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The Hills Are Alive With the Sound of Bollywood

Smithsonian Magazine

Julie Andrews may have famously sung and spun in the Swiss Alps, but towering 10,600 feet in the air, one of the most famous “hills” in Switzerland is alive with the sound of Bollywood music.

On Mount Titlis, life-size cut outs of Kajol and Shahrukh Khan from the runaway hit Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (more commonly referred to as DDLJ), are displayed in an open-air café fittingly called “Bollywood.” The power couple—posing among the snow-capped scenery—symbolizes the enduring legacy of the Mumbai film industry, which has been doing “cut-to” shots to Switzerland for more than 50 years.

If Bollywood and Alpine landscapes seem like a weird pairing, it may be time to reconsider. It turns out that Bollywood has a long legacy in Switzerland. In the past two decades, more than 200 Bollywood films have been filmed there, and more honeymooners and travelers than ever come from India, as DNA India reports. Many go on packaged tours dedicated to finding the locations where iconic Switzerland shots were filmed. DDLJ, the quintessential Bollywood film with a Swiss connection, is one of the most popular films to be found on the so-called "Bollywood Trail."

The movie, which premiered in 1995, has proved so popular that in one theater in Mumbai, it ran for a record 1,000 weeks straight. The seminal Bollywood masterpiece spoke not to India's wealthy elites, but its growing middle class, Philip Lutgendorf, a professor of Hindi and Modern Indian Studies at the University of Iowa, tells

"If you watch a film like DDLJ, there's a [glorifying] of consumer power of the Indian hero and heroine being able to casually roam around Europe, be waited on in restaurants and stores, and have their needs satisfied by white people," Lutgendorf says. "There’s a message there about disposable income and the freedom of consumer buying power. That makes a place like Switzerland appealing."

The first Bollywood film shot in Switzerland was Sangam in 1964. The film, Raj Kapoor's first color production, started a trend toward tourist destinations in Bollywood film, as the Guardian’s Rachel Dwyer points out.

In the film, the leading couple honeymoons in Switzerland’s Grand Hotel Giessbach high above Lake Brienz, and Sangam captures the castle-like hotel before it was renovated in 1979. The dream-like sequence—in which the main characters are transported from a sound stage to a pastoral Swiss setting—went on to become a Bollywood trope.

“[Switzerland] has beautiful landscapes where you have the pastoral juxtaposed against the snow, which is a very grand thing,” S.E. Pillai, an assistant professor at Michigan State University, tells “You have the mountain and the snow. You have the skiing…and if you go during spring or summer, the flowers run for miles—it is tailor-made for Hindi film song sequences.”

Sangam's popularity made international shots popular, and Shakti Samanta’s 1967 film, An Evening In Paris, the first Bollywood movie to be filmed entirely abroad, quickly followed. Though the plot primarily takes place in the “City of Light,” the scenic Swiss Alps are put to use—watch for shots of the village of Mürren and the Alpine Coaster at Glacier 3000 in Gstaad. And that was before the king of Swiss Bollywood sequences came along.

Director Yash Chopra honeymooned in Switzerland in 1970. Twenty years later, he filmed his first big Switzerland hit, Chandni. The cult classic—which highlighted Switzerland's Lauenensee lakes and the highest railway station in Europe, the Jungfraujoch—not only pushed a return to musical cuts in Mumbai films, but also catapulted Switzerland to the attention of Bollywood filmmakers.

Chopra’s influence is the country is so profound that Lake Lauenen, which is featured in Chandni, is now fondly known by fans as Chopra Lake. A Jungfrau Railways train is named after Chopra, too—not to mention a deluxe suite at the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel.

"Switzerland has always been my first choice of destination for shooting outside India,” Chopra said when he received the Swiss Ambassador Award in 2010. "It is truly a heaven on earth that has made every angle, every shot and every frame of my movies breathtaking with the scenes vividly etched in people's mind."

But the Switzerland/Bollywood relationship status is complicated, Anuradha Vikram argues in Hyperallergic. In addition to lavish backdrops, she points out, Swiss Bollywood backgrounds deliver a layered post-colonial message.

"What these landscapes represent in the Indian consciousness is complex. They are certainly images of Europe — idealized, continental Europe, not the rainy grey of the British Isles," she writes.

This fantasy image of Europe turns Western film tropes upside-down. Bollywood's Swiss storylines focus on brown-skinned heroes and romances rather than those white people, who only appear in the films as extras. "They’re in the background and saying an odd line here or there providing some visual interest," Lutgendorf says, "but they’re of no importance ot the storyline whatsoever."

Chopra turned his lens toward Switzerland at a time of geopolitical change in India. As the country shifted from socialism to privatization following the official dissolution of the Soviet Union, Bollywood filmed more and more sequences in Switzerland. More mobile Indians meant more financing for film shoots abroad—and more tourists who wanted to visit the film locations themselves. The number of nights that Indian tourists spent in Switzerland grew exponentially, as John Tagliabue wrote in the New York Times in 2010. “After years of seeing the pristine backdrop of Switzerland in Bollywood’s films, generations of middle-class Indians are now earning enough to travel there in search of their dreams," Tagliabue reported. 

Political upheaval made Switzerland even more attractive to Bollywood filmmakers. Kashmir, the contested Himalayan alpine destination between India and Pakistan, was once a Bollywood go-to. But by the 1990s, the location had become dangerous for film crews following a prolonged insurgency by Pakistani troops. The use of Swiss footage in Bollywood films reflected "not simply the cachet of international travel but also the practical difficulty of siting and shooting film stories in Kashmir, a state that had now become associated less with romance than with terrorism and insurgency,” Lutgendorf notes in the journal Himalaya.

In the past few years since Chopra's death in 2012, cut-to Switzerland shots have actually declined, Pillai says, as for artistic and financial reasons, other international locations have started to pull Bollywood lens. But that hasn't stopped fans from flocking in increased numbers to Switzerland to see their favorite films come to life.

It was not Chopra, but his oldest son, Aditya Chopra, who directed DDLJ. The famous “DDLJ bridge" scene, which as the blog "Indian Compass" reports, is in Saanen, near to the Saanen Railway Station, is a must-visit spot on the "Bollywood Trail" and it's also the site of one of the film's pivotal moments.

During the scene, the male lead mouths, "Palat... Palat... Palat" or "Turn....Turn....Turn..." imploring the woman he loves to turn around if she returns his affection.

At the last second before she goes to board the train, she turns to him.

Tourism continues to increase because despite the complicated layers that the lush valleys and pristine Alps carry in the collective conscious of Indians, Bollywood fans want to go to hear the hills sing a Bollywood love song. If they're lucky, they just might see the one they love turn their head—or just have their own head turned by the lush landscape that's become a beloved film cliché.

1.5 ton vault door to greet visitors in the new Gallery of Numismatics

National Museum of American History

Ellen Feingold is the curator of the National Numismatic Collection and The Value of MoneyShe explains why visitors will enter the gallery through an authentic vault door and what they will find behind it.

When The Value of Money exhibition opens in the new Gallery of Numismatics on July 1, 2015, visitors will enter through a huge, shiny vault door—the type you see in banks and other rooms intended for the safekeeping of valuable objects. Although it is robust and imposing, the door is not operational and will not help to keep the objects on display safe. So why did we put it in place?

Computer generated image of a round metal door with many mechanical inner-workings

The vault door is intended to simulate the experience of entering the National Numismatic Collection's storage vault, which has an operating vault door of its own to safeguard the collection. Behind that vault door, we store 1.6 million objects from around the world that span more than three thousand years of human history. When visitors look through the gallery's vault door, we hope that they will feel as though they are looking into the collection’s vault—a space that secures one of the Smithsonian's most valued collections.

Once inside the gallery, visitors will not only see rare, historic, and beautiful objects, but also learn why monetary objects are valuable sources for exploring history. The Value of Money will link American history to global histories of exchange, cultural interaction, political change and innovation. Thematically organized into five sections, the exhibition explores the origins of money, new monetary technologies, the political and cultural messages money conveys, numismatic art and design, and the practice of collecting money. The collection's diversity will be evident because the exhibition combines American money with objects from around the world, drawing out comparisons and connections between seemingly disparate places and times.

Since the vault door entrance prepares visitors to see authentic objects, The Value of Money project team wanted the door to be as authentic as possible. Therefore, our vault door replica was custom built for our gallery entrance by a company called Vault Structures Inc. based in Fort Myers, Florida. They manufacture operational vault doors for banks and other institutions.

Technical drawing of round vault door with measurements and views from different angles

After many months of construction, the vault door arrived at the museum on March 27, 2015. Vault Structures Inc. installed its frame first, then the door itself, using a forklift to place the heavy door at the gallery's entrance. The door and its frame weigh approximately 2,850 pounds, nearly 1.5 tons!

Man touches square vault door frame, which is being moved by a forklift

Two men adjust base of square vault door, which is being suspended by chains

View of the round vault door passing by on a forklift

Round vault door sits in front of installed frame

Two men line up the round door with the frame while it is suspended by a forklift

The forklift holds the round vault door in place, now uncovered, showing the complex mechanical elements

Man leans down adjusting something behind the round door, being held in place by a forklift

Now we are constructing the cases that will showcase more than 400 objects selected from the National Numismatic Collection's vault. They range from a $100,000 note issued for use in the U.S. Federal Reserve system in 1934 to a 168.5-pound stone ring used to make significant payments on Yap Island in the western Pacific. Over time, we will choose more objects from the collection to rotate into the gallery. This will give repeat visitors the opportunity to see something new and experience one of the most exciting aspects of curating such a large and varied collection—regularly discovering new objects and their value as sources to explore history.

Round door open on frame

The fabrication and installation of the door was made possible by an in-kind donation from Vault Structures Inc. and the generous support of Mr. and Mrs. Bill Calderazzo, and Mr. and Mrs. Larry L. Lee.

Ellen Feingold is the curator of the National Numismatic Collection.


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Are Artificial Trees the Future of Renewable Energy?

Smithsonian Magazine

In 2007, Eric Henderson watched the heart-shaped leaves of a redbud rustle in the wind outside of his home in Iowa. A gust came through, whipping around the tree’s branches, causing the leaves to oscillate in the turbulent stream of air.

“And that got me thinking,” he says.

Henderson, a molecular biologist at Iowa State University, started toying with the idea of harvesting these random gusts. “It’s not wind that will ever see a turbine because it’s low to the ground and it’s going through little eddies and swirls,” he says. But there is still energy there.

This started him on an obsession with leaves—studying their shapes, aerodynamics, oscillations at the slightest provocation. He recruited two other researchers from the university, Curtis Mosher and Michael McCloskey, to help him, and together, the concept of the faux forest blossomed. The idea was that by creating leaves out of certain materials, they could harvest the energy from the bending leafstalks.

Everything hinged on a method known as piezoelectrics, which has been around for over a century. Discovered by Jacques and Pierre Curie in 1880, they have been used in a variety of gadgets—from early phonographs (where piezoelectrics turned the vibrations from the needle into electric current) to spark lighters.

The concept is based on manipulation of materials that have a regular array of covalent bonds, a chemical connection in which two atoms share electrons. “In a crystal, all those [bonds] are in a very ordered state,” says Henderson. “If you squeeze it, or push it, or tweak it, it shifts.” And if manipulated properly, this shuttling back and forth of electrons can generate electricity.

The basics of the researchers’ idea was simple: build a tree-shaped electricity generator with plastic leaves that have stalks made out of polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF), a type of piezoelectric plastic. Plunk the tree outside in any region with a breeze and harvest the energy as the fake leaves sway to and fro.

But, as they recently published in the Journal PLOS ONE, the situation is much more complicated. “It all sounds great until you try to do the physics,” Henderson says.

The biomimetic tree's leaves, modeled after cottonwood leaves, rely on piezoelectrical processes to produce electricity. (Christopher Gannon)

First trouble is the conditions necessary for actually generating electricity, explains McCloskey, who is also an author on the paper. Though the leaves flap in the wind, supposedly generating electricity, the only way to get useful energy is from high frequency, regularly spaced bending of the stalks—a condition rarely found in nature.

It also turns out that the amount of energy produced may be related to how quickly the stalks are bent. When they set a fan up so its blades could actually strike the leaf as it spins, they were able to light an LED. But again, this is not a situation common in nature.

There’s also something known as parasitic capacitance, he explains. Like its namesake, this phenomenon is akin to a leech sucking the lifeforce out of a hapless creature. Though the wind can supposedly generate a lot of energy as the leaves oscillate, various parasitic effects—like the leaf wiggling in multiple directions—steal sips of that energy, effectively canceling out the electrical charges. And in the end, barely anything remains.

To top it off, collecting those remnants of energy is far from a breeze. Due to the nature of the materials, energy is lost during transfer to a battery. And though they could charge a small battery, McCloskey says it would take “a glacial age.”

Curtis Mosher (left), Eric Henderson (middle) and Mike McCloskey (right) have assembled a prototype biomimetic tree that produces electricity. The technology could appeal to a niche market in the future, according to the researchers. (Christopher Gannon)

As the team tirelessly worked to compensate for these problems, they started to see others chasing down the same idea. And though some attempts are better than others, there seems to be a lot of hot air in terms of what people are claiming to be able to do with this tech, according to Henderson and McCloskey.

There are even companies claiming to be able to actually harness this energy. One, called SolarBotanic, hopes to marry an ambitious combination of energy technologies on each leaf of their fake tree: solar power (photovoltaics), heat power (thermoelectrics), and piezoelectrics. The problem, explains McCloskey, is that in comparison to solar energy, piezoelectrics produce a miniscule amount of energy. The company was founded in 2008. Nine years later, the faux forest has yet to materialize.

Last year, Maanasa Mendu won the 2016 Young Scientist Challenge with a similar iteration of a faux, energy-producing tree. But she, too, acknowledged the limitations of piezoelectrics, incorporating flexible solar cells into the device.

“I don't think it's a bad concept to have a [fake] plant or even a real plant that's modified,” says McCloskey. “It's just this particular scheme of piezoelectricity—I don't think it's going to work with current materials.”

The team, however, is also working on another angle: synthesizing a material that mimics a protein found in the human ear that is crucial for amplifying sound. Though the details they could give about the project are limited due to pending invention disclosures, McCloskey can say the material has a piezoelectric efficiency 100,000 times greater than their current system.

By ruling out current methods of piezoelectrics, the team is one step along the path to figuring out the best way to tackle the trees. As Edison purportedly said while struggling to develop a storage battery: “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

McCloskey adds: “This is one of those 10,000.”

Six Monumental New Outdoor Art Installations to See This Summer

Smithsonian Magazine

As any artist will tell you, generating big ideas is all part of the creative process. But for some, the art that ensues is too large to fit between four walls. From California to Taiwan, here are six recently completed outdoor art installations worth traveling to this summer. Incorporating natural landscapes, and built at massive scales, they're proving that the sky truly is the limit for creativity.

Seven Magic Mountains, Nevada

Seven Magic Mountains (Flickr <ahref="flickr url"=""> odonata98 - Flickr/Creative Commons)

Swiss-born artist Ugo Rondinone looked to hoodoos, the towering rock protrusions commonly found in the American Southwest, for inspiration when creating his latest art installation, Seven Magic Mountains. With the help of his team, which included engineers and construction workers, the Harlem-based artist found 33 boulders (some weighing in as much as 56,000 pounds) from the surrounding Nevada desert and strategically stacked them to form seven towering hoodoos painted in eye-catching colors like bright pink and highlighter yellow. Even come nightfall, drivers traveling on Interstate 15 just south of Las Vegas can catch glimpses of the neon installation from now through 2018. “The intention was to bring poetry into the public space, with the contradiction of having a rainbow at night,” Rondinone said in an interview with ARTnews.

