to check in with a friend, Gum Fing. When he walked into a local Chinese laundry to inquire the whereabouts of Fing, gunfire rang out. Shun ran out of the laundry. Inside, a man named Jim Lee (who was also known as Sam Ling King or Frank) had been fatally shot.

When witnesses placed Shun at the scene of the crime, he was arrested. One of the Chinese immigrants who witnessed the shooting, Jo Chinaman, claimed Shun was the killer. Two other Chinese men who also witnessed the shooting contradicted his testimony.

Shun was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Following an unsuccessful appeal, Shun committed suicide.

The tragedy had an unintended postscript. During his lawyer’s failed appeal, he claimed that Chinaman’s testimony was invalid because he was "of the Chinese religion,” and so his oath could not hold up in court. But New Mexico’s territorial supreme court judge disagreed. He upheld the conviction, and in the process established the precedent that Asian Americans had the right to testify in court.

“The Yee Shun precedent held sway throughout most of the trans-Mississippi West for Chinese litigants, and it was even used to apply to other Asian-American minorities,” write Arif Dirlik and Malcolm Yeung in Chinese on the American Frontier. “In 1909 the Nebraska Supreme Court invoked Territory of New Mexico v. Yee Shun to determine if a Japanese witness, Jack Naoi, could be disqualified ‘for the alleged reason that Japan is a heathen country.’”

Now, this landmark case will be memorialized with a planned public monument.

As Ollie Reed Jr. reports for Albuquerque Journal, the towering 28-foot-tall, $275,000 public sculpture was approved last month. The project has been in the works for several years.

According to a press release, local optometrist Siu Wong, a member of Asian civil rights group Chinese American Citizen Alliance, initiated the project and raised the funds to make it a reality.

“[Wong has worked] to give this court case the place in history that it rightfully deserves,” Bernalillo county public art project coordinator Nan Masland tells

Following a national call for artists, the Asian American Monument Committee of New Mexico selected Cheryll Leo-Gwin and Stewart Wong’s design “View from Gold Mountain.”

Gold Mountain is what Chinese laborers called the greater American West during the Gold Rush period that brought so many to the West Coast in the mid-1800s. But as Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage explains, "the vast majority of Chinese who rushed to the West Coast never got rich from gold. Instead, after arriving on these shores, they laid railroad tracks, worked as itinerant farm laborers and factory hands, cooked food, pressed shirts, and performed other tasks that helped build the American West.”

Now in the final design stage, installation should begin around early 2019 with a spring or summer completion according to Masland. It will be installed near the state district courthouse in downtown Albuquerque.

“When Bernalillo County Public Art was approached to manage this project, we saw the opportunity for public art to be the conduit to elevate awareness of this court case and its significance to civil rights,” Masland says. “A sculpture of this scale has the power to educate and inform the public in an accessible manner.”

In an interview with Hyperallergic’s Claire Voon, Leo-Gwin explains the monument's central metal plumb bob is tilted at a 30-degree angle "as a metaphor for tipping the scales of justice." An object in motion, it ultimately “finds stability and balance.” A braid running vertically along the shape is a nod to the queue hairstyle. Three gourds above the plump bob symbolize the U.S.'s three branches of government.

Despite setting a precedent, the case has remained largely unknown in the larger understanding of American civil rights. Officials hope the new monument will draw attention to its importance.

“The sculpture will inform the public about the contributions that Asian Americans have made to advance civil rights through use of the judicial system,” as Bernalillo County district 3 commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins says in the press release.

What to Eat—or Not—in Peru

Smithsonian Magazine

The colorful goods of the outdoor markets of Peru provide entertainment for all senses—and good food for hungry cyclists. Photo by Alastair Bland.

Symptoms of traveler’s diarrhea usually kick in an hour after the victim gets on the bus, I told my brother Andrew. He was eagerly attacking his first cooked meal in a week—a fillet of fish and fried potatoes from a small seaside restaurant in Tortugas. “It does’t matter when you get on the bus,” I elaborated. ”It’s an hour after you get on the bus.”

But he never got sick. In spite of numerous warnings from experienced travelers and stodgy medical doctors that street food, cooked food or any items that have been exposed to tap water, dirt or insects should not be eaten in Peru, we have both retained stalwart health since we began expanding our diet after a week of eating mostly fresh fruit. We started with chicha—Andean corn beer, which comes in several colors—and enjoyed its tart, fizzy bite in the town square of Huarmey. In the northern town of Tumbes we bought a hunk of local cow cheese. It was hard and aged, and it frankly left us hankering for a piece of cheese fresher and creamier, yet the fat and protein were a welcomed change. We look forward to buying more. We eyed the street vendors selling hard-boiled quail eggs for days, and now we have incorporated them into our diet. We have begun eating, as well, fresh corn—lumpy, stocky cobs sold for a few cents by street vendors working gas-powered grills. Andrew, thinking big again in the town of Puerto Pizarro, bought a whole rotisserie chicken with a three-pound bag of cooked rice and monestra (stewed beans) for 20 soles—about $8—and devoured most of the bird in less than 30 minutes. We haven’t gotten to Peru’s famous ceviche yet, though we will.

The author awaits a baggie-to-go full of hard-boiled quail eggs, a popular street snack in Peru. Photo by Andrew Bland.

And while so much savory, hot food, heavy in oils and protein, has been a happy change for us, I have to admit I’d still rather hold out for fresh and exotic fruits. I told this to a French woman we recently met on a beach near Tumbes. She flatly said I was not experiencing Peru. “Like heck I’m not! I’m riding a bike through Peru and eating locally grown specialties,” I said. “How Peruvian is that? I was in France last year cycling. I never ate foie gras or escargots but I shopped at markets and made my own meals and got a great taste of the country.” I just don’t believe that one must have a restaurant staff tiptoe around you every day at feeding time to truly experience place and culture.

Rather, I find the outdoor markets of Peru to be endlessly entertaining galas of color, smells and flavors. Foreigners can expect to find new and unusual items at almost each visit—some variety of passion fruit, avocados the size of footballs, sapotes, mameys, guaba fruits like giant bean pods or sugar cane juice. Notably, Andrew has overdosed on cherimoyas and now grows nauseous every time I start talking about them. He even observed quite astutely during his final cherimoya meal—won’t touch them now—that the fruits smell sweetly like our chain grease. Yum.

The author’s brother sets into a long-awaited savory meal—a simple fillet of fish browned in oil, served with fries and eaten in an empty beach restaurant. Photo by Alastair Bland.

But if cherimoyas turn a man’s stomach, the markets themselves are still a joy to browse. Aside from the food we take away, I also enjoy interacting with the vendors—asking names of fruits, exaggerating my surprise at the size of an avocado, asking for prices and holding out for the next stall, where the lucumas just might be ripe (most are sold three days before ripeness). Perhaps especially, I relish the power of leaving no long-awaited meal to chance—because a burning appetite for calories is nothing to waste at the end of each day. I ride my bicycle with potent visions of tropical fruit heaps luring me forward, and though a few hard-boiled eggs might tide me over until the marketplace, I will let no street vendor on the edge of town spoil my glorious meal of victory. The roving ceviche carts and meat grills are colorful pieces of street scenery, and we are enjoying some hot, savory food each day—as several readers advised we do—but eating a creamy cherimoya, a sweet and starchy lucuma or a pineapple with flesh as white and sweet as sugar could be the truest taste of Peru.

