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Chair, arms, "Fern" pattern

Smithsonian Gardens
Cast-iron armchair in the “Fern” or “Fern with blackberries” pattern. This naturalistic design is formed by pierced, interlacing vines and foliage. The backrest is formed by fern leaves arranged with strict symmetry on either side of a central frond. The fronds are encircled with an interlacing motif, which highlight the clusters of blackberries in diamond shapes hanging from the top rail of the seatback. The ends of the back curve forward to form the armrests. The seat is formed from wooden boards. The legs are vine-like and terminate in plain ball feet. Ferns were a favorite plant of the Victorian era, so much so that the term “Pteridomania”- meaning “fern craze” - was coined. Ferns were considered the pinnacle of good taste, and nearly every upper- and middle-class home had live fern plants on display in the nineteenth century. The fern craze went beyond just the live plants, fern motifs were firmly connected with the fashion and décor of the time. A fascination with the form, color, and texture of ferns led to multiple fern motifs that were cast, carved, painted, and etched on every type of objects. The motif on this chair is the Boston or sword fern, and it was the most exuberantly celebrated in the fern craze. This design was one of the bestselling patterns for cast-iron furnishings in the nineteenth century, and variations of it were produced by most foundries in the United States. Naturalism, the realistic reproduction of the beauties of nature, was a popular style in the Victorian era. Though it appears as early as the 1840’s in America, naturalistic designs continued to the 1900s. This was in part due to the influence of the natural sciences, and interest in nature and gardening, which spread through the upper and middle classes in the nineteenth century. Naturalistic designs incorporated floral, foliate, fruit, vegetal, and animal forms into furnishings and decorative objects for the home and garden. Popular subjects included grapes, cornstalks, ferns, Solomon seal or laurel leaf, passion flowers, lilies of the valley, morning glories, oak leaves, acorns, vines, and roses.

Ferns were a favorite plant of the Victorian era, so much so that the term “Pteridomania”- meaning “fern craze” - was coined. Ferns were considered the pinnacle of good taste, and nearly every upper- and middle-class home had live fern plants on display in the nineteenth century. The fern craze went beyond just the live plants, fern motifs were firmly connected with the fashion and décor of the time. A fascination with the form, color, and texture of ferns led to multiple fern motifs that were cast, carved, painted, and etched on every type of objects. The motif on this chair is the Boston or sword fern, and it was the most exuberantly celebrated in the fern craze. This design was one of the bestselling patterns for cast-iron furnishings in the nineteenth century, and variations of it were produced by most foundries in the United States. Naturalism, the realistic reproduction of the beauties of nature, was a popular style in the Victorian era. Though it appears as early as the 1840’s in America, naturalistic designs continued to the 1900s. This was in part due to the influence of the natural sciences, and interest in nature and gardening, which spread through the upper and middle classes in the nineteenth century. Naturalistic designs incorporated floral, foliate, fruit, vegetal, and animal forms into furnishings and decorative objects for the home and garden. Popular subjects included grapes, cornstalks, ferns, Solomon seal or laurel leaf, passion flowers, lilies of the valley, morning glories, oak leaves, acorns, vines, and roses.

Naturalism, the realistic reproduction of the beauties of nature, was a popular style in the Victorian era. Though it appears as early as the 1840’s in America, naturalistic designs continued to the 1900s. This was in part due to the influence of the natural sciences, and interest in nature and gardening, which spread through the upper and middle classes in the nineteenth century. Naturalistic designs incorporated floral, foliate, fruit, vegetal, and animal forms into furnishings and decorative objects for the home and garden. Popular subjects included grapes, cornstalks, ferns, Solomon seal or laurel leaf, passion flowers, lilies of the valley, morning glories, oak leaves, acorns, vines, and roses.

Does This Japanese Restaurant Chain Foretell the End of the Waiter?

Smithsonian Magazine

As if struggling actors didn’t already have it hard enough. In Japan, changing times have given rise to a new breed of mercilessly efficient automated restaurants that can easily service an entire busy day’s worth of hungry patrons without the need for a staff of waiters, chefs or even dishwashers.

The most popular of these is Kura, where a sushi plate will run you only 100 yen, the equivalent of $1.00. Such low prices are made possible by gutting as much of the “human touch” element that has long been ingrained in how eateries are typically run out of the dining experience. For instance, whereas new customers would traditionally be seated and given a menu by a friendly host, visitors to Kura seat themselves and are greeted by an interactive touchscreen menu positioned next to the table, which allows them to browse various food items and make selections or to input special requests. Below that is a winding conveyer belt system that carries several covered dishes of different types of sushi and main courses while a separate conveyer right above delivers specific orders. To maintain freshness, each plate has a scannable label that enables the computerized system to keep track of how long a particular sushi item has been kept on the rotation and automatically disposes of it after a certain amount of time.

Behind the curtain, orders are put together by employees whose duties, not surprisingly, resemble those of an assembly line factory worker more than a trained chef. With the assistance of a robot programmed to spit out clumps of rice, the assembler tops off each piece with cuts of fish and other varieties of seafood that had been prepared earlier, to exact specifications, at a local plant. Once it’s time for the check, customers dispose of the plates though a small table-side chute that sends them to another area to be counted, machine-washed and then back to the assembly line for reuse.

Reviews of automated restaurants, as you might suspect, are mixed. ”It’s another art for eating. I like it!” a diner at Baggers, an automated joint in Nuremberg, Germany, told BBC News reporter Steve Rosenberg. Another said, ”It’s more for young people than old people. My mother was here yesterday and she needs my son’s help to order.”

Kura, courtesy of Flickr user David Balderas

A report in the New York Times re-tells the story of how such restaurants emerged and successfully took shape, mainly as a response to a dwindling customer base, due to the country’s ongoing economic struggles and an aging population that prefers not to eat out. Kura’s founder, Kunihiko Tanaka started the company in 1995 on the premise that, as efficient as Japanese restaurants had become over the years, there were still plenty of ways to cut costs without compromising the quality of the dining experience. With this in mind, he took the already established practice of serving food on conveyer belts, which started in the late 1950s, mixed in more advanced automation technologies and threw in a dash of IT. His goal was to trim down the somewhat bloated way food establishments conduct day-to-day operations. At Kura, the only humans deemed necessary are the assemblers and a handful of managers who’s main responsibility was to ensure that customers left satisfied and that everything went swimmingly.

Takeshi Hattori, a company spokesperson, told the New York Times that a small staff was enough to service a restaurant that seated a maximum of 196 people.

With 262 locations nationwide, Kura’s strategy has been a profitable one, to say the least. And who knows? These robo-eateries may soon make their way across the Pacific and open up in our neighborhoods, what with our growing preoccupation with constantly being plugged showing that our deepening love affair with technology is only deepening. Smartphones, for instance, have increasingly become a kind of mental sanctuary, a way for people to happily disengage from those around them. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center (PDF) reveals that thirty percent of young adults (18-29 years old) surveyed said they’ve pretended to be using their phone in order to avoid interacting with others. A Japanese design firm has even created the “Anti-Loneliness Ramen Bowl,” a soup bowl into which you can dock your iPhone.

However, I personally wouldn’t expect automated restaurants to catch on the U.S., considering that such an extreme approach to automation can make having a meal feel a bit too impersonal for most. Dining out in the U.S. is still considered primarily a social activity and though Kura customers can easily refill their beer mug themselves at one of the self-service machines, we Americans still love our bartenders. But then again, robots won’t ever get fussy over the tip.

More from Smithsonian.com

The Disco-Blasting Robot Waiters of 1980s Pasadena

10 most-read blog posts of 2015

National Museum of American History

Judging from our blog readers' favorite posts this year, military history is a popular topic. But you also kept some space on your reading list for 1930s delicacies and long-lost amusement parks.

1) An atlas of self-reliance: The Negro Motorist's Green Book
Read over 18,800 times, this post explored the dark side of the all-American road trip during the Jim Crow era. African American families on vacation had to be ready for any circumstance, should they be denied lodging or a meal in a restaurant. The Negro Motorist's Green Book helped "black motorists travel safely across a landscape partitioned by segregation and scarred by lynching," as guest blogger Jay Driskell put it.

Photograph of brown top hat

2) A closer look at President Lincoln's silk hat
Not just any hat, we're talking about the silk top hat Lincoln wore to Ford's Theater on the night he was assassinated. After the assassination, it spent 26 years in storage. Rich with details, this touching blog post by curator Harry Rubenstein has been read over 16,900 times.

Photo of table with white lace table cloth and many entree dishes on plates

3) Tasting the 1930s: An experiment with congealed salads and other one-dish wonders
Yes, it's a delight to work in a museum … right up until your boss asks you how you like the tomato aspic with vegetables she made after finding the recipe in a 1930s cookbook.

4) The delicate "war laces" of World War I
Thanks to a German blockade, seven million Belgians were cut off from important food and supplies during World War I. Lacemakers to the rescue!

5) A mother's solace: A letter from a World War I enemy 
The leader of a German balloon squadron writes to the mother of an American soldier he killed, sending Sallie Maxwell Bennett on an overseas quest to locate her son's remains and memorialize him.

6) What does LaGuardia Airport have in common with piano manufacturer William Steinway's long lost amusement park?
Bowery Bay Beach was also known as "The Coney Island of Queens" and it sounds like a fun family getaway.

7) The battlefield cross
The first appearance of the "battlefield cross" is a matter of conjecture.

8) The surrender at Appomattox Court House: 150th anniversary
Though just under 200 words, the terms of surrender for the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia includes some interesting details. For example, Confederates who owned their own horses were allowed to keep them to plant spring crops.

Medal

9) Remember the Lusitania: 3 pieces of World War I propaganda
In 2015, we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the British ship Lusitania by a German U-boat, an event that preceded America's entrance into the war.

10) 5 fascinating facts about Alexander Graham Bell that aren't about the telephone
Did you know that Bell's actual voice was recorded 130 years ago, and you can still listen to it today?

As the manager of the blog, I'm lucky enough to have time to read all of our posts, so I thought I'd recommend a few of my personal favorites from 2015 that you may have missed.

Curator Alexandra Lord's blog post on early days of anti-vaccination sentiment in America blew me away. I had no idea that this issue had such deep roots and was fascinated by the story of posterchild "Little Belema."

You know how everything stops when a dog or baby visits your office? We enjoyed a visit from not just any pup but an actual war hero. Thanks for stopping by, Fausto

When I decided I wanted to work in a museum (a revelation that took place at the Guggenheim in Bilbao, Spain), I imagined amazing behind-the-scenes experiences. Watching experts work closely with incredible objects was exactly what I had in mind. Our blog post on the conservation of General William T. Sherman's flag is as close as a non-museum-employee may get. 

This year has seen increased discussion on how we deal with mental health issues in America. For some fascinating historical context, I recommend this post on how Patrick Henry (of "Give me liberty, or give me death!" fame) dealt with his wife's mental health challenges. 

I learned to flirt using instant messenger while young people today text their feelings to each other, illustrated with copious emojis. Curator Harold Wallace's blog post reminded me that technology has always shaped how we send messages of love and affection. If I could send you all a CandyGram to thank you for reading our blog, I would. 

Erin Blasco is an education specialist in the New Media Department.

Posted Date: 
Friday, December 18, 2015 - 11:45

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These Inflatable Modules Could Change Space Exploration

Smithsonian Magazine

Life aboard the International Space Station may soon be decidedly more enjoyable. Astronauts are about to harvest their first small crop of lettuce, and an Italian-made espresso machine is scheduled for delivery in November.  And if all goes according to plan, the space station may even get a lot less cramped by next summer thanks to an add-on module built by Bigelow Aerospace.

The addition won’t look like the rest of the station, though: It’s a (highly sophisticated) inflatable module with a flexible shell.

The Bigelow Expandable Activity Module (BEAM) will be the first non-rigid, expandable space module to house human occupants. BEAM is scheduled to arrive, deflated and compact, aboard the eighth SpaceX ISS cargo resupply mission in 2015. Once affixed to the ISS by the robotic Canadaarm2, BEAM will inflate to a 13-by-11-foot room, and astronauts will begin a planned two-year, NASA-backed test. In particular, NASA is interested in how the structure stands up to things like hits from micro meteors and radiation compared to more traditional rigid, primarily metal structures, like the ISS itself.

Without a rigid frame, fragility and air leaks are, of course, a concern. But the shell of BEAM is built less like a balloon and more like a thick tire wrapped in a Kevlar-like vest. Michael Gold, the director of D.C. operations and business growth at Bigelow Aerospace, says BEAM’s flexible nature is part of the reason it could offer big advantages.

Unlike rigid structures like the ISS, BEAM is better suited to serve many of NASA’s next-generation needs: It can be tailored to specialized activities or missions—say, as exercise space, or a place for astronatus to conduct experiments—and can be connected together to form even larger structures. More internal volume also means more room for supplies.

Perhaps the most important benefit of BEAM and Bigelow Aerospace’s other designs, though, is that that their launch footprint is fairly small and light at just 3,000 pounds, which makes it much less costly to launch than similarly sized rigid structures.

By comparison, the total weight of the ISS is 925,000 pounds--or it would be, if it was sitting on earth, rather than in orbit.

“Not only will we protect you against asteroids and radiation,” Gold says, “but [also] from a much greater threat, which are budget cuts. Our technology can be implemented for a fraction of the cost of traditional systems.”

As NASA and international space agencies strive to move astronauts toward Mars and beyond, while facing budget battles back on Earth, figuring out how to do more with less is one of the most needed innovations in modern space exploration.

The company has tested BEAM’s concepts in orbit already, with earlier (and somewhat smaller) Genesis I and Genesis II crafts, which were launched and tested in 2006 and 2007 aboard converted Soviet-era nuclear rockets.

This new round of BEAM testing will be the first with human astronauts inside, however. NASA is currently testing the BEAM module on the ground, both with Bigelow and with independent materials testers, to understand how its materials stretch and retain shape over time, as well as exactly how the structures fail when pushed past their limits.