Beartooth Portal, Montana

Ensamble Studio (Antón García-Abril and Débora Mesa), Beartooth Portal, 2015 (Image courtesy of Tippet Rise/Iwan Baan. Photo by Iwan Baan)

On June 17, Tippet Rise Art Center opened just north of Yellowstone National Park in southern Montana. The 11,500-acre working ranch’s goal is to form an intersection where art, music and nature collide. Nowhere on the sprawling site is this more apparent than Beartooth Portal, one of three “Structures of Landscape” designed by Antón García-Abril and Débora Mesa, the architects behind Ensamble Studio. The architecture firm is known for its forward-thinking designs, and its new structures are no exception. Using soil from the site, Beartooth Portal features two massive, molded boulders strategically placed so that they lean against one another in what the architects call a “visceral manifestation of nature.” Over the coming months, the center will host numerous recitals and screenings, some of which will take place at the center’s many sculptural sites.

ARC '89, Germany

ARC '89 (Courtesy Bernar Venet)

Over the years, French artist Bernar Venet has become a master in the art of painting and photography, but it’s his towering sculptures that have garnered him the most recognition. One of his newest pieces is ARC '89, a collection of 14 rusted, 55-foot-tall steel beams placed outside West Germany’s former capital in the city of Bonn. Bent at an 89-degree angle and resembling pieces of undercooked spaghetti, the massive installation, which was unveiled on June 5, represents Germany’s incredible evolution in 1989, the year that the Berlin Wall fell.

Swale, New York City

Swale (Swale)

In a city where an empty plot of land is hard to come by, Mary Mattingly set her sights on the next best thing: water. Later this summer the New York-based artist will embark on an artistic journey like no other when she docks Swale, a floating food project, first in Governor’s Island, located off the southern tip of Manhattan, and later in Brooklyn and the Bronx. As Smithsonian's SmartNews reports, the 130-foot-by-40-foot floating “barge bursting with vegetables” functions as both a sculpture and a public service that provides fresh produce to the community. In her artist’s statement Mattingly writes, “At its heart, Swale is a call to action. It asks us to reconsider our food systems, to confirm our belief in food as a human right and to pave pathways to create public food in public space.”   

Owens Lake Project, California

Owens Lake Project (Robin Black Photography)

Owens Lake, a (mostly) dry lake about 200 miles north of Los Angeles, has been spewing dust into the sprawling metropolitan area for years. The pollution has gotten so out of hand that several years ago the situation turned into a heated court battle. But the dusty locale does have one perk—now it’s site of a public land art project helmed by Perry Cardoza of NUVIS Landscape Architecture, an architecture firm in the Valley. Called the Owens Lake Project, this restoration project, which opened this spring, features multiple hiking trails, wildlife-viewing areas (the region is a major flyway during bird migration), plus multiple architectural structures designed by Cardoza using rusted metal, concrete and stone. Cardoza only had to look as far as the nature surrounding him for inspiration, incorporating cutouts of birds and other creatures into the metal structures.

The Starry Night, Taiwan

One of Vincent Van Gogh’s most recognizable masterpieces is The Starry Night, but the Dutch painter would probably never have imagined that his work would one day inspire a Taiwanese company to recreate it using plastic bottles. This spring Unison Developing Co. Ltd. undertook the massive project, placing four-million collected bottles at Starry Paradise park near Keelung City, just northeast of Taipei. The installation covers nearly 131 acres and is intended to help promote recycling.

Can Underwater Resorts Actually Help Coral Reef Ecosystems?

Smithsonian Magazine

Dubai, known for such modest ventures as the Burj Khalifa and the artificial Palm Jumeirah islands, is on the verge of building yet another one: the fabricated ruins of an “ancient” pearl-trading city, submerged just off its shores in the waters of the Persian Gulf.

Half adventure park, half marine sanctuary, the Pearl of Dubai will be the first-of-its-kind artificial reef, built to attract diving dollars from tourists, but also to encourage the return of once-abundant species whose populations are flagging.

Reef Worlds, a Los Angeles-based company, is at the helm of the Pearl project, as well as two other developments in the planning and design stage in Mexico and the Philippines. Company founder Patric Douglas says the idea grew organically out of his previous work with Shark Diver, the excursion company he founded not only to popularize shark diving, but also to educate divers on the plight of sharks in oceans worldwide. He hopes to do the same thing for decimated coral reefs.

In the immortal words of Kevin Costner, build it and they will come. Though artificial reefs have been used for centuries as defensive structures, breakwaters and to attract fish, the typical reason modern reefs are built is to increase available habitat for coral and fish. Divers come as a consequence, but the reefs weren’t built for them.

Artist Jason deCaires Taylor creates underwater installations with sculptures made from highly detailed casts of real people. He recently completed a project in Lanzarote, Spain, and his installation in Cancun, Mexico attracts thousands of divers every year. As part of its statewide initiative to increase reef real estate off its shores, Florida sank an entire aircraft carrier, the USS Oriskany. And the half-acre Neptune Memorial Reef site in the waters off Miami, inspired by the lost city of Atlantis, is designed to eventually accommodate the cremated remains of people interested in a different kind of burial at sea.

Reef Worlds’ take on artificial reefs adds a new paradigm: their installations are designed first for customers with credit cards, and then for ones with real fins. Primarily intended to provide tourists with a new adventure-based experience, and in places where they are already present in great numbers, Douglas hopes the increased traffic will create a positive feedback loop. By making reef ecosystems more accessible to more people, a large part of the goal is to drive a greater demand for conservation of those natural resources.

Image by Reef Worlds. The Pearl of Dubai is the fabricated ruins of an "ancient" pearl-trading city. (original image)

Image by Reef Worlds. Some of the underwater city's buildings will be adorned with dive-helmeted statues. (original image)

Image by Reef Worlds. The city includes a large semi-enclosed coliseum that could be used for underwater meetings, even weddings. (original image)

Diving is big business, and coral reefs a big part of it. A 2013 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) report pegs the economic value of all coral reefs in the United States and its territories at $202 million dollars annually, with half of that figure accounted for by tourism dollars. Douglas thinks this kind of buying muscle can be built up around the world, creating not only a novel and authentic adventure experience but also a powerful tool for restoring critical ocean habitat.

Gone are the days when a visitor to a Caribbean resort can walk out on a near-shore snorkeling tour and see coral reefs teeming with life. Today, that excursion usually involves a lengthy boat ride. But hotels at tropical resorts are still trying to one-up each other in the battle royale for tourism dollars: the swimming-pool wars of the 1980s and 1990s gave way to full-blown water parks like Bermuda’s Atlantis, yet the resorts themselves seemed to completely ignore their offshore assets, Douglas observed. 

“My team and I were lamenting that at every hotel resort we went to in the Mediterranean and Mexico, the near-shore reef system was just gone, like a nuke went off,” Douglas says. “So the question became, what can we do to rehabilitate that, and what’s the tourism angle? All of these resorts are 200 feet from the ocean, but have nothing to do with the ocean.”

Douglas, a self-described “environmentalist masquerading as a developer,” says coastal resort hotels are uniquely positioned to grow their business by developing recreational opportunities in the water, but also to defend the natural resources there. By motivating local residents to help protect the reefs, they can help tourism grow and increase incomes for everyone involved.

“This is a major question: how do you stop the local fishermen from making a living?” Douglas says. “You can’t pay them not to fish, especially when they’re dirt poor and they need to go out and scavenge whatever they can get. But I’ve been to enough of these hotels to know that most of the people in the community are working there, and when you explain to them what the reef [can do for tourism], they’ll tell their family, don’t fish there. It’s not good for us or the community.”

The network Douglas imagines is grand: at each of the first three planned properties, the reef territory will cover a five-acre plot with a mixture of open ocean floor and full-sized structures for exploration. Buildings will be constructed in a way to maximize fish and coral habitat; for the “Gods of the Maya” project in Mexico, full-scale replicas of Mayan stelae and other sculpture will not only showcase the country’s cultural heritage, but also provide plenty of nooks and crannies for critters.

To build these underwater resorts, Reef Worlds translates computer-based designs into full-scale, hand-finished foam blocks, which are then used to cast the molds for the final structures. Once on site, the molds are filled with a mixture of coral and basalt rock substrate, cured and submerged.

In Dubai, Douglas says the client initially wasn’t as concerned with the ecosystem restoration component as they were about simply having something to boost diving tourism in the country. But after being convinced that supporting the return of the brown spotted reef cod, a delicacy known locally as hamour, would also encourage divers to come swim with the popular fish, they asked Douglas to “Swiss cheese” the designs of the underwater city to give baby cod a place to hide and thrive. Reef Worlds is planning the release of two million baby hamour into the Dubai reef as part of the project.

Yet while revenue is the reason for the projects, it relies upon public passion to create the demand to protect them in the long term, Douglas says. 

“Once people have a more authentic experience, and engage with a reef on a fundamental level, it changes their whole focus and attitude,” Douglas says. “It’s cool to say that you went underwater and saw fish, but it’s important to learn why it’s there, and that it’s a replacement for what was once there. You’re now in participation to make it right, and make it better—even though it doesn’t make up for what was once there.”

Keith Mille is a fisheries biologist who has worked in the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s artificial reef section for 14 years, overseeing the planning and construction of reef projects in the state. As public properties, Florida’s reefs are open for recreational fishing and diving, but are also used in research. Mille explains that man-made reefs often work best as a diversion to take pressure off of natural reefs.

That is a trend, statue-type deployments that are more focused on attracting people than fish,” he says. “But there’s a dichotomy there. If you’re improving fishing opportunities, sometimes the outcome of that is reduced biomass and increased fishing pressure. But on the other hand, by directing fishers and divers to an artificial reef site, you could potentially reduce traffic to more sensitive areas for an overall net benefit.”

But Mille notes that artificial reefs aren’t an adequate substitute for appropriate fisheries regulations for the protection of sensitive marine habitat.

Douglas, whose Shark Divers company created the Shark-Free/Shark Friendly Marinas Initiative, argues that prior to charging people to go dive with sharks, the idea of shark protection areas in the Pacific equivalent to the Australian continent was unimaginable.

“Unfortunately, there’s a very strong abhorrence for anything that’s for-profit,” Douglas says. “Who would have thought that in 2003 when we were yelling about sharks being killed that we’d have so much shark sanctuary today? But people who had been diving, who came home and put their pictures on the Internet and opened the minds of a thousand of their friends, drove all of it. To save a thing, you have to put money into it, and the best way to do that is charge people to go see it.”

Estimated to cost around $6 million to build, the Pearl of Dubai project will include numerous “ruins” of buildings, dive-helmeted statues, avenues and trading markets to explore, including a large semi-enclosed coliseum that could be used for underwater meetings or weddings. Douglas says he expects construction to begin later this year. 

Exploring New York City’s Abandoned Island, Where Nature Has Taken Over

Smithsonian Magazine

In the heart of New York City lies an abandoned island. Although it is clearly visible to commuters on the Bronx’s I-278 or passengers flying into La Guardia airport, few people are even aware of its existence. If anything, they have only heard that the infamous Typhoid Mary spent her final years confined to a mysterious island, situated somewhere within view of the city skyline. But even that sometimes seems the stuff of rumor.

Until 1885, the 20-acre spot of land—called North Brother Island—was uninhabited, just as it is today. That year saw the construction of the Riverside Hospital, a facility designed to quarantine smallpox patients. Workers and patients traveled there by ferry from 138th Street in the Bronx (for many of the latter, it was a one-way trip), and the facility eventually expanded to serve as a quarantine center for people suffering from a variety of communicable diseases. By the 1930s, however, other hospitals had sprouted up in New York, and public health advances lessened the need to quarantine large numbers of individuals. In the 1940s, North Brother Island was transformed into a housing center for war veterans and their families. But by 1951, most of them—fed up with the need to take a ferry to and from home—had chosen to live elsewhere. For the last decade of its brief period of human habitation, the island became a drug rehabilitation center for heroin addicts.

Mere decades ago, North Brother Island was a well-manicured urban development like any other. Judging from aerial photos taken in the 1950s, the wildest things there were a few shade trees. In those years, North Brother Island was covered by ordinary roads, lawns and buildings, including the towering Tuberculosis Pavilion built in the Art Moderne style.

Eventually, however, the city decided it was impractical to continue operations there. The official word was that it was just too expensive, and plenty of cheaper real estate was available on the mainland. When the last inhabitants (drug patients, doctors and staff) pulled out in 1963, civilization’s tidy grasp on that speck of land began coming undone.

Nature quickly got to work. Sprouting trees broke through sidewalks; thick sheets of vines tugged at building facades and spilled forth from windows like leaking entrails; and piles of detritus turned parking lots into forest floors. The East River insistently lapped at the island’s fringes, eventually wearing down barriers and swallowing a road that once circled its outer edge, leaving only a manhole cover and a bit of brick where veterans and nurses once strolled.

The island has remained free from human influence in part because the city forbids any visitors from going there, citing safety concerns. Now, however, New Yorkers and out-of-towners alike have the opportunity to explore North Brother Island. Not by boat and foot, that is, but through a meticulous photographic study of the place, published this month by photographer Christopher Payne

Like many New Yorkers, for most of his life Payne was unaware of North Brother Island. He first heard of it in 2004, while he was working on a project about shuttered mental hospitals. North Brother Island seemed like a natural progression in his artistic exploration of abandonment and decay. In 2008, Payne finally secured permission from the Parks and Recreation Department to visit and photograph the island. From that first trip, he was hooked. “It was an incredible feeling,” he says. “You’re seeing the city, you’re hearing it, and yet you’re completely alone in this space.”

For the next five years, Payne paid the island some 30 visits, ferried out by a friend with a boat, and often joined by city workers. He photographed it in every season, every slant of light and every angle he could find. “I think it’s great that there’s a place out there that’s not developed by the city—one spot that’s not overtaken by humanity and is just sort of left to be as it is,” he says, adding that the city recently declared North Brother Island a protected nature area.

Few relics of the former residents exist, but Payne did manage to uncover some ghosts, including a 1930 English grammar book; graffiti from various hospital residents; a 1961 Bronx phone book; and an X-ray from the Tuberculosis Pavilion. Mostly, though, traces of the individuals who once lived in the dorms, doctors’ mansions and medical quarters have been absorbed into the landscape—including those of the island’s most famous resident, Mary Mallon. “There really isn’t much left of the Typhoid Mary phase,” Payne says.

In some cases, the carpet of vegetation has grown so thick that the buildings hiding underneath are completed obscured from view, especially in summer. “There was one time when I actually got stuck and just couldn’t go any further without a machete or something,” Payne says. “In September, it’s like a jungle.”

Eventually, Payne came to see the island as a Petri dish of what would happen to New York (or to any place) if humans were no longer around—a poignant thought in light of growing evidence that many of the world’s coastal cities are likely doomed to abandonment within the next century or so.

“Most people view ruins as if they were looking into the past, but these buildings show what New York could be years from now,” Payne says. “I see these photographs like windows into the future.” 

“If we all left,” he says, “the entire city would look like North Brother Island in 50 years.”

North Brother Island: The Last Unknown Place in New York City is available new on Amazon for $28.93. For those based in New York City, author Christopher Payne will be hosting a lecture and book signing on Friday, May 16, at 6:30 pm at the General Society of Mechanical Tradesmen of New York. Rumor has it, Payne notes, that a former North Brother Island resident or two might turn out for the event. 

Humans May Have Been Crafting Stone Tools for 2.6 Million Years

Smithsonian Magazine

Members of the Homo genus have been making stone tools for at least 2.6 million years, a new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests. The findings, based on the discovery of a collection of sharp-edged stone artifacts at the Bokol Dora 1 site in Ethiopia’s Afar Basin, push the origins of early human tool-making back by some 10,000 years earlier than previously believed. Additionally, the research suggests that multiple groups of prehistoric humans invented stone tools on separate occasions, adapting increasingly complex techniques in order to best extract resources from their environment.