These avocados in the Tumbes market were the biggest we had yet seen—almost the size of footballs and several pounds each. Photo by Alastair Bland.

The wine

I’m usually forgiving of harsh wine while traveling. After all, just about anything from a bottle that gives a bite is appreciated late at night in a tent. But we are losing our patience with Peruvian wine. We had a bottle our first night at the Sol de Santa Rosa campground, on the bumpy road to Canta. It was a Miranda Cahuayo Semi Dry. I set aside my cherimoya to pop the cork—and the smell attacked me instantly. We had already been warned that Peruvian wine was bad, but we had disregarded the advice as the nonsense of a wine snob. But the wine was truly intolerable, smelling and tasting like rancid grease and spoiled raspberries slurried into a bucket of muddy charcoal dust. We tried again the next night with a Peruvian red whose name I neglected to record. Another disappointment—a wine so sweet and pungent that we couldn’t drink it. We vowed then to buy only wines from Chile, Argentina or other reputable producers. But the next night we got duped by a bottle with “Santiago” printed prominently on the label. A closer look during dinner revealed it was a Peruvian wine made of Concord grapes. We crossed our fingers and pulled the cork. It was a sweet, oily-tasting juice, like antifreeze. I’ve made wine in a plastic jug strapped to the back of my bike that was better. Grumbling, we poured it down the drain. A valid critic gives his subject many chances before making a conclusive statement—but how many chances must we give Peruvian wine? If someone could direct me straight to the good stuff—heck, just drinkable would be a start—I’d be grateful and would try again. But for now, we are afraid to buy another bottle.

What else can one drink in Peru? Cheap lagers are available at most grocery stores, but the main national brands taste like the cheap beer from anywhere else. There is also pisco, if you like distilled spirits. Pisco is Peru’s rendition of brandy and is often marketed by grape variety and frequently carries a nice scent of the starting grape itself—surprising for a liquid that has traveled through the tubes and chambers of a commercial still. But in a hot desert after a long day of cycling, sometimes the best drink is water.


We have both gotten sick. We should have known. Book-smart medical doctors and experienced travelers warned us that eating street food or nearly anything out of a kitchen here was liable to make us run for the bathroom. Shows what they know—the bus had no bathroom. We’re going back to cherimoyas.

The popular guaba fruit—actually a legume—is an oddity not commonly seen outside the tropics. It grows from a tree and is technically a legume. Within the machete-shaped pods are seeds encased in fuzzy cotton-candy-like flesh. Photo by Alastair Bland.

The Surprisingly Important Role China Played in WWI

Smithsonian Magazine

While the Pacific theater was a major and well-known battleground of World War II, it may come as a surprise that Asian nations played a role in World War I. Both Japan and China actually declared war on Germany in hopes of gaining regional dominance. While China never sent troops into battle, its involvement in World War I was influential—and had impacts that stretched far beyond the war, going on to shape the country's future indelibly.

Under the rule of the Qing Dynasty, China was the most powerful nation in the East for nearly three centuries. But losing the First Sino-Japanese War to Japan in 1895 put an end to that. And the downhill slide didn’t end with losing the war; a subsequent series of treaties divvied up chunks of China between Russia and Japan, a continuation of the creation of European concessions like Hong Kong or the French settlement in Shanghai.

Germany also used military force to insert itself into east Asian affairs. Capitalizing on the murder of two German missionaries, the country attacked and invaded the city of Qingdao in 1897, establishing what amounted to a German colony in Shandong province. The prospect of expelling Germany from the region and taking control themselves was enough to entice Japan to join the fight against Germany, making the Great War a global one in 1914.

Meanwhile in China, a wobbly republican state led by military general Yuan Shikai replaced the imperial system of governance in 1912. But local warlords and clashes with the nationalist party, Kuomintang (led by Sun Yat-sen), continued to threaten his position. “The Chinese people suffered political chaos, economic weakness, and social misery,” writes historian Xu Guoqi in Strangers On the Western Front. “But this was also a period of excitement, hope, high expectations, optimism and new dreams”—because China believed it could use the war as a way to reshape the geopolitical balance of power and attain equality with European nations.

There was only one problem: At first, none of the Allies wanted China to join the fight. Although China declared itself neutral at the start of the war in August 1914, President Shikai had secretly offered British minister John Jordan 50,000 troops to retake Qingdao. Jordan refused the offer, but Japan would soon use its own armed forces to oust the Germans from the city, and remained there throughout the war. By February 1916, with men dying in huge numbers in Europe, Jordan came around to the idea of Chinese aid and told British officials that China could “join with the Entente provided that Japan and the other Allies accepted her as a partner.

Japan, however, refused to allow Chinese soldiers to fight, hoping to remain the powerhouse in the East.

If China couldn’t fight directly, Shikai’s advisors decided, the next-best option was a secret show of support toward the Allies: they would send voluntary non-combatant workers, largely from Shandong, to embattled Allied countries.

Starting in late 1916, China began shipping out thousands of men to Britain, France and Russia. Those laborers would repair tanks, assemble shells, transport supplies and munitions, and help to literally reshape the war’s battle sites.  Since China was officially neutral, commercial businesses were formed to provide the labor, writes Keith Jeffery in 1916: A Global History.

Chinese laborers filled a number of positions in World War I, including at tank facilities like this one. (Wikimedia Commons/Chatham House, London)

“A lot of those trenches weren’t dug by the [Allied] soldiers, they were dug by Chinese laborers,” says Bruce Elleman, professor of maritime history at the U.S. Naval War College and author of Wilson and China: A Revised History of the Shandong Question. Sending workers—mostly illiterate peasants—was one way for China to prove it deserved a seat at the table whenever the war ended and terms were agreed upon. But even after a year of supplying labor, their contribution remained largely unrecognized diplomatically.

It was more than just prestige that spurred China to enter the conflict: The volatile nation dreamed of regaining complete control of the Shandong province. Located on the eastern shore of China along the Yellow Sea, the region has a rich history as the birthplace of Confucius; diplomat Wellington Koo to call it the “cradle of Chinese civilization.”

In 1915, the year after Japan took Qingdao from Germany, Japan imposed a new treaty on China: The Twenty-One Demands. The highly unpopular treaty required China to cede control of even more territory, including in Shandong and Manchuria. If China participated in World War I, its leaders reasoned, maybe the country could win back this mainland territory.

The United States’ entrance to WWI shifted the political dynamic of the Allies, with U.S. officials supporting China’s cause with an eye toward the war’s end. As Elleman says, “[The U.S. was] hoping at the post-war conference to be able to resolve these diplomatic issues [between China and Japan and Germany],” since President Wilson wanted to take a leadership role in the negotiations and form the League of Nations.