The idea of using non-rigid materials for structures in space has been around for decades. NASA has designed and tested the concept on the ground, but the BEAM module will be the first non-metalic, flexible structure to be tested in space by astronauts. Human testing is finally happening now, because NASA is looking at ways to get people to Mars and other far-off destinations, which will require larger spacecraft and a larger crew capacity.

Jason Crusan, director of advanced exploration systems at NASA,  says once the BEAM module is installed on the ISS next summer, measuring how module leaks will be one of the primary concerns.

“Everything leaks at some point, even our solid, rigid structures,” Crusan says. “There are points and seals and such, and understanding how those may or may not leak over time and [with BEAM] will be really important for us.”

Crusan also says the inside of BEAM will be fitted with sensors for temperature, micro-meteor impacts, and radiation, which should help NASA better understand in what ways non-rigid spacecraft are more, or less, dangerous to astronauts over long periods of time.

How the soft-shelled module reacts to radiation is also a concern for NASA. But this might be another area in which using a non-rigid, mostly non-metal structure offers a substantial benefit.

“When [metallic structures are] hit by a radiation particle, the one particle gets split into many,” Crusan says. “Soft-good structures [like BEAM] don’t have metallics in them, so your one particle stays one high-energy particle and passes right through."

In theory, then, BEAM’s small, inflatable structure should mean fewer, more concentrated radiation strikes passing through the module, rather than a spray of many more less-powerful, though still potentially damaging particles like those that astronauts are subjected to on ISS and other metal-shelled spacecraft.

The BEAM module and its successors (the company is also working on more advanced, larger structures, like the 330-cubic-meter BA 330) may be critical to NASA’s future plans as humans venture further into space.

NASA is far along in development of a next-generation launch vehicle, the Space Launch System or SLS, as well as a new capsule, Orion. Both are expected to make their first launch in 2017 and, like the BEAM, should help make greater strides in space. 

“The next component that we need in orbit is something that extends Orion’s duration beyond its less-than-30 day duration and four-person crew to longer and longer periods of time,” says Crusan, “and that will be some kind of limited habitat.”

If the tests go as planned, the flexible, modular, low-cost nature of BEAM and other future modules like it could could form the limited habitats astronauts will need on the long trip to Mars, and beyond. 

What Cassini's Daring Dives Have Taught Us About Saturn

Smithsonian Magazine

Friday morning, after 20 years in space, the Cassini probe will plummet into Saturn’s atmosphere, breaking into pieces. It’s been a wild ride. Not only did the probe give us stunning images of Jupiter, Saturn and many of Saturn’s moons, it showed researchers that two of Saturn’s moons, Titan and Enceladus, may be able to support life.

As the craft runs out of fuel, Cassini isn't going down without one more mission. Since April, Cassini has made a series of six-day-long swoops between Saturn and its massive collection of rings, gathering new readings and images. Called the Grand Finale, the probe has completed 21 swings so far. Its last dive will be the final curtain of the mission when the craft meets its fiery end, burning up in Saturn’s atmosphere at 45,000 miles per hour.

Though the dive is primarily intended to prevent contamination of moons in a system that may support life, it will still collect data before it loses connection with Earth. “The Grand Finale is a brand-new mission,” Linda Spilker, Cassini project scientist, said during a news conference. “We're going to a place that we’ve never been before … and I think some of the biggest discoveries may come from these final orbits.” The data transmission from the dive will stream live tomorrow between 7 and 9 A.M. Eastern.

It will take some time to analyze the data from all of those final dives, but here’s some of what we’ve learned—and seen—so far.

First Dive: April 23-29

On April 21, 2017, Cassini conducted its final flyby of Titan, using the moon’s gravity to put it on course for it’s first dive. The plummet into the 1,500-mile wide gap between Saturn’s upper atmosphere and its ring system was something of a gamble. Researchers weren’t sure how much dust and debris filled the gap. Even though the craft was angling its dish-like high-gain antenna to use as a shield, there was still the possibility that debris could cripple Cassini.

But even if the worst occurred, Cassini was in position to eventually provide some precious data. “We’re guaranteed to end up in Saturn's atmosphere in September...[Even] if we get hit by a particle that disables the spacecraft,” Cassini deputy project scientist Scott Edgington told Ian O’Neill at Space.com before the first dive.

Cassini came through that first dance just fine, giving researchers data on the particle sizes in the gap so they knew what to expect next. It also came out with some cool images, including the “porthole” video of Saturn’s north pole above, captured over the course of an hour.

( NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Second and Third Dives: April 29 - May 12

That first dive was something of test run. As The Grand Finale missions continued, NASA tweaked the camera settings and began focusing on Saturn’s rings, creating incredible close-ups on its second plunge. During it’s third dive, Cassini again focused on Titan, where it observed the longest and brightest clouds ever observed in the planet’s thick atmosphere.

"The images from the first pass were great, but we were conservative with the camera settings," Andrew Ingersoll of the Cassini imaging team said in a press release. "We plan to make updates to our observations for a similar opportunity on June 29 that we think will result in even better views."

( NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Into the D-Ring

On its sixth dive, beginning on May 25, Cassini started the first of four dives passing through the inner edge of Saturn’s D rings, the rings closest to the planet. For six minutes while passing through the plane of the ring, the probe was at risk of colliding with ring particles. Cassini came through unscathed, and performed the feat again on dives number 7, 11 and 12. The risks were worth it, giving the craft new views of the A ring and F ring. During dive number 7 Cassini caught a great image of density waves in the B ring above.

( NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Eighth Dive: June 7-13

On this dive, Cassini did measure the pull of gravity to help calculate the shape and the mass of its rings. It also produced the awesome image above, taken between the seventh and eight dives.

( NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

Fourteenth Dive: July 16-22

By its fourteenth time through the Saturnine gap, scientists were ecstatic about Cassini’s performance and the trove of information flowing in. “The data we are seeing from Cassini's Grand Finale are every bit as exciting as we hoped, although we are still deep in the process of working out what they are telling us about Saturn and its rings,” Spilker said in a NASA press release in July.

Magnetometer readings refined measurements of the planet’s magnetic field, showing that it is well-aligned with it’s axis of rotation. Those measurements are also helpful in calculating the exact length of a day on Saturn, which is still not perfectly understood.

The probe also captured the first samples of Saturn’s rings and atmosphere, and its cosmic dust analyzer began beaming back data about the particles it encountered. The probe also captured breathtaking images of Saturn’s cloudscape and rings. For example, it captured the incredible image above, which shows a thin haze above Saturn, the planet's stratosphere. 

( NASA/JPL-Caltech/Space Science Institute)

The Final Five

Cassini’s final five swings through the gap took it within 1,010 and 1,060 miles of the tops of Saturn’s clouds, giving us our closest views yet of Saturn’s upper atmosphere. Using its Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer it was directly sampled composition of the region and other instruments measured ammonia. In its final days, Cassini took its last images of Saturn’s north pole and rings, producing pictures like the raw image above. On September 11, it got  a gravitational nudge from Titan to put it on course for it’s final plunge.

“As it makes these five dips into Saturn, followed by its final plunge, Cassini will become the first Saturn atmospheric probe,” Spilker says in the press release. “It’s long been a goal in planetary exploration to send a dedicated probe into the atmosphere of Saturn, and we're laying the groundwork for future exploration with this first foray.”

Liquid Cats, Didgeridoo Research and More From the 2017 Ig Nobel Prizes

Smithsonian Magazine

It's that time of year again: The research that makes people "laugh and then think" is being honored with the Ig Nobel Prizes, a parody of the prestigious Nobel Prize.

Ten of these prizes were awarded in this year's farcical ceremony in Boston, the 27th installment of the humorous awards. Amidst brief lectures, paper airplanes, "human spotlights" and an opera with a bizarre psychology theme, researchers accepted thieir awards from true Nobel Prize winners. Here are five of the most notable topics to make you first laugh, then think:

Shapeshifting cats

Along with being ruthless hunters and gifted charmers, cats are famous for their ability to fit themselves into the tighest of spots—whether it be a box, a bowl or a jar. The seemingly fluid nature of these slinky beasts intrigued researcher Marc-Antoine Fardin, who specializes in rheology, or the flow of matter. Fardin set out to investigate the properties of cats to determine if our furry friends could be considered both liquid and solid. Using the physics of fluid dynamics he calculated how quickly cats can contort themselves and take on the shape of their surrounding container.

Fardin's results suggest that cats have both liquid and solid properties, but further work is necessary, according to his study published in The Rheology Bulletin in 2014. He concludes, "cats are proving to be a rich model system for rheological research." And as he tells Hannah Devlin at The Guardianthe work has actually “raised some interesting questions about what it means to be a fluid." For his research, Fardin was awarded the 2017 Ig Nobel Prize for physics.

Put the speaker where?

Expecting mothers often seek to stimulate or relax their unborn babies with music played through their bellies. But how much can babies hear it through layers of skin and muscle? Not much, actually. There is, however, an unorthodox way to help up the volume: vaginal speakers.

In 2015, a group of Spanish researchers demonstrated how music played through speakers inserted into a pregnant woman's vagina caused much greater changes in the facial expressions of the fetuses than music played through the belly. They've since patented a "fetal acoustic stimulation device" that a mother can use to deliver tunes to her baby, and you can purchase your own "Babypod" speaker online for $165.95. For this research and invention, the group was awarded the 2017 Ig Nobel Prize for obstetrics.

Just don't play it too late at night

Sleep apnea can not only cause annoying snoring, but the associated lack of sleep can drive people crazy or even kill them. Treatments often include bulky continuous positive airway pressure devices that pump air into a person's throat to keep their airway open. But an ancient Australian instrument has turned out to be a much more interesting and less invasive treatment. A group of Swiss sleep researchers had 25 patients with moderate sleep apnea learn to play the didgeridoo as a way to strengthen the muscles of their airways and help them breathe better while sleeping. The results, published in a 2006 study, found that after regularly playing the instruments, the patients (and their long-suffering partners) reported sleeping much better and with less snoring. For this finding, the researchers were awarded the 2017 Ig Nobel Prize for peace.

Hold the cheese, please

Humans have happily consumed cheese for thousands of years in locations around the world, but for some people (including this reporter), the substance is more "yuck" than "yum." To figure out why cheese can "be perceived as particularly disgusting to some individuals," a group of French neuroscientists scanned the heads of cheese revilers to see how food disgust works in the brain. They published their results in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience last year

The researchers found that not only are a higher percentage of people disgusted by cheese than by most other types of food, but that the brain's reward circuits are flipped off when a person observes food they find disgusting, such as cheese. For this vital work, they were awarded the 2017 Ig Nobel Prize for medicine.

Wait, which one are you?

People often struggle to tell identical twins apart—some twins even intentionally differentiate themselves in response. But one would assume that at least the twins would be able to tell each other apart in pictures. Not really, according to a 2015 study from a group of Italian psychologists. When shown pictures of their own faces and those of their twin in rapid succession, the study subjects were unable to accurately identify who was who, just like the rest of us. For this work, the group was awarded the 2017 Ig Nobel Prize for cognition.

You can see the rest of the prizes, acceptance speeches and ceremonial hijinks in the video below.

Baseball’s Bat Man

Smithsonian Magazine

Chuck Schupp has delivered alchemy to major-league players for 27 years, listening to their wishes for the perfect bat and then getting his team at the Hillerich & Bradsby plant in Louisville, Kentucky to produce one that fits their fancy.

When Texas Rangers outfielder Josh Hamilton put on a herculean display at the 2008 Home Run Derby, Schupp fielded calls from players, including slugger David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox, who wanted to know what bat he was using—a C253 model originally made for Jeff Conine, a solid journeyman who played 17 seasons.

“Everybody’s different,” says Schupp, the pro baseball division manager for the venerable bat company. “Some guys never waver at all [in their bat choice]. Some guys tweak their stuff. Part of the challenge is reading the personalities of the guys.”

Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees has used a 32-ounce P72 bat since his days in the minor leagues nearly two decades ago. “He just reloads,” Schupp says. “When I look at the guys I’ve dealt with, the guys that are really good don’t change. ARod [Alex Rodriguez], Jeter, Ryan Howard, Jim Thome. Most of the guys that are really good for a long period of time find something they’re comfortable with and stick with it. They reduce the opportunities for failure. They fail most of the time anyway, so why muddy the water with five bat choices?” Custom bats were born in 1884 when J.A. “Bud” Hillerich, an apprentice woodworker, sneaked out of the shop to watch a baseball game. Pete Browning, the star slugger of the Louisville Eclipse, broke his bat that day and Hillerich, 18, invited him back to the shop to create a new one. They worked through the night with Browning periodically taking a practice swing to check the evolving model. The next day, he smacked three hits with it; the Louisville Slugger was born.

Schupp is a barometer of the changing tastes of players over the past three decades. When he began, the Louisville Slugger dominated the market with bats made from white ash (Fraxinas americana) grown in the forests of Pennsylvania and New York. In those days, only about five companies supplied bats to players; now, about three dozen firms supply hundreds of models of bats to major-league clubs although most are variations on just four models. The model names mentioned below are specific to H&B, but other makers take their bats and modify them as their players request. If you think those models debuted in the hands of Hall of Famers, you’d be mistaken. One of the benefits of being a major leaguer was that custom bats were paid for by the team. As such, even the most mediocre of players had their own customized weapons at the plate.

Legendary Minnesota Twins and California Angels infielder Rod Carew wielded a C243 while winning seven batting titles, but the original was made for Jim Campanis (son of big league player and executive Al Campanis), a career .147 hitter who played only 113 big league games in the late 1960s. Another example is the C271, a bat with a cupped end (to reduce weight) fashioned after a bat that outfielder José Cardenal got in the early 1970s from a teammate who played in Japan. The third model is the T85, originally made for “Marvelous” Marv Throneberry, a .237 hitter best known as a punch line during the early years of the New York Mets, and later used by George Brett, a three-time batting champion. The fourth is the I13 model made for Mike Ivie, who hit .269 in 11 mostly struggling seasons, now swung by all-stars Evan Longoria of the Tampa Bay Rays and Albert Pujols of the St. Louis Cardinals.