Although 3.3 million-year-old stone instruments known as "Lomekwian" tools predate the newly described trove, these were likely made by members of early hominin groups such as Australopithecus afarensis rather than members of the Homo genus. Until now, the oldest known Homo tools—dubbed “Oldowan” in honor of the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where the first examples of such artifacts were found—dated to between 2.55 and 2.58 million years ago. Excavated in Gona, Ethiopia, the sharpened stones are technologically distinct from the more rudimentary Lomekwian tools, which were first catalogued by researchers conducting fieldwork in West Turkana, Kenya, in 2015. Compared to the Oldowan tools found in Gona and now Bokol Dora, the earlier Lomekwian tools are decidedly less advanced.

The Bokol Dora trove, also known as the Ledi-Geraru collection, consists of 327 stone tools likely crafted by striking two rocks together to create sharp edges capable of carving up animals, as Phoebe Weston reports for the Independent. The ancient artifacts were found three miles away from the site where the oldest known Homo fossil, a 2.8 million-year-old jawbone, was unearthed in 2013, pointing toward the tools’ connection with early modern humans rather than ape-like hominins belonging to the Australopithecus genus.

“This is the first time we see people chipping off bits of stone to make tools with an end in mind,” study co-author Kaye Reed, an anthropologist at Arizona State University, tells Weston. “They only took two or three flakes off, and some you can tell weren’t taken off quite right. The latest tools seem slightly different in the way they’re made from other examples.”

Compared with the Gona tools and other Oldowan artifacts, the latest finds are actually rather crude. The instruments have “significantly lower numbers of actual pieces chipped off a cobble than we see in any other assemblage later on,” lead author David Braun of George Washington University explains to New Scientist’s Michael Marshall, adding that it’s possible the humans making them were less skilled than their later counterparts or simply didn’t have a need for extremely sharp tools. Still, the Ledi-Geraru artifacts are distinct enough from the older Lomekwian tools to warrant their classification as Oldowan.

The 2.6 million-year-old implements “have nothing to do whatsoever with what we see later on,” Braun tells Marshall. “It’s possible there are multiple independent inventions of stone as a tool.”

The 2.6 million-year-old stone tools are technologically distinct from more primitive 3.3 million-year-old tools likely used by members of the Australopithecus genus (David R. Braun)

According to Cosmos’ Dyani Lewis, Lomekwian tools are roughly on par with the primitive instruments fashioned by modern primates such as capuchin monkeys. Oldowan tools, on the other hand, reveal a basic understanding of what Braun calls the “physics of where to strike something, and how hard to hit it, and what angles to select.”

“Something changed by 2.6 million years ago, and our ancestors became more accurate and skilled at striking the edge of stones to make tools,” study co-author Will Archer of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology and the University of Cape Town notes in a press release. “The artifacts at BD 1 capture this shift.”

Given the fact that the Ledi-Geraru tools were found alongside the bones of animals, including gazelles and giraffes, the team argues that early humans’ shift toward skilled stone tool-making coincided with a rise in scavenging opportunities. As Science News’ Bruce Bower points out, Homo individuals inhabited open grassland expanses, whereas their earlier Australopithecus ancestors had to contend with dense tree coverage that limited hunting prospects.

Interestingly, the Independent’s Weston writes, the shift from Lomekwian to Oldowan tools appears to be associated with a change in early humans’ teeth. In the statement, Archer explains that processing food with the help of stone tools led to a reduction in the size of our ancestors’ teeth, offering a striking example of how “our technology and biology were intimately intertwined even as early as 2.6 million years ago.”

To date the Ledi-Geraru trove—likely dropped by early humans at the edge of a body of water and subsequently buried for millions of years—researchers drew on volcanic ash found several feet below the excavation site, as well as the magnetic signature of various sediment samples.

But as Bower notes, some scientists have expressed skepticism regarding these dating methods. Paleontologist Manuel Domínguez-Rodrigo of Madrid’s Complutense University says a detailed analysis of sediment formation is needed to verify the artifacts’ age, and Yonatan Sahle, an archeologist at Germany’s University of Tübingen, calls it “simply unwarranted” to deem the tools the oldest known Oldowan specimens without conducting further testing.

For now, Braun says, the team must focus on finding additional evidence of stone tools made between 2.6 and 3.3 million years ago. He concludes, “If our hypothesis is correct then we would expect to find some type of continuity in artefact form after 2.6 million years ago, but not prior to this time period. We need to find more sites.”

How Daguerreotype Photography Reflected a Changing America

Smithsonian Magazine

As denizens of the digital world, most contemporary Americans are exposed daily to dozens of photographs of friends, loved ones, celebrities and strangers. We capture and distribute images of ourselves and others with shockingly little effort, rarely if ever stepping back to marvel at the power we wield.

Our smartphones enable us to immortalize moments in our lives with crystal-clear fidelity—defying the inevitability of time’s passage whenever the whim strikes us—yet we go about the assembly of our collective visual history not with awe and zeal, but with the detached blitheness that so often comes with too much of a good thing.

Such was not the case in the mid-19th century, when the first-ever widely accessible form of photography, known as the daguerreotype process, made its way to the young United States.

Before this time, it was impossible to know someone’s true appearance unless you met them in person. You could not look back on the faces of your children once they reached adulthood, nor those of your late parents once they were laid to rest. Experiences and happenings were preserved only after hours of effort painting, drawing or writing prose, and even then, with striking imperfection. Daguerreotypes gave the American people the ability to preserve, not merely imagine, their collective history.

To honor of this foundational medium, the National Portrait Gallery is showcasing a selection of mid-19th century daguerreotypes—12 in all—through June 2 of next year. The Portrait Gallery began collecting daguerreotypes in 1965, three years prior to its opening to the public, when it did not yet have the authority to acquire photographs. This year, in recognition of its 50th anniversary, the museum is celebrating the irrevocable impact these early images made on the field of portraiture at large.

Sitting for a daguerreotype required one to hold a pose perfectly across 20 seconds or more. In this period wood engraving on paper, the daguerreotypist's subject is aided by an assistant with a metallic head brace. (National Portrait Gallery)

Daguerreotypes were named in honor of their French inventor Louis Daguerre, who made his innovative technique “free to the world” via an arrangement with the French government.

Daguerre built on the work of photography pioneer Nicéphore Niépce, with whom he corresponded profusely, taking Niépce’s principle of exposing a treated surface to filtered light and rendering the process (relatively) quick and practical.

Daguerre’s method relied on copper plates coated on one face with highly reflective buffed silver and chemically primed for exposure in “sensitizing boxes” filled with iodine and bromine. Once a daguerreotypist ensured a given plate was receptive to light, they would insert it into a bulky camera obscura (Latin for “dark room”), which admitted outside illumination only through a single, small aperture, covered by a lens.

After a lengthy exposure period (sitting still for a daguerreotype portrait took some doing), the plate would be ready for primetime. Having developed the plate with the aid of hot gaseous mercury, the photographer would immerse it in a fixing solution, wash it, and usually tone it with gold chloride before setting it in a suitable viewing case or frame.

“For proper viewing,” says Ann Shumard, curator of the new exhibition, “the daguerreotype must be displayed at just the right angle for the image to be visible. Otherwise, it all but disappears, and the silver plate reverts to a mirror.” This spectral quality of daguerreotypes lends them an intriguing eeriness, and their duality of mirror and image implicates the viewer in what they’re seeing in a way common to no other medium. “This gives the daguerreotype an almost magical quality,” Shumard says.

Curator Ann Shumard is partial to this stately rendering of Seneca leader Blacksnake, who stood up for the rights of his people while also welcoming to some extent the cultural influence of European settlers. (National Portrait Gallery)

Though European in origin, the mystique of Daguerre’s portraiture caught on in America like nowhere else. “It enjoyed its greatest popularity in the United States,” Shumard says, “thanks to the entrepreneurial spirit of American practitioners and a middle class made up of eager consumers.”

The delicacy of daguerreotypes, though in many ways a selling point, does give rise to certain practical concerns. If allowed contact with outside oxygen, for instance, the metallic plates gradually tarnish. “The National Portrait Gallery’s photographic conservator ensures that each daguerreotype is protected by a coverglass and carefully sealed to prevent air from reaching the plate,” Shumard explains. “When not on exhibition, the museum’s daguerreotypes are stored in customized archival boxes in a climate-controlled environment.”

Just as fascinating as the technique behind the daguerreotype portraits on display are the subjects they depict. An eclectic cross-section of mid-19th century American luminaries, the lineup includes mental healthcare reformer Dorothea Dix, Navy Commodore Matthew Perry (best remembered for his expedition to Japan), prototypical impresario P.T. Barnum alongside the circus entertainer Tom Thumb, and transcendentalist author Henry David Thoreau.

One daguerreotype Shumard finds particularly arresting is a portrait of Seneca Nation leader Blacksnake, whose thoughtful off-camera gaze and firmly closed lips give the image an air of serene dignity. “After supporting the British during the American Revolution,” Shumard says, “Blacksnake joined the large contingent of Seneca and other Six Nations members who negotiated with the United States in 1797 to secure reservations in western New York.” A poised and pragmatic leader, Blacksnake also championed an educational system for the Seneca blending traditional Native American practices and beliefs with Western ones. “He is the only Native American represented in our daguerreotype collection,” Shumard says.

Many other rich historical narratives live within the portraits on display, which would not exist absent the accessible mode of photography dreamt up by Louis Daguerre and his generosity in allowing it to proliferate worldwide. “Through daguerreotype portraiture,” Shumard says, “the National Portrait Gallery is able to represent individuals who would otherwise remain absent from our visual narrative of the nation’s history.” Visitors to the Gallery are invited to contemplate the humanity captured in each image—and its relation to their own, fleetingly reflected in the portraits’ silver sheen.

“Daguerreotypes: Five Decades of Collecting” is on view at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. through June 2, 2019.

What the Heck is Cuneiform, Anyway?

Smithsonian Magazine

Cuneiform made headlines recently with the discovery of 22 new lines from the Epic of Gilgamesh, found on tablet fragments in Iraq. As remarkable as is the discovery of new bits of millennia-old literature is the story of cuneiform itself, a now obscure but once exceedingly influential writing system, the world’s first examples of handwriting. 

Cuneiform, was invented some 6,000 years ago in what is now southern Iraq, and it was most often written on iPhone-sized clay tablets a few inches square and an inch high. Deciding to use clay for a writing surface was ingenious: vellum, parchment, papyrus and paper—other writing surfaces people have used in the past—deteriorate easily. But not clay, which has proven to be the most durable, and perhaps most sustainable, writing surface humanity has used.


Cuneiform means "wedge-shaped," a term the Greeks used to describe the look of the signs. It was used to write at least a dozen languages, just as the alphabet that you are reading now is also (for the most part) used in Spanish, German and many other languages. It looks like a series of lines and triangles, as each sign is comprised of marks—triangular, vertical, diagonal, and horizontal—impressed onto wet clay with a stylus, a long thin instrument similar to a pen. Sometimes cuneiform was formed into prisms, larger tablets and cylinders, but mainly it was written on palm-sized pieces of clay. The script is often tiny—almost too small to see with the naked eye, as small the smallest letters on a dime. Why so tiny? That remains one of cuneiform’s biggest mysteries.

Most agree that cuneiform began as proto-writing--like African drumming and Incan quipa – and evolved into the first full-fledged writing system, with signs corresponding to speech. The root of cuneiform lies in tokens, or chits, used by Sumerians to convey information. For example, they would take a stone and declare it a representation for something else. A sheep, say. A bunch of stones might mean a bunch of sheep. These stone tokens would sometimes be placed in a container, and given to someone else as a form of receipt—not that different from what we do today when we hand currency with numbers on it to buy a quart of milk, and the clerk gives us back a piece of paper with numbers on it to confirm the transaction. 

By the 4th century B.C., the Sumerians had taken this system to another level of abstraction and efficiency, moving it from proto-writing to writing.  They began using clay containers instead of cloth ones, and instead of putting stones inside of them, they stamped the outside of the envelopes that indicated the number and type of tokens inside. One could then "read" the envelope to know what information was being conveyed. 

Gradually, Sumerians developed symbols for words.  At first these phonemes (one symbol for one thing, instead of letters to make a word) symbolized concrete things; for example, an image of a sheep meant a literal sheep. Then another leap of abstraction was introduced when symbols were developed for intangible ideas, such as God, or women. Cuneiform, in other words, evolved from a way to track and store information into a way to explain the world symbolically. 

The marks became more abstract over the centuries . They likely began as pictographic-- sheep symbol for a sheep--but they evolved into signs that look nothing like what they refer to, just as the letters “s-h-e-e-p” have no visual connection to a woolly, four-legged animal. These marks and signs took the form of triangular wedge shapes.

Cuneiform marks became more abstract because it made the system more efficient: they were fewer marks to learn. And for the most part, cuneiform needed to become more complex because society was becoming so as well. The origins of writing lie in the need to keep better records, not, as many might assume or wish, to express oneself, create art, or pray. Most agree cuneiform developed primarily for accounting purposes: while we can’t know about tablets that have been lost, about 75 percent of the cuneiform that has been excavated and translated contains administrative information.

Mundane as this story is concerning why writing was invented—to record sheep sales—the story of how it was later decoded is spectacular. It is somewhat miraculous that we can translate these wedges. For hundreds of years, no one could. Even though cuneiform was used for millennia—and much of it, incised on rocks in Persia, was in plain view for centuries after it ceased to be used--the language was unintelligible for almost 2,000 years. Not until 1837, two years after British army officer Henry Rawlinson copied down inscriptions from the steep cliffs of Behistun could anyone know what the marks said.

Rawlinson’s feat was incredible. He had to climb up cliffs on a very narrow ledge in the middle of an enormous mountain in order to copy down what he saw. And how those marks were made continues to defy logic or explanation: the angle and height of the incisions seem to preclude the possibility of a chiseler on a ladder. Rawlinson at least figured out how to copy the marks, by making paper impressions as he stood, perilously, on the ledge.

Then he took them home, and studied them for years to determine what each line stood for, what each group of symbols meant. Eventually, he decoded the markets that had sat in the open for some 5,000 years, thereby cracking the cuneiform code. (The inscriptions describe the life of Darius the Great, king of the Persian Empire in the 5th century B.C. , as well as descriptions of his victories over rebels during his reign.) As with the Rosetta Stone, on which the same text is written in hieroglyphics, demotic, and Greek, Rawlinson discovered the cliffs of Behistun also contained the same words written three times in three different languages: Old Persian, Elamite, and Babylonian. Since the other languages had been translated, he could thus translate cuneiform. 

Fifteen other languages developed from cuneiform, including Old Persian, Akkadian and Elamite. It was taught as a classical or dead language for generations after it ceased to be a living language. It was taught to those who spoke Aramaic and Assyrian, but who read, copied and recopied Sumerian literary works. By 1600 BC, no Sumerian speakers were alive, but cuneiform was still used for another thousand years. Today, it strikes us a somehow hauntingly familiar: cool, hard, palm-sized tablets onto which receipts, notes, messages and even great works of literature are written and read.

Arrows, And Quiver For Fishing

NMNH - Anthropology Dept.

There is no bow with this quiver and arrow set as of 27 Oct 2009.

Quiver: Source of the information below: Inuvialuit Pitqusiit Inuuniarutait: Inuvialuit Living History, The MacFarlane Collection website, by the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre (ICRC), Inuvik, N.W.T., Canada (website credits here ), entry on this artifact , retrieved 2-5-2020: Quiver, part of a set that includes seven arrows. The quiver is made from caribou hide. It has a sleeve for a stiffener sewn along one side, and a carrying strap made from a hide thon is sewn onto that side. Above the carrying strap is another thong that likely was used for wrapping around the quiver when not in use. Ten cut and notched hoof sheaths have been attached to the quiver with hide thongs; several other thongs sewn along the sides may have held similar hooves. The quiver has been decorated on one side with red ochre lines. One line runs almost the entire length of the quiver. Shorter lines terminating in a 'Y' shape are connected to the longer line at right angles. Between each of these lines is a still shorter line. The quiver is large enough to have held a strung bow, in addition to the arrows. More information on quivers here: Arrows were kept in skin quivers that hunters carried slung on their backs. Red ochre stain and other decorations were often added to bring luck or to give power to the hunter.