China’s position became more fraught when Germany announced its strategy of unrestricted submarine warfare. More than 500 Chinese laborers aboard the French ship Athos were killed in February 1917 when a U-boat struck the ship. Finally, encouraged by the U.S. and believing it was the only sure way to be considered in the eventual peace agreements, China declared war on Germany on August 14, 1917—though little changed in the support they provided, since they had already been sending laborers.

By the end of the war, Chinese workers would rank as the largest and longest-serving non-European contingent in World War I. France recruited 37,000 Chinese workers, while the United Kingdom took in 94,500. The men sent abroad would earn an estimated total of $2.2 billion, reports the South China Morning Post. Along the way, so many of these workers died or sustained injuries that China established a Bureau of Overseas Chinese Workers and convinced the U.K. to provide compensation for the wounded men. 

In other cases, Chinese workers staffed munitions factory during World War I. (Wikimedia Commons/Chatham House, London)

“China had prepared to attend the post-war peace conference as early as 1915,” says Xu. When the war at last ended in November 1918, China planned its delegation for the Paris Peace Conference, hoping to finally achieve full control of its mainland territory.

But China was given only two seats at the Paris Peace Conference to Japan’s five, since the latter had contributed combat troops. Matters only devolved from there. Some of the European delegates were unfamiliar with the Twenty-One Demands, writes Julian Theseira in Global Histories, and the Western powers ultimately awarded Shandong to Japan; the Western diplomats believed they should honor the treaty Japan pressured China to sign after taking Shandong. China saw the move as a rejection of its demand to be recognized as an equal player in global politics, and as an affront to its sovereignty.

“China was deeply angry at the Versailles Treaty and was the only country at the postwar peace conference to refuse to put a signature on it,” Xu said. A student-led protest in Beijing called the May Fourth Movement was organized in response to outrage over the peace talks. It called for political and social changes and, as Xu writes, was a sign of China’s turn towards socialism in 1921 with the foundation of the Chinese Communist Party.

Elleman goes even further in stating the importance of the Shandong issue. “They talk about these forks in the road, and this is one. If this whole Shandong controversy had not happened, China might never have become Communist,” Elleman says. He argues that leaving the Shandong question unresolved, at least in China’s eyes, meant they mistrusted European governments going forward and felt more attracted to socialism. “It’s one of the most important pieces in modern Chinese history.” 

Camel Spiders Are Fast, Furious and Horrifically Fascinating

Smithsonian Magazine

Imagine waking up to find a hairy-faced, fleet-footed monster on your doorstep—a creature that looks like a mashup of Shelob and Grendel, with jaws nearly one-third the size of its body. Jaws that have just sheared most of your nest-mates in half. This was the stuation for an unfortunate colony of ants that recently fell victim to a camel spider in Israel. 

And thanks to the keen eyes of photographer Olga Chagina, we have video.  

Watching the camel spider mow down its prey with efficiency and seeming nonchalance is certainly mesmerizing. But what's actually going on here? The truth is, even the experts are unsure. Which means we can add ‘ant massacres’ to the already long list of things we have yet to figure out about these elusive, hand-sized arachnids. 

Camel spiders, more properly known as solifugids, are an elusive order of arachnids native to deserts all over the world (pretty much everywhere ecept in Australia and Antarctica). There are thought to be around 1,100 species, most of which haven't been studied. This is partly because the animals are a notorious pain to observe in the wild, and partly because they seem to wither away in the lab. 

While many of their common names refer to other kinds of creepy crawlies—wind scorpions, sun spiders—they actually belong to their very own order of Arachnida, separate from true spiders. Paula Cushing, an evolutionary biologist who studies solifugids at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, says some research suggests the animals are most closely related to pseudoscorpions, while other work links solifugids to a group of mites. 

What’s not up for debate is that solifugids are just plain cool. “They’re voracious predators, and they will tear apart anything they can get their jaws on,” says Cushing.  

For solifugids, (almost) everything is on the menu

We know surprisingly little about these critters, but a review of solifugid diets published in 2014 shows that they eat everything from termites, wasps, beetles, and silverfish to scorpions, spiders and other solifugids. One thing they do not seem particularly fond of eating? Ants.

Watch the video closely and you'll never actually see the solifugid eat any of the ants it kills, says Cushing. Of course, it’s possible that the arachnid is merely choosing to hunt now and stockpile its food for later. (And there are records of solifugids eating ants, but there are records of solifugids eating basically everything. Even lizards and birds.) But Cushing says there’s another possible explanation for this behavior. 

Solifugids are prodigious diggers that usually only come out at night. (The word "solifugae" is Latin for "those who flee from the sun.") During the day, they like to hang out under rocks, cow patties or within underground burrows. “In the lab, I’ve seen them burrow down into the soil in such a way that you can’t even tell that there’s anything there,” says Cushing. And in fact, there are two more videos online of solifugids murdering ants where it appears the creatures are also doing some excavating to the opening of the nest.

So it’s possible that the animals aren’t interested in lunch at all and are merely seeking a place to cool off from the desert sun. 

Interestingly, the fact that all three videos are shot in different locations—the first seems to be in Israel, and the others in India and the United States—means that whatever this behavior is, it’s widespread and being deployed by different species of solifugid. Ants of the world: Beware.

Keeping up with the Kalahari Ferraris

There’s a reason that another one of the solifugid’s common names is the Kalahari Ferrari: Solifugids are fast.

“A lot of arachnids are just sit and wait predators,” says Cushing. “And if they move, they move in short bursts.” Not solifugids. These tireless arthropods run and they run until they encounter a potential meal. Then they cut it apart with their bitey bits (known as chelicerae) and slather a bunch of enzymes into the wounds and suck out the sweet sauce it creates, and then they run some more. 

“They have this incredibly high metabolic rate,” says Cushing. “They can move almost constantly, but because of that, they also need to eat a lot.”

Cushing recalls the time one of her colleagues working in the Negev Desert decided to see just how far a solifugid would run before it stopped. She gave up after two hours. 

Of course, there is one thing that’ll stop a solifugid in its tracks: something edible. Even birds, lizards and small mammals can wind up as prey if they’re not careful to get out of the marauding solifugid’s path. “They just run into things, they really do,” says Jack Brookhart, a colleague of Cushing’s who studied on solifugids for decades. 

While Brookhart is now retired and no longer in solifugid-chasing shape, he says in his younger days, he’d follow solifugids on foot as they zig-zagged across the desert at speeds of around 10 miles per hour. Then he would watch as they attacked whatever stood in front of them. 

When a solifugid runs into something that moves, Brookhart says it rears up on its back sets of legs and immediately starts slapping the prey with its palps—appendages that look like legs, but are actually more like feeler organs. Interestingly, these palps have a sort of friction-based adhesive quality which allows solifugids to grasp their prey and climb smooth surfaces, like glass. “Like Spiderman might do to a brick building,” says Brookhart.