“I think we’ve made all the models we’re going to make until I walk in the clubhouse again,” Schupp says. “Everything starts out as a request or an oddity. That’s the fun part of it.”

Image by Bettmann / Corbis. Babe Ruth carved 21 eyelash notches in the Louisville Slugger that swatted 21 home runs during the 1927 season. (original image)

Image by Ed Wolfstein / Icon SMI / Corbis. Players' relationships with bats have inspired any number of myths and tales. (original image)

Image by Bettmann / Corbis. Ty Cobb rubbed his bats with tobacco juice to keep out moisture. (original image)

Image by Icon SMI / Corbis. Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees used a 32-ounce P72 bat since his days in the minor leagues nearly two decades ago. (original image)

Image by Fred Thornhill / Reuters / Corbis. Ichiro Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners batting champion, keeps his bat in a silver case. (original image)

Players’ relationships with bats have inspired any number of myths and tales. Bernard Malamud’s novel The Natural centered around Wonderboy, the lightning-tempered bat swung by Robert Redford in the movie version. Richie Ashburn, the slap-hitting outfielder for the Philadelphia Phillies in the 1950s, slept with his bat when he was on a hot streak. Ty Cobb rubbed his bats with tobacco juice to keep out moisture. Babe Ruth carved 21 eyelash notches in the Louisville Slugger that swatted 21 home runs during the 1927 season. Dante Bichette, the slugger who played 14 seasons mostly in the 1990s, held his bats up to his ear and pinged them; he was convinced that the higher the pitch, the more solid the wood. Ichiro Suzuki, the Seattle Mariners batting champion, keeps his bat in a silver case.

Schupp has watched bats get lighter as players weaned on the whippy aluminum bats used in high school and college have advanced to the pros. Babe Ruth used an R43 model that was 35½ inches long and weighed 38½ ounces made from hickory when he hit 60 home runs in 1927. By the time Hank Aaron was breaking Ruth’s record in 1973, he used an ash bat that was a similar model, 35 inches long weighing 33 ounces. Rodriguez swings a 34-inch, 31-ounce model. As the long season wears on them, Schupp says some players request bats a half ounce or ounce lighter.

The biggest change has been the shift to maple bats. Eleven years ago, Schupp was at spring training when he saw one player after another trying Sam Bats, as they were called, hitting sticks made by the Original Maple Bat Company from Ottawa, Ontario. He went back to his bosses and told them there would be a market for maple. When Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001 with a maple bat, their popularity soared. Today, maple and ash are about equally split among major leaguers, fueled partly by the perception among players that the ball flies off maple bats faster.

“It doesn’t,” Schupp says, and research commissioned by Major League Baseball backs him. In 2005, the league spent $109,000 for Jim Sherwood of the Baseball Research Center at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell to study the differences. He concluded that the batted ball speeds for ash and maple were essentially the same. “You’re talking physics versus clubhouse logic,” says Schupp. “The exit velocity is not any different. But it’s a harder, dense grain so it does fray less.”

Maple has a different problem. It shatters when it breaks, sending splintered projectiles into the field. After so many bats turned into weapons during the 2008 and 2009 seasons, Major League Baseball commissioned a study, then implemented regulations that required a minimum wood density, outlawed soft maple bats, reduced the diameter of barrels and increased the minimum diameter of handles. The rate of maple bats breaking dropped 35 percent from 2008 to 2009 and another 15 percent this season, according to Major League Baseball.

In September, though, Chicago Cubs outfielder Tyler Colvin, while running toward home plate, was struck in the chest with a splintered bat. He spent three days in the hospital for treatment of the puncture wound. The injury renewed calls from some players and managers to ban maple bats. Earlier this year, Tampa Bay Rays manager Joe Maddon said “The maple bat is turning into the Claymore mine of baseball,” adding that it was only a matter of time before someone was impaled. “I don’t like it... Something needs to be done.”

Major League Baseball officials said they would seek to expand the existing regulations to make handles thicker and barrels thinner during the off-season. Schupp says with six months lead time or more, Hillerich & Bradsby could harvest enough ash (despite an eight-year ash blight that’s hit Northeast forests), but he doesn’t think Major League Baseball will ban maple, the latest craze. “The customer—the ballplayer—more than half of them ask for maple,” he says. “The players want it. That’s the tough thing.”

Ultimately, Schupp and the craftsmen at H&B as well as the other bat makers are trying to create—recreate, really—something as elusive as a World Series-ending home run—feel-good wood. Two bats may be the same length, the same weight and the same shape yet feel entirely different.

“I pick ‘em up and if they feel good, then I use them,” said Wade Boggs, the Hall of Fame batting champion. “It’s all feel.”

How a Squid's Color-Changing Skin Inspired a New Material That Can Trap or Release Heat

Smithsonian Magazine

In the video that set materials scientist and chemical engineer Alon Gorodetsky on the path to his latest invention, an octopus appears from the algae like a jump scare in a horror movie. The creature shifts out of its camouflage coloration so rapidly it seems to materialize out of the seawater. That “remarkable” video, says the associate professor at University of California, Irvine, “really changed the trajectory of my career, because I started working on materials inspired by cephalopods.” Most recently, Gorodetsky took inspiration from a squid—specifically its color-changing skin—to create a new material that can keep in or let out an adjustable amount of heat. “Thermocomfort material,” as his team describes in the journal Nature Communications, has an array of potential uses, from heat-regulating clothing to energy-saving coatings for rooftops.

Squid have organs called chromatophores that can rapidly expand and contract, going from pinpoints to spots of color 14-times-wider in less than a second. The changing dimensions of their spots mean that different wavelengths of light can be reflected from a given point on the animal’s skin depending on whether the squid’s muscles have shrunk or enlarged the chromatophores. Instead of looking at visible light waves, Gorodetsky and his team were interested in reflecting infrared light, which we feel as heat. The researchers have made a material that consists of a thin film of copper—which very effectively reflects infrared heat—on top of a stretchy, substantially-less-reflective layer of rubber. The copper layer is covered with hairline fissures, so when the thermocomfort material is tugged at, the reflective copper pieces pull apart, allowing heat to escape through the polymer (rubber) between them.

Gorodetsky has a handy analogy to explain his lab’s invention: “Imagine you’ve got a frozen lake or a frozen ocean, and it’s covered with ice floes, all these chunks of ice that are all bunched up next to each other. That’s what the material basically looks like in its inactive and un-stretched state. When you stretch it, you spread all the ice floes apart, so in our case, you can see the polymer underneath them.” When heat hits the polymer in between the copper “floes,” it is transmitted through the material instead of being reflected back towards its source. Due to the copper layer, the material—an “extremely light, stretchy rubber,” in Gorodetsky’s words—is shiny, although its color lightens as it stretches.

At its warmest, the thermocomfort material traps (or reflects back towards the body) heat almost as effectively as a space blanket, that crinkly aluminum foil-looking material that’s been used to reflect the sun’s glare in space and maintain marathoners’ body warmth after races. A sleeve made from thermocomfort material increased the temperature of the wearer’s forearm by nearly one degree Celsius, close to the heating power of a space blanket. But the thermoregulating material is also impressively versatile. At different degrees of stretching, it can make wearers comfortable across an 8.2-degree Celsius (roughly 15-degree Fahrenheit) span. When it’s 30 percent stretched out, it resembles the insulating ability of a Columbia Omni-Heat fleece; at 50 percent stretch factor, the material keeps heat in like wool. When researchers stretched thermocomfort material to double its original length, heat passed through it as if it were cotton. And even after researchers expanded and contracted the material 1,000 times, the repeated use didn’t wear it down.

Because the thermocomfort material was tested with the copper as the inner layer touching the wearer’s skin, this meant it kept the user warm when in its compact state, by keeping their body heat in. But if you flipped the material, Gorodetsky says, it would keep heat out, like a shiny sun shade placed on a car windshield.

In the Nature Communications paper, the engineers posit a variety of applications, among them the possibility that thermocomfort material could play a role in reducing the amount of energy dedicated to keeping spaces temperate, which accounts for a third of the energy consumption of commercial and residential buildings worldwide. Manufacturing the material should, Gorodetsky says, be as inexpensive as mass-producing space blankets, which cost under $4 at REI, and stretching it takes minimal energy, compared to the energy costs of a heat pump or air conditioning system. He imagines the coppery material coating rooftops and windows, or layered on tents or other outdoor equipment to control heat flow. It could be used, he speculates, to help dissipate heat from electronics (think, for example, of how quickly a laptop can get uncomfortably warm). Gorodetsky also mentions smaller, everyday applications, like Tupperware-esque containers to keep perishable food cold.

Gorodetsky says his lab is most excited about the impact the material could have on clothing. “If you had a jacket that everyone could wear, and every single person could adjust to keep themselves comfortable over a broader temperature range, then you just need to put in far less energy to keep the building at one single temperature,” he explains.

The team has applied for a patent, although figuring out how to mass-produce thermocomfort material is the next step before it can find commercial applications. “Translating this specific [innovation in materials science] directly to clothing takes a fair amount more engineering,” says Lucy Dunne, co-director of University of Minnesota’s Wearable Technology Lab, who was not involved in the research. “The biggest question mark for me,” Dunne says, is, “How do you get it to stretch?” Dunne floated several options, from low-tech straps that adjust the tightness of a garment to the more futuristic-sounding idea of integrating it with materials that are trained to shift shape based on thermal triggers. Another engineering challenge, Dunne says, will be ensuring thermocomfort cloth is breathable enough to meet consumers’ expectations of comfort.

Dunne sees the material as potentially useful in military camouflage equipment, helping hide soldiers from infrared sensors. Interest in thermo-regulating wearable technology seems to be on the rise, she says. Current approaches include devices, like the Embr Wave, which serves as a “personal thermostat” wristband that runs an electric current through ceramic or metal plates, or her own research incorporating conductive thread into electric-powered fingerless cuffs that distribute heat across the wearer’s hand. Infrared-reflective materials like space blankets or Columbia’s Omni-Heat exist, but the built-in insulating adjustability of Gorodetsky’s thermocomfort material sets it apart.

Next time you find yourself chilly and grabbing your “office sweater,” just think: maybe one day you’ll be wearing a coppery jacket, and all it will take to make yourself comfortable is a touch of a button or a tug on the sleeve.

Does Snot Help Dolphins Echolocate?

Smithsonian Magazine

A chittering dolphin can sound like a bunch of monkeys jumping on a deflating rubber raft—trills, squeaks, whistles and clicks.

These creatures have honed this cacophony over millions of years to survive in their watery world. Both dolphins and toothed whales can use the returning staccato from their highest-frequency clicks to echolocate, identifying the size, shape, direction and even speed of fleeing prey.

But after decades of research, how exactly they produce these high-frequency noises remains unknown. And a group of scientists are pointing to snot as the ingredient that gives the cetaceans the extra oomph required to go ultrasonic.

Dolphins make sounds varying in frequency depending on the animal’s purpose. Human hearing maxes out around 20 KHz, so we can usually hear a dolphin’s clicks and trills, which are thought to be used for communication. But when echolocating, dolphins turn up the frequency to the ultrasonic range. A dolphin’s staccato can clock in around 100 KHz—higher than a dog whistle.

Even so, “you can’t make [the sound of] a dog whistle just by whistling,” says Aaron Thode, researcher at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. But mix in a bit of snot and the situation could completely change.

Dolphins make their noises with the use of a set of fat-filled strips called dorsal bursae located beneath the blowhole. This nasal cavity is sealed by a pair of lips that resemble and are commonly called “monkey lips,” explains Thode who presented the mucus hypothesis this week at the 171st Meeting of the Acoustical Society of America in Salt Lake City, Utah.

To click underwater, dolphins push air through these monkey lips into the empty cavity below the sealed blowhole. “If you put your own lips together and squeeze them, you make the raspberry sound, right?” says Thode before making flatulence noises. “That's effectively what [scientists] think the dolphins are doing.”

Yet how they go from blowing raspberries to dog whistles is a little less clear and has long eluded scientists. About 15 years ago, researchers with the Office of Naval Research tried and failed to mechanically recreate the echolocation clicks, says Thode. Even now, no one has been able to make the sound mechanically.

The Navy actually employs a small force of dolphins to use their mastery of echolocation to safely identify objects such as buried landmines, says Ted Cranford, a marine biologist at San Diego State University. “The animals don’t make many mistakes,” he says. “But man-made sonar systems are not error-free.”

So the hope was to tap into the dolphin’s skill and improve human sonar systems, says Cranford, who was part of that early ONR project. It was while examining these clicks using endoscopes that Cranford and Thode got the idea that the mucus coating on the monkey lips may be more than just slime.

But actually testing what the mucus does to the click is a whole different story. The sounds are short and rapid fire. Dolphins can generate hundreds of clicks in a single second. “It’s difficult to get a handle on a process that happens so quickly,” says Cranford.

Since that time, Cranford has moved on from snot, but the idea stuck in Thode’s head. Using new sound analysis technologies, he and his collaborators diagrammed the burst’s staccato and created a basic model to try to explain how it comes to be.

They broke down the profile of dolphin clicks and found that it often happens in two parts. Initially there’s a thump, which is followed by a ring. This is similar to hitting a bell with a hammer—the hammer strikes to produce a thump, then bounces off allowing it to vibrate in a ring, he explains.

Yet the researchers couldn’t produce a similar set of sounds at a high enough frequency until they added a high-viscosity substance to their model. Adding snot to the mix of equations pushed the sounds into the ultrasonic range.