Arrows: Source of the information below: Inuvialuit Pitqusiit Inuuniarutait: Inuvialuit Living History, The MacFarlane Collection website, by the Inuvialuit Cultural Resource Centre (ICRC), Inuvik, N.W.T., Canada (website credits here ), entry on this artifact , retrieved 2-5-2020: This is a set of seven arrows that was acquired with a quiver. Six of the arrows have been fletched with rough-legged hawk feathers, and one has goose feather fletching. Five arrows have bone or antler arrowheads, and of those, four have barbs along one edge. Four of the bone and antler arrowheads have been tipped with metal blades inserted into slots at the ends of the arrowheads, and one is self-pointed. Arrowheads are missing from two arrows. Each of the arrows has been decorated with four lines applied with black stain encircling the shaft tin the area of the fletching. These marks may have been applied to identify the owner. More information on arrows here: Complete arrows as well as separate arrowheads are present in the MacFarlane Collection. The arrow shafts are made from a single piece of spruce, and typically are 60 to 70 cm. long. Most have been stained with red ochre. The shafts are round in cross section, except near the notch for the bowstring where they are slightly flattened to provide a better grip for the fingers. Fleching consists of two split and trimmed feathers attached with sinew lashing. Several types of arrowheads were used, depending on the game that was hunted. Some of the ochre markings on arrow shafts may have been owner's marks, and some arrowheads are likewise marked with notches and incised lines that might have been used to identify their owner. Community Interpretations Darrel Nasogaluak: Arrowheads were meant to come off the shaft after an animal was struck. My grandfather Edgar Kotokak told me that barbs were cut into only one edge so that the head moved around inside the wound as the animal moved, increasing the chance of killing it.

The Measure of Genius: Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel at 500

Smithsonian Magazine

In the spring of 1509, just two years after a mapmaker coined the word “America” in honor of the explorer Amerigo Vespucci, a fellow Florentine named Buonarotti was beginning to work on one of the defining masterpieces of Western Civilization. His first name—Michelangelo—would also reverberate through the ages. And, like many of the early transatlantic voyages of discovery, his ceiling frescoes in Rome’s Sistine Chapel had gotten off to a terrible start.

“He was working on the largest multi-figure compositions of the entire ceiling when the actual fresco plaster itself became infected by a kind of lime mold, which is like a great bloom of fungus,” says Andrew Graham-Dixon, chief art critic for London’s Sunday Telegraph. “So he had to chip the whole thing back to zero and start again. Eventually he sped up. He got better.”

However difficult the conditions—and even the challenge of painting at a height of 65 feet required considerable ingenuity, with scaffolds and platforms slotted into specially fashioned wall openings—by the time Michelangelo unveiled the work in 1512, he had succeeded in creating a transcendent work of genius, one which continues to inspire millions of pilgrims and tourists in Vatican City each year. The Sistine Chapel holds a central place in Christendom as the private chapel of the pope and the site of the papal enclave, where the College of Cardinals gathers to elect new popes. Thanks to Michelangelo, however, the chapel’s significance extends to all who have been inspired by the originality and power of his vision—both directly and indirectly, through its influence on subsequent artists and the iconography of world culture.

Graham-Dixon immersed himself in the paintings for some time and has now written a book for general readers, Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel (Skyhorse Publishing), published to coincide with the work’s 500th anniversary. As he plumbed the details, he found more and more to admire and ponder.

Take The Creation of Adam, with its portrayal of God’s finger reaching to touch Adam’s —undoubtedly the most famous detail of all. It has been endlessly reproduced and copied; think, for instance, of the well-known poster for the movie E.T.

“Yet I found myself wondering, why did Michelangelo have God create Adam with a finger?” Graham-Dixon says. “In other representations, for example, if you look at Ghiberti’s doors in Florence, God raises up Adam with a gesture of his hand. And as I turned over various ideas and theories, I began to see it as the creation of the education of Adam, because that’s the symbolism of the finger. God writes on us with his finger, in certain traditions of theology. In the Jewish tradition, that’s how he writes the tablets of the Ten Commandments for Moses—he sort of lasers them with his finger. The finger is the conduit through which God’s intelligence, his ideas and his morality seep into Man. And if you look at that painting very closely, you see that God isn’t actually looking at Adam, he’s looking at his own finger, as if to channel his own instructions and thoughts through that finger.”

Graham-Dixon’s book takes up several controversies and myths surrounding the Sistine Chapel, such as the notion that Michelangelo painted the vault of the chapel lying down on his back; this is how he was portrayed, for instance, in the 1965 Hollywood film The Agony and the Ecstasy, based on Irving Stone’s historical novel. In fact, Michelangelo painted standing up, Graham-Dixon says, but was forced to crane his neck at a horrible angle for nearly four years, causing him painful spasms, cramps and headaches. “My beard toward Heaven, I feel the back of my brain upon my neck,” he wrote in a comical poem for a friend. “My loins have penetrated to my paunch…I’m not in a good place, and I’m no painter.”

He meant that literally. The 34-year-old Michelangelo was renowned for such statues as David and the Pietà, and he regarded his Sistine Chapel commission from Pope Julius II with the utmost suspicion. In fact he believed that enemies and rivals had concocted the idea in order to see him fail on a grand scale. “Michelangelo felt that God chose him to be a sculptor,” says Graham-Dixon, “so to be asked to paint—he didn’t consider that as serious a vocation. What he’d wanted to do, what he’d spent years of his life preparing to do, had spent eight months in the mountains of Carrara with two men and a donkey getting ready to do, was to create this great monumental tomb for Julius II.” A much smaller tomb was completed many years later.

For five centuries, people have spoken of Michelangelo’s masterworks as if they were a superhuman achievement. Yet the modern, democratic temperament reflexively seeks out the human side of heroes and celebrities, to experience their struggles and fallibility at close hand. Graham-Dixon suggests that this hankering for kinship and connection is not likely to be satisfied by the paintings of the Sistine Chapel.

“I have to say it is kind of superhuman,” he says. “I find the Sistine Chapel quite a daunting work of art. It’s not very accommodating to human beings, in many ways. It presents the image of God as a dream to which we aspire. It describes the dream of oneness with God as one from which we’ve all been expelled, and we can only get back to it with a great deal of prayer and hard work. There’s a sense, as well, I think—it’s only a sort of feeling I have, I can’t really justify it—but I have the feeling that Michelangelo felt he was far, far above the multitude of ordinary people. And not just physically, up on his platform, but morally as well. There is, of course, a humanity in it, but it’s a very, very hard one, and it can’t easily be turned into a nice picture.”

Not a nice picture, perhaps, but certainly one that inspires awe, in the truest sense.

Image by Pier Paolo Cito / Pool / Reuters / Corbis. Michelangelo began painting the ceiling frescoes in Rome's Sistine Chapel in 1509. (original image)

Image by Jim Zuckerman / Corbis. The Creation of Adam by Michelangelo. (original image)

Image by Owen Franken / Corbis. Thousands of people visit the Sistine Chapel daily to see Michelangelo's work. (original image)

Image by iStockphoto. Michelangelo was commissioned by Pope Julius II to work on the Sistine Chapel. (original image)

Image by Alinari Archives / Corbis. Prophet Ezekiel from the fresco cycle at the Sistine Chapel. (original image)

Where to See Thousands of Fluttering Butterflies in Taiwan

Smithsonian Magazine

There's the dead leaf butterfly, which resembles dried foliage when it shuts its wings. There's the Magellan’s iridescent birdwing, whose yellow hindwings appear blue-green when viewed from the right angle. Then there's the broad-tailed swallowtail butterfly, which lives up to its name thanks to its uniquely wide wingtails. All three are members of an estimated 430 species of butterflies that make their home in Taiwan, including 50 that are endemic to the country.

The "kingdom of butterflies" as Taiwan is sometimes called, can thank its area, latitude and isolation for its diverse range of winged insects. The small island has so many butterflies that back in 2003, Oscar Chung at Taiwan Today noted that the data translated to 123 species per every 4,000 square miles.

For decades, many people in Taiwan made their livelihoods selling butterfly specimens and crafts made from the insect's wings. Scholars point to the late '60s and to mid '70s as the peak of this commerce, when butterflies were sold by the kilo to collectors. At one point, the total value of the butterfly exporting trade reached $30 million, making the country the largest butterfly exporter in the world.

But in the following years, as Taiwan shifted from an agricultural to industrial nation, its own development greatly impacted the habitats of its butterflies. Under threat, conservationists are now working on ecological efforts to save and preserve the country’s spectacular flying specimens. Fly along as goes on a mission to trail Taiwan's butterflies today:

In the Valley of Yellow Butterflies

The Meinong district in Taiwan's southern countryside has plenty going for it. It's 30 minutes away from Taiwan's second largest city, Kaohsiung, which is home to the country's biggest night marketoodles of public art and one of the world's most beautiful metros (no, seriously). 

The district itself is located in a rich, fertile valley surrounded by mountains. It was originally inhabited by the Rukai people, who were pushed out by Hakka settlers in the 18th century. Today, Hakka people continue to put their vibrant stamp on the community through local dishes and festivities. And while the district is worth a visit year-round, (it's the place to go for Taiwan's traditional handcrafted oilpaper umbrellas), late spring and summer are particularly special in Meinong. Why? Because it's butterfly season.

Just around four miles northeast of downtown Meinong is a place called Yellow Butterfly Valley. Come summertime, more than 100 species of butterflies flock to the area, Lonely Planet writes. The valley gets its name from the butterfly whose sheer numbers make it stand out among the rest of the pack—the midsized yellow emigrant. The most-sighted butterfly in the valley, its lemon yellow wings bring a delightful shock of color to the area. But it's certainly not the only butterfly to draw the eye—if you go in late July, you could see half a million butterflies spreading their wings across just a few acres of the valley.

On the Butterfly Trail

The butterfly trail off Jiannan Road brings butterfly watching to a new level—it's an open butterfly museum. Managed by the Butterfly Conservation Society of Taiwan, the trail in the Zhongshan District in Taipei, is 28 acres of winged wonder. Home to 149 species of butterflies among other insects, the park allows visitors to observe the creatures in their natural habitat (and enjoy the mountain cherry blossoms that are planted along the way). 

The butterfly trail ends at the National Palace Museum, where butterflies can be found in a more artistic sense via some of the institute's own treasures, like an antique snuff bottle covered in the colorful insects or a hanging scroll that features cats frolicking with butterflies.

A Garden of Butterflies

It doesn't matter what season it is in Taiwan, if you're looking for butterflies, you're sure to find them at the Jinshi Lake Butterfly Garden. Located in Kaohsiung Sanmin District, the garden, open year-round, holds the bragging rights for being the largest butterfly house in the nation, according to Ko Yu-hao and Chen Wei-han at the Taipei Times.

There are hundreds of butterflies on view, Yu-Hao and Wei-han report, with representatives from 30 different species present, including the swallowtail butterfly, Pieridae, Nymphalidae and the Lycaenidae. If you look carefully, you'll see every stage of a butterfly's life cycle taking place in the garden, from egg to larva, pupa to adult. 

Purple Flight

Since 2001, the Maolin National Scenic Area at the foot of the Central Mountain Range has been bringing some serious environmental muscle to the area east of Kaohsiung City. Its creation has helped conserve one of its greatest natural stars: the common crow butterfly. Each winter, from December to March, millions of the purple-winged butterflies come to the valley to ready for their annual flight to the Dawushan Foothills to skip the chilly winter. The migratory pattern allows for an astonishing sight: a purple butterfly valley. 

This colorful phenomenon could have disappeared if it wasn't for the care of conservationists. As Chung reports, a researcher named Chan Chia-lung, a member of the Butterfly Conservation Society of Taiwan, first visited the area in 1990 and noted the wintering butterflies. On a return trip nine years later, he was alarmed to note that some 200,000 butterflies had gone away because a parking spot had been built to facilitate tourists. Chia-lung got the Council of Agriculture to intervene, and the council created a budget for conservation and education efforts. Since then, the butterfly population has continued to rehabilitate.

Respectful tourists are still welcome to take guided tours of the purple butterfly valley. To catch the colorful commotion, all you need to do is make an advance appointment with the local township office. 

An Overnight Butterfly Bash 

Still can't get enough butterflies? Perhaps it's time to check into the Butterfly Valley Resort. The hotel is the only place to stay in the Fu-Yuan National Forest Park in Hualien County, which is home to its own butterfly valley. True to its name, the resort considers butterfly watching its "most prominent highlight," and visitors can see more than 70 species of butterflies in the valley during peak butterfly season every March to September. 

One doesn't have to look far to find some beautiful butterflies in Fu-Yuan—the resort houses a butterfly eco house and butterfly exhibition room for the dedicated butterfly fan.

Flitting on the Butterfly Highway

Here's a parting riddle for you. How does the butterfly cross the road? Since 2007, Taiwan's found a pretty good answer. To stop the delicate insects from getting hit by cars, the National Freeway Bureau set up 13-foot high nets along parts of its freeways. The idea is to push the butterflies to fly high above the cars to keep them out of danger. When seasonal migration across the roads become greater than 500 per minute, some freeway lanes even get temporarily shut down in respect of the winged insects. 

The effort is the brainchild of Chia-lung, and his initiative has gone a long way in saving butterflies throughout Taiwan, notably the purple milkweed butterfly. Conservationists estimate the country is home to some 2 million of these butterflies, which are known for the white dots on their purple-brown wings. The insect, which winters in southern Taiwan, crosses miles of highway on its annual flight to go north to breed, the BBC notes

Though Taiwan was the first country to initiate butterfly highways, the idea has caught on worldwide, and even spread to the U.S. to places like North Carolina and Minnesota.

Pop-Up Relief in Kenya’s Slums

Smithsonian Magazine

Goats were grazing on a patch of grass littered with plastic garbage when Phylis Mueni passed by. She carried three 20-liter jerrycans that once held vegetable oil, one a bright yellow that matched her oversize T-shirt. Everything else was a wash of browns and reds—the rusted metal of corrugated roofing, the labyrinth of mud houses, the drainage ditch that ran along the gullied path. Mueni is a resident of Korogocho (which means “shoulder-to-shoulder” in Swahili) one of Nairobi’s largest and roughest slums. She was in pursuit of a most basic element: water. No one in places like this has running water. On a good day, locals travel 300 feet to fill up their cans for a few cents. On shortage days, which happen about once a week, the search can take most of the day, and people can end up paying six times the usual price.

Mueni entered a schoolyard through a door banged out of sheet metal and painted yellow that read Kao La Tumaini (Place of Hope.) Inside, most of the small courtyard was taken over by a recent addition to the school, a structure that stood in stark contrast to its surroundings. Made of smooth, white plastic panels and metal, the hexagonal HabiHut water station jutted into the sky at a sharp angle, a solar panel and a single light fixture at its peak and water taps at its base. Fitted with a water tank and filtration system, as well as the solar panels and batteries for cellphone charging, these stations have the potential to serve up to 1,000 people per day. For poor Kenyans, mobile phones have rapidly become a powerful information tool linking them to employment, financial networks and security data. In a country where 40 percent of the population doesn't have access to safe water and only 20 percent has access to grid electricity, kiosks like these are, indeed, a place of hope.

The project is part of a pilot program that brings together Kenyan government and nonprofit organizations, local entrepreneurs and community groups, and American companies large and small. HabiHut is a tiny Montana-based company that emerged from the ashes of a high-end contracting business that went bust in the housing crash. The company created the HabiHut modular kit, and along with local Kenyan nonprofit Umande Trust, is in the process of teaming up with General Electric, which is providing water filtration and solar panel and battery systems as the pilot project expands throughout Kenya. Plans are underway to set up 200 more kiosks, each providing up to 1,600 gallons of clean water per day. If everything goes well, they hope to replicate the model in places like India and Southeast Asia.