And once you’re in their clutches, it’s game over. 

The better to inseminate you with, my dear...

The word “jaw” is far too simplistic to describe what’s in a solifugid’s mouth. Imagine if a scorpion’s claws were set up side by side in its mouth. And each of the four edges was equipped with an array of blades, teeth, and sensory organs. Some species can also rub their chelicerae together to produce a defensive clicking, called stridulation. All in all, a 2015 study of 157 different species of solifugid found that the arachnid’s chelicerae are composed of some 80 different structures. 

And get this: In some species, the males’ chelicerae have tiny add-ons that scientists hypothesize are used for transferring sperm. 

As with most solifugid biology, most of this remains in the realm of speculation. But if male solifugids do have sperm-transferring tools in their jaws, it would make a lot of sense. That is, if you know anything about the savage manner in which solifugids make love. 

According to Jen Rowsell, who conducted solifugid mating trials as part of her master’s thesis at West Texas A&M University, it all begins innocently enough. The male approaches the female and caresses her with his palps. But as soon as the male touches the female, for reasons we don’t fully understand, she falls into a hypnosis-like trance. 

At this point, the male begins to manhandle the typically much-larger female, tugging her to and fro. “It’s just honestly beyond awkward to watch,” says Rowsell. 

Next comes the mouth stuff. The male plunges his jaws into the female’s genital opening and just starts going to town. The top part of the chelicerae, which as you now know are quite large, go all the way in to the hilt. “They create this incredibly violent back and forth motion, just like when they’re eating. The head pulses. They’re basically chewing on the female’s lady-parts,” says Rowsell. 

Nobody knows for sure what all this macabre mastication accomplishes. Rowsell says it could be that the female’s reproductive organs need to be stimulated or prepared in some way. Or perhaps this is the male’s way of gouging out any other competitor’s sperm left behind from an earlier courtship. 

After what must feel like an eternity to everyone involved—including the researcher—the male pulls out. At this point, males of some species press their genital openings against the female’s orifice briefly; others lay a sperm packet on the ground, pick it up and insert into the female with their chelicerae. Regardless of the species, this step is followed by still more gnawing away at the female’s genital opening. Again, we don’t know why exactly, but it’s thought this might help open the sperm packet. 

This whole affair sounds horrific, which might be why the females have evolved a catatonic state to endure it. But there is a caveat. “If the male deviates in any way from the sequence, the female will emerge from her trance-like state with a hellfire inside her,” says Rowsell. 

Once awoken, the female solifugid thrashes about until she can free herself from the male. Then it’s her turn to get bitey. Rowsell says she would usually intervene at this point, because adult solifugids are so hard to come by and she didn’t want to risk either animal ending up injured. But on a few occasions, the female would actually start eating the male. 

Nature, it seems, is a double-edged solifugid. 

A place at the park: LGBTQ+ inclusion and skateboarding

National Museum of American History

When you think about the culture around skateboarding, you might think about the laid-back vibe of acceptance and inclusion that the sport has come to foster. But skaters from the LGBTQ+ community haven’t always felt accepted and included. Violent anti-gay attacks in the early 1980s and 1990s within the male-dominated world of skate led many to hide their sexuality. Brian Anderson, a skater who rose to popularity in the 1990s, remembers regularly hearing gay slurs, which made him think at a young age that it was dangerous to talk about his sexuality.

Recently, however, skate has made great strides in its acceptance of LGBTQ+ skaters. To document this shift, the museum has collected from members of this diverse and fiercely dedicated community.

Brian Anderson

A black skateboard with a red logoThis skate deck was one of Brian Anderson’s first pro model decks issued when he skated for Toy Machine in the mid-1990s. Anderson would go on to skate for Girl Skateboards and found his own company, 3D Skateboards, in 2013.

Brian Anderson first gained notoriety in the skateboarding world in 1996 and quickly became one of the most popular skaters in the sport. In 2016 Anderson became the first high-profile professional skater to come out as gay, something he never thought he would do. Afraid to come out when he was younger, Anderson put his rage and frustration into his skating.

“I think a part of me was so irritated and angry from holding that in," Anderson told Vice, "so it made me more of an animal on my skateboard.”

Anderson’s skateboarding notoriety has made him a symbol for the LGBTQ+ community, leading him to take an active role in public awareness. Proceeds from sales of his Cave Homo zine, which explores Anderson’s journey as an openly gay man, are donated to the LGBTQ+ suicide prevention nonprofit The Trevor Project.

A magazine cover featuring a bare-chested man on a magazine cover with the text Cave Homo.This is the first issue of the zine Cave Homo, a collaboration with Anderson’s friends, designer Luke Williams and photographer Christian Trippe. Cave Homo became a venue for Anderson’s art, sketches, and photography, highlighting Anderson’s personal interests and his newfound freedom as an openly gay man.

Cher Strauberry

A skateboarder doing a trick with a pink skateboard.Cher Strauberry using her first signature skateboard.

Stevil Kinevil designed transgender skater Cher Strauberry’s first signature deck. Kinevil conveyed to me that he made the board “to celebrate [Strauberry] as a talented skateboarder, but additionally to recognize and honor the diversity of the community who frequents the parking lot where we first met, and spend time together on a weekly basis.”

That parking lot proved to be a safe haven with smooth blacktop, few people, and great curbs for grinds (or slappies, as they are known).

“Transgender skaters haven’t been a visible component in our community until recently,” Kinevil told me, and he wanted to celebrate that shift through this board.

A pink skateboard, broken in half.Strauberry broke her first signature skateboard while doing a backside heelflip down six big steps.
“I was filming my best friend Mae after and she broke her ankle on the same stairs," Strauberry revealed to me. "The rest of the day was spent in the ER, her with her broken foot and me holding what was left of the first Cher board.”
The art on the board was drawn and designed by Olivia Gibb.

Unity Skateboards

A white skateboard with an orange design.This Unity Skateboarding deck is a wood maple laminate construction with a red deck surface. The bottom of the deck has a white ground with an original drawing from Unity Skateboarding founder Jeff Cheung.

Unity Skateboarding is the creation of Jeffrey Cheung, a California-based artist who wanted to provide a safe environment for queer skaters who might otherwise face ridicule and shame in their local skate parks. Unity Skateboarding started with the Unity Press zines Cheung would publish. They spread the word throughout the LGBTQ+ skateboarding community. This led to opportunities for sponsorship and eventually the start of Unity Skateboarding’s own skate team.

“Unity Skateboards will be for queer youth and queer people out there: an encouraging and positive force,” Cheung told Vice. “I am hoping that by being an all-inclusive project, it could be a bigger idea than a gay skate company—and that we can break down barriers together.”

Pave The Way Skateboards

A green and black skateboardThis Pave the Way skate deck is a maple wood laminate with a green top surface. The bottom has a green and black checkerboard design throughout with well-known LGBTQ+ performers, athletes, and activists drawn by company co-founder Miriam Stahl.