But why would snot matter? The dolphin’s monkey lips have a loose layer of skin on top, Thode explains. The mucus is likely causing the lip surfaces to stick together. When the lips let go, they do so with a snap, producing an ultrasonic sound. Using this model they were also able to explain some of the variability in dolphin sounds.

“You just can't bang two billiard balls or whap together two very dry pieces of tissue and generate what you [hear] coming out of a dolphin,” he says. “There's going to have to be something going on on that small scale with some loose tissue and sticky snot.”

Notably, however, this idea has not yet gone through peer review, the rigorous process research undergoes that allows other scientists in the field to weigh in. Even so, the idea is an intriguing one, says Paul Nachtigall, a biologist that specializes in marine mammals at Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, who was not involved in the research.

There’s incredible detail in the “acoustical masterpiece” that is echolocation in both the outgoing clicks and the ways dolphins process the returning whispers. Nachtigall emphasizes that no single thing will explain cetaceans’ spectacular acoustic gymnastics.

“Lots of people are looking for the silver bullet,” he says. “They’re looking for one thing to say, “I found why dolphin echolocation is so fantastic—this is it.’ But I think there has to be many, many, many ‘this is its.’”

Part of the problem, says Cranford, is that the creatures are often studied sitting still in a tank, which is an utterly unnatural state for dolphins. They usually live in groups, constantly traveling and moving. When they echolocate, their bodies are flexing and gliding through the water.

“In order to simplify it—so that we can try to at least get an inkling of what is going on—we have to get them...to sit still,” he says. But because of this, “you’re not getting the whole picture. You’re getting this little, tiny sliver of what they can do.”

“It’s going to take a while to unravel this whole thing,” says Cranford. But already over the decades of work scientists have slowly started to tease out the dolphin’s complexities—right down to the importance of their snot.

Day 3: The Excitement of Astronomy

Smithsonian Magazine

Day Three, May 26. Las Campanas. Morning, weather brisk and breezy. Light clouds.

Day begins with trip to the twin Magellan telescopes. The mirror for each telescope is 6.5 meters in diameter and is housed in a framing system that is a mechanical marvel. The foundation for each of them was created by digging a hole 30 feet in diameter and 30 feet deep. This provides a base that will avoid vibrations and firmly support the framing system. The frame itself contains mechanisms that move the mirror smoothly in spite of its heavy weight. There are mechanisms beneath the mirror that allow its shape to be adjusted to account for the effects of its own weight on the mirror itself. Lessons learned from the Magellan telescopes will be put to good use with the 8-meter Giant Magellan Telescope mirrors.

Toward the end of our visit, Andrea Dupree, a senior astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (and a very helpful contributing editor on this journal entry!), took me up the ladder on the side of the telescope so I could see her favorite instrument on the Magellan telescope—a spectrograph (named MIKE) that breaks starlight up into colors that reveal physical conditions in the star itself and its surroundings. Andrea uses the information to detect winds and material lost from the youngest and oldest objects in our galaxy—including stars in the old cluster Omega Centauri. This helps us to understand the life history of the stars themselves and provides information about stellar evolution. Andrea's enthusiasm is evident—she obviously loves her life work!

After our tour of the Magellan facility, we go off schedule for a few hours for lunch and time to explore the site on our own. Later in the day we will review the GMT partnership and the status of the project, followed by an opportunity at night for us to actually view the stars using the Magellan telescope.

For my time off, I decide to explore the trails around the site to look for wildlife and take in the dramatic scenery. In the course of my walk, I see a beautiful hawk soaring in the valley below. The hawk has a strong resemblance to the Red-Tailed Hawk seen in the southeastern United States, but it has a white breast with a white tail. Walking around a bend in the road, I come upon three wild burros grazing on the hillside. They seem well fed, and my presence does not spook them. Later I learn they may have become acclimated to humans because they get a few handouts from the cooks at Las Campanas.

My exploration turns up other small mammals and birds that live among the rocks in the hills and valleys. Vegetation, what there is of it, is of the prickly variety, which I assume is meant to deter predators as much as possible given this harsh environment. One shrub stands out. It is about a foot and a half high, light brown and round with a flat top. From a distance it appears to be formed from a tightly patterned weaving of stems. On closer examination, I find the stems are composed of a dense configuration of two- to three-inch-long sharp thorns. Upon my return to camp I asked our very helpful host, Miguel Roth, director of the Las Campanas Observatory, what kind of plant this is. He said he did not know the technical name, but it is locally called the "mother in law" seat. Enough said.

Walking back to the lodge I pass by the parking area in front of it and notice a sign, "Parking—Astronomers." Where else in the world would parking spaces be set aside exclusively for astronomers?

At the meeting about the GMT, we review the progress of the partnership. An impressive group has signed up, including the Smithsonian, to build this new telescope. It will allow humans to view deep into space and time and explore the origins of the universe in ways never before possible. The GMT will allow imaging of newly discovered planets that are smaller than the earth. New concepts of "dark matter," which forms more than 80 percent of the mass of the universe, will be developed. Work on the project is proceeding on all fronts and the first of the large mirrors has been built at a special facility that lies under the football field of the University of Arizona. The Smithsonian will need to raise significant funding over the next decade to meet its share of the cost, but the concept has been approved by our Board of Regents and we are committed to it to insure that our long-standing strength in astrophysics and astronomy is not diminished.

Later that evening we have a dinner with the observatory technical staff who run the telescopes and the facilities. This is not only a fine meal, but allows us to converse with staff members who are all native Chileans.

From dinner we head for the Magellan telescopes again for a viewing of the stars. It is pitch-dark on the mountain top and the sky is cloudless, perfect for astronomy. The doors of the observatory are open and the big telescope is rotated into position for viewing.

Miguel has placed an eyepiece on the 6.5 meter Magellan/Clay telescope which allows us to see some amazing sights! First, we see the planet Saturn in our own solar system with its rings viewed sideways as thin bright slivers in the dark sky along with its five surrounding satellites. Then we moved on to the star Eta Carinae, a massive star 7,500 light years distant from Earth. The light that we saw tonight left the star about 7,500 years ago! This star had an eruption about 160 years ago (our time on Earth, around the year 1849) that formed a bright 'nebula' of gas that appears as two large spheres emerging in opposite directions from the star. It was impressive that we could see these so well tonight with sight of only 0.4 arcsec (a very small measure) on the sky! We turned to Omega Centauri—one of the most massive clusters of stars in our galaxy. The field of the telescope was filled with bright stars. Astronomers believe this may have been another small galaxy absorbed by our own because it contains stars of different compositions.

Our time is up, and we turn over the telescope to the astronomer who has work to do for the rest of the night. For a brief moment of time we have experienced the excitement of astronomy. It was truly a beautiful night here at Las Campanas.

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough (yellow hat) standing on a scaffolding with a group outside the DuPont telescope. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. The twin Magellan telescopes at dusk. The doors are open in preparation for a night observation. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. View from atop the Magellan site down to the group's accommodations. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. The Chilean Andes (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. A sign outside Las Campanas notes parking for astronomers only. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Three burros roam the hillside near Las Campanas. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. The shrub known locally as the “mother-in-law seat.” (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Andrea Dupree, a senior astrophysicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, at the Magellan telescope. Dupree’s enthusiasm for her life work is obvious. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough stands beside one of the Magellan telescopes. The housing for each of the twin telescopes is a mechanical marvel: The foundation was created by digging a hole 30 feet in diameter and 30 feet deep in order to provide a base that will avoid vibrations and firmly support the framing system. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. An eyepiece on the 6.5 meter Magellan/Clay telescope allows Secretary Clough to see amazing sights in the night sky, including the planet Saturn, the star Eta Carinae and the Omega Centauri. (original image)

Image by Francisco Figueroa. An image of Saturn taken through the eyepiece of the Magellan telescope. (original image)

Image by Francisco Figueroa. The star Eta Carinae as photographed through the eyepiece of the Magellan telescope. Eta Carinae is a massive star 7,500 light years distant from Earth. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. From the proposed site of the Giant Magellan Telescope, the twin Magellan telescopes are visible on the distant horizon. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. The team gathers at the top of the proposed Giant Magellan Telescope site on top of Las Campanas looking back toward the twin Magellan telescopes and homebase. (original image)

Image by Smithsonian Institution. Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough on the proposed hilltop site for the Giant Magellan Telescope. (original image)

Exploring connections between the U.S. and East Asia through the Howard F. Bowker Numismatic Collection

National Museum of American History

Imagine a 1,000-square-foot room holding thousands of tiny records of the past. You would probably assume such a room was part of a museum or library. But American collector Howard F. Bowker built a room like this in his California home. He filled it with more than 10,000 historic East Asian coins, banknotes, and stamps, as well as an extensive library that helped him study and interpret his large numismatic and philatelic collections. Earlier this year, Bowker's family donated a portion of his holdings to our National Numismatic Collection. This donation presents an ideal opportunity to explore what numismatic objects can reveal about the historic trade and technological connections between the United States and East Asia.

A black and white photograph of a man facing a wall and holding a large sheet of wood in a room with wood floors and brick walls. Two children stand in the doorway next to him.

Bowker's passion for collecting and documenting East Asian history, culture, and art started when he was stationed as a U.S. naval officer in Hànkǒu, Hubei Province, China, following the conclusion of World War I. His extensive personal archive shows that he developed a sustained commitment not only to collecting, but also to conducting new research on the economic and social history of the region and sharing it with an international network of scholars and collectors.

A black and white photograph of a family. A couple and three children of various ages stand in the grass in front of a brick building with a low, sloping roof.

Bowker's private collection ranged from some of the earliest Chinese media of exchange, including spades, bridge money, and knife money from the 5th century BCE to an impressive variety of both common and rare medieval, early modern, and modern Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Filipino coins. Together, these objects present great research potential to both ancient and modern historians, anthropologists, and archaeologists who examine modes and patterns of exchange, circulation, cultural interaction and representation, coin production methods, and metallurgy.

Two pieces of metal shaped roughly like machetes with loops at the end of the "handles." They are greenish in color though one has some dull copper coloring.

A silver coin with Chinese characters around the edges. There is a man's face in the middle though it is hard to make out because the coin is worn.

What is so exciting about Bowker's collection is that it not only documents the development of economic and cultural exchange in East Asia, but also contains objects that show how coins and minting technology helped cultivate connections between the U.S. and Asia. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, China sought to set up provincial mints and produce struck coinage en masse, but it did not have the technical capabilities to manufacture the necessary minting equipment. Representatives of private overseas firms, including American firms, traveled to China and worked with Chinese officials to design, manufacture, and export minting equipment for multiple Chinese mints. Americans even engraved designs for some of China's most iconic modern coins from that period. For example, the Ferracute Machine Company of Bridgeton, New Jersey, worked with U.S. Mint Chief Engraver Charles Barber to produce brass gilt proof pattern coins for the Sìchuān province around 1902. These coins feature a commanding dragon design and have both English and Chinese characters. A set of these coins were held in the Ferracute Company archive for half a century before they were given to Howard F. Bowker by the president of the Ferracute Company as a gift in the 1950s.

Gold coin featuring a fierce image of a dragon. Its eyes make eye contact with the viewer. Its body is snake-like. It looks angry. Text: "Szechuen Province."

The brass gilt Sìchuān coins are among the more than 380 Bowker Collection objects that the Howard F. Bowker family has donated to the National Numismatic Collection. These new acquisitions, as well as all of the National Numismatic Collection's East Asian coins (more than 10,000 in total), will soon be digitized and available for study online and for consultation in the National Numismatic Collection's new Howard F. Bowker Research Room. A selection of these objects are also on display in the New Acquisitions case within The Value of Money. We hope that by making these objects available to researchers and museum visitors, they will serve as an international resource for the study of East Asian and U.S. history—as well as a reminder of the power of numismatic objects to connect people and their cultures across space and time.

Ellen R. Feingold is curator of the National Numismatic Collection.

Posted Date: 
Wednesday, November 8, 2017 - 07:00
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Outrigger Canoe

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.
FROM CARD: "A DUGOUT CANOE WITH A BOUND-ON LOW SUPERSTRUCTURE. A SINGLE LOG OUTRIGGER, LASHED TO TWO SUSPENSION ARMS. SINGLE MAST AND A "LOOSE-FOOTED SPIRIT [sic, should be Sprit, not Spirit] SAIL". TWO BASKETRY WOVEN MATS GO WITH IT. COLLECTED BY: GEORGE MERRILL, CONSUL. THIS ETHNOLOGY NO. [160416] WAS ASSIGNED, BECAUSE IT APPARENTLY WAS UNUSED. - R. ELDER 6/17/1980. J.W. COLLINS CATALOG P. 1363." THIS BOAT APPARENTLY ALSO CATALOGUED AS NUMBER 307215 AT ONE TIME, AS OLD DIVISION OF ENGINEERING NUMBER 76111, ETC. IS LISTED FOR BOTH. CARD SAYS: " COLLECTED BY: GEORGE MERRILL, CONSUL", BUT IT IS NOT CLEAR IN THE RECORDS IF HE WAS ACTUALLY THE COLLECTOR. RATHER IT IS MORE PROBABLE THAT THE BOAT CAME TO THE SMITHSONIAN THROUGH HIS ASSISTANCE.

Per Dr. Adrienne L. Kaeppler, this is the oldest documented existing Hawaiian canoe in the world. When Queen Kapiolani sent this canoe to the Smithsonian, it was already quite old. A hole at the bottom of the canoe suggests that it had hit a reef and would have been difficult to repair.

Canoe (without sail) was on display in National Museum of Natural History exhibit "Na Mea Makamae o Hawai'i - Hawaiian Treasures", 2004-2005.

Canoe is described (under number 76111) as a Hawaiian fishing canoe in U.S. National Museum Bulletin # 127, pp. 286-287. This publication is available online: http://biodiversitylibrary.org/page/7868048 .