Kenya needed something almost improvisational to get water to people like Phylis Mueni, , and the HabiHut’s mobility and impermeability fit the bill. The structures were initially introduced to Kenya and Haiti as emergency housing; Umande recognized that the huts could be adapted into water stations. “For a permanent water kiosk, you need to get a city permit from the authority,” said Josiah Omotto, managing trustee of Umande. After a long application process, “still nothing happens after months. And you have to use their standard design,” he told me as we sat in his office in Kibera, another massive Nairobi slum, meaning there’s little room for experimentation and improvement. “Let’s be out of this cycle,” he said.

Image by Meera Subramanian. The water is filtered to remove bacterial, viral and protozoal pathogens that are responsible for typhoid, cholera and other water-borne diseases. (original image)

Image by Meera Subramanian. Korogocho resident Phylis Mueni is one of the many Kenyans who benefit from the HabitHuts that can provide up to 1,600 gallons of clean water per day. (original image)

Image by Meera Subramanian. Mueni no longer has to travel far to fill her water jugs. (original image)

Image by Meera Subramanian. Water specialist Kelvin Bai and managing trustee Josiah Omotto, both of the Umande Trust, sit inside a HabiHut. (original image)

Image by Meera Subramanian. “Liquid gold” pours from the tap at the HabiHut water kiosk in a Nairobi slum. (original image)

Because HabiHuts are considered impermanent, they dodge Kenyan building regulations. And they’re quick. The modular structures arrive in a four-foot-by-eight-foot package and pop up in a day. When the program is fully implemented, the water can come from either the city system or delivery trucks drawing on a nearby natural source such as a river, and the filters will remove bacterial, viral and protozoal pathogens that are responsible for typhoid, cholera and other water-borne diseases that ravage slum residents. And if a source of water becomes tenuous, which can happen when city pipes break or the mafia-like entities that have their tentacles around water distribution demand bribes or cut off water to create artificial demand, the HabiHuts can be relocated to a more dependable spot. It's like guerrilla warfare for water.

Not that the program is renegade. It attempts to merge a business model with creative engineering to solve the widespread problem of water shortages. The idea is that Umande will cultivate local entrepreneurs and community groups to run the water kiosks for a profit, selling water, cellphone charging services and phone cards. Ronald Omyonga, an architect and consultant on the project, is busy touring the country in search of potential partners that have the ability to invest a small portion of the start-up costs to show their commitment.

As other locals joined Mueni at the Korogocho HabiHut, setting their containers on a simple wooden platform, Kelvin Bai, Umande’s water specialist, stood nearby smiling. “To me, growing up,” he said, “water was the major issue.” He lived in Kibera, where his mother would sometimes walk up to three miles to get water for the family. “When I came of age, I was sent out in search of water too.”

Abdi Mohammed is chairman of the Mwamko Wa Maendeleo Youth Group, which operates the Korogocho site. This area “is a black spot, with a lot of violence,” he said. “It is known for muggings, in broad daylight.” He looked up at the single light on the HabiHut. “That light on the HabiHut is very, very helpful. It is the only one in this area. We find hope in things like this.”

Cellphones are not quite as vital as water, but getting close. In just five years, the number of mobiles went from 1 million to 6.5 million in Kenya, and the East African nation is at the vanguard of using mobile telephony for finance and information technology among the poorest of the poor. Kenyans use mobile phones to secure micro-insurance for their agricultural crops, track the spread of violence during times of civil unrest, and earn income in a country with a 40 percent unemployment rate, using a text-based model akin to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, which links companies to individuals who can do small tasks for a fee. Kenya is also one of the first nations in the world to implement a comprehensive mobile banking system known as M-Pesa, in which people can pay for everything from bus rides to utility bills to—yes—water at their local HabiHut kiosk with their phones. Umande is also working with Stanford University to create a mobile crowd-sourcing system so settlement residents can easily locate clean, cheap water on shortage days. When people use their phones for such basic services, ensuring that they’re charged becomes crucial.

Inside the HabiHut, a young man from the youth group basked in a warm glow of light coming through the translucent panels. He worked a hand pump on the inside and leaned his head out to make sure the liquid gold was flowing. It poured out in a thick stream into Mueni’s waiting container. Before this kiosk was here, Mueni had to go “Mbali!”—far!—she said, waving her hand over her head in the direction of the next closest traditional water station, which was a third of a mile away. Now, she comes to this little place of hope.

Meera Subramanian wrote about peregrine falcons in New York for

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 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.”

Blohm & Voss BV 155 V2

National Air and Space Museum
Experimental high-speed interceptor, all metal, single engine, single seat.

From a tail-hook fighter flying from aircraft carriers to a high-altitude bomber interceptor, the Blohm & Voss BV 155 had an interesting and convoluted development history. It was also one of the most technically advanced propeller-driven airplanes developed by any combatant during World War II. In May, 1942, the German Air Ministry (RLM) convened a meeting with Focke-Wulf and Messerschmitt representatives to review requirements for two new aircraft development projects. One was a single-engine fighter to operate from aircraft carriers, the other specification described a Spezial Höhenjäger, an airplane capable of intercepting bombers at high altitudes and conducting reconnaissance as a secondary mission. The two firms were then fully engaged in building the Fw 190 and Bf 109 and they expressed concern about trying to develop two very ambitious designs on top of existing commitments. Focke-Wulf decided to ignore the carrier fighter and concentrate on the high-altitude interceptor proposal. Two years later, the firm met the high-altitude fighter requirement magnificently with the Focke-Wulf Ta 152H (also in the NASM collection).

In 1943, the RLM identified an offshoot high-altitude fighter concept known as the Extremer Höhenjäger, or extreme high-altitude fighter. To meet this need, the Messerschmitt designed the Me 155B and after a clumsy, protracted development period, Blohm & Voss took over and transformed the design into a promising, though technically challenging experimental aircraft called the BV 155.

From the May 1942 concept for a carrier-based fighter designated the Bf 109 ST, Messerschmitt proposed three variants: two versions of the naval fighter with different engines and a high-altitude interceptor equipped with the Jumo 213. The company soon merged the two carrier-based designs into a concept called the Me 155A. The bomber interceptor became the Me 155B. Both designs used many components from the Bf 109G, except for the wing and landing gear. Although these concepts showed promise, the work rapidly overtaxed Messerschmitt's design department and the firm transferred the Me 155B project to a new design office in Paris staffed by French aircraft designers. This group was, understandably, less than totally dedicated to the effort.

When Germany stopped work on all major surface vessels in January 1943, the Me 155A carrier airplane was cancelled too. French progress to develop the Me 155B was so slight that Messerschmitt stopped the work and refocused its own design staff on developing the Me 209 (a pre-war design that set a world speed record in 1939) to meet the Extremer Höhenjäger requirement. But the RLM would not let Messerschmitt drop the Me 155B. To speed progress the RLM paired Dr. Richard Vogt, chief designer at Blohm & Voss, and several hundred of his engineers and fabricators, with Messerschmitt. Both parties worked well together at first but over the next few months, the relationship soured. Messerschmitt could not resolve many critical decisions about the design including wing layout, engine, and engine coolant radiator design. Late in January 1944, the RLM directed Messerschmitt to transfer the whole project to Blohm & Voss and the BV 155 was born.

Dr. Vogt, and his team almost completely reworked the design and in the end selected the Daimler-Benz DB 603 U engine and the Heinkel-Hirth TKL 15 turbosupercharger to power the airplane. He also finalized the armament configuration and selected one MK 108 30-mm cannon in the nose and two 20 mm MG 151 cannons the wing. By late June 1944, Blohm & Voss planned to build three B-series prototypes and an improved version called the BV 155C. After RLM officials inspected the program in August, they were satisfied with progress enough to codename the project 'Karawanken' after a mountain range bordering Austria and Yugoslavia.

Vogt and his group created an impressive design. The BV 155 featured an armored, pressurized cabin with an ejection seat, high aspect ratio laminar-flow wings, wide-track landing gear, and a very advanced, though troublesome and complex, propulsion system.

An airscoop located on the underside of the fuselage at the trailing edge of the wing fed outside air to the TKL 15 turbo-supercharger. The supercharger compressed the air and fed it to an intercooler mounted above. A pipe semi-recessed into the left fuselage (visible below the cockpit and above the long exhaust pipe) fed the cooled, high-pressure air from the intercooler forward to the engine-driven supercharger. The RLM wanted the airplane to fly near 16 km (52, 490 ft) above the earth. Both a turbo-supercharger (driven by exhaust gases) and a mechanical supercharger (driven by a geared shaft off the engine) were the Vogt team's solution to this problem.

The mechanical supercharger pressurized the air again and fed it directly into the DB 603 U intake manifold. After the combustion cycle, semi-recessed exhaust pipes on both sides of the fuselage fed the hot exhaust aft. On both sides of the fuselage below the cockpit, the exhaust pipes angled down and split into two smaller pipes per side. Two pipes fed hot exhaust to turn the turbosupercharger and the other two pipes carried exhaust gases through a wastegate valve and exited the airplane. The wastegate valves regulated the pressure output of the turbosupercharger. Opening the valves dumped more exhaust overboard and slowed the turbo, reducing pressurized air to the engine. Blohm & Voss designed the whole power system to propel the BV 155 to speeds of about 692 kph (430 mph) at over 15,200 m (50,000 ft).

The war situation was worsening and the company moved the prototypes into newly armored hangars at Finkenwerder. Blohm &Voss completed the BV 155B V1 (V for Versuch, German for experiment) and scheduled the first flight for mid January. On February 8, 'V1 took to the air but the right radiator leaked badly and chief test pilot Helmut "Wasa" Rodig terminated the flight. Following repairs, the aircraft flew twice more on February 10 and 26. Repairs followed each flight but it is doubtful that the airplane flew again after the 26th.

All work had stopped on the third prototype, BV 155 V3, as Blohm & Voss concentrated on finishing the V2 but the war ended first. The British Army occupied Hamburg on May 3 and found the three prototypes at the factory. British officials examined the V1 and decided it was airworthy then directed an RAF pilot to fly it to England. The airplane crashed shortly after takeoff from the factory and was destroyed. The British gathered up V2 and V3 and shipped them to the test establishment at Farnborough, England, for evaluation. They seriously considered completing V2 for flight test but in the end, simply displayed the aircraft in October-November 1945 and then stored it.

For years, the identification of the National Air and Space Museum's BV 155 was mysterious. Historians knew the British shipped a BV 155 to the US after the war and that the U. S. Army Air Forces evaluated it at Wright Field, Ohio. They eventually transferred it (bearing Foreign Equipment Number FE-505) to the National Air and Space Museum. Most sources claimed this was the unfinished V3 prototype. In 1998, two restoration specialists reassembling the parts stored at the Paul E. Garber Facility in Silver Hill, Maryland, were amazed to discover nearly the entire V2 airframe. Except for wiring harnesses the factory never hooked up and other small parts, the aircraft appears to be 90-95% complete, including most of the propulsion system. German documents verify that the V3 was only half-finished at war's end and the discovery of "V2" stamped into both sides of the windshield frame seems to prove conclusively that the NASM aircraft is in fact the second prototype.

The BV 155 V2 is also the last surviving aircraft built by Blohm & Voss during the company's 12-year foray into aviation. Blohm & Voss was Germany's largest shipbuilder when the company began building aircraft in 1933.

Republic RC-3 Seabee

National Air and Space Museum
4-place amphibian; pusher prop.; white w/brown trim; all-metal, single-engine.

The Republic Seabee amphibian was one of the most unusual airplanes to appear on the post-World War II general aviation scene. It was designed as an affordable, all-purpose sport aircraft for transportation as well as a wide spectrum of recreational purposes. The sea/landing capability not only broadened travel options but also provided remote access to fishing, hunting, and many sporting activities, and 1,076 of the aircraft were constructed before a collapsing market terminated its production by Republic in 1948. However, many Seabees are still flying and they remain popular with seaplane pilots.

The Museum acquired the aircraft in 1984 from Robert N. Stiner, who had owned it for the previous fifteen years. In 2001, Stiner donated the aircraft's original propeller blades made from Hartzite, an early type of composite material consisting of fabric impregnated with plastic introduced to offset the effects of water erosion.

The Republic Seabee amphibian was one of the most unusual airplanes to appear on the post-World War II general aviation scene. It was designed as an affordable all-purpose sport aircraft for transportation as well as a broad spectrum of recreational purposes. The sea/land capability not only provided a broader selection of travel options but also remote access to fishing, hunting and many sporting activities.

The design of the Seabee originated as a private venture of Percival H. "Spence" Spencer who flew the all-wood original prototype in 1941. Spencer had designed a number of airplanes in his earlier years and teamed with Vincent Larsen in 1937 to produce a forgettable amphibian known as the Spencer Larsen SL-12. Spencer decided to strike out on his own and, on Long Island in 1940, he developed a more practical design, the Spencer S-12 Amphibian Air Car. It was a two-place, side-by-side amphibian of all-wood construction, with flat sheet plywood shaped to fit the bodylines. The wings and tail structures were fabric covered with wood spars and ribs. It was powered by a 110 hp air-cooled Franklin engine, mounted in a pusher configuration powered the aircraft. The tail was mounted on a structural boom and the wings and tip pontoons were strut-braced. Spencer demonstrated the airplane and intended to go into production, but World War II intervened.

After the war, Spencer worked for Republic Aircraft which had begun to look for a commercial design for sport flying. Some of his colleagues at Republic remembered his Air Car design and Spencer soon sold the rights to Republic in December 1943. He was assigned to help convert the airplane to all metal. Along the way it became a three-place airplane with a bigger engine, metal hull from nose to tail, a tapered smooth skin cantilever wing and single strut-mounted wing floats. The airplane was renamed the Republic RC-1 Thunderbolt Amphibian. It was a good performer but the construction was very labor intensive and the costs began to skyrocket. The original intent was to market the airplane for $3,500 but when the price estimates reached $12,000, the aircraft was redesigned.

The aircraft became a four-place airplane for better utility. The rear seat in the RC-1 had been restricted to one passenger because the partially retracted main wheels were located in wells that protruded into both sides of the rear seat area. To provide space to seat two back seat passengers comfortably, the wheel retraction wells were eliminated and the main landing gear rotated up parallel to the hull. The design increased drag on the aircraft slightly but reduced manufacturing costs and provided a fourth seat. The re-designated RC-3 Seabee was now a model of simplistic lightweight construction in labor and tooling costs. The rivet count, for example, was reduced from 9,650 to 3,440. The fabrication and assembly time was reduced from 2,500 man-hours to a phenomenally low 400. The design changed from a tapered to a straight wing with simple spars and end ribs, and the inclusion of beaded structural skins for the wings and tail surfaces. The hull became nearly a full monocoque bulkhead and skin construction, thus eliminating the usual multiplicity of stringers and intercostals. The wing tip floats were made in two hydro-pressed longitudinal halves that were machine-riveted along their exterior seams.

Operationally, the Seabee was an extremely rugged and versatile aircraft that could take harsh treatment, but it required high maintenance. It had excellent cabin accessibility and a cavernous interior with exceptional visibility. The water handling was outstanding but it was considered less comfortable in land operations. Its in-flight performance was adequate, cruising at 105 mph, but with somewhat heavy flight controls. As a victim of the collapsing market, the projected goal of producing 6,000 Seabees was terminated at 1,076 aircraft in 1948. J. K. Downer of Saginaw, Michigan purchased the design certificate in 1956 and provided spare parts for the remaining Seabee owners. Still underpowered, its owners resorted to several engine conversions, and the United Consultant Corporation marketed the Twin Bee which had two 180 hp Lycoming IO-360 BID engines. This venture was not too successful because of high initial purchase and operating costs. However, many Seabees are still flying and they remain popular with seaplane pilots.

RC-3 Seabee, N6709K, came off of the Republic production line in June 1947 as serial number 992. Robert N. Stiner and Alexander D. MacCallum purchased the airplane on September 16, 1969 from JUL Incorporated of Hato Rey, Puerto Rico. With his son as a passenger, he personally delivered the aircraft to Hyde Field, Maryland, on September 6, 1984. It had logged 835 flight hours and came equipped with the 215 hp Franklin engine and the optional Hartzell controllable and reversible propeller, with aluminum blades. The ability to alter the blade pitch, or angle, of the propeller increased performance at takeoff and cruise and facilitated maneuverability of the water.