Pave the Way skateboards, created by writer and performer Tara Jepsen and graphic artist and teacher Miriam Klein Stahl, celebrates being queer and living life through skate without fear of self-expression. Jepsen and Stahl’s board depicts LGBTQ+ icons who modeled an ethos of acceptance reflected in their impact on skate culture.

Lacey Baker

A collage of the front and back of a skateboard. The front shows Lady Gaga. The back is a torn up board.Skateboards allow for a skater’s personal expression to shine through. Lacey Baker affixed a photograph of their idol, Lady Gaga, to the top surface of her board. The bottom includes sponsor stickers—and depicts the use and abuse a skateboard used by a professional skateboarder experiences.

Lacey Baker began skating at an early age, winning bronze at the 2006 X-Games at 15. It took eight years to finally win gold but when they did, it was on their own terms, as a queer skater.

“That’s really important for me, because for a long time the industry wanted to shape me in a way that wasn’t me," Baker told Huck magazine. "To be unapologetic about my image and who I am and then to have people acknowledge how important that is in the skate industry. . . . I can’t even describe how that feels. To bring together girls who skate, queers who skate . . . and let those worlds collide. I’m lucky to be here.”

Skate is still working on its acceptance of gay and queer skaters, but Baker has hope for inclusion.

“I would love to just carve out a bigger space for women who skate, and queer people who skate and gender non-conforming people," Baker told, "and just like, really open up that space for people like me, and people that understand what it’s like to experience life this way.”

Jane Rogers is a curator in the Division of Cultural and Community Life.

Posted Date: 
Wednesday, August 21, 2019 - 09:30
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Modern Climate Change Is the Only Worldwide Warming Event of the Past 2,000 Years

Smithsonian Magazine

A group of climate scientists has reached a surprising conclusion about Earth’s past eras of naturally-driven, global warming and cooling—they weren’t global after all.

The authors of new studies in Nature and Nature Geoscience used evidence of ancient climates gathered around the world, from tree rings to coral reefs, to examine the pace and extent of well-known episodes of warming or cooling over the past 2,000 years. They report that events like the Little Ice Age and Mediaeval Warm Period, driven by natural variability, were actually more regional than global in scope.

In fact, the only time in the past 2,000 years that nearly all of the Earth has undergone significant warming or cooling is the present period of change that began in the 20th century, according to the research of Nathan Steiger, an atmospheric scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University, and colleagues. The rate of warming was also higher during the second half of the 20th century than during any similar period of the past 2,000 years, the studies found.

“It was surprising to us that the coherence of the climate, prior to the industrial revolution, was much more regional,” Steiger says. “There were regional periods of cold or warmth, but it’s only during the contemporary period where there’s a global warm period that’s very different from what we see in the past. On one hand it isn’t all that surprising that the climate now is fundamentally different, but this provides a really nice long-term context where can clearly see that contrast.”

Previous studies of past climates have identified well-known periods when the Earth warmed or cooled abruptly during the past 2,000 years. Standout eras include the Little Ice Age (1300s to 1800s), the Mediaeval Warm Period (800 to 1200), the Dark Ages Cold Period (400 to 800), and the Roman Warm Period, which occurred during the first few centuries A.D.

“I think that back in the past the assumption was that these must have been global events, and that if you have a record from a tree ring or an ice core somewhere on the planet you should see evidence of the Medieval Warm Period or you should see evidence of the Little Ice Age,” says Scott St. George, who studies environmental variability at the University of Minnesota and wasn’t involved in the research.

But the new studies suggest otherwise. For example, the coldest period of the Little Ice Age varied widely depending on the region of the planet. The coldest temperatures of the past 2,000 years occurred in the 15th century in the Pacific Ocean, the 17th century in northwestern Europe and southeastern North America, and elsewhere not until the mid-19th century.

Finding the warmest period of the past 2,000 years is far simpler. For 98 percent of the globe, the warmest temperatures in the last two milleneia occurred in the late 20th century, the authors report.

The smokestack of a lignite-fired power station in Bogatynia, Poland. ( Florian Gaertner / Getty Images)

Kevin Anchukaitis, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Arizona not involved in the research, says the idea that the Medieval period and Little Ice Age weren’t eras of truly global change has been discussed in previous studies, and the authors’ recent conclusions support that earlier work. “They were broad warm and cold periods, within which different regions of the globe had their coldest or warmest periods at different times. For the Little Ice Age, we know this is linked to volcanism,” Anchukaitis says.

One of the studies also found that rates of warming during the second half of the 20th century were the fastest of the 2,000-year period, based on global average temperatures over timespans of two decades or more. “We looked at the warming rate, how fast it was warming or cooling over the globe over the last 2,000 years, and we found that the most drastic warming over the past 2,000 years occurred during the second half of the 20th century, which highlights the extraordinary character of current climate change,” coauthor and paleolimnologist Raphael Neukom of the University of Bern said in a media briefing. Neukom also noted that the team’s various past climate reconstructions largely agreed with the predictions of climate models on the scale of one to three decades, suggesting that those models’ future climate forecasts may also be accurate over the next few decades.

“What struck me is how robust the earlier reconstructions are,” says Kim Cobb, a climate scientist at the Georgia Institute of Technology unaffiliated with the research, agrees. “This vastly enriched dataset of new paleoclimate records, combined with state-of-the-art modeling, tends to confirm earlier efforts of climate scientists going back 20 years or more. … So the idea that 20th century climate change is very unusual, and outside the rage of natural variability, is certainly being reinforced with an exclamation point now with these new efforts.”

Both studies’ global temperature reconstructions used multiple methodologies, created with the ever-growing repository of ancient climate data maintained in the Past Global Changes or PAGES 2k. Dozens of scientists from countries around the world have contributed nearly 700 records to the open-access database, adding details about ancient climate that were uncovered in glacial ice, ocean sediments, tree rings, corals and other sources. The resource allows scientists to recreate wide snapshots of global climate that would have been extremely difficult just a few short years ago.

“Each one of those records requires an enormous amount of work in the field, and then in the lab,” St. George says. “When you think of ocean corals, a lot of those are recovered using an underwater drill by people in scuba suits. It’s hard to find a 1,000-year-old tree that can reflect changes in temperature or find sediments in an undisturbed lake. So it’s a real challenge sometimes, and there’s a lot of effort that goes into each one of the data points that was used as the foundation for these climate maps.”

A view of Earth’s Western Hemisphere captured by NOAA's GOES-17 weather satellite on May 20, 2018. (NOAA / NASA)

Despite the fact that more data is available to paleoclimatologists than ever before, Anchukaitis believes that significantly more work needs to be done if scientists are to gather a truly global picture of past climate. “To make progress in understanding the climate of the [past 2,000 years], we should move beyond applying a smorgasbord of different statistical methods,” he says via email. Instead, scientists need a renewed effort to gather paleoclimate records from places and times that are underrepresented in compilations like PAGES 2k.