This is probably the canoe shown in a photo in the Smithsonian Institution Archives, described as "Unidentified male staff member from United States National Museum [in the 1880s]... manning an outrigger sailing canoe on Museum grounds." SIA Acc. 11-007, Box 019 - United States National Museum. Division of Graphic Arts, Photographic Collection, 1860-1960 (url: http://collections.si.edu/search/detail/edanmdm:siris_arc_390596). Note that in 2018, the outrigger float/balance log and two booms that were previously stored as part of this canoe, were found to belong with E307212 instead, and have been so labelled.

The Wa'a Project, established by Joshua Bell, Curator of Globalization (NMNH), included a Recovering Voices Community Research Visit June 16-27, 2018. The visit brought master and apprentice Hawaiian and Māori canoe carvers and builders to study E164016-0, a historic Hawaiian wa'a (canoe). The group included: Raymond Bumatay, master Hawaiian canoe carver; Alexander 'Alika' Bumatay, master Hawaiian canoe carver; James Eruera, master Māori canoe carver; Bryce Motu, apprentice Māori canoe carver; Leslie 'Les' Matiu (O'Connor), apprentice Māori canoe carver; Kālewa Correa, Curator of Hawai'i and the Pacific at Smithsonian's APAC; Alexis Ching, apprentice Hawaiian canoe carver and documentary book maker; Dino Morrow, documentary photographer; Shannon Hennessey, APAC intern. About the hull, mast, sail: The canoe is made of koa and hibiscus. Ray noted that the gunnel is loose due to being replaced and not being lashed correctly. Ray noted that this is not a fishing canoe, it is a leisure/recreation canoe. He explained that fishing canoes have big bellies to carry the catch and Kālewa added that this canoe would have moved faster than a fishing canoe. Ray and Alika also noted that the sail and mast were added to the wa'a just before it was sent to the Smithsonian because the mast does not show any wear and because an extra pepeaio (projection inside the canoe to hold a seat) was an addition. The kumu kia (mast step) is made of hala wood. They believe the wa'a was not originally built to be used with a sail. Alika notes that having a canoe for leisure is unusual. Ray explained that you would need a log of about 24 feet to begin carving this canoe. The bottom part is shaped first, then the inner part. This canoe was carved with an adze, it is possible they used a metal adze for some of the carving. Ray and Kālewa spoke of the manu (curved endpieces covering the bow and stern parts of the hull) and moamoa (point at the stern end of the canoe) of the wa'a. Ray noted the manu is used as a guide for a canoe to break the waves while coming down a swell so it doesn't dive. Moamoa: When the people migrated to Hawai'i, a god wanted to come along, but the canoe was already overloaded. The traveler told the god he could come if he could find a place to sit. The god sat on the moamoa and ever since, Hawaiian built canoes have had the god seat, the moamoa. About the patch/repairs: The patching on the wa'a was a cause for discussion the entire visit. The repair on the keel was done with a butterfly patch using coconut fiber lashing. The repair work on the bottom of the canoe was a style that Ray had never seen before. Alexis believed that the patch was not done in Hawai'i prior to shipping the wa'a because she feels it was unlikely that Queen Kapi'olani would have sent a broken boat to represent Hawai'i. Discussion frequently returned to the patching being more of a Māori style of patching than a Hawaiian style. No firm conclusion was made. About the paddle: Ray explained that it is important to have a paddle in a koa canoe to keep the spirits out. If wandering spirits see a paddle in a canoe, they know it is being used, but if they find one without a paddle then they decide to stay and inhabit the canoe. The wa'a at NMNH is lonely without a paddle. Ray and Alika donated a paddle to NMNH to go with the wa'a. They had it shipped directly to MSC so it would arrive before they left Washington, DC. About rigging: When lashing the outrigging together with the wa'a, the rigging Ray and Alika first used to attach the 'iako (boom) to the ama (float) did not work correctly because the two replacement 'iako made in 2004 do not fit the ama properly and were not made correctly. Ray noted that they used an "everyday folks rigging" instead of the kind the Bumatay family usually uses, which is a chief's rigging. Ray Bumatay related the story behind the style of rigging they used to bind the 'iako to the wae. A Tahitian princess arrived in Kauai and her retainers attemped to hide her identity by hiding her colors, but the people of Kauai noticed that she was still being treated like royalty. The King of Kauai fell in love with her and took her for his wife. He was jealous of her beauty and ordered his head rigger to make a chastity belt for her. Over time, the chastity belt design was adapted as a canoe rigging. The design is very strong, even if a part is cut or broken it still holds. That is why the rigging design is called the Pa'u or Dress of Princess 'Ilukia. In addition to the 2 'iako, ama, hull, and kumu kia, the additional pieces labeled with this catalog number were identified as packing materials from when the wa'a was shipped to the Smithsonian. At some point in the past additional objects were also given the catalog number of the wa'a. This included the float of another canoe that the group identified as most likely belonging to the Samoan canoe, E307212-0, and which was subsequently changed to that number.

George Washington Slept Here

Smithsonian Magazine

"I not being so good a woodsman as the rest of my Company striped my self very orderly and went in to the Bed as they call'd it when to my Surprize I found it to be nothing but a Little Straw—Matted together [and] one Thread Bear blanket with double its Weight in Vermin such as Lice and Fleas etc.”

Thus George Washington, at age 16, confided to his diary. The year was 1748. He was largely self-taught, far from home, trying to learn the surveyor's trade.

Eventually the father of his country would sleep in a very great number of beds, so that one of them seems suitable enough as an object at hand. All through the 1750s he traveled the Western wilderness, first as a surveyor, then as a colonial officer. He had two horses shot from under him in battle, helping England fight France for possession of the continent. After some years building up Mount Vernon as a farm, in May 1775 he was off to Philadelphia as a delegate to the Continental Congress. He would be back soon, he wrote Martha after he left Mount Vernon, but it was eight and a half years before he got home for good.

Instead, he had to go straight to Cambridge, Massachusetts, as Commander in Chief of the new Continental Army in what was fast becoming the American Revolution. Thereafter he was on the move, fighting and retreating hither and yon, skillfully keeping his ragtag army in being. “If I were to wish the bitterest curse to an enemy,” Washington wrote his cousin, “I should put him in my stead.” As the plight of the colonies seemed more and more hopeless, Washington was offered dictatorial powers. He declined to use them. He threatened to resign his impossible task; he and the feckless Congress faced the fact that there was no one else to take up such a burden.

Finally the French joined in the fight against their old enemy, and the British gave up and went home. By then it was 1783. He had a few happy years getting Mount Vernon's fields and livestock back into proper shape. But in the long, hot summer of 1787 the country called on him again, this time to serve at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. The other delegates knew he would be the new republic's first elected President. Many delegates, particularly those from the south, hated the idea of the kind of federal government Washington stood for. But knowing his character by then, they understood that he would not abuse whatever powers they gave him and were a bit more inclined to grant them.

He was unanimously elected President in 1789 and headed for New York City, chosen as the first seat of the new government. His job? To set sound political precedents and show how the first President of the world's most promising but precarious political experiment ought to behave.

Driven by duty to present himself to the citizens of the shaky new union, he spent the night in so many inns and private houses that “George Washington Slept Here” became a real estate cliché, as well as the title of a clunky 1940 stage (and screen) comedy by Kaufman and Hart. Our object at hand was not one of the many beds Washington slept on while upon his travels. It is rather his first ‘best bed,' as a particularly fine bed was then described, inherited, like Mount Vernon itself, from his half-brother Lawrence.

Antiques experts refer to it as a “married piece,” meaning that at some point in the past its original mahogany quatrefoil bedpost were wedded to replacement parts to complete the bedstead. Swathed in elaborate 18th-century-style canopies, the bed is now to be seen on Mount Vernon's main floor. Along with many other authentic items, ten of them on loan from the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, it was sent to Mount Vernon to be part of a nationwide effort to reacquaint Americans with Washington on the 200th anniversary of his death.

In the nick of time, it would appear. A year or so ago, a town in Louisiana took Washington's name off an elementary school, giving as a reason that he owned slaves. Today, historians at Mount Vernon note, young people are no longer sure whey the man's face is on the quarter and the dollar bill.

Pictures, documents and objects associated with Washington are now on display, many centering around Mount Vernon, refurbished to look more like the working farm and family home it was rather than than the quasi museum it had become.

The effort is laudable and will doubtless do his image some good. Gilbert Stuart, who took a dislike to Washington, gave us the grim portrait that still chills us from the dollar bill. The 19th century made him into a monument endowed with almost superhuman virtues and encrusted in formality. “Did anyone ever see Washington naked!” Nathaniel Hawthorne once said. “I imagine [he] was born with his clothes on and his hair powdered.” In our own debunking age, a considerable part of the effort to humanize Washington emphasizes the flesh and blood farmer, acquirer or real estate and owner of slaves. We learn that he loved children but never had any of his own. That he practiced soil chemistry and crop rotation, giving up tobacco in favor of wheat. He also bred mules, was one of the finest horsemen of the age, liked to dance and play cards and –though he ate and drank sparingly-distilled and sold whiskey out of Mount Vernon. Much has been, and will be, made about the fact that he fell half in love with his next-door neighbor's young wife, Sally Fairfax, then married a rich widow, a fact less important than that he was apparently faithful to Martha for 40 years. And, of course, there are those sets of false teeth, not wooden but made from hippo tusks and other materials that pained him continually and deformed his face.

Bringing Washington to life these days is a hard row to hoe, because he really was a monument, too. The stoic Roman virtues that he practiced are almost entirely alien to our febrile times. He was a leader and a patriot, not a politician; the authority figure of all authority figures. Like the Romans he saw ambition not as a matter of individual ego but as a public duty. Infinitely scrupulous, infinitely patient, endlessly devoted to the vision of political union, a democratic republic strong enough and just enough and sensible enough to prosper, he became quite literally the father of a new country. But “father knows best” does not play well today when bumpers are plastered with “Question Authority” stickers, while assorted cultural influences simply presuppose that fathers are hopeless boobs, that patriotic exhortation is mostly phony, and that the restraint, discipline and order that Washington brought to everyday life are hypocritical.

It is hard to understand what the country owed him, if you believe, as people today tend to, that everything had to happen the way it did happen. We can hardly imagine the new republic, its birth perilous, its destiny decidedly not manifest, a tiny shaky experiment, torn with dissension, deeply in debt, a prey to internal anarchy and the external ambitions of Europe. All similar experiments had ended in mob rule or oligarchy or dictatorship.

Washington was a practical man, a thinker and problem solver, and an original self-help American. He spent his life studying and figuring out what was the right thing to do, then gave it his best shot. He had the latest books on how to be an expert farmer. On how to become your own architect. Books on government and philosophy. The works of Seneca. As general, he figured out how to fight the British starting with no army at all. As President, Washington managed to get the best out of men as opposed as Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. Above all, he managed to figure out how to bring the union safely into being.

As President he also stayed as much as possible apart from partisan politic, something we can hardly imagine now. Early on the job, when everything he did set a precedent, he visited the Senate, listened to a good deal of wordy bickering, then left, reportedly saying, “I'm damned if I go there again.” And he never did.

Nothing symbolizes the modern age's difficulty in understanding Washington's life and time more than the easy moral outrage that encourages the present to simplify the past in order to condemn it. Especially the matter of slavery. Washington was deeply troubled by slavery. After the Revolution, he did not, with one exception, sell Mount Vernon's slaves away from their families, and he studied ways in which they might be equipped for freedom, including an arrangement by which they could work for one of his tenants and get paid for it. In his will he stipulated that his slaves should be freed upon his wife's death, and specifically left money that was still supporting them at least 30 years after his death.

In the end, what did away with slavery was the decline of state sovereignty and the growing power of the union that the constitution made possible. That and the rise of commerce, set in motion by Washington and Hamilton and opposed by states' rights advocates like Jefferson and others, who championed agriculture even though in the South it was largely based on slavery. Washington understood that the end of slavery would be possible only when the federal government was strong and more people made their living in trade, in manufacturing and other nonagrarian pursuits. Jefferson bitterly disagreed.

It would take a long and bloody civil war to prove that Washington had been right. Yet Jefferson's final assessment of the first President is worth remembering. “His integrity was most pure, his justice the most inflexible I have ever known and no motives of interest or consanguinity, of friendship or hatred, being able to bias his decision. He was, indeed, in every sense of the word, a wise, a good and a great man.”

George Washington died at age 67 in the big family bed on the second floor of Mount Vernon, on December 14, 1799. He was exhausted; a sudden inflammation of the throat stopped his breathing. At Mount Vernon, you can see the room as it was, complete with blood-letting implements and bloody rags. “Tis well,” he whispered as he died, perhaps thinking of a lifetime of effort, perhaps merely that the hours of pain were over. Martha died just two years later. She never slept in that bed again.

The Art and Life of William H. Johnson

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Students examine works by African American painter William H. Johnson to learn about his milieu as well as his style. This set of lessons is divided into grades K-2, 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12. Younger students list the elements of the pictures, identifying colors and shapes and such objects as farm equipment, crops, and animals. Older students compare Johnson's work with that of painter Allan Rohan Crite.

How Mexico City’s Unique Geology Makes Deadly Earthquakes Even Worse

Smithsonian Magazine

Each year, Mexico City commemorates the anniversary of its devastating 1985 tremblor by holding a series of evacuation tests. This annual rite both honors the 10,000 people who lost their lives in that disaster and prepares the city’s current residents for the next natural disaster. But yesterday, soon after business had resumed, central Mexico was rocked by a real—and deadly—7.1-magnitude earthquake.

As buildings began to sway, crowds poured into the streets. In videos posted to Youtube and Twitter, many structures seemed to disintegrate under the vibrations. At least 200 people died, according to the Associated Press and other news outlets.

Unfortunately, Tuesday’s tremblor is just the latest chapter in Mexico’s long and tragic history of earthquakes. Two weeks ago, an 8.1 magnitude earthquake—the strongest in a century—jolted southern Mexico, killing nearly 100 people. What many don’t realize is that there’s a simple reason behind this region’s propensity for cataclysms: The geology of Mexico—and particularly that of Mexico City—makes it a perfect storm for seismic catastrophe.