In 2001, Stiner donated the aircraft's original propeller blades made from Hartzite, an early type of composite material consisting of fabric impregnated with plastic that Hartzell introduced to offset the effects of water erosion. Over the years, owners often replaced them with aluminum alloy blades because the Hartzite blades began to disintegrate when the laminate coating wore off.

The Spice That Built Venice

Smithsonian Magazine

In the year 1173 a bankrupt Venetian merchant by the name of Romano Mairano went looking for a way out of financial ruin. Over a trading career spanning several decades, Mairano had seen his share of ups and downs—latterly, more downs than ups. He could count himself lucky to be alive: Two years earlier, he had escaped a massacre of his compatriots in Constantinople, fleeing as his ships and goods were burned or confiscated. Back in Venice, safe but not sound—at least not in any financial sense—he was desperate. He decided to orchestrate a risky trade that could help him pay off his loans and restore his wealth, a trade for one of the most valuable commodities of the day: pepper.

Mairano was bold but not crazy. Such schemes had enriched Venetian merchants for generations. Since well before the millennium, his forebears had sailed to Alexandria, the ancient Egyptian trading town at the head of the Nile Delta. By virtue of its access to the Red Sea trade routes leading to Arabia and beyond, Alexandria was the chief entrepôt between East and West, the point where fine luxuries such as silks, perfumes, gems, and, above all, spices arrived from the most remote parts of Asia. For the Venetian merchant courageous or lucky enough, Alexandria was the gateway to riches.

But if the rewards were great, so too were the dangers. Merchants ran the risk of attacks by pirates, and they were at the mercy of the volatile, violent politics of the age. No insurer backed their cargoes; no coast guard patrolled the seas. They had to outmaneuver Venice’s perennial enemies and competitors, the Genoese. And Mairano would be doing business in a Muslim country nominally at war with Europe—its ruler none other than Saladin, who would later defeat the Crusaders.

On this occasion, the gods of commerce smiled on Mairano. With money borrowed from a wealthy friend, he shipped a cargo of lumber to Alexandria, and in return he brought back spices. He was finally able to repay his creditors—not in cash, but in pepper. The remainder of the spices he sold in Venice at many times the purchase price.


To understand how Venice became such a glorious city, it pays to look south and east, just as Mairano did. Over the course of a long career, Mairano, like countless other traders, had a stake in many deals: for timber, slaves, textiles, wine, ships, grain, metals, and more. But for reasons of simple economic alchemy, spices were the marquee good. As they moved between the jungles of South and Southeast Asia, where they were harvested, to their final points of sale in Europe, the value of spices mounted exponentially. They were small, readily transferable, durable—and immensely desirable.

Spices harvested in the jungles of Asia were a symbol of wealth and status in medieval Europe. As often as not, the pepper that appeared on a king’s table was sold at some point by a Venetian trader. (David Griffin)

Medieval high society had an insatiable appetite for spiced sauces, sweets, wine, and ale—not, as was long believed, to cover the taste of old and rotting meat, for spices were far too expensive for that. No less than in our day—indeed far more so, given the acutely hierarchical nature of medieval life—eating was as much about making an impression as enjoying flavor. And of all the spices, pepper was far and away the most important, for its consumers and Venice alike.

In Mairano’s era, Venetian traders in London sold a pound of pepper for a sum equivalent to a week’s work for an unskilled laborer. Cost alone ensured that pepper was as much an attribute of high rank as castles and coats of arms. Kings and wealthy prelates cured their ailments with pepper. They carried peppery pomanders to ward off pestilence, and went to their graves embalmed in myrrh and pepper. The most eminent medical authorities of the time insisted that pepper could revive flagging libidos. Around the year 1100, one Duke William of Aquitaine boasted of a week-long ménage à trois, claiming his exertions (188, no less) were fueled by a hearty dose of the spice.

Once spices arrived in Venice, they were unloaded for distribution across Europe. Some were resold directly to merchants arriving from the north. Others were shipped on barges up the Po Valley, and carried on mules across the Alpine passes to Germany and France. Venetian galleys sailed past the Strait of Gibraltar and onward to London and Bruges. As often as not, the cinnamon in a duke’s pomander or the ginger in an abbot’s medicine chest or the pepper appearing on a king’s table was at some point freighted and sold by a Venetian.


As with any successful business, location was key. By virtue of Venice’s ties to Byzantium, from the city’s earliest days Venetian merchants had had privileged access to the overland trade routes to Asia. When the French saint Gerald of Aurillac passed through the northern Italian town of Pavia around 894, he met a small group of Venetian merchants selling cloths and spices from Byzantium.

A king is offered the fruits of a pepper harvest in this 15th-century illustration. (From the Livre des Merveilles du Monde, Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, Bridgeman Images)

In due course Byzantium’s energies faltered, and the relationship with Venice became increasingly hostile. By the year 1000, Venice opened another route to the Orient by concluding treaties with the Muslim rulers of Egypt and the Levant, safeguarding the position of its merchants in Islamic lands.

As the medieval European economy grew, the spice trade grew with it. The largely ad hoc voyages of Mairano’s day gave way to a regular system of convoys known as the muda, or state-subsidized galleys auctioned out to the highest bidder. No spices were allowed in the cogs, round ships, or carracks that were the workhorses of maritime trade. Rather, they were whisked across the sea in armed fleets carrying up to 300 metric tons of spice, defended by a contingent of marines, and sped on their way by banks of rowers, swift enough to outrun any pursuer.

Pirates and other raiders were not the only obstacles, however. Venice’s dealings with Muslim rulers sat uneasily with the Roman Catholic powers of Europe and particularly the papacy, which remained, with varying degrees of ardor, wedded to the ideal, if not necessarily the practice, of Crusade. So it was that in 1322 a papal envoy arrived with the news that many of Venice’s leading citizens had been excommunicated as punishment for having violated papal bans on trading with the infidel.

The sequel to this story nicely illustrates the Venetians’ gift for navigating the tricky shoals of religion, geopolitics, and finance. While vigorously protesting the excommunication, the signoria complied with the papal diktat, halting direct voyages to Alexandria. Yet trade was simply diverted to the Armenian port of Lajazzo, a tiny Christian enclave tucked into the angle formed by Anatolia and the Levantine coast. Here the Venetians could acquire the very same spices they had previously purchased directly from the sultan, knowing full well that Lajazzo’s spices had been subjected to the same taxes, tolls, and levies imposed by the region’s Islamic rulers. No matter. Any moral peril was neatly transferred to the Armenians.

Business was business, and Venice’s papal problem was neatly defused. In due course, a few decades after the pope’s envoy had dropped his bombshell, the Venetian galleys were once again loading their precious cargoes of spice at Alexandria. No one was seriously inconvenienced—no one, that is, beyond Europe’s consumers, who for a time paid a little more for their pepper.

At the Drogheria Mascari, aromatics are kept in special drawers to preserve their fragrance. (Fabrizio Giraldi)

Bad news came in 1501, however, when word reached Venetian merchants that the Portuguese navigator Vasco da Gama had sailed around Africa to India, bypassing the Mediterranean and—so it was feared—diverting the flow of pepper away from Venice. As it happened, it would be another century or so before the rivers of spice would finally run dry, during which time the city became increasingly forgetful of the traffic that had once bankrolled its beauty. In some of the majestic, sun-drenched canvases of Canaletto, you might glimpse merchant galleys in the background, but the 18th-century painter showed no interest in the cargo they bore.

Yet even today in one of the city’s bakeries you might find a peverino, a type of peppered cookie, relative of the better-known panpepato and panforte—spiced, honeyed confections that date to the Middle Ages. Or take a walk down the elegant colonnades of the Ruga dei Spezieri, the “street of the spice merchants.” There in the bustling market, among the tourists and Venetian vendors happily pocketing their money, you may hear the faintest of echoes of the commercial energies that once helped build a glorious city.

More from the Venice Issue of the Smithsonian Journeys Travel Quarterly

Checking the Claim: A Device That Translates Dolphin Sounds Into English

Smithsonian Magazine

It isn't too much of a stretch to think that dolphins, given their playful nature and charm, converse with each other much like we do. But is this really the case? And if so, to what extent do their seemingly random calls indicate a natural penchant for language?

Dolphin researcher Denise Herzing has spent nearly three decades listening in on such noises in hopes of deciphering what she suspects is actual dolphin chatter. But it wasn't until she tried to teach the dolphins calls for specific English words—and they responded—that she realized she may have hit on something big.

Since 1985, Herzing, with the Wild Dolphin Project, has used underwater video and sound equipment to study the natural communication system of an especially friendly pod of dolphins that lives along a stretch of the Bahamas near the southern tip of Florida, amassing a database that profiles their relationships, sounds and behavior, and how these things have changed over time.   

The latest goal in that research has been to try to use the dolphins' own signals to communicate with the animals. Last August, the team had a breakthrough. Researchers, during a test run of a wearable translation device, captured a unique whistle that they had taught the dolphins, and the device instantly translated it into English.

The word? "Sargassum," a type of seaweed often used as a toy during divers' interactions with the dolphins. 

"We know that dolphins in captivity are fast [and] spontaneous and [also] excellent acoustic mimics, and that they can associate sounds with objects," Herzing says. "Whether they do this in their 'natural' communication system we don't know. But we knew that they have the cognitive flexibility as a species, so we thought we would create a tool to see what they would do with it." 

There's no shortage of research on the way that dolphins interact. The animal labels and identifies others in its group with whistles. And in the 1970s, researchers found that Akeakamai, an especially bright bottlenose dolphin housed at the Kewalo Basin Marine Mammal Laboratory in Honolulu, could be taught, through a kind of sign language, to understand syntactic differences, or the manner in which re-shuffled arrangements of hand gestures can be used to convey a particular message.

But establishing two-way acoustic communication using a language's key building blocks—that is, specific sounds that can be recognized, understood and expressed mutually—was something that had long been beyond the scope of dolphin reseachers.

Herzing wanted to at least try to break that barrier. She started in the late 1990s teaching the dolphins how to recognize and request objects, along with the name of three researchers, by pairing them with artificial sounds and symbols on a keyboard. Ultimately, the approach didn't quite yield the kind of results she had hoped for. 

Researcher Denise Herzing wears the Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT) device, designed to teach dolphins the name of objects using distinct whistles and translate the animals' calls back into English. (Wild Dolphin Project)

But since last year, divers have been experimenting with Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT), a chest-worn device about the size of a toaster oven. Developed in collaboration with artificial intelligence researcher and Google Glass project lead Thad Starner, the system was programmed to produce distinct whistles that corresponded to objects such as a scarf, a rope or sargassam, all of which researchers employed in their regular play time with the animals. Using a sophisticated algorithmic formula that takes into account variables like background noise and the direction and angle from which the sounds are produced, CHAT can also catch when the animals make these sounds (up to 100 feet away) and instantly play them back in English.

After each dive, the collected sound files are pulled off the device through WiFi and then reviewed for sound types and matches, Herzing says. The system also logs all the box activity, "including when sounds were played, when sound were received and what they matched," she says.   

August was the first time the whistle for "seaweed" was caught and translated by Herzing and her team. She hopes the technology, while promising, can also be used to determine if dolphins' sounds are expressed as singular unitof information or whether they may carry a more nuanced meaning.

"If you say FUN and SUN, the 'f' and 's' are unique units of sound that can be used with UN," Herzing told Wired UK. "The combinatorial power of these units is part of what makes human language powerful. We simply have not been able to look at these kinds of details of dolphins sounds in the past, but computer programs are now making this possible."

Justin Gregg, a researcher at the Dolphin Communication Project and author of  Are Dolphins Really Smart? The Mammal Behind the Myth, doubts that dolphin-induced sounds are being used to communicate anything beyond names of objects and the dolphins' own emotional states. 

In a Wall Street Journal editorial, he attributes what he calls the unsubstantiated notion that dolphins use language to the wild theories put forth by famed neuroscientist John Lilly, who contended that by cracking the "code of dolphinese," humans would be able to decode the languages of extraterrestrials.

"I think the past 50 years have shown us that it is unlikely their communication system functions like human language with words and grammar,” he told the site Txchnologist. “But a lot of people hold out hope that they do have a language.”

Herzing, however, argues that the difficulty in unraveling the meaning behind a dolphin's squeal has less to do with such assumptions being inherently flawed and more to do with the immense challenges that come with conducting studies in an aquatic environment.

“In my book, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence" she says. "I imagine that we will find that dolphins, and probably many other species, do many things we couldn't imagine before we started looking. So, instead of trying to undermine these studies, let's put some creative tools forward. I mean dolphins really are smart! Let's find out how smart.”

In the meantime, Herzing, who has been described as the cetacean equivalent of famous chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall, plans to tweak the device so that researchers can catch more whistles, particularly those at higher frequencies. Last year, she says, it appeared "the dolphins were attempting to mimic some whistles, but they placed them in frequencies that were higher than we anticipated."

She's also taking on a second project with the Georgia Institute of Technology using pattern recognition. "We might begin to incorporate some of their other sounds, besides signature whistles, into the CHAT system," she says. But that development is months, or years, away.

"We simply need more time in the field with the dolphins to expose them to the system and see what they do," she says. "It's about getting more on their bandwidth." 

Is Bratislava's Communist-Era Architecture Worth Preserving?

Smithsonian Magazine

We seemed to be floating in space, hovering high over the Danube as we gazed out at the twin halves of Bratislava. To our left we saw needlelike church spires, cobblestone lanes, bulbous onion domes, and a hilltop castle. To the right stood a vast maze of massive apartment blocks that appeared to have been dropped next to a dense, green space. From our unusual perch on the Bridge of the National Slovak Uprising (or Most SNP in Slovak), my guide and I saw the broad river and a thin road hundreds of feet below over which tiny cars streamed like ants.  

Anyone in those tiny cars would be forgiven for thinking that a silvery disk was landing on the bridge, as if it were a UFO from an old science fiction movie. Nor would it be strange to feel a vertiginous sense of distance and perhaps a frisson of fear while gazing at the odd construction.

But inside the bridge’s circular observation deck, the feeling was one of cheer and comfort. A DJ played tracks of chill-out music. Bartenders mixed fancy cocktails. A pleasant waitress arrived with our drinks, and we raised our glasses to the Slovak capital and the bizarre bridge we were visiting, part of the city’s highly unusual collection of communist-era buildings.

For most people in Bratislava, the city’s main attraction has to be its old town, whose baroque palaces and other historic buildings echo those of Vienna, Prague, and other nearby capitals. But for travelers from outside the country, Bratislava’s bridges, apartment blocks, and other constructions recalling the Soviet sphere of interest have a unique appeal. Occasionally quite refined despite their dehumanizing scale, the buildings combine elements of mid-century Scandinavian modernism, British brutalism, French post-modernism, and Stalinist pomposity. Some are truly beautiful. Others, like the 1973-built UFO bridge—officially the SNP but also known as Nový Most (New Bridge)—are truly weird. But Bratislava’s remarkable collection of planned-economy architecture is unlike almost anything else still standing in central Europe.

Despite this distinction, the buildings seem unloved by locals: In recent years, many of them have faced major redesigns, if not demolition. After gawking at some hard-to-believe photos in Eastmodern, a glossy, coffee-table book about Bratislava’s communist architecture, I took a high-speed train from Prague to see it firsthand.

A little over four hours later, I was staring up at a huge inverted pyramid rising almost 300 feet overhead. Known as the Slovak Radio Building, it includes a number of sound-insulated recording studios at its core, with outward-facing offices surrounding them on each floor. The edge of each rusty brown level extends far out beyond the one below it, and a crisscross network of supporting beams covers the facade with a heavy net. As a whole, it gives off a feeling of immense weight, which seems to push down on the entire neighborhood.