“The proxy network is largely Northern Hemisphere tree-rings, tropical records (corals) decline rapidly by 1600, and there are relatively few Southern Hemisphere records outside of the Antarctic ice cores,” Anchukaitis says. “So claims about global spatial patterns prior to about 1600, particularly for the tropics and southern hemisphere, must be viewed cautiously.”

Neukom and colleagues’ study also found that huge volcanic eruptions were a major driver of temperature fluctuations at timescales of two or three decades, while other natural factors, like solar output, didn’t seem to have a significant influence. A third, related study by Stefan Brönnimann and colleagues focused exclusively on the role that five massive volcanic eruptions, including the 1815 Tambora episode, had on shaping climate at the end of the Little Ice Age. The eruptions created a cooling effect, weakened monsoons in Africa causing droughts, and shifted storm tracks over Europe that resulted in increased snowfall and glacier growth in the Alps.

This volcanically active time period, unusual in the past 2,000 years, coincides with the start of industrialization. The overlap makes teasing out which factors impacted climate at that time both difficult and extremely important.

“It does sort of mask the effect of industrial processes, where they are starting to omit more CO2, because they counteract each other,” Steiger says. “So volcanoes could cool, and humans would warm by the release of greenhouse gasses. It’s tricky to parse out what’s what.”

Taken together, the findings of these three studies help better our understanding of Earth’s past climate history and highlight how contemporary climate change is unique over the past 2,000 years.

“They’ve shown that not only is the warming that we’ve experienced in the last few decades larger in magnitude than the kinds of changes we’ve seen due to natural factors in the past, [but] it’s affecting almost the entire planet in the same way at the same time,” St. George says. “That’s really different than earlier prolonged climate changes due to natural factors which sometimes affected a large part of the planet but nothing close to 100 percent. The current warming that we’re going through is almost everywhere, and that’s what really makes it distinct from earlier climatic events due to natural causes.”

In Lines of Long Array, 12 Poets Reflect on the Civil War

Smithsonian Magazine

On October 1, the National Portrait Gallery will publish Lines in Long Array. A Civil War Commemoration. Poems and Photographs. Beautifully designed and printed, Lines in Long Array contains 12 new poems commissioned from some of the most prominent poets writing in English, including: Eavan Boland, Geoff Brock, Nikki Giovanni, Jorie Graham, John Koethe, Yusef Komunyakaa, Paul Muldoon, Steve Scafidi, Michael Schmidt, Dave Smith, Tracy Smith and C.D. Wright.

Along with the poems are landscape photographs by Sally Mann. Accompanying this contemporary work, are poems and photographs from the Civil War era itself.

The title is an adaptation to the first line of Walt Whitman’s poem “Cavalry Crossing a Ford,” a poem that is included in the book. “Lines”, of course, refers to both the ranks of troops and to the lines written by the poets, and is taken from Whitman’s description of the troops deploying across a stream: “A line in long array, where they wind betwixt green islands;/ They take a serpentine course—their arms flash in the sun—Hark to  the musical clank. . . ”

The intention of the editors, myself and former Portrait Gallery curator Frank Goodyear, was to pay tribute to the “readers” that were created during the war both to spur the war effort and to raise money to treat the wounded. Also, as cultural scholars, we were interested in how a modern “take” on the war would compare and contrast with literature and art produced while it was being fought. Truth be told, although the Civil War is of immense importance in the history of the United States, it has only rarely appeared as a subject in our culture.

It’s as if the war was so terrible and its effects so huge, that artists have turned away from it, treating it only indirectly and at a distance; so art historian Eleanor Harvey has argued in her brilliant art exhibition, The Civil War and American Art, an exhibition that debuted at the Smithsonian American Art Museum last November, before traveling to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Modernist poetry has tended to explore the psychology and activities of the individual self, rather than topics drawn from history and public life. John Koethe, asked to reflect on his contribution to the project, wrote that he’d never really considered writing historical poems. “I’m primarily thought of as a poet of consciousness and subjectivity.” But the encounter with the problem of an historical subject—and a gigantic one at that—seemed to galvanize Koethe as it did the other poets, because engaging in the exercise was a way of getting beyond the individual. Koethe continues: “I’d been thinking a lot about the Civil War anyway, and the idea that so much of what we think of as peculiar to our own lives and time is really an echo of a history we don’t fully grasp, is what is behind

In commissioning the poets, we set no rules or confined our contributors to any subject matter.  The results are, without exception, works that are deeply considered, well wrought (to use a 19th-century word) reflections on topics ranging from an American diplomat in London by Michael Schmidt to Yusef Komunyakaa’s amazing “I am Silas,” a piece that recreates the journey (and final betrayal) of a slave who went to war to fight alongside his Georgian master.

C.D. Wright reflects that she attempted to reach back to her Ozark, Arkansas, ancestors in her poem, taking as her subject a poor farmer who had nothing to do with slavery and just wanted to live independently: “I had never tried to mentally summon and isolate an individual circumstance. . .just another lump in the carnage.”

It would take too long to summarize all the poems here; that’s what reading it is for. But it is that sense of reaching back to re-consider history and memories that we, both as individuals and as a nation, avoided or repressed (as Dave Smith writes about the war, “I couldn’t hold on to it”) and connect it with the present that animates Lines in Long Array. That re-creation of experience, which runs through all of the poems, finds explicit political expression in Nikki Giovanni’s poem, placed as the last one in the volume, that asks us to consider the costs of war, itself, from the epic of Ulysses to Iraq.

I think Eavan Boland’s summary captures the spirit we hoped to achieve when we started out, that the project was “a way of re-thinking memory and history. There just seems something so poignant and respectful in having the poems of a present moment reach back to meaning that were once so large, so overwhelming they almost defied language.”

Dave Smith, in an extended and moving examination of the interplay of past and present, history and tradition, writes that “the poems in project so utterly show, that we cannot resign from but only keep trying to feel accurately, honestly, and with some evolving comprehension” how the past haunts our present.

Or as that old fox William Faulkner put it, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past.” But as Americans, always rushing forward, we have too frequently failed to acknowledge how the past shapes us in ways that we don’t even try to understand. Lines of Long Array, in some small way, is an attempt to measure the enduring impact of the immeasurable consequences of the Civil War. And if this is too sententious and overblown a claim for you, at the very least Lines in Long Array contains some very fine writing that is well worth reading.

To celebrate Lines in Long Array, the National Portrait Gallery will hold a reading on November 16th at which the poets will debut their poem, read several others related to it on the topic of the war, and participate in a round-table discussion about the act of writing a work of art that engages history.



Napoleon Diamond Necklace

NMNH - Mineral Sciences Dept.

Hamilton: How money tells his story

National Museum of American History

In 1789, when Alexander Hamilton began his role as the first United States Secretary of the Treasury, he may still have been “young, scrappy, and hungry,” as the lyrics go. Today, however, he would be over 260 years old. While many have discovered an interest in Hamilton’s life through Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical, my connection with this founding father can be found in banknotes portraying his likeness and his role in our nation’s monetary history. As a member of the museum’s National Numismatic Collection team, I’m not throwing away my shot to share this side of Hamilton’s story with you.