These latest quakes were caused by the movement of tectonic plates, the pieces of Earth’s crust that move and jostle against each other. Mexico sits atop a complicated juncture of tectonic plates, which have been engaged in a slow-motion collision for over a million years. As these plates scrape against one another, tension builds until they reach a breaking point—which is when an earthquake strikes. The sudden release of energy causes seismic waves to radiate out from the epicenter.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, who tracks earthquake activity worldwide, over the last century there have been roughly 19 other earthquakes over 6.5 magnitude within just 155 miles of the epicenter of the latest quake. Hundreds more have shaken the thousands of miles that make up the country's coastline, many topping eight on the equivalent Richter scale.

This latest quake was centered on a region where the Cocos tectonic plate, which sits beneath the Pacific Ocean, is slowly being shoved beneath the continental North American plate. This movement is causing extreme tensions as the slab is rammed into the Earth.

Though the epicenter for the 1985 earthquake was over 200 miles away from Mexico City, the disaster nearly flattened the capital. (U.S. Geological Survey Department of the Interior/USGS/I.D. Celebi)

It gets worse. Mexico City, the country’s densely-populated capital, is even more susceptible to earthquakes than the rest of the country. This holds true even if the epicenter of the quake is positioned far from the city’s boundaries, which was the case for both this latest earthquake (which originated nearly 100 miles southeast of Mexico City in the state of Puebla), and the 1985 earthquake (whose epicenter was some 200 miles from the capital).

Though the fact that these quakes occurred on the same day 32 years apart is purely coincidence, their dramatic impact on the capital is not. The reason: Ancient sediments that underlie the city trap and magnify the vibrations that ripple through the region.

Mexico City sits atop an ancient shallow lake, with soils made of sediments that washed in from the surrounding mountains thousands of years ago. In the early 1300s, attracted by those fertile soils, the Aztecs selected an island in the lake on which to build their capital city, Tenochtitlan, which eventually became Mexico City. Though the Spanish later drained the surrounding waters to prevent frequent flooding, the effects of that decision can still be felt today.

When earthquake tremors hit solid rock, the rock simply shakes. But when they roll into the soft sediments of a basin, the vibrations can become trapped, reverberating back and forth through the material, explains Susan Hough, a seismologist with the USGS. "It's almost like a bathtub, the [seismic] waves will slosh back and forth," she says. Other seismologists have likened these lakebed dynamics to a bowl of Jello.

This reverberation doesn’t just carry these waves further—it can actually amplify them. “A basin will have natural frequencies, which depend on its shape and size, as well as the material properties of the sediments inside,” explains Jascha Polet, a geophysicist at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, via e-mail. “When seismic waves make a basin shake at one of these natural frequencies, significant amplification may occur.”

Depending on the frequency of the seismic waves, the movement of the ground can feed energy into buildings of a certain height. This, as yesterday’s quake shows, causes them to sway—and eventually topple.

“Think of pushing a kid on a swing,” Hough adds. “If you start pushing every 5 seconds, it will just mess things up.” That is, the pushes won’t have a cumulative effect. But if you push at a consistent frequency, each push will send the child higher into the sky.

This map shows the location of all the earthquakes measuring over 7.0 magnitude that have been recorded in North America. Though many are scattered across America's west coast, note the high concentration of quakes in central and southern Mexico. (USGS)

While it’s long been known that sediments can magnify tremors, researchers didn’t learn exactly how dramatic the effects could be until 1985. The tremblor nearly flattened the distant Mexico City, yet left many cities close to the epicenter nearly unscathed. "This [earthquake] taught us that soft soils can magnify motion to a degree never thought possible," University of California at Berkeley engineer Vitelmo Berto told the LA Times in 1986, a year after the disaster.

The seismic waves that were taking down buildings were five times greater than waves outside the city, according to measurements taken during that event, reported the LA Times. "No one expected the intensities of motion that were recorded in Mexico City,” Berto said. “No one had designed for it, and that is why so many buildings failed.”

Mexico City’s lakebed geology also make it prone to an even more dramatic disaster: liquefaction.

When soils are saturated with water, intense shaking can cause them to lose their solid structures and begin acting like a liquid—to the point that the ground can swallow up cars like quick sand. Liquefaction worsened the impacts of the 1985 earthquake, undermining the foundation of many buildings. While it is not yet known if this is a factor for the latest quake, “it would not be surprising,” says Polet.

If there is a silver lining to these destructive natural events, it’s that they present an opportunity for scientists to collect real world data in hopes of better understanding and coping with future disasters. “This disaster presents us with a major opportunity to learn and prevent a similar disaster from happening in the United States,” said the National Science Foundation's then-assistant director for engineering during a U.S. congressional briefing in the wake of the 1985 disaster.

Coming off the heels of Mexico City's latest tragedy, however, the focus must be on the people of central Mexico. “The priority now is continue rescuing those who are still trapped and provide medical attention to the injured,” Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto said in a video statement, according to KTLA.com. “Unfortunately many people have lost their lives, including girls and boys in schools, buildings and houses. I want to express my condolences to those who lost a family member or a loved one. Mexico shares your grief.” 

Rare Forest Elephants Seen for the First Time in South Sudan

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More Than One Billion Animals Have Been Killed in Australia’s Wildfires, Scientist Estimates

Smithsonian Magazine

The devastating fires raging across Australia have exacted a terrible human toll, killing at least 25 people, driving residents from their homes, and burning through some 2,000 houses. But the impact of the fires on Australia’s environment and unique wildlife is simply staggering. As Josephine Harvey reports for the Huffington Post, one scientist has estimated that more than one billion animals have died as a result of the conflagrations.

This new figure comes from Chris Dickman, an ecologist at the University of Sydney, who earlier this month estimated that 480 million animals had died in the state of New South Wales since fires first erupted there in September. That number was based on a 2007 report for the World Wide Fund for Nature about the impacts of land-clearing on the state’s wildlife. the authors of the report looked at previously published studies to estimate animal population densities in New South Wales, then multiplied the densities by the areas of vegetation approved for clearing.

But the 480 million estimate “now is a little bit out of date,” Dickman tells Harvey. The figure exclusively accounted for animals in New South Wales, but the fires have been spreading in other states. Now, Dickman says it is more likely that 800 million animals have died in New South Wales, and more than one billion have been killed nationally.

One billion is a tremendous number, but it may in fact be “a very conservative figure,” Dickman says. His updated estimate includes mammals, birds and reptiles—because there is good data on their population densities—but does not include insects, bats or frogs, reports Denise Chow of NBC News.

Some experts, however, think that Dickman’s estimates are inflated. Colin Beale, an ecologist from University of York, tells the BBC that birds, for instance, are likely able to fly away from the fires, while reptiles may be able to burrow into the ground to escape the flames. But there is no question that Australia is in the throes of an ecological disaster. Bushfires have now burned through more than 12 million acres—“an area larger than Maryland,” notes Cormac Farrell in an opinion piece for the New York Times. Wildlife habitats are being destroyed, so even when it comes to animals that are not killed by the fires, “we may still ask whether they will survive longer-term,” Beale says.

As heartrending photos of burnt and bandaged creatures have revealed, some animals are not able to escape the flames sweeping through their environment. Slow-moving Koalas, for instance, have been hit hard by the fires. An estimated 8,000 of the marsupials have died in New South Wales—about a third of the total population in the state. Dickman and his colleagues recently estimated that “most of the range and population” of between 20 and 100 threatened species—among them the glossy black cockatoo and a small marsupial known as the long-footed potoroo—have been burned.

“Most will have been killed by the fires themselves,” the researchers explained, “or due to a lack of food and shelter in the aftermath.”

Australia boasts a rich array of native species, many of which can only be found within the country. But Australia’s biodiversity was already struggling before the fires. According to the University of Sydney, “Some 34 species and subspecies of native mammals have become extinct in Australia over the last 200 years, the highest rate of loss for any region in the world.” Dickman tells NPR that the raging bushfires “may well hasten the extinction process for a range of other species.”

Wildfires have long been a part of Australia’s natural history, but experts say that the country’s fire season has become longer and more extreme due to climate change, which, among other things, has been linked to the hot and dry conditions that fuel wildfires. Australia is the world’s fourth largest producer of coal and is responsible for 1.3 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. Activists have called on Australia’s government to do more to cut down on greenhouse gases—something that Prime Minister Scott Morrison has proved reluctant to do.

According to Dickman, the situation in Australia should serve as a warning sign for the rest of the planet. “Sometimes, it's said too that Australia is the canary in the coal mine, with the effects of climate change being seen here most severely and earliest, as well,” he tells NPR. “We're probably looking at what climate change may look like for other parts of the world in the first stages in Australia at the moment.”

The science of mounting glass

National Museum of American History

Imagine you're setting a table with your finest glassware, and finding the best placement for each fragile and meaningful piece. Now imagine that some of this glassware dates back to the 1770s. And now imagine that your tabletop is plastered to a wall, with gravity working against you.

Three women stand beside two gray carts. On the carts, glass objects. They are speaking, looking at the objects. In the background, a display in progress in yellows and blues with tape marking object locations.

If you've been following along, you have a better sense of the challenges faced by Laura McClure, our mount maker in the Office of Exhibits Production, while preparing for and executing the installation of "Science Under Glass." Mount makers create structures that support objects, and they balance aesthetics and safety considerations in determining how to put the treasured artifacts from our collections out on display.

Science Under Glass, which will be open through September 2016 in our first-floor Artifact Walls, features about 100 pieces of glassware from the 1770s to the 1970s, each representing innovations in the field of science.

Clear glass object with two bulbous, spherical chambers and three tube-like sections with openings

From the mount-making perspective, displaying glassware is inherently complicated. Glass is exceptionally fragile. But McClure, an accomplished artist outside of the office, called upon her experience with stained glass to inform her proper handling of the pieces.

"Glass has a very distinct breaking point—literally—but I feel comfortable with it, in knowing what those boundaries are," McClure said.

Posing another challenge is the transparency of the pieces, which complicated the goal of making mounts that are as undetectable as possible—or "letting the object be the star of the show," as McClure said. Consulting with Nigel Briggs, a senior designer in our Design Studio, McClure used brass to make her mounts.

 

"What we decided to do is just have the mount be the mount, because this is science," McClure said. "It made sense to see how it is being held, because in a lab it would be in a holder."

McClure also looked to the laboratory for guidance on how to handle the objects. Most of these pieces were intended for use in laboratories, and as such have prescribed points of strength—places where scientists would grip the pieces with their hands or place them into holders. It’s the first step in determining how to display the objects safely, McClure said. Talking to conservators about preexisting cracks and breaks in the objects is another.

One woman kneels into a display case, placing glass objects onto a blue platform/display armature. Another woman holds design plans on paper and watches. In background, case is open to show objects and text panels.

McClure likens mount-making to puzzle-solving, as she aims to create safe, practical, and beautiful presentations while taking into consideration the materials used to make the mounts, the buffer between the mount and the objects, where the mount will sit on the object, and how the mount will fit in a case. But it's not one single puzzle to solve.

"Every object has to be looked at individually," McClure said. She considers the volume of the objects on this project to be her greatest challenge. About 100 objects needed to be carefully studied, though they were sometimes called away for conservation and photography. And each of her mechanical mounts needed to be hand-cranked into the display.

"That takes a little bit more time, but the object is more secure," McClure said. In all, McClure spent 100 hours making mounts and two full days installing the mounts and objects into the case. And for her efforts, not a single object was damaged during installation.

Clear glass object with large kidney-shaped chamber and long, pointy tube

With the objects installed and the display open to the public, McClure turned her attention to Art Pottery and Glass, a display directly across from Science Under Glass, where she also worked to present delicate pieces of glass both safely and beautifully.

Leslie Poster is an editor and writer in the Office of Project Management and Editorial Services. She has also blogged about Alexander Graham Bell's non-telephone-related projects. If you're a glass fan, don't miss "Art Pottery and Glass in America, 1880s-1920s," also on display in the Artifact Walls.

Posted Date: 
Tuesday, June 7, 2016 - 11:45
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See How Artists Have Turned Farm Silos Into Stunning Giant Murals

Smithsonian Magazine

It’s a hot day in Pingrup as the red sand of Western Australia dances across the pavement. A welcome sign reading “Small Town - Lots of Spirit” greets visitors as they enter the rural lakeside town, population 264. But until 2018, not many tourists made the four-hour drive from Perth. There wasn’t any reason to venture to Pingrup. Then three silos near the center of this tiny town were transformed into giant works of art.

In remote communities across Australia, water and grain silos have become the canvas for paintings inspired by their local communities, culture and way of life. Completed in September 2018, the PUBLIC Silo Trail—more than 620 miles of road linking Northam, Merredin, Katanning, Pingrup, Newdegate, Ravensthorpe and Albany—combines six different silo sites and one town (Katanning) filled with street art. A perfect road trip for art enthusiasts looking for something literally off the beaten track, the seven-town route offers visitors a different side of Australia.

American artist HENSE and British muralist Phlegm created the country’s first-ever silo mural in Northam, Western Australia, in March 2015, when FORM, a creative non-profit organization based in Perth, and CBH Group, the state’s main grain handler, commissioned them to paint eight silos. HENSE’s four depicted colorful shapes and patterns, while Phelgm’s portrayed whimsical, black and white flying machines. Perth-based artist Brenton See painted four silos in Newdegate showcasing the area’s wildlife: the western bearded dragon, the red-tailed phascogale (a rare marsupial) and a malleefowl bird. Also in 2018, New York-based The Yok & Shero painted a ruby seadragon, a rare marine creature found in the waters of Western Australia, across four huge silos in Albany. In the fall of that year, Miami-based artist EVOCA1 painted the three silos in Pingrup. In an effort to capture the essence of this farming town, the silos showcase a jockey on a horse, a man holding a lamb and a dog on top of a tractor. By September, FORM, inspired by the number of silo artworks across the region, established the PUBLIC Silo Trail. Since then, one-off silo art projects have blossomed across other states of Australia—Victoria, South Australia, Queensland and New South Wales—with the current count at 35 painted silos and 69 smaller painted water towers.