“One architectural blog called it one of the ugliest buildings in the world,” said my guide, Juro Sikora, who leads tours of Bratislava’s communist-era sites for Authentic Slovakia, a local company. “For people who believe in feng shui, this is the worst possible shape you can have.”

I didn’t know anything about feng shui, but staring at the pyramid I thought that there might be something to it. Although construction began in 1967, the building wasn’t completed until 1983, during the grim years that followed the liberal Prague Spring of 1968 when Soviet tanks had invaded Czechoslovakia, ending “socialism with a human face” and installing a decidedly less humane Communist Party government. The Velvet Revolution brought democracy to the Czech and Slovak peoples in 1989. Less than four years later, Slovakia and the Czech Republic split into separate countries. Every aspect of the radio building’s construction—from its oppressive heaviness to its rough surface—reflected the dark mood of its age.

Painful memories of four decades of communism make it hard for Bratislavans to appreciate the architecture, which is ‘‘slowly disappearing,” Juro said. “People don’t think these buildings are worth saving. First, they are not old enough. And [people] don’t feel very positive about that era.”

If I needed any evidence supporting that lack of respect, I found it at our next stop, the imposing Dom Odborov, or House of the Trade Unions—formerly known as the House of the Revolutionary Trade Union Movements, a sleek modern building with a flat, tiled façade and angled entrances covered with noisy signs for the businesses renting space inside. If I squinted and tried to ignore the visual pollution, I could see the building for what it was: a conference hall of the future as imagined in the late 1960s, like something from the original Planet of the Apes movies.

Saying goodbye to Juro, I decided to look for examples of Cold War architecture—or design—that contemporary Bratislavans actually liked. I grimaced when I spotted a modern taxi painted with the “VB” logo and colors from the hated verejná bezpečnosť, the onetime “public security” police force. Given the VB’s role in suppressing pro-democracy efforts, this apparent attempt at irony was off-putting, to say the least. I honestly couldn’t imagine any of my Czech or Slovak friends willingly getting into a VB car, taxi or otherwise. But later, at the cool lounge at the top of the UFO bridge, I realized that the Eastern bloc ethos in Bratislava could be playfully ironic without offending.

The next morning, I stopped at an artsy new cafe inside the prewar Dunaj shopping center, then took a taxi across the Danube to the sprawling Petržalka housing project—almost a city unto itself, home to some 120,000 residents living in identical apartment blocks whose construction began in 1977. The area has a tough reputation; today’s Slovak rap groups like to film music videos here.

But surprisingly, Petržalka turned out to be a highly livable neighborhood, pleasantly situated near the Danube and a beautiful green park, Sad Janka Kráľa, which dates from the late 18th century. Sure, the apartment blocks were repetitive, but many of them had been repainted in a variety of colors—bright red and yellow or blue and green—and the happy, young people pushing baby strollers and jogging along the river seemed anything but tough.

Back in Old Town, I met Mária Novotná, a friend of a friend, at the Slovak National Gallery, now under reconstruction. The sprawling museum combines three separate buildings: the Esterházy Palace, built in 1870; the neighboring baroque period barracks; and incongruously, a modern, top-heavy addition from 1977.

“People say that this new building destroyed the old building, but it did not—it allowed another public use for the old building,” Mária said. An architecture student, Mária was able to point out several nice touches of the addition, including a nearly hidden open-air cinema on one side, and offered to show me one of her favorite communist-era buildings near the city’s outskirts.

A few minutes later, she parked her car at the bottom of a wooded hill. Ahead of us, up a corkscrew path, stood a long, flat building as elegantly in sync with its surroundings as anything by Frank Lloyd Wright or Mies van der Rohe. It was a crematorium, Mária said, built in 1968 by the architect Ferdinand Milučký—an odd place to take a tourist, I knew, but a great choice for someone who was interested in unusual architecture.

Mária talked about some intricacies of its construction and noted that Bratislava was still trying to figure out what to do with such buildings. Did these reminders of a painful past all need to face the wrecking ball, simply because of when they were built? Should they stay?

“There is a discussion about monumental architecture and what does it mean to be a monument. Is it size? Is a monument a building that shows the power of architecture?” Mária looked at the building and nodded in admiration. “We don’t have the answer yet.”

Architecture tours

  • Authentic Slovakia. Two-hour “post-socialist” city tour: €32 (roughly $35) per person
  • Best Slovakia Tours. Two-hour Bratislava communist tour: €35 (roughly $38) per person
  • e-Architect. Custom Bratislava architecture tours: prices vary

Alicja Kwade’s Installation at the Hirshhorn Invites Viewers to Question the World as We Know It

Smithsonian Magazine

Alicja Kwade’s installation WeltenLinie is full of dualities. It is simultaneously structured and whimsical, sensible and illusory. This is a reflection, she says, of the human need to systematize the unknowable.

“It’s a kind of tragic thing to be a human being because we are trying so hard to understand the world, but actually, there is no chance,” says the Berlin-based artist. “We are building systems, political structures or religions to make this doable and as easy as possible to survive in it. Actually, it’s a bit absurd.”

Precise and mathematical, Kwade’s art reflects her affinity for philosophy and science. She studies Marx and Kant, and reads quantum physics in lieu of fiction. The Hirshhorn museum's chief curator Stéphane Aquin describes her as “an amateur historian of science.” Kwade’s curiosities are reflected in her work, which tends to pose hard questions about our relationship to objects and the universe, while creating a space for the viewer to ponder the answer.

“It’s about thinking how we describe the world, how we define objects—where they end and where they begin and what the transformations of them could be,” Kwade says. “But not just physical transformation or chemical transformation, but also the philosophical or social transformation.”

“It’s a kind of tragic thing to be a human being because we are trying so hard to understand the world, but actually, there is no chance,” says the Berlin-based artist Alicja Kwade. (Getty Images, Hannelore Foerster)

To walk around Kwade’s large-scale installation WeltenLinie, meaning “world lines,” is like passing into some strange new dimension. The visually immersive, steel-frame structure is a recent acquisition to the collections of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and is now on view in the exhibition, “Feel the Sun in Your Mouth.”

For this show, assistant curator Betsy Johnson united works acquired by the Hirshhorn over the past five years. The exhibition mixes pieces from the 1960s and 70s with recent works. They hail from a dozen different countries and bring fresh light to contemporary issues. The museum says the show aims to “[harness] metaphor and suggestion to create meanings that exist outside language.”

Jesper Just’s Sirens of Chrome is a suspenseful, dialogue-free video that follows several women through the streets of Detroit. Japanese artists Eikoh Hosoe, Minoru Hirata, Miyako Ishiuchi, Koji Enokura and Takashi Arai show moody photographs depicting postwar Japan. Laure Prouvost’s Swallow and works by Katherine Bernhardt and Jill Mulleady burst with color and sensation.

By contrast, Kwade’s installation is neat and serene. Set in an all-white room and accompanied by Tatiana Trouvé’s similarly large-scale and unassuming Les Indéfinis, WeltenLinie feels accessible, yet enigmatic.

Tree trunks made in varying sizes and constructed of plaster, copper and aluminum create an eclectic kind of forest. Large metal rods frame double-sided mirrors and plain air, at times splicing differently colored tree trunks and playing tricks with the mind. The trees seem to move with the viewer, disappearing at the edge of one frame only to reappear when passing before the next reflective surface. In this space, Kwade encourages the viewer to forget the forest for the trees.

“What is defining a tree? What can I know about this tree?” Kwade said in a conversation with Aquin last week. “I can know all of its chemical structure, I can know that it’s growing, but what is our way to describe it? And what could it be like seeing it from the other side?”

Kwade was born in Communist Poland in 1979 and escaped with her family to West Germany at 8 years old. Though she doesn’t seek to make art about her experiences on both sides of the Iron Curtain, she concedes they informed her perception of differing political and social structures from a young age.

“I was raised in a completely different parallel world. This was a very different normality which then immediately was changed to another one,” Kwade says. “I was the last generation to experience both these systems.”

Her art frequently includes mirrors, allowing an object seen on one side of a barrier to be completely transformed when viewed from the other. She says she wants viewers to consider the many possibilities for a single, seemingly common object.

Once Kwade has conceptualized a piece, she scans the central objects. She then digitally manipulates them, smoothing out the bark of a tree or removing its limbs, in the case of WeltenLinie. On her computer, Kwade develops models of the finished project, virtually inspecting it from every angle. Once complete, she passes her instructions along to the production team, which builds the sculptures.

“I am satisfied if I have found the clearest way to express what I want to express,” Kwade says. “Everybody can see it is what it is.”

For WeltenLinie, Kwade duplicated her computer-generated version of the tree using plaster, copper and aluminum. She says she selected materials humans use “to build our own reality” to probe the relationships between nature and industry.

This conceptual line can be traced throughout her work. In ParaPivot, currently on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kwade sets planet-like stones into metal frames that evoke the systems and structures we assemble to make sense of the universe. In other works, she transforms functional objects like her phone, computer and bicycle into new objects by pulverizing, twisting or otherwise re-constructing them. In everything she creates, one detects a mathematician’s precision and a poet’s insight.

“Feel the Sun in Your Mouth” is on view at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden until February 23, 2020.

How Do Death Valley’s “Sailing Stones” Move Themselves Across the Desert?

Smithsonian Magazine

Start at the Furnace Creek visitor center in Death Valley National Park. Drive 50 miles north on pavement, then head west for another 30 miles on bone-rattling gravel roads. During the drive—which will take you four hours if you make good time—you’ll pass sand dunes, a meteor crater, narrow canyons, solitary Joshua trees and virtually no evidence of human existence whatsoever.  But soon after cresting the Cottonwood Mountains, you’ll come upon a landscape so out of place even in this geologically bizarre park that it almost seems artificial. 

Racetrack Playa is a dried-up lakebed, ringed by mountains, about 3 miles long and flat as a tabletop. During summer, the cracked floor looks prehistoric under the desert sun; during winter, it’s intermittently covered by sheets of ice and dustings of snow. But the dozens of stones scattered across the playa floor are the most puzzling part of the view. Ranging from the size of a computer mouse to a microwave, each one is followed by a track etched into the dirt, like the contrail behind an airplane. Some tracks are straight and just a few feet long, while others stretch the length of a football field and curve gracefully or jut off at sharp angles.

Staring at these "sailing stones," you’re torn between a pair of certainties that are simply not compatible: (1) these rocks appear to have moved, propelled by their own volition, across the flat playa floor, and yet (2) rocks don’t just move themselves.

“It’s very quiet out there, and it’s very open, and you tend to have the playa to yourself,” says Alan Van Valkenburg, a park ranger who has worked at Death Valley for nearly 20 years. “And the longer you stay out there, it just takes on this incredible sense of mystery.” The mystery is rooted in an extraordinary fact: No one has ever actually seen the rocks move.

Explanations for the stones’ movement have tended towards the absurd (magnetism, aliens and mysterious energy fields, for example). Some present-day visitors apparently agree—Van Valkenburg notes that stone theft is a growing problem, perhaps because of perceived special properties. “I don't know whether people think they're ‘magic rocks,’” he says. “But of course, as soon as you remove them from the playa, all ‘magic’ is lost.”

But if they’re not magic, what really does cause the stones to sail? In 1948, two USGS geologists named Jim McAllister and Allen Agnew set out to answer the question. They proposed that dust devils caused the strange movement, perhaps in combination with the playa’s intermittent flooding. In 1952, another geologist tested this hypothesis as directly as he knew how: He soaked a stretch of the playa and used a plane’s propeller to create powerful winds. Results were inconclusive.

In the following decades, theories drifted towards ice, which can occasionally form on the playa during the winter. During the early 1970s, a pair of geologists—Robert Sharp of Cal Tech and Dwight Carey of UCLA—attempted to settle once and for all whether ice or wind was responsible. The team visited the Racetrack twice a year and meticulously tracked the movements of 30 stones, giving them names (Karen, the largest boulder, was 700 pounds). They planted wooden stakes around the stones, surmising that if ice sheets were responsible, the ice would be frozen to the stakes, thereby immobilizing the stones. But some stones still escaped—and despite frequent visits, the pair never saw one move.

Still, ice remained the primary hypothesis for decades. John Reid, a Hampshire College professor, took student groups to the playa annually from 1987 to 1994 to study the stones. Because of the many parallel tracks, he came away convinced that they were locked together in large ice sheets that were blown by strong winds.

But Paula Messina, a geologist at San Jose State, used GPS to create a digital map of the tracks and found that most were, in fact, not parallel. Furthermore, wind-based models were thrown into doubt when researchers attempted to calculate the wind speeds necessary to move the ice sheets. The lowest figures were hundreds of miles per hour.

Enter Ralph Lorenz, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University. In 2006, as part of a project with NASA, Lorenz was setting up a network of miniaturized weather stations in Death Valley. The weather is harsh enough there to serve an analogue for weather conditions on Mars. But then he discovered the sailing stones. “I was intrigued, as everyone is, and I had this instrumentation I was using in desert locations during the summer,” he says. “We realized we could use it during the winter and try to understand what the conditions really are at the playa.”

As the research team studied weather patterns on the Racetrack, they also looked for rocks that seemed to move on their own in other environments. Scanning the scientific literature, Lorenz learned that the buoyancy of ice helped float boulders onto arctic tidal beaches, creating barricades along the shore. The scientists began putting this idea together with what they saw on the Racetrack. “We saw one instance where there was a rock trail and it looked like it hit another rock and bounced, but the trail didn't go all the way up to the other rock, like it was repelled somehow,” says Lorenz. “We thought if there was a collar of ice around the rock, then it might be easy to imagine why it might bounce.”

Eventually, Lorenz employed a tried-and-true method for testing his nascent idea: the kitchen-table experiment. “I took a small rock, and put it in a piece of Tupperware, and filled it with water so there was an inch of water with a bit of the rock sticking out,” he says. “I put it in the freezer, and that then gave me a slab of ice with a rock sticking out of it.” He flipped the rock-ice hybrid upside down and floated it in a tray of water with sand on the bottom. By merely blowing gently on the ice, he realized, he could send the embedded rock gliding across the tray, scraping a trail in the sand as it moved. After decades of theoretical calculations by countless scientists, the answer seemed to be sitting on his tabletop.

Lorenz and his team presented their new model in a 2011 paper. “Basically, a slab of ice forms around a rock, and the liquid level changes so that the rock gets floated out of the mud,” he explains. “It’s a small floating ice sheet which happens to have a keel facing down that can dig a trail in the soft mud.” Calculations show that, in this scenario, the ice causes virtually no friction on the water, so the stones are able to glide with just a slight breeze. The team argues that their model accounts for the movement far better than any other, since it doesn’t require massive wind speeds or enormous ice sheets.

Still, says Ranger Van Valkenburg, most visitors to the Racetrack seem to resist this concrete explanation for such a peculiar phenomenon. “People always ask, ‘what do you think causes them to move?’ But if you try to explain, they don't always want to hear the answers,” he says. “People like a mystery—they like an unanswered question.”

In a way, though, Lorenz’ physical explanation really need not diminish the feeling of awe the sailing stones bring about—it can heighten it. You can get a sense of it by sitting at the playa and imagining the perpetual sailing of the stones over time, stretching into millennia. As human societies rise and fall, and as cities are constructed and then left to disintegrate, the stones will glide gradually around their playa, turning back and forth. Frozen in ice and nudged by the slightest of breezes, they will endlessly carve mysterious, zigzagging paths into the hard flat ground.

Ellipsographs: Do-nothing machines that do so much!

National Museum of American History

As a child, you may have played with a simple wooden toy called a "do-nothing" machine or simply a "grinder."

Wooden ellipsograph with metal handle

As a mathematician, I find that name a very poor choice. I mean, how sad? Why give a child a toy that by its name has no intrinsic value? Why not call it the "what does this do?" machine and let them explore it until it has some meaning? To me, it is an elliptic trammel, often referred to as the Trammel of Archimedes after the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse (c. 287 BC – c. 212 BC).