Bronze-colored medal, circular. Portrait of Alexander Hamilton wearing high collar. Dates 1757 and 1804. His hair is in a ponytail.Alexander Hamilton Treasury medal, United States, after 1886

President George Washington appointed Hamilton as the first United States Secretary of the Treasury in 1789, a position Hamilton held until 1795. During his term, Hamilton set up America’s financial system, favoring a strong central government. This made him unpopular with some of his contemporaries, including Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, who favored state government.

Despite opposition, Hamilton called on Congress to establish a national bank and the U.S. Mint. His policies, based on the Bank of England and European economic systems, became the foundation of United States economics. After leaving office, Hamilton returned to his law practice and continued to be influential in politics until 1804, when he was shot by Aaron Burr in a duel and died from his wounds.

Unevenly cut rectangular piece of paper with "Cashier of the Bank" in printed text and other text in cursive. An "X" is across the center.Lawyer and politician Aaron Burr signed this check, dated 1790, in the amount of 200 pounds. In 1804 he challenged Alexander Hamilton to a duel and fatally wounded him.

Though Hamilton was integral to the establishment of the U.S. Mint and helped move the Coinage Act of 1792 through Congress, paper money was not popular at the time. The federal government did not begin issuing paper currency until 1861, well after his death. These first notes, nicknamed “greenbacks,” were used to pay for Civil War efforts and are the first instance of Hamilton appearing on national currency.

Rectangular bill with "Five Dollars" printed on it. On left, illustration of Liberty wearing winged hat, holding sword and shield, wearing robes. On right, portrait of Hamilton.This $5 Demand Note from 1861 features Thomas Crawford’s statue of Freedom at the left and a portrait of Alexander Hamilton at the bottom right. The Demand Notes of 1861, nicknamed “greenbacks” because of the ink color on the reverse, were issued in denominations of $5, $10, and $20.

Hamilton continued to appear on currency of different denominations, designs, and issues, and he is still featured on the $10 bill today. Though the portraits vary, Hamilton has appeared on more denominations than any other historic figure since 1861.

Of the current circulating notes, he is one of just two historic figures to be depicted who were not presidents. Can you name the other? (The answer is at the bottom of this post.)

The notes shown below demonstrate a small sampling of variations in size, design, color, and denominations of U.S. currency depicting Hamilton. Although these notes all have similar features, including a portrait, a serial number, and signatures of Treasury officials, it was not until the Series of 1928 that U.S. federal currency was standardized.

Rectangular bill with portrait of Hamilton in profile in an oval vignette in center. The number "2" appears in diamond-shaped illustrations on each side of bill, left and right.This second issue Legal Tender $2 note from 1862 also features a portrait of Hamilton.


Rectangular paper bill with black ink and fancy scrollwork around borders. On left, portrait of Hamilton in profile. On right, allegorical woman with helmet with eagle, pike, and shield, wearing robes. Twenty dollars.This $20 Legal Tender note from 1878 depicts Hamilton at the left and Victory with her shield and sword at the right.


Rectangular paper bill on sepia/aged looking paper. Portrait of Hamilton on right side in vignette. "Gold Coin" and "One Thousand Dollars" in text on bill.This note, featuring Hamilton at the right, is a $1,000 Gold Certificate from 1882. Unlike the greenbacks, gold certificates have orange backs, a color which represents the gold coin for which they could be redeemed.


"Federal Reserve Note" in text at top of rectangular paper bill. Portrait of Hamilton in center, in semi-profile. A seal on left and right.This is a $1,000 Federal Reserve Note from 1918. Federal Reserve Notes were authorized under the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 and are still the type of banknote used today in the United States.

The Series of 1928 notes, all the same size with similar design features, went into circulation in 1929. Since then, the $10 note has featured Hamilton as the sole portrait.

In 2015, Secretary of the Treasury Jacob Lew announced that he planned to request the redesign of the $10 note to feature a historic American woman in the place of Alexander Hamilton, as well as to update the security features on that denomination. After his announcement, the Treasury received a lot of feedback, some from fans of Hamilton who advocated for keeping Hamilton on the note. After collecting a large amount of public input, Lew announced Hamilton would keep his place on the ten and maintain a strong presence on our national currency, and the treasury would pursue other plans for adding a woman to our paper money.

With this news, it looks as though U.S. currency will continue to tell Hamilton’s story!

Jennifer Gloede is the outreach and collections specialist for the National Numismatic Collection. The museum recently collected two Hamilton-related objects, including a costume from the musical and a portrait of Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton.

Which two people who were not presidents are depicted on current U.S. currency? Alexander Hamilton and Benjamin Franklin!

Posted Date: 
Thursday, January 11, 2018 - 08:00


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Using Math to Build the Ultimate Taffy Machine

Smithsonian Magazine

When most of us see a taffy-pulling machine cranking away on a touristy boardwalk, we think of sweet, sweet sugar. Jean-Luc Thiffeault thinks of sweet, sweet math. As an applied mathematician at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Thiffeault is particularly interested in the way materials like taffy get mixed: In the machine, the candy is stretched and folded over and over to incorporate air and develop its light, chewy texture. As it’s pulled, the original rectangle of taffy gets stretched more and more—its length growing exponentially by the same ratio each time. That stretch ratio is what interests Thiffeault. 

When a person pulls taffy, they’ll generally take the lump of candy and stretch it over a hook, bringing the two ends together. Then they’ll take that folded piece and stretch it over the hook again, doubling the length, and so on. In other words, “The human way of doing it is a multiplication factor of 2,” says Thiffeault. Mechanical pullers can do better, often yielding larger, exotic irrational numbers as their stretch factors.

It turns out that taffy pulling can be modeled by an abstract field of mathematics known as topological dynamics, essentially the study of long-term, large-scale changes over time in a mathematical space. (If the word topological sounds familiar, it was in the news recently as part of this year’s Nobel Prize in Physics.) The same mathematics that describes taffy-pulling also has more serious applications: many industrial processes, including glassblowing and drug preparation, require viscous fluids to be mixed in ways that are more like pulling taffy than stirring cream into coffee. “If you’re trying to stir really viscous things, like pharmaceutical industry pastes, you can’t just shake them,” says Thiffeault. “It’s not like mixing paint.”

Thiffeault has understood taffy-pulling as an example of viscous mixing for a long time, but only recently has he actually looked into the history of taffy-pullers to unearth their mathematical secrets. The result of that excursion into historical patents is his recent paper “A mathematical history of taffy pullers,” published on the preprint server arXiv in July.

An image from a 1916 taffy machine patent that appears in Thiffeault's study.

Specifically, the area that led to his taffy-puller deep dive is the study of what are called pseudo-Anosov mappings. Pseudo-Anosov is a fancy way of describing a process in which a two-dimensional shape is stretched exponentially in one direction while it shrinks in the other. Mathematically, the study of pseudo-Anosov mappings is relatively new. “In the ‘70s and ‘80s, people were trying very hard to find examples,” Thiffeault says. Ironically, they were there all along in patents for taffy-pullers. “Because mathematicians never looked at this literature, they would have never known they existed,” he says.