Image by Photograph by Bewley Shaylor, courtesy of FORM. Hense for PUBLIC Silo Trail, Northam (2015) (original image)

Image by Photograph by Bewley Shaylor, courtesy of FORM. Six Stages of Banksia baxteri by Amok Island for PUBLIC Silo Trail, Ravensthorpe (2016) (original image)

Image by Photograph by Bewley Shaylor, courtesy of FORM. Brenton See for PUBLIC Silo Trail, Newdegate (2018) (original image)

Image by PUBLIC Silo Trail. Phlegm for PUBLIC Silo Trail, Northam (2015) (original image)

Image by Photograph by Bewley Shaylor, courtesy of FORM. Kyle Hughes-Odgers for PUBLIC Silo Trail, Merredin (2017) (original image)

Image by Photograph by Bewley Shaylor, courtesy of FORM. The Yok & Sheryo for PUBLIC Silo Trail, Albany (2018) (original image)

Image by Photograph by Bewley Shaylor, courtesy of FORM. Evoca1 for PUBLIC Silo Trail, Pingrup (2018) (original image)

Annette and Eric Green are silo art enthusiasts and the creators of AustralianSiloArtTrail.com. In March 2018, during an epic road trip, they discovered a wildflower-inspired silo in Ravensthorpe, Western Australia. “When I stood in the shadow of my first painted silo, I was blown away by the sheer magnificence of it,” says Annette Green. “They are so huge, you marvel at how they were completed in the first place and how they painted them around a curve and at such great heights.”

After that, the Greens wanted to see as many silo murals as possible but couldn’t find a lot of information online. The couple created a Facebook page to document the artwork, and in September 2018, they released the Australian Silo Art Google Map, which clearly marks all silos, water towers and even street art. It gives detailed descriptions of each piece, including parking information. Today, the map has more than 526,000 views.

“For me, also it was the awakening that there was much more to this than the great works of art. It was also about the people of these struggling communities and the towns that they lived in,” says Green.

Image by Annette Green. GrainCorps Silos at Sheep Hills, by Adnate, Sheep Hills, Victoria (2016) (original image)

Image by Annette Green. Weethalle Silos, by Heesco Khosnaran, Weethalle, New South Wales (2017) (original image)

Image by Annette Green. GrainCorps Silos at Rochester, by Jimmy Dvate, Rochester, Victoria (2018) (original image)

Image by Annette Green. Wirrabara Silos, by Smug, Wirrabara, South Australia (2018) (original image)

Image by Planet Tex. Barraba Silos, by Fintan Magee, Barraba, New South Wales (2019) (original image)

Image by Annette Green. Kimba Silos, by Cam Scale, Kimba, South Australia (2017) (original image)

Image by Annette Green. Goorambat Silo, by Jimmy Dvate, Goorambat, Victoria (2018) (original image)

Image by Annette Green. Goorambat Silo, by Jimmy Dvate, Goorambat, Victoria (2019) (original image)

Image by Annette Green. GrainCorps Silos at Thallon, by Joel Fergie and Travis Vinson, Thallon, Queensland (2017) (original image)

Silo art isn’t just a beautiful addition to the local landscape; it's a lifeline. Small farming communities around Australia continue to face some of the worst droughts in recent history, forcing them to abandon their farms. So, towns throughout Australia have decided to invest in silo art as a tourism opportunity.

“Have you ever heard of the town of Goorambat in northeast Victoria? Neither had I. But now thousands of Australia's and international travelers have. Not only are they [Goorambat residents] seeing the benefits of their hard work in the way of tourism dollars, but there is also new community pride as the story of the town is also depicted on the silos,” says Green.

Jimmy Dvate, a Melbourne-based artist and graphic designer, has painted numerous silos around the outback of regional Australia, some depicting the massive Clydesdale horses harnessed for farming in Goorambat, Victoria.

“Having the human element of a harness really added an extra level of complexity, also trying to capture the movement and dust around the feet was really satisfying,” says Dvate of the artwork. “The town is also like a second home to us. The hospitality is ridiculous, and it's been so awesome to see the social and economic difference the silo art has made.”

While Australia’s borders are shut for an indefinite period of time due to COVID-19, these towns will need support once the country reopens. “Now, more than ever, it's so important to support our regional communities, and silo projects give people another reason to explore outside the city,” says Dvate.

Much of the art depicts native Australia flora and fauna as well as portraits of the locals. “Where possible, I choose a plant, bird or animal that is either endangered or threatened, helping to educate and raise awareness,” says Dvate. This includes Milli, a barking owl from a sanctuary in Badger Creek, Victoria, painted on one of the silos in Goorambat. Just over 75 miles west in Rochester, Victoria, Dvate painted an azure kingfisher and a wrist-wringed squirrel glider once thought to be extinct.

South Australia’s Wirrabara silo art, painted by the Glasgow, Scotland-based artist Smug, is an exceptional showing of native birds and the importance of the area’s foresting industry. The five silos show an arborist holding an ax and a red-capped robin perched on a branch against a beautiful forest backdrop. In Sheep Hills, Victoria, there are six silos painted with the faces of living Aboriginal elders and children against a vibrant night sky, a common subject for Melbourne artist Adnate.

According to Green, there are at least 50 towns seeking government grants to get proposed silo art projects off the ground.

“I would love to see the Australian Silo Art Trail get the recognition that it deserves,” says Green. “It truly is Australia's ultimate road trip.”

Four New Monuments to Historic Women Coming to NYC

Smithsonian Magazine

Last summer, the city of New York launched She Built NYC, an initiative that strives to bolster the number of public monuments that pay tribute to women’s history. The program selected Shirley Chisholm, the first black congresswoman in the United States, to honor with its first statue. And now, as Amy Plitt reports for Curbed NYC, She Built has announced that it is commissioning monuments to an additional four pioneering women.

The recipients—famed jazz singer Billie Holiday, civil rights advocate Elizabeth Jennings Graham, medical activist Helen Rodríguez Trías and one of history's few lighthouse keepers, Katherine Walker—are all intimately linked to New York City, and their statues will be located in Queens, Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island, respectively. Together with the upcoming statue of Chisholm in Brooklyn, this means that all five of New York’s boroughs will now have a public monument to a woman, according to Julia Jacobs of the New York Times.

The existing statues—and, granted, there aren’t many of them—honoring women’s history in the city were previously clustered in Manhattan. As Jake Offenhartz of Gothamist reported in 2017, at last count there were approximately 145 monuments of historical male figures in New York. Only five historical women, by contrast, were represented among the city’s statuary: “Joan of Arc, Golda Meir, Gertrude Stein, Eleanor Roosevelt, and, most recently, Har­riet Tubman,” according to Offenhartz.

She Built NYC seeks to correct this imbalance. “We cannot tell the story of New York City without recognizing the invaluable contributions of the women who helped build and shape it,” New York City first lady Chirlane McCray said in a statement announcing the new monuments. “In honoring these four trailblazers ... New Yorkers will have the opportunity to see powerful women who made history receive the recognition they deserve.”

The placement of each of the four new statues is deliberate. The monument to Holiday, for instance, will be built in the borough where she once lived; after moving from Baltimore at the age of 13, she resided in Addisleigh Park and later in Flushing, Queens. Still regarded as one of the greatest jazz singers of all time, Holiday got her start singing in Harlem jazz clubs, and went on to collaborate with the likes of Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington and Artie Shaw. Holiday broke racial barriers in the years before the civil rights movement, becoming the one of the first black woman to sing with a white orchestra. Her haunting song “Strange Fruit” remains an iconic condemnation of racial violence.

Jennings Graham’s statue will be located next to Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan—a fitting choice for the woman who helped bring an end to segregation on New York transit. In 1854, 27-year-old Jennings (Graham was added to her name after marrying in 1860) was running late to church and tried to board a streetcar that did not serve African American customer. When the conductor confronted her, she refused to move.

“I told him I was a respectable person, born and raised in New York, did not know where he was born and that he was a good for nothing impudent fellow for insulting decent persons while on their way to church,” she wrote after the incident, as the New York Times reported in 2005.

The conductor then tried to remove her by force; Jennings continued to resist, clinging to a window and then the conductor’s coat. Ultimately, the police arrived and threw her off the street car. She subsequently wrote about the incident in the New York Tribune, which in turn sparked widespread protests among New York’s African American community. She won $225 in a lawsuit against the Third Avenue Railway Company, the conductor and the driver, laying the groundwork for future transit discrimination trials. By 1860, all New York City transit lines served African American passengers.

The monument to Rodríguez Trías will sit near Lincoln Hospital in the South Bronx, where she worked as the head of pediatrics. Rodríguez Trías devoted her medical career to advocating for minority and low-income patients, particularly women and children. She was a reproductive rights activist, and helped draft key guidelines ensuring informed consent for sterilization procedures, including a regulation that requires the patient to provide written consent in a language she can understand. She also served as the medical director of the New York State Department of Health’s AIDS Institute, and became first Latina director of the American Public Health Association.

Lastly, the statue honoring Walker will stand at the Staten Island Ferry—a celebration of her “impact on the borough and on maritime life of the city,” the office of Mayor Bill de Blasio says in a statement. After her husband died in 1890, Walker took a job as the keeper of the Robbins Reef Lighthouse north of Staten Island. She was responsible for safely guiding ships through Kill Van Kull, a channel between Staten Island and Bayonne, New Jersey, and signalling for help in the event of shipwrecks. Few women in American history have worked as lighthouse keepers, but Walker held her position for nearly 30 years. She raised her children at the lighthouse, rowing them to and from school on Staten Island.

Construction of the five new monuments is due to begin in 2021. According to Jacobs of the Times, the city is hoping to commission women as the artists for the job.

These Photographers Venture Into Derelict Buildings in Texas So That We Don't Have To

Smithsonian Magazine

Shane and Jessica Steeves see abandoned buildings as photo ops. For the past decade, the Plano-based couple has been traveling the highways and byways of Texas in an effort to capture as many of the state’s abandoned hospitals, hotels, schools, churches and factories before they disappear. Over the years they’ve photographed enough abandoned places to create a website and, now, even fill the pages of a book. Abandoned North Texas, set to release on April 29, features striking imagery of buildings in various states of decay, from metropolitan Dallas to the small town of Mineral Wells.

“It has always amazed us how these spectacular properties can just sit open in plain view while everyone else chooses to dismiss them,” the couple writes in the book’s introduction. “Most people just don’t see the beauty in them like we do. One of our favorite things to witness is for nature to reclaim a location.”

Smithsonian.com talked to the pair to find out more about the Depression-era hotel that originally stoked their interest, the sudden popularity of capturing abandoned places on social media and how they stay safe when setting foot into the unknown.

What made you interested in exploring abandoned places in North Texas?

Shane: We came across a picture that [professional photographer] Noel Kerns took of the Baker Hotel [in Mineral Wells] back in 2008. A few weeks after seeing the picture some of our friends were talking about going to the [long-shuttered] hotel and checking it out for themselves, so Jessica and I tagged along. We ended up getting inside the hotel, and we spent a good five or six hours exploring it. It really created an obsession for us.

Authors Shane and Jessica Steeves (Reprinted from Abandoned North Texas by Shane and Jessica Steeves (Fonthill Media 2019))

What was it in particular about the Baker Hotel that captured your attention?

Shane: It was just the sheer size and aesthetic of it. It’s a very beautiful-looking building with old architecture [dating back to 1929]. It’s massive, and it has a spooky look to it.

Jessica: And it’s supposed to be one of the most haunted places in Texas as well.

Shane: This is where her experience is different than mine. She’s had some really weird experiences and is pretty positive that we’ve run into ghosts in a few spots, but I don’t believe in ghosts. I think they’re just weird sounds from the building.

Jessica: A lady’s voice is not a weird sound. I heard it clear as day in the lobby of the Baker Hotel. Shane was standing right next to me, and he says he didn’t hear anything.

What are some of the more surprising things you’ve happened upon inside these abandoned buildings?

Shane: We’ve been doing this for over a decade at this point, and we’ve had a lot of different experiences. We’ve been in a number of different hotels and theaters that still have a lot of artifacts left inside. We’ve been in a couple theaters where they still have the old film cells and projectors, and old hotels where they still have all the furniture and lobbies stocked with pamphlets. We’ve been in libraries that are completely filled with books, audiotapes, film reels—you name it, anything a typical library would have.

Jessica: Also with schools too, when they close down sometimes every single thing is left behind. All of the books and desks, you would think that somebody somewhere could use them because they’re in great shape, but instead they just sit there and wither away.

In the time since you’ve explored these buildings, did any of them get renovated?

Shane: Unfortunately, most of them go the other way, and continue to deteriorate and get vandalized, burned down or scrapped.

Jessica: One place that was redone is Dallas High School, which was turned into lofts and apartments.

How do you decide which locations to explore?

Shane: Honestly, it’s kind of trial and error with us. We usually have a long list of locations we want to check out.

Jessica: That’s actually what we’re doing right now. We’re in Port Arthur and visited a closed-down waterpark called Paradise. We’re currently working on a book about abandoned places in South Texas. We visited it last night and the sheriff came up and asked us what we were doing. He told us to come back in the morning when it’s daytime so that it’s safer.

Shane: We were photographing the remains of it. It was destroyed by Hurricane Harvey, and there was still quite a bit of the park there, it’s just buried in sand. We understand that anytime there is police, we go out and greet them. We try to be cooperative and don’t make them come into the building to try to find us. We keep ourselves out of trouble, and a lot of times they realize we’re just there to take photos and nothing else.