Archimedes is my personal math hero. He gave us, among other amazing things, the Archimedes screw, still used in many developing countries to raise water; the theory of density, where he famously—though maybe not actually—cried "Eureka!" when he discovered while soaking in the bath that King Hieron II's crown was not made of pure gold; and the legendary burning mirrorsand other defensive works that kept the Romans out of Syracuse for three years during the Second Punic War.

Now I want to take you from your halcyon days of childhood toys to the more capricious days of ninth- or tenth-grade Algebra II class. Envision yourself drawing conic sections. You remember those, the four curves that arise when you cut a cone with a plane. The conics are the circle, the ellipse, the parabola, and the hyperbola. Archimedes explored these geometric objects at length and was the first to give us some idea of their uses. You may even recall that a circle is a special case of an ellipse where the two foci become one (see image below of an ellipse and all its relevant measurements).

Drawing of ellipse with measurements

So what exactly is an ellipse? Apart from its mathematical equation, which you can look up if that vital piece of knowledge escapes you, it can be defined very simply as the set of all points whose combined distance from two points (the foci, F1 and F2 above) remains constant. The easiest way to do this is to draw one (please try this at home—you will feel a great sense of accomplishment) using a piece of string, two pushpins and a pencil. Notice in my creation below that the total length of string does not change, so the distance from the two pins (foci) to the pencil is always the same (r1+r2 in the diagram above). You can draw a perfect circle simply by using a single pin.

Even though I had known theoretically how to draw an ellipse since I first learned about conic sections, I had never actually done it! I was surprised that it worked so well right out of the box. Don’t you think it looks good?

The author drawing an ellipse using pins and string

But why have I linked these two items, the "do-nothing" machine and the ellipse? The answer is in the mathematical name for the machine: the elliptic trammel. That's right! The trammel is a device for drawing ellipses! You can go to YouTube and type in any of the names above and you will find videos and animations of this wonderful little device in action (this one is fun), and even directions for making your own if you are handy.

Trammels are deceptively simple machines that produce something profoundly mathematical. There are also much more intricate devices that will draw ellipses and they all fall under the title of ellipsographs. The museum has eight ellipsographs in its mathematics collections. Here is a simple trammel dating from the late 19th century and probably used in the classroom. (Chalk would be placed in the holder on the left end of the cross-beam.)

Wooden ellipsograph

While this next one is an elaborate device, it is based on the same theory (but draws much more precise ellipses).

Metal ellipsograph

That is your cue to say "that is cool and all, but why would you invent a device, simple or complicated, to draw accurate ellipses?" I am so glad you asked! As you may recall from physics class, all the conic sections have applications to motion. Galileo showed us that any projectile traveling under the force of gravity follows a parabolic path. German astronomer Johannes Kepler discovered that all planets follow elliptical orbits. Now we know that the paths of all celestial objects can be described by one of the four conic sections. But these devices were not created for physicists or astronomers. They were developed for engineers, architects, and surveyors to produce technical drawing and blueprints (as well as for classroom use).

Ellipses appear in technical drawing in two ways. First, any circular object when viewed from an angle will appear as an ellipse (exactly, not approximately). Fifteenth century German artist Albrecht Dürer, an early pioneer in perspective drawing, realized this and wrote about it. Second, many architectural elements from windows, to vaulted ceilings, to arches in bridges are elliptical. Even the ancient Romans constructed their arched aqueducts using ellipses. So there are a myriad of uses for the ellipse and thus a myriad of reasons to draw them precisely.

The ellipsographs housed at the museum are far from "do-nothing" machines. They are precisely engineered drawing devices used by practitioners from the late 19th to the mid-20th century to produce accurate and, to many eyes, beautiful technical drawings. So get out your string and start drawing some ellipses. Also check out images and descriptions of our beautiful ellipsographs.

Dr. Amy Shell-Gellasch of Montgomery College is a volunteer in the Division of Medicine and Science.

Dr. Amy Shell-Gellasch, Volunteer in the Division of Medicine and Science
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What Does A Bee Look Like When It’s Magnified 3000 Times?

Smithsonian Magazine

Photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher uses a powerful scanning electron microscope to capture all of a bee’s microscopic structures in stunning detail. Above: a bee’s antennae sockets, magnified 43 times. Photo © Rose-Lynn Fisher, Courtesy of the artist and the Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

You’ve probably seen a bee fly by hundreds of times in your life, if not thousands. When it arrived, maybe attracted by something you were eating or drinking, you likely shooed it away, or perhaps remained entirely still to avoid provoking a sting.

Cover of Bee, a collection of photographs by Rose-Lynn Fisher. Image courtesy Princeton Architectural Press

One thing you probably didn’t do was consider how the bee would look under intense magnification, blown up to 30, 300 or even 3,000 times its original size. But—as photographer Rose-Lynn Fisher has discovered over the past two decades working with powerful scanning electron microscopes (SEMs) to capture images of the insects in remarkable detail—everyday bees feature incredible microscopic structures.

“Once you scratch the surface, you see there’s a whole world down there,” says Fisher, who published her photos in the 2010 book Bee and is having them featured in the new exhibition Beyond Earth Art at Cornell University in January. “Once I started, it became a geographical expedition into the little body of the bee, with higher and higher magnifications that took me deeper and deeper.”

Fisher began creating the images back in 1992. “I was curious to see what something looked like under a scanning electron microscope, and a good friend of mine was a microscopist, and he invited me to bring something to look at,” she says. “I’ve always loved bees, and I had one that I found, so I brought it in to his lab.”

An eye, magnified 190 times. Photo © Rose-Lynn Fisher, Courtesy of th artist and the Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

When Fisher first looked at the creature through the device, she was awestruck by the structures that comprised its body at scales naked to the human eye. One of the first that captured her attention was the bee’s multi-lensed compound eye. “In that first moment, when I saw its eye, I realized that the bees’ eyes are composed of hexagons, which echo the structure of the honeycomb,” she says. “I stood there, just thinking about that, and how there are these geometrical patterns in nature that just keep on repeating themselves.”

The folded terrain of a bee’s abdomen, magnified 370 times. Photo © Rose-Lynn Fisher, Courtesy of the artist and the Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

Fisher was inspired to continue exploring the body of that bee, and others, continually looking at their microscopic structures and organs in greater and greater detail.

Her creative process started with the obvious: collecting a specimen to examine. “First, I’d find a bee, and look at it through my own regular light microscope to confirm its parts were intact,” she says. “The freshest ones were the best, so sometimes I’d find one walking on the ground that looked like it wouldn’t be around much longer, and I’d bring it home and feed it some honey, to give it something nice for its last meal.” Some of these were rejuvenated by her care, but those that weren’t, and perished, became the subjects of her microscopic exploration.

A bee’s microantennae, magnified 3300 times. Photo © Rose-Lynn Fisher, Courtesy of the artist and the Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

At her friend’s lab, in off hours, Fisher used a model of scanning electron microscope called a JEOL 6100, which can detect objects as small as 40 angstroms (for comparison, a thin human hair is roughly 500,000 angstroms in diameter). Before scanning, she’d carefully coat the bee in an ultra-thin layer of gold sputter coating.

This coating, she explains, enhanced the electrical conductivity of the bee’s surfaces, which allow the microscope to detect them in finer resolution. “The SEM uses a very finely focused electron beam that scans across the surface of the prepared sample,” she says. ‘It’s akin to shining a flashlight across the surface of an object in a dark room, which articulates the form with light. With an SEM, it’s electrons, not light—as it moves across the bee’s surface, it’s converting electrical signals into a viewable image.”

The joint between a bee’s wing and body, magnified 550 times. Photo © Rose-Lynn Fisher, Courtesy of the artist and the Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

Once the bee specimen was prepared and mounted inside the SEM’s vacuum chamber, Fisher could use the machine to view the insect at different angles, and manipulated the magnification to look for interesting images. At times, zooming in on the structures abstracted them beyond recognition, or yielded surprising views she’d never thought she’d see looking at a bee.

The hooks that attach the forewing and hindwing, magnified 700 times. Photo © Rose-Lynn Fisher, Courtesy of the artist and hte Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

“For instance, when I looked at the attachment between the wing and the forewing, I saw these hooks,” she says. “When I magnified them 700 times, their structure was amazing. They just looked so industrial.”

A proboscis, magnified 150 times. Photo © Rose-Lynn Fisher, Courtesy of the artist and the Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, CA

Zoom in close enough, she found, and a bee stops looking anything like a bee—its exoskeleton resembles a desert landscape, and its proboscis looks like some piece of futuristic machinery from a sci-fi movie. At times, Fisher says, “you can go in deeper and deeper, and at at a certain level, your whole sense of scale gets confounded. It becomes hard to tell whether you’re observing something from very close up, or from very far away.”

For more beautiful bee art, see Sam Droege’s bee portraits shot for the U.S. Geological Survey

This Feminist Psychologist-Turned-Rock-Star Led a Full Life of Resistance

Smithsonian Magazine

As a neuropsychologist in the 1970s, Naomi Weisstein fought against the prevailing belief that women were a “social disease” that belonged exclusively in the home. If women were sick, she said, it was because society and its various institutions had deemed them so. Unlike most social scientists, however, she was also able to articulate her perspective in song:

I went to the doctor

I said, “Doctor can you help me please?”

Flames came out of his ears

He roared, “you’ve got a social disease.”

Weisstein wrote these lyrics, from the song "VD Blues," along with her band, the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band—because in addition to being a psychologist, she was also a women’s activist and rock ’n roller. In both her music and her science, Weisstein's work was united by one theme: a “resistance to tyrannies of all kinds,” in the words of her husband, Jesse Lemisch.

Weisstein earned a PhD in psychology from Harvard in 1964. It was there that she began a career marked by resistance. In her essay “How can a little girl like you teach a great big class of men?” from a collection titled Working It Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk About Their Lives and Work, Weisstein details the barrage of gender discrimination she encountered throughout her career, from professors at Harvard telling her that “[w]omen don’t belong in graduate school” and barring her from using the lab to sexual harassment to male colleagues shamelessly attempting to steal her work. Yet Weisstein resisted, going on to graduate first in her Harvard class in just two and a half years.

In “How can a little girl like you teach a great big class of men?” Weisstein recalls the difficulty she faced during her job search after Harvard. Besides the titular question, she encountered insulting queries from potential employers including, “Who did your research for you?” Despite these slights, she received a National Science Foundation post-doctoral fellowship in mathematical biology at the University of Chicago. Ultimately, she was awarded a research grant by the psychology department at Loyola University in Chicago, where she was also granted a faculty position.

While researching in Chicago in 1969, Weisstein help found the Chicago Women’s Liberation Union—an organization that galvanized second-wave feminism in the city. Around that time, she recalls listening to “Under My Thumb” by Mick Jagger, a song in which he compares his girlfriend to a “squirmin’ dog who’s just had her day.”

"How criminal," Weisstein recalls thinking, "to make the subjugation of women so sexy.” 

Weisstein, along with other feminists, listened to rock music because they identified with the counter-culture it engendered. Yet Weisstein believed rock’s gender and sexual politics needed a radical change. So, with little experience but a whole lot of motivation, she decided to start a rock band with five other members of CWLU, and the Chicago Women’s Liberation Rock Band was born.

In her words: “Why not see what would happen if we created visionary, feminist rock?”

The band formed in 1970 with an explicit and unapologetic political angle. Their lyrics and performance resonated with women who loved rock music but also sought female solidarity. In 1973, the band broke up under the weight of internal conflicts. Yet despite their inexperience as musicians and short lived run, CWLRB accomplished their goal: creating rock music that was not about women's subjugation, but about their liberation. 

At the same time as Weisstein was attempting to shake up the world of rock of music, she was also pushing the boundaries of psychology. In a blistering 1968 essay entitled “Kinder, Küche, Kirche as Scientific Law: Psychology Constructs the Female,” Weisstein called out the failure of the male dominated field and its practitioners to properly investigate the nature of women. "Kinder, küche, kirche," or the three Ks, is a German phrase meaning "children, kitchen, and church," which defined the role of women as mothers, wives and moral nurturers. 

Weisstein argued that psychologists worked from this same cultural script that subjugated women and relegated them to the home. She gave examples of respected psychologists like Bruno Bettelheim of the University of Chicago who said that “as much as women want to be good scientists or engineers, they want first and foremost to be womanly companions of men and to be mothers,” and Erik Erikson of Harvard who questioned whether or not a woman could “have an identity before they know who whom they will marry.”

The paper was as scholarly as it was indicting. By relying on theory without evidence, psychologists, Weisstein argued, had integrated these stereotypical cultural ideas about women into their practice without examining the social context that shaped them. After an initial blowback, her paper irrevocably changed the field of psychology. In a special issue of Psychology of Women Quarterly dedicated to Weisstein’s work, psychologists Alexandra Rutherford, Kelli Vaughn-Blout, and Laura C. Ball argue that it was “[c]entral, if not catalytic, to the invention of feminist psychology."

With “Psychology Constructs the Female,” Weisstein brought the demands of the women’s liberation movement to psychology’s doorstep. Within the American Psychological Association, she co-founded Division 35, dedicated to the psychology of women. Meanwhile, she was also bringing psychology to the women’s liberation movement. Only two years after her essay was published, it was anthologized in the 1970 publication of Sisterhood is Powerful: an Anthology of Writings from the Women’s Liberation Movement, today a classic volume in the literature of second wave feminism.

Yet while Weisstein is best known today for her resistance music and “Psychology Constructs the Female,”  Lemisch says, “the center of her life was in neuroscience.” Weisstein’s work in neuroscience was part of what we now call the Cognitive Revolution, which focused on the brain's agency in forming perceptions. She showed that the brain did not just passively receive information; it was active in forming perceptions visually received and assigning meaning to them.

Though not immediately apparent at the time, this too was a form of resistance. Weisstein was pushing back against prevailing beliefs that humans were passive receivers by showing, even down to the neurons in the brain, humans could be active agents in forming how they see the world.

In 1973, Weisstein was invited to SUNY Buffalo to join a prominent group of cognitive psychologists. Instead of finding a home for her and her research, she found an environment more hostile and discriminatory than Harvard. Colleagues would meet with Weisstein’s students to try to uncover details about her research while some more blatantly tried to run her experiments without her, which she describes in an essay titled “Theft.” On top of the degradation of her work, she also endured relentless sexual harassment, which she later wrote about.

In March 1980, Weisstein was diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome. From 1983 to 2013, she was bedridden. “I do believe that the horrors at Buffalo played a role in making her sick in 1980,” says Lemisch. Still, Weisstein continued to work. After her diagnosis, she remained on journal editorial boards, kept her lab in Buffalo going for eight more years, and published 17 more articles, the last in 1992.

To Lemisch, the diagnosis of chronic fatigue syndrome opened up “a whole new world of bigotry.” Chronic fatigue syndrome was understudied and vastly misunderstood. The doctors “characterize[d] it as psychosomatic and ‘female hysteria,’ to use the old, sexist term,” Lemisch says. As her illness continued, it became clear to her husband that “the years of struggle within science now meant a struggle with the medical profession.” 

In the weeks leading to Weisstein’s death in 2013, her doctor insisted she did not have cancer, despite her ongoing concern of vaginal bleeding. Though eventually diagnosed and admitted to Lenox Hill hospital for cancer, the doctor there failed to find a benign tumor near her stomach—even though she could point right to it. The tumor kept her from eating and drinking, but the doctor insisted that she just wasn’t trying. Weisstein died on March 26, 2015 of ovarian cancer—a death that was certainly hastened by the medical profession’s dismissal of a woman’s pain.

“There were many Naomis,” says Lemisch. The diverse group of people who spoke at her memorial—from feminist icon Gloria Steinem to neuroscientist Patrick Cavanaugh—reflect the many arenas that Weisstein influenced, disrupted, and changed. Weisstein loved rock music and science, but she also believed that they could liberate women instead of degrade them. Although she ultimately became a victim of the same dominant stereotypes about women that she fought against, she helped transform psychology and neuroscience into a better field than when she had found it. 

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