While he was combing through taffy-puller patents, Thiffeault stumbled on a legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court. At issue in the 1921 case Hildreth v. Mastoras was how broadly a 1900 patent for a taffy-puller should be construed. That is: was a later model made by someone else merely a minor improvement, or was it a different device? A crucial part of the argument was how different the 1900 patent was from an 1893 predecessor (which was probably never manufactured). The opinion of the court, authored by Chief Justice William Howard Taft, “shows a keen grasp of topological dynamics,” writes Thiffeault in his article.

The court recognized that the earlier device—which had only two hooks—could not have stretched the taffy to the exponential degree required for efficient confection creation. Taft’s opinion states:

With only two hooks there could be no lapping of the candy, because there was no third pin to re-engage the candy while it was held between the other two pins. The movement of the two pins in concentric circles might stretch it somewhat and stir it, but it would not pull it in the sense of the art.

Thiffeault writes, “The Supreme Court opinion displays the fundamental insight that at least three rods are required to produce some sort of rapid growth.”

Thiffeault says there are two standard taffy-pullers in use today, one with three rods and one with four. They happen to have the same stretch factor. It is related to the so-called silver ratio, 1+ √2, or about 2.414, a slightly less luminous cousin of the more famous golden ratio.

The fact that the two standard taffy-pullers stretch with the silver ratio is interesting because the silver ratio is—in a precise mathematical sense—optimal. However, Thiffeault cautions that it’s not so easy to rank different taffy-pullers, even when you know their stretch factors: “There’s an apples and oranges aspect to it which is quite difficult to get around,” he says. One puller might have more rods and take longer to return to its initial state than another, or it might require more torque or more complicated gearing. So although mathematics does give some insight into how well taffy-pullers pull, it doesn’t tell the complete story.

Thiffeault’s research into taffy-pullers inspired him and his undergraduate student Alex Flanagan to build their own model. They wanted to see if they could increase the efficiency without modifying the gears much, and ended up making a novel 6-rod puller based on the gearing of the standard 4-rod puller. “The reason why we were able to do it is that we have math now,” Thiffeault says. They could model the machine extensively on the computer and bypass a lot of the trial and error with real physical devices earlier inventors had to do. The 6-rod device, which is still only a prototype, stretches taffy about twice as much as the standard pullers in each cycle.

So far, taffy-puller manufacturers haven't exactly been beating down Thiffeault’s door to get his advice on optimizing their designs—Big Taffy is apparently content with its stretchy status quo—but he has hopes that his methods could have effects in other industries. Besides glassblowing, one logical place for mixing optimization is the pharmaceutical industry. After all, mixing vitamins and drugs requires extremely high quality control: Manufacturers are "willing to pay a lot of money for perfect mixing" because they "can't tolerate one bad multivitamin out of 1000," says Thiffeault. So someday, pharmacists may be giving a sweet shoutout to the devoted taffy-pullers of yore.

Then again, that might be a bit of a stretch.

You're invited to a Bowl of Rice Party

National Museum of American History

Wartime often catalyzes developments in philanthropy. In 2017, the museum added the Bowl of Rice party banner, from fundraising efforts to aid people in China during the Second Sino-Japanese War, to its collection. Curator Theodore S. Gonzalves, a scholar of Asian American history, answered three questions from our philanthropy curator, Amanda Moniz, about the story this object tells.

A blue and yellow banner with an image of a crying child in rubble and the following text: "Please Give Your Help" and "Bowl of Rice, Feb. 9,10,11,1940-S.F.Chinatown"Banner for the Bowl of Rice party held in San Francisco, California, 1940

This banner is very striking. What can you tell us about the story behind it?

The banner was most likely used during one of the Bowl of Rice parties that were held throughout the country annually from 1938 to 1941. These events were large, community-based fundraising drives aimed at helping Chinese civilians affected by the Second Sino-Japanese War. Organizers held the events in the major Chinatowns of the day—New York City and San Francisco—as well as in 2,000 cities throughout the country. A banner like this would have been displayed along the busy streets that lined parade routes. The fundraising activities included elaborate dinners, concerts, sporting events, radio shows, and pageants.

Five buttons: four are round lapel buttons with some variant of text about "Humanity Legion Aid to China, Rice Bowl Party" on the left is a button shaped like a rice bowl, with a red ribbon hanging from it. It reads: Bowl of Rice, Information.Commemorative buttons and a ribbon from the Bowl of Rice Parties.

I'm curious about the impact of these fundraising efforts. Could you tell us about the impact both in China and on American philanthropy?

Missionaries and other Westerners working in China reported that many were affected by the war. The figures of those affected ranged from 60,000,000 to 160,000,000—in need of food, medicine, and shelter. Dramatic accounts stated that refugees were facing "the greatest health danger that the world has known since the Black Death." In the United States, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt Jr. was named the national chairman of the United Council for Civilian Relief in China, an organization that staged the first of these events in June 1938 in New York City with 85,000 attendees. Members of the Chinese community living in the United States formed the Chinese War Relief Association. The 1940 Bowl of Rice party in San Francisco's Chinatown drew crowds as large as 275,000, raising $80,000.

A black and white photograph of two women holding invitations to Rice Bowl Parties. A young boy holds a bowl.Mary Owyang and Pearl Chung hold up invitations for a Bowl of Rice party while Harry Yee holds up a bowl. Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

This banner reminds us there's a long history of Chinese American philanthropy. What can you tell us about giving—of time, talent, or treasure—in the Chinese American community in the late 1800s and early 1900s?

These fundraising drives featured a common effort but had multiple goals. Western missionaries saw these efforts as part of their humanitarian duty in a foreign land. But think about the overseas and Chinese American communities in the United States. Elders in New York City and San Francisco would have been old enough to witness the passage of the 1875 Page Act and the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act—laws that anchored anti-Chinese sentiment in what would become a formally segregated nation. The motto of New York City's Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance—"To Save China, To Save Ourselves"—made things explicit. Chinese in the United States saw their local struggles for civil rights as part of international conflicts. The Bowl of Rice parties became opportunities for organizers to fight the discrimination they faced in their new homes by pressing for the liberation of their homeland.

Thanks for sharing this fascinating history. The banner helps us explore the story of Chinese American humanitarian fundraising and civil rights activism. There are other stories I hope to uncover. I'm especially curious about who created the banner and how that work fit into the creators' business. As we build a new national philanthropy collection, the opportunity to learn about the objects used in fundraising and in benevolent projects is very exciting.

If you have information about this banner, we invite you to share it by emailing

Theodore S. Gonzalves is a curator in the Division or Culture and the Arts. Amanda B. Moniz is the David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy in the Division of Home and Community Life.

The Philanthropy Initiative is made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and David M. Rubenstein, with additional support by the Fidelity Charitable Trustees' Initiative, a grantmaking program of Fidelity Charitable.

Posted Date: 
Thursday, May 31, 2018 - 09:00
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