What are some of the precautions you take to ensure your safety?

Shane: I usually walk through the building real quick before my wife comes in to make sure there are not squatters inside. And we’ll take respirator masks with us in case a place is moldy and has asbestos.

Jessica: A lot of the places we can’t actually get into. Yesterday we were in downtown Dallas, and we were trying to enter the Pilgrim’s Pride building, which was an old chicken processing plant, but there were a lot of [people] hanging out there, and we just didn’t feel safe.

Why do you think fascination with abandoned buildings has grown in recent years?

Shane: It’s ridiculous how much this has became a thing. When we first started doing this, everybody looked at us like we were idiots, and they didn’t understand. Now, two or three years later, those same people who questioned us are saying that what we’re doing is really cool and they ask if we can take them with us the next time we explore a place. Especially over the last five or six years, it’s really blossomed into a trendy thing. I’m seeing people all over Instagram and Facebook doing it. And we run into people constantly now, whereas before we would never run into anybody inside the buildings.

What do you hope people take away from reading your book and viewing your images?

Jessica: We see the inner beauty and historic value of these structures. Our photography gives us a chance to let people view abandoned buildings in a different light. Many people choose to ignore the majority of these dilapidated locations that they may pass on a daily basis.

Shane: We enjoy the challenge of taking something that may not necessarily be pretty and turn it into an interesting image.

A 400-mile journey to see a paint can

National Museum of American History

Editor/Writer Leslie Poster took one for the Object Project team by adding a little detour to her family visit in Cleveland, Ohio. Here’s why she went to great lengths to track down an object for the upcoming Patrick F. Taylor Foundation Object Project, opening July 2015.

How did I find myself in Cleveland at Sherwin-Williams headquarters, cooing at photos of my newborn niece with staff while waiting to learn about a historic paint can? We'll call it a bit of Smithsonian serendipity.

Earlier that week I had attended a meeting for Object Project, a learning space set to open next July that explores the interplay between people, innovative things, and social change that shaped everyday life in America. I'll confess that my attention was divided. My brother and his wife were in the hospital, my first niece set to arrive at any moment! Every ding and buzz from my phone promised news about the baby.

At the meeting, the Object Project team was considering one particular invention: ready-mixed, or ready-to-use, paint in a resealable can. Before this 1870s advancement from Sherwin-Williams, professional painters had to freshly mix harsh chemicals and pigment onsite from complex recipes to make paint. The Object Project team knew there was an early ready-mixed paint can on view at Sherwin-Williams in Cleveland, but they didn't know what it looked like. Still, this was a story Object Project should tell, on how this little can represents a huge change in the way we beautify and personalize our homes.

Sherwin-Williams advertisement, NYPL

"The Weather Man says: 'Bad weather coming. Stay indoors.'" A Sherwin-Williams advertisement for flat-tone wall paint, circa 1895-1917. Art and Architecture Collection, Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs. New York Public Library Digital Gallery. Image ID: 1541713.

Today we have countless different shades of paint colors for every room and season, like this fall's "Mink," "Turkish Coffee," and "Foggy Day" setting the tones of our walls and our moods. Paint is a common household convenience that can be stored in the garage until you get around to finishing your latest DIY project. But easy access to paint that anyone can use wasn't always taken for granted. Before ready-mixed paint, not only was the mixing process akin to a chemistry experiment, but paint also had to be used immediately since there was no good way to store it without it becoming unusable. Sherwin-Williams' new ready-mixed paint promised affordability, ease of use, and consistent quality.

The Object Project team knew that this specific paint can that held some of the first ready-mixed paint sat in the Sherwin-Williams Center of Excellence, a focal point of an exhibition on the company's history. Someone needed to travel to Cleveland to see the can and take some pictures. It must have come as a surprise when I volunteered. But the night before I'd booked a flight back home to Cleveland, anticipating the chance to greet the newest member of my family, and I'd be mere minutes from the Center of Excellence.

I'd already convinced my little sister to play chauffeur for the weekend visit, and I was surprised that she enthusiastically agreed to also take a quick detour to see a paint can. (She must have seen the adventure in it that I had.)

The author's sister at the Center of Excellence

The author's sister at the Sherwin-Williams Center of Excellence in Cleveland

So as my brother and his wife were bundling up baby to bring her home from the hospital, my sister and I watched a paint can rotate on a pedestal inside a protective case. She filmed video, I snapped photos, and we both learned about the can that spawned countless DIY projects and painting parties.

A can of early ready-mixed, or prepared, paint

An early can of prepared, or ready-mixed, paint, on view at the Sherwin-Williams Center of Excellence

The very can we were looking at, in fact, had sat in the desk of Sherwin-Williams founder Henry Sherwin for decades before, upon the company's 50th anniversary, it was cracked open for a peek inside. According to the Center of Excellence, the contents were "found to be in perfect condition." It was a testament, surely, to the great advancements Sherwin-Williams had made in the late 1870s.

Sherwin patented the resealable tin paint can in 1877, adding ease and efficiency to the painting process. Before this invention any leftover paint would have to be discarded, resulting in physical and monetary waste. Then with the debut of his pigment grinding mill in 1879, Sherwin introduced a way to grind pigment so finely that it could be suspended within the paint's components for a long amount of time instead of quickly separating out, thus making ready-mixed paint a reality.

So confident was Sherwin-Williams in the dual developments that the Sherwin-Williams Paint, Prepared, released beginning in the fall of 1880, came with an unheard of money-back guarantee–one that promised the paint "will cover more surface, work better, wear longer, and permanently look better" than competitor paints.

House paints on display at Sherwin-Williams

House paints on display at the Sherwin-Williams Center of Excellence

"Now wasn't that cool?" My sister agreed. Within a can of paint about the size of a coffee mug was a story of groundbreaking development, and we had documented it for the Smithsonian.

With our mission accomplished (and Beyoncé in the CD player), we were off to see our baby niece.

The author and her niece

The author and her niece

Someday I'll tell my niece about the role she played in a Smithsonian research trip, but for now I'll just let her sleep on my shoulder as I wonder what future innovations might change her everyday life.

Leslie Poster is an editor and writer in the Office of Project Management and Editorial Services.  

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White Settlers Buried the Truth About the Midwest’s Mysterious Mound Cities

Smithsonian Magazine

Around 1100 or 1200 A.D., the largest city north of Mexico was Cahokia, sitting in what is now southern Illinois, across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Built around 1050 A.D. and occupied through 1400 A.D., Cahokia had a peak population of between 25,000 and 50,000 people. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cahokia was composed of three boroughs (Cahokia, East St. Louis, and St. Louis) connected to each other via waterways and walking trails that extended across the Mississippi River floodplain for some 20 square km. Its population consisted of agriculturalists who grew large amounts of maize, and craft specialists who made beautiful pots, shell jewelry, arrow-points, and flint clay figurines.

The city of Cahokia is one of many large earthen mound complexes that dot the landscapes of the Ohio and Mississippi River Valleys and across the Southeast. Despite the preponderance of archaeological evidence that these mound complexes were the work of sophisticated Native American civilizations, this rich history was obscured by the Myth of the Mound Builders, a narrative that arose ostensibly to explain the existence of the mounds. Examining both the history of Cahokia and the historic myths that were created to explain it reveals the troubling role that early archaeologists played in diminishing, or even eradicating, the achievements of pre-Columbian civilizations on the North American continent, just as the U.S. government was expanding westward by taking control of Native American lands.

Today it’s difficult to grasp the size and complexity of Cahokia, composed of about 190 mounds in platform, ridge-top, and circular shapes aligned to a planned city grid oriented five degrees east of north. This alignment, according to Tim Pauketat, professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois, is tied to the summer solstice sunrise and the southern maximum moonrise, orientating Cahokia to the movement of both the sun and the moon. Neighborhood houses, causeways, plazas, and mounds were intentionally aligned to this city grid. Imagine yourself walking out from Cahokia’s downtown; on your journey you would encounter neighborhoods of rectangular, semi-subterranean houses, central hearth fires, storage pits, and smaller community plazas interspersed with ritual and public buildings. We know Cahokia’s population was diverse, with people moving to this city from across the midcontinent, likely speaking different dialects and bringing with them some of their old ways of life.

View of Cahokia from Rattlesnake Mound ca 1175 A.D., drawn by Glen Baker (Image courtesy of Sarah E. Baires)

The largest mound at Cahokia was Monks Mound, a four-terraced platform mound about 100 feet high that served as the city’s central point. Atop its summit sat one of the largest rectangular buildings ever constructed at Cahokia; it likely served as a ritual space.

In front of Monks Mound was a large, open plaza that held a chunk yard to play the popular sport of chunkey. This game, watched by thousands of spectators, was played by two large groups who would run across the plaza lobbing spears at a rolling stone disk. The goal of the game was to land their spear at the point where the disk would stop rolling. In addition to the chunk yard, upright marker posts and additional platform mounds were situated along the plaza edges. Ridge-top burial mounds were placed along Cahokia’s central organizing grid, marked by the Rattlesnake Causeway, and along the city limits.

Cahokia was built rapidly, with thousands of people coming together to participate in its construction. As far as archaeologists know, there was no forced labor used to build these mounds; instead, people came together for big feasts and gatherings that celebrated the construction of the mounds.

The splendor of the mounds was visible to the first white people who described them. But they thought that the American Indian known to early white settlers could not have built any of the great earthworks that dotted the midcontinent. So the question then became: Who built the mounds?

Early archaeologists working to answer the question of who built the mounds attributed them to the Toltecs, Vikings, Welshmen, Hindus, and many others. It seemed that any group—other than the American Indian—could serve as the likely architects of the great earthworks. The impact of this narrative led to some of early America’s most rigorous archaeology, as the quest to determine where these mounds came from became salacious conversation pieces for America’s middle and upper classes. The Ohio earthworks, such as Newark Earthworks, a National Historic Landmark located just outside Newark, OH, for example, were thought by John Fitch (builder of America’s first steam-powered boat in 1785) to be military-style fortifications. This contributed to the notion that, prior to the Native American, highly skilled warriors of unknown origin had populated the North American continent.

This was particularly salient in the Midwest and Southeast, where earthen mounds from the Archaic, Hopewell, and Mississippian time periods crisscross the midcontinent. These landscapes and the mounds built upon them quickly became places of fantasy, where speculation as to their origins rose from the grassy prairies and vast floodplains, just like the mounds themselves. According to Gordon Sayre (The Mound Builders and the Imagination of American Antiquity in Jefferson, Bartram, and Chateaubriand), the tales of the origins of the mounds were often based in a “fascination with antiquity and architecture,” as “ruins of a distant past,” or as “natural” manifestations of the landscape.

When William Bartram and others recorded local Native American narratives of the mounds, they seemingly corroborated these mythical origins of the mounds. According to Bartram’s early journals (Travels, originally published in 1791) the Creek and the Cherokee who lived around mounds attributed their construction to “the ancients, many ages prior to their arrival and possessing of this country.” Bartram’s account of Creek and Cherokee histories led to the view that these Native Americans were colonizers, just like Euro-Americans. This served as one more way to justify the removal of Native Americans from their ancestral lands: If Native Americans were early colonizers, too, the logic went, then white Americans had just as much right to the land as indigenous peoples.

Location of Cahokia, East St Louis, and St Louis sites in the American Bottom (Map courtesy of Sarah E. Baires)

The creation of the Myth of the Mounds parallels early American expansionist practices like the state-sanctioned removal of Native peoples from their ancestral lands to make way for the movement of “new” Americans into the Western “frontier.” Part of this forced removal included the erasure of Native American ties to their cultural landscapes.

In the 19th century, evolutionary theory began to take hold of the interpretations of the past, as archaeological research moved away from the armchair and into the realm of scientific inquiry. Within this frame of reference, antiquarians and early archaeologists, as described by Bruce Trigger, attempted to demonstrate that the New World, like the Old World, “could boast indigenous cultural achievements rivaling those of Europe.” Discoveries of ancient stone cities in Central America and Mexico served as the catalyst for this quest, recognizing New World societies as comparable culturally and technologically to those of Europe.

But this perspective collided with Lewis Henry Morgan’s 1881 text Houses and House-life of the American Aborigines. Morgan, an anthropologist and social theorist, argued that Mesoamerican societies (such as the Maya and Aztec) exemplified the evolutionary category of “Middle Barbarism”—the highest stage of cultural and technological evolution to be achieved by any indigenous group in the Americas. By contrast, Morgan said that Native Americans located in the growing territories of the new United States were quintessential examples of “Stone Age” cultures—unprogressive and static communities incapable of technological or cultural advancement. These ideologies framed the archaeological research of the time.

In juxtaposition to this evolutionary model there was unease about the “Vanishing Indian,” a myth-history of the 18th and 19th centuries that depicted Native Americans as a vanishing race incapable of adapting to the new American civilization. The sentimentalized ideal of the Vanishing Indian—who were seen as noble but ultimately doomed to be vanquished by a superior white civilization—held that these “vanishing” people, their customs, beliefs, and practices, must be documented for posterity. Thomas Jefferson was one of the first to excavate into a Native American burial mound, citing the disappearance of the “noble” Indians—caused by violence and the corruption of the encroaching white civilization—as the need for these excavations. Enlightenment-inspired scholars and some of America’s Founders viewed Indians as the first Americans, to be used as models by the new republic in the creation of its own legacy and national identity.

During the last 100 years, extensive archaeological research has changed our understanding of the mounds. They are no longer viewed as isolated monuments created by a mysterious race. Instead, the mounds of North America have been proven to be constructions by Native American peoples for a variety of purposes. Today, some tribes, like the Mississippi Band of Choctaw, view these mounds as central places tying their communities to their ancestral lands. Similar to other ancient cities throughout the world, Native North Americans venerate their ties to history through the places they built.

Editor's Note: The original story stated that William Bartram's Travels was published in 1928, but these early journals were actually published in 1791.

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

Smithsonian Magazine